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Award Shows and Their Topics

Why do we watch the movie award shows like Golden Globes and the Oscars? I’m honest enough to say I love the variety of dresses, gowns and sartorial twists that are flaunted before viewers. Certainly Lady Gaga’s poof of a gown( matching chignon. Oh my!) last Sunday night that might have been previously hanging from a curtain rod in a decrepit mansion suggested Scarlet O’Hara’s ballgown as transformed by Valentino. So both laughter and visual interest were my rewards for tuning in.

Yet the films at the theatres are now certainly challenged and rewarded by their own alter egos created to be viewed on Netflix, Prime, whatever- such as My Brilliant Friend, The Americans, Bodyguard, Outlander, Homecoming, The Crown: also included as contestants in these broadcasts.

Yet the purview I felt last week was truly retro. A Star is Born has been around the block several times, most settling on the dewy- eyed Judy Garland as the star although a lovestruck, bleary- boozy-eyed Bradley Cooper was truly convincing as the Gaga promoter. Green Book too, although well acted, produced stereotypes of a good- hearted Italian’s decision to befriend the black pianist Dr. Shirley. In spite of its “ inspiration” rooted in realities, the characters reek of stereotypes with little shading beyond the haughtiness of an erudite performer, the backseat sharing of fried chicken, the closeness of Italian families, and Tony’s eventual good hearted defence of the erudite Shirley, for example. The film does speak to one man’s disavowal of segregation and societal restrictions of a day, but for me, only a group of black field hands in the south stopping to ponder and stare at a white man driving a black man( shades of Driving Miss Daisy) created a true moment of real discomfort as the audience observed from the eye of the oppressed, amazed and perturbed. Articles in the news do point out the film’s perspective is based on the education of Tony the Lip, ( Vallelonga), the true life driver as recorder by his son, Nick.

I haven’t seen Queen, but although lauded by some and acknowledged by Rami Malek’s portrayal, newspapers, two days after the Golden Globe, say, ” The film itself is a wash, a pandering and disrespectful portrayal of a complicated man and artist , Freddy Mercury, that all but erases his queerness”( Barry Hertz in The Star). This news piece also indicates a sexual abuse issue with director Bryan Singer dismissed from the production. Even so, Mercury’s greatest impact occurred around 1969. So it seems our films reach back to times passed and although there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong in this act, why bother, if nothing fresh is added, and if we cannot learn something new and valuable by the endeavour, why rehash it?

With the resurrection of Hamilton for example, the recasting of diverse actors , the sensitivity of portrait, the talent of performance, the hubris of Aaron Burr, Washington and Hamilton, himself, touches us in a way unexpectedly- but then it is theatre with real people standing before us, not two times removed by the media. But in truth, a really wonderful film can accomplish this too.

Perhaps that is why Roma by Alphonso Cuarzon has found its way into awards. And it is true that we can empathize with Cleo, the housekeeper- slave in the film. She is genuine, loving, sweet with no recourse but to submit to her life. Shot in black and white, Roma feels more like a documentary and it is based on the film maker’s relationship with his own nanny- housekeeper. Although Cleo lives for us on screen, she is surrounded by the harsh stereotypes of employer and changes in a time of governmental suppression and student unrest that complicate and darken the impact on her life.Not to mention her unfortunate linkup with a marital arts sadist, the resultant pregnancy that makes for a pretty depressing film.

Maybe because the film Boyhood with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke took 12 years to film, its honesty and sensitivity in portrayals were uplifting, refreshing, a balance of goods and bads, the long view afforded us by the master Richard Linklater. In Roma, a year or so in the life provides the ongoing reality of a life that is unlikely to change save the very odd outburst of second hand joy perhaps through the children to whom she is indentured.

On the other hand, what appeals about Roma is the stark moments of truth of the story: that poverty, educational limitations, no access to outside help continue to grind down the less fortunate in society. The filmmakers’ production that avoids easy, rosy false solutions takes us into the heart of the matter, offering us the facts, as he sees them, that continue to confront the world. Unpleasant images such the repetitive washing away of dog turds are symbolic of the life Cleo faces- with no answer suggested in the film. In deed, by engaging the audience of watchers, the problem as part of the viewers’ realm becomes ours. No gloss, no glib, just the ongoing tragedy of so many Cleos we would prefer to ignore, pass on the street and turn away from. Ironically, watching Lady Gaga’s empowerment in Star removes us from the everyday so we can applaud the women who are strong enough, talented enough to escape the drudgery of life.

Further, in terms of irony outside of the film, Joanna Schneller in her discussion of Roma in the Globe today remarks how Cleo, Yalitizia Aparicio, a teacher from rural Oaxaca, when involved in auditioning for the film, thought for a minute she might be inadvertently involved in a human- trafficking scam.

In the end, I suppose we need both the Gagas and the Cleos in film, those able to lift us up and believe there are the opportunities to leave harsh circumstances, be brave enough, to take a chance and reach towards the heavens. However, in a year of Me#Too, we absolutely must be mindful of the Cleos of the world, the ordinary, everyday women with no resources, no outstanding talents or access to better lives, who may be unable to take the steps, who cannot locate the right person, within or without, to help support those initial moves towards better lives. We, as the watchers, must continue to press for ways and means to make the world fairer and more accessible. For every one.



Years ago, about 26 or so, we renovated our house. We could never understand why kitchens in old houses were so tiny. Maybe it was a European thing to have large welcoming places to cook, collaborate, test and taste new concoctions emerging hot from the oven, gathering with friends, family, nonnas, children, breathing in fresh smells, dialoguing with the cook, pausing and resting among stacks of ingredients with a warming cup of tea, a cookie, the kitchen a hearth, the centre from which the spokes of all family life originated.

But ours in our North Toronto house resembled a tiny cupboard also fitted with a small green nook so constrained we wondered how the previous families had ever fitted themselves, three full-sized male adolescents, into the cramped leather space.Maybe a forerunner to a galley, configured in the architect’s mind as a spot for a an upstairs- downstairs maid to be signalled by a tingling silver bell, an adjunct to the big living spaces where people did no more than ingest three times a day. And rather than luxuriant wafting melodies of bursting aromas, odours of spam, packaged slices of baloney, cans of Campbell’s soup, or cucumber sandwiches, no crusts, might have emerged on dainty Wedgewood dishes from a room deemed so unimportant as to to be hidden deep in the bowels of the house or relegated to its furthest outreaches.

So we expanded and extended, more than quadrupling a space that we glassed in, positioned to overlook the overgrown garden, framed by the craggy birch tree that harboured blue jays, wood peckers and cardinals in the spring. I had visions of Sissinghurst, a white wonderland of blooms that would frame our kitchen as I drank my morning coffee or contemplated my day.

And with that renovation came, of course, new appliances. Foolishly setting our renovation back to back with a trip to Europe to introduce our children to the galleries, museums and churches of France and Italy, we were finding that the reconstruction of our kitchen was lagging, and with the travel plans quickly approaching, we must act fast to make decisions.

Maybe back then, someone had lauded German ovens as the best, others macabrely resurrecting the agents responsible for gas chambers as truly not appropriate for Jews, with the same friends insisting they would never buy Mercedes, etc. But I, bias aside, arrived at the conclusion that Gaggenau appliances, yes German appliances, although out- pricing other models, really were superior, better engineered , and barely with two days before flying off, we ordered a combo of convention and traditional ovens, stove top, and dishwasher of the same notorious brand.

And with the exception of the dishwasher that has been replaced twice, and stove top recently demised three years ago, Gaggenau has stood the test. Because all were positioned built- ins and the dimensions of each matched to scaled down European- style products, you can imagine my fear of replacement.

When you commence a renovation, you live in the now, not considering that like bodies, machines and products, wear and wear out in the process of living, and will by dint of necessity need to be repaired or replaced at some point, for the kitchen as the heart of a home receives dirty climbing feet, grubby , grabbing hands, grasping fingers that unpry and pull open cupboards and drawers roughly, rudely pulling produce from refrigerators, dropping, spilling spices onto the floor, replacing glasses and plates, unthinkingly, constantly reaching, slamming, touching, opening, closing, rearranging, moving tables, scraping chairs, sweeping, washing crumbs from the floor : in the kitchen’s role as post central for feeding and creating and talking and gathering. And who has not found measuring spoons, fitted bowls and wooden spoons for drooling babies and sticky- handed toddlers so mama could cast a weary eye while preparing a meal? If any room is alive, the kitchen certainly is- feeding the souls and stomachs of the family.

So should a problem arise, you smile brightly at the serviceman, cross your fingers and toes, awaiting the reply: if a replacement part still exists because it is unlikely your model of oven is still available.

So when the stove door persisted in refusing to close on Sunday, anticipating my holiday turkey would not be cooked if the heat continued to blow open the door, I went to the Internet Monday morning. To my joy, there were specialists for stove tops and ovens, even listing the European makes that included the rarely seen Gaggenau. The friendly sweet- voiced person at the end of the line reassured me that someone would be there that very morning. The charge of $80 would be deducted from the labour, or so I thought I heard. I asked about the hourly rate and was informed it depended on the job. I enquired a second time, but the response was vague and truly I had visions of the holiday turkey being uncooked or cooked so unevenly to produce salmonella poisoning in my guests, and as one must usually endure several days of waiting should the service person actually appear as scheduled within a block of four hours, I booked the appointment set between 10-1.

A pleasant young man, maybe 20, arrived. He commented that the old Gaggenaus were great ovens, the new ones not so much. I showed him the problem, even indicating how my son-in-law suggested the latch must have dropped down. When he consulted his clock, I did too, 11:32. Inserting his pinky and gently lifting the small piece that must have dislodged, he added two screws and tightened them. Fussing slightly for a minute or two, he began his paperwork. It was now 11:42. The cost $210.

Incredulous, aghast and overcome with laughter, I asked, “Why?”. He explained that the $80 was not to diagnose the problem, it was the outside cost of a service call, nothing included. At first I said, I’ld pay but definitely intended to badmouth, write, cajole whoever, whatever to protest this outrageous cost. I’m not sure if he suggested or maybe I figured I should call the company. I did and I complained. Then I was asked if I had been given a quote for the work. I said “No,” and later when I viewed the bill, there was a place for the customer to sign TWICE that they had acknowledged the work and the cost.

The lady on the phone disappeared for 10 minutes, returning to tell me they would reduce the cost by $20. By this point, seething with indignation and having replaced my VISA card into my wallet, I told the person on the phone to invoice me, that my husband was a lawyer, we would review the cost, either to pay it or find another venue to argue this ridiculous cost. She asked to speak to the technician.

We hung up the phone and he asked,” How much do you want to pay?” I said, “$80.” He looked at me, aghast, sardonically bitterly inquiring, “ What about the parts?” I responded ,” You could get a pile of a hundred screws for a buck at Canadian Tire.” In the end, I paid $85.

But I’m wondering if the experience had not come on the tails of replacing 40 year old taps that had been inherited with the house the day before that sparked my outrage. Young Alex also chosen from a list on the Internet ( advertised as a 5 star rating) had explained the Groen faucets now defunct needed replacement. After checking at two local outsources, I’m talking within maybe 2 miles both, he told me it would take two weeks for their arrival.

As well, constantly asking for a price at the outset, but again never receiving one, I was finally informed, the entire job would cost close to $500, with labour at $280 . Oh you haven’t discounted the $100 for your first visit?” I reminded him.” Oh yes”, he responds,” Our hourly rate is $360.” Really! How much do teachers and policemen and salespeople and even doctors earn hourly?

Checking on line, I discovered the taps would cost $50. Because of shipping to Canada, an additional $30 was tacked on. Double checking with Alex, I ordered them myself, and hoped they would not be lost in the Christmas rush and previous postal backup. Then I will see if I can find someone to pop them in at less than $280. But because the taps in my bathroom has no local turnoff , hot water continues to drip.Through it all, Alex courteous and helpful. Why not?

So, if you have persevered through my tale, I suggest, should you require assistance by plumber or other technician , make sure, INSIST on clear statements of cost. I know I belong to another time, another generation, perhaps one of trust , so out of date at present, but honestly, $210 for 10 minutes of work or $360 an hour feels unduly extravagant for minor jobs.

Brave new world where dinner arrives by Uber, mail arrives in a flash and companies think nothing of overcharging. Beware.

My Father and Drugs

Drugs were always taboo in my family. Not sure if they were considered a weakness, an excuse not to avoid or turn from the rigours of life, but whether an allergy ,an accident or procedure, one was supposed to grit their teeth and go it without medicinal support. That just was how we managed our life, one step at a time, dragging our feet forward, no matter the rocky, twisted, unfair pavements we were encountering.

My father in his ten months at Riverdale Hospital during his polio siege described how he was able to project the ravaging death of his nerves sparking and swizzling up his back onto the bedside night table beside him. Many years later, I of three herniated disks, might rate the back pain of herniated disks far beyond childbirth or surgery. As his limbs were devoured and ravaged by polio, his spine the focus of the disease, I was incredulous at his ability to banish himself from that agony, a mental meditative warrior, who unable to physically remove himself from the lashing strikes of a ninja assailant, accepted but transmitted his torment.

If childbirth is a hill, back pain is the craggy Austrian Alps. The electrical jolts that race and rock through you, shocking and jolting you are indescribable in the realm of torture, one in which you long never to twitch, turn or tap your body so to avoid igniting the raging red hot flames piercing and penetrating your body. So how he endured, I have no idea.

As children ,our dentist the kindly Dr. Mueller was the only person I ever knew to call me Patsy. Because my father did not believe in freezing, our teeth were the sites for pain. Before fluoride, cavities were often deep and crater-like, veering perilously too close to the nerves in wait for a metal probe that jolted us into a learning: that going to the dentist was a necessary evil to be endured, but roundly feared . With no calming agent, the intensity of pain both my sister and I tolerated and complained of were rebuked by our father, querulous that we would even want an extra loading of discomfort by submitting to a needle that in itself hurt, he would state, honestly amazed. Whether it was the extra cost which in truth he could not afford or truly his own example of being able to withstand his own past pain, I do not know. But for the rest of my life, I was conditioned to hate those bi- yearly visits, some teeth verging dangerously close to demise because poor Dr.Carl Mueller, himself, had a difficult time, working on girls who squirmed and twisted even before the procedures commenced.From his reminisces and twice a year excursions, I learned to tough it out, no painkillers allowed, accepting and embracing the dictums of no drugs as my own. If our father had been so brave in his own terrible onslaught, should we not perform as uncomplaining little soldiers too? Even my mother’s,” Maybe Saul…” was not met with a response. Maybe a look of disregard or failure.

And when as a young mother myself with a bad cold, I did popped a Corricin, a favoured cold remedy in the 80’s, and my tongue began to grow, swelling and enlarging to touch the edge of my cheeks and fill my mouth, causing my speech to become sloppy and unintelligible, we raced to the hospital to learn I was now- not previously, but now allergic to aspirin and aspirin- properties. Were my parents correct: that taking a medication was punishable by something worse than attempting to release us from a bit of pain.

The mind tells us strange things.

Yes, there were aspirin substitutes I was told, but their molecular structures were not all that different to aspirin, so be wary. With a second pregnancy, I carried some prescribed tablets in my purse should my tongue begin to engorge, these talismen dissolving in the sweaty hands that cupped them continually in panic, particularly in the darkness of sleep when nightmares danced in my head, taunting and terrifying, overriding my rational being who whispered,” perhaps you have unknowingly imbibed an offending aspirin product or its second cousin that is about to teach you a sharp lesson. Ha ha.”

Even at 70, these early behaviours linger, warning me that any medication may swell or disrupt something within. And in truth, even the present day medicine-men and women cannot know for sure, what will, or might not trigger swelling, speaking in likelihoods, statistics, hopeful assurances. Some retort, “ Check with your pharmacist.” Ah- ha

For in fact, the hot itchy hives that erupted on my skin, the ertacaria, one doctor in the 90’s lectured to me were neurotic, not triggered by the hot of my sweaty feet in perspiring boots or cold ice seeped through the seams of my mittens as I cupped snowballs -that were actually the catalyst. And although I do believe the mind holds great sway, turning a sunny day to gloom and clouds, the cause of some of my unrelenting itchy hives was eventually identified as sulfa, not my much maligned over sensitivity and emotions.

Perhaps my father’s scorn was levelled because of the asthma drugs and intense reactions to yearly hay fever that caused his nostrils to seal and his breathing to be corrupted and uneven, even the weekly shots not offering much release from his suffering body. Likely these reactions lay behind his ridicule of plants and flowers, for both held the potential to render his life even more difficult. But as a child, you are merely scornful, choosing not to look beyond the surface, merely holding back your own anger for fear of a calling down, once more your sensitivity and sloppy emotions to be mocked, tears escaping to underline your weakness.

As children, we absorb much directly or indirectly from our homes, our parents, our upbringing. As we form, bits and pieces of knowledge adhere to our souls, moulding us beyond the genetic properties with which we have been gifted- or not.

Often we attempt and are successful at reasoning with our unconscious selves, explaining that we comprehend the patterns that make us crazy and plunge us back to our obedient childhoods. But the seed once planted whether dormant or hidden deep in the snow of our active brains, lies in wait for the moment that renders us a child, observing our parents who believed for the moment they were preferring wise ways. In the end, we must forgive them and look within to our own management of self.

On Writing

Because writing is what I do, I want to write about my week, and yet, growing up boomer, there is a line between private and public that people of my generation respect – unlike the Millennials and after, who believe every bit of their lives is so interesting that whether shopping for broccoli, sharing a medical scan, traveling to the post office to buy five stamps or their dog’s cute tricks is a topic worthy of post and unduly note, showcasing their fascination with self , really an extended selfie.

But I know where to cross the line, I think. Perhaps because my mother always scolded,”Pat, you don’t have to tell everything you know”. No doubt when she was shocked to discover I had revealed some family secret. So over the years, I have tried “ to think before I speak”, another admonishment: that I was less able to contain growing up, my messy emotions unable to avoid censure as I blurted out words I later wished I could have retrieved, for perhaps at the moment, I thought them true, but upon reflection understood them as knives of retaliation, painful daggers of spite, or weapons of wounding. But once released in the cool air of quandary and confrontation , too late discovered they could not be recalled or put to bed. And of course, once my irritation or anger fled, the conflict might have vanished from my imagination, but once flown from my castigating lips, damage inflicted.

These lessons learned or experienced myself have taught me much, and the wonderful thing about writing is editing, revising and rereading before thoughts are released into the atmosphere. I used to tell my students to find fresh or unique ways to express a cliché, make it come alive because a cliché has already lost its pow. Write it in a way to be remembered . Your writing resembles a tapestry, the wool or threads maybe knotted, joined, overlaid on the back, should be smooth and compelling on the outside to be seen, the hard work hidden and the viewer/ reader unaware of the work that has gone into your piece, seamless on front.

I love writing and am so pleased all three of my children commandeer the art and science of expression: almost all in their everyday work as brilliant professionals. And just yesterday one wrote me two pages that touched me deeply about the importance of saying what we feel. It is a treasure.

Words. This week words made my experiences real, palpable, words I would have preferred not to write them, but as my son discovered – therapeutic ( much like my knitting). Writing helps the writer. The act of thinking through what goes on paper is an activity that separates you from the actual event, causing you to stand outside it, frame and describe it so it can be communicated beyond your own head into the medium of a screen or paper. The words stand alone, beyond your body, transformed by your mind, to speak a certain truth, even though it comes from your personal truth, tinged with a personal perspective, but opened to others’ interpretations much like a good piece of visual art that draws you in, makes you think so it becomes your own, you transformed by a new thought you might not have had previously, opening your head to a new way of viewing life. The puzzle, the “ aha” moment when suddenly, it all makes sense, or something that had not occurred to you taps you on the shoulder and your eyes open wider. You gasp, refreshed,” why didn’t I see that before”. Or as the Millennials and even my eight year old grandson piques, OMG!!!!

So I write and in venues where my experience is appropriately told, I will tell it, helping me through my ordeal.

In this new world, as in my writing, I stand outside of myself, made alien to my before life, not unlike my writing where the objective words extend distance. This is good to put it outside, lessening the burden of keeping all the nastiness inside ourselves. My words are separate from me, yet part of me. They can be manipulated, as I now am. They can coolly portray what is still a miasma of emotions. They can be wise, dark, fearful, ironic, even wise or funny which signify the essence of who I like to think myself to be. They stand alone. Somewhere they will persist. It is their beauty.

Fania’s Heart

Your name is Sandy, but your mother prefers Sorale, a diminutive Yiddish version and you’ve just watched, unblinking, an episode of Father Knows Best, one in which the topic of adoption has been explored. Lately you have been troubled and wonder if you too are adopted so when your parents are busy, you carefully find your way into their bedroom, and you decide to go through their things where from your father’s drawer, you unearth some sepia photos and documents of family, but only a few. But when you rifle through her mother’s drawer all your fingers discern is this hard shape which turns out to be this little heart. You turn it over in your hands intrigued, but your mother finds you and admonishes you not to touch it. It’s obviously something very precious because it’s taken out of your hands and returned to its place in the dark drawer.

Years later you will told it has been donated it to the Holocaust Museum in Montréal and you will be upset because you believed the hard little heart was a family treasure that belonged to the family, kind of like their family jewels. By that time, however, you know about the Holocaust and the dark numbers incised on your parents’ wrists.

And so the story of Fania’s Heart begins to unfold.

I heard the story from Heidi, a fellow art student when she related her Yom Kippur break- fast this year, meeting her partner’s cousin Sandy for the second time. Her narrative focused on Sandy or Sorale as her mother affectionately called her, the daughter, and Fania the more than ninety- some year old mother who survived Auschwitz. Heidi is describing the backdrop for her telling, one we have known before, of young women- from Czechoslovakia ,France, Belgium, Germany,Poland , some as young as 15, who were able to remain alive because of their tiny hands.In Fania’s case, she too was put in the munitions section in the Weichsel-Union Metallwerke because her small digits could load tiny ball bearings and prepare weaponry for the Nazis.

Heidi explains that when the heart was donated, a Canadian filmmaker, Carl Leblanc, so interested in the tiny purple heart embroidered with an orange F, began to work on a documentary film entitled “ The Heart of Auschwitz” in 2010 ; more recently in 2018 a children’s book, “ Fania’s Heart” has been released showcasing Fania’s unbelievable story.

She was an adolescent, directed where she could help the war effort against her own people, a Jew imprisoned because she was a Jew. She had all ready been separated from her brother, Leybl, her sister, Moushka and her parents from Bialystok, Poland. In the film, Fania bitterly opines, “ We (the girls at the munitions plant) did not go to the gas chamber…we were ‘privileged’.” To aid the Nazis in the destruction of their own was particularly troubling to the girls who sat ten to a side so occasionally they would misassemble or spoil a part, adding a few pinches of earth, small but incredibly brave acts of defiance. At dusk they would be searched by guards for any smuggled items that could be used against them. It was an existence of lice-infested mattresses, often five to a bunk, lunches of nettles and weeds and shivering for hours in roll call. To survive, Fania imagined her mother’s fragrant chicken soup and attempted to take comfort in small things like the warmth of the sun, encouraging her workmates with smiles or even funny stories.

It was Fania’s 20 th birthday and the women who lined each side of her table knew and wanted to commemorate the day, even in the bleakest impossibility of the camps. Bronia and Zlatka ,also Polish, were Fania’s best friends, slightly older than Fania. It was Zlatka who originated the plan. Each of the twenty girls at her table contributed to an act that could have cost them their lives: paper, scissors, even a bit of torn cloth from Zlatka’s thin purple shirt hidden beneath her striped uniform. The heart they created underlines the bravery, posing the question “ Why would you risk your life for birthday wishes?” The inmates were forbidden to talk, or move from their benches for twelve hours, their elbows touching as they worked. Discovered, this collaborative act could have cost them their fragile lives. Yet somehow, they managed: rubbing bread and water together in their fingers to make glue, scavenging threads..

In a tunnel of fear and hunger, deprivation and worse, an unbelievable undertaking exemplified a form of resistance and strength of the human spirit. Much later, Zlatka wondrous at making a birthday “souvenir” for her friend queries ,” I do not know how could I have dreamed about freedom.”

Fania reflects that on December 12, her birthday, something was being slowly handed from one coworker to the next, making its way towards her. A guard observing bodies and heads brought too close together pulled the main instigator, the genius behind the amazing gift, away and beat her mercilessly, almost costing her her life. Returning to the table bruised and hurt, Zlatka takes her seat again with her friends, their eyes now holding back their tears.

When the uproar settles, Fania discovers “ a small birthday cake my friends had pieced together from their precious bread rations…[t]ucked inside the bread was the heart.”In order to avoid detection, Fania hides it in her armpit, but only in the evening, back in her bunk does she open the heart to realize it is actually a birthday card in the shape of a heart about the size of a butterfly or a daisy and inside, much like origami that folds in on itself, each woman has added a tiny page, each contributing best wishes in her own language. During the days, Fania presses her treasure between the boards where she sleeps at night.

In the pages that fold out from the heart, Giza inscribed,” A lot of luck and freedom.”Mazal scrawls, “May your life be long and sweet.”Irena writes,” I wish that all wishes should be fulfilled.” Others pencil, “ Be light when you dance” and, “When you get old, put on your glasses and read my name.” A little humour perhaps from those forcing themselves to forget that most of them will disappear into the gas chamber by age 20. The backdrop of beatings and hunger has been momentarily erased and each has cast themselves back to the world they once knew: where parties and pretty dresses and tasty dishes and family hugs accompanied all celebrations, but especially on birthdays.

From these sentiments we can imagine they revisited in their heads a relaxed clump of laughing, chattering ingenues, ready to set out on their discovery of the world, love interests and delicious endeavours. Love, food, family, smiles and the embrace of normal life. Like the recipes they recited to one another and aspirations to eventually eat to their heart’s content, the crafted gift was an object of moral resistance, a way to recapture their lost worlds and endure until their futures were resurrected.

The words carefully written by each friend and lasting even now, but especially the fourth petal of the heart held Fania’s favourite line ,” Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” Fania later explains,” My friends wanted to prove that despite all that was inflicted upon us, we could still treat each other with humanity”, adding, “ Their words saved me…”

And even in 1945, when the Red Army approaches and the Nazis empty the concentration camps, putting 60,000 on the roads with only a bowl and a spoon, somehow Fania kept her illicit gift, again hiding it in her armpit as she walked the death marches.

Naysayers, in fact the Jewish supervisor of the girls sorting bullets at the factory who lived through Shoah and interviewed by the filmmaker is adamant that such an incredible subversive feat could not have taken place. Scornful, she underlines ,” Absolutely impossible…one woman in the camps wrote a letter to her husband, and she was hanged… if you deviated one centimetre in rollcall, you were beaten,” she pronounces, indignant. When Leblanc tells her that Fania had carried the heart in her armpit on the death march, she starts to laugh at how ridiculous that would’ve been. She states again, more enraged, that everyone was freezing and it would’ve been impossible to have a hidden an item in her armpit. Turning her head from the camera, even angrier, she maintains,” It’s not a reality.”

The interviewer points out that -in fact -the heart does exist.

Fixated on tracking down Fania’s tablemates, Le Blanc goes to Washington, Red Cross Head Quarters, ,International Tracing Services, Germany ,Cambridge, Washington,Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Auschwitz Deportee Union, Paris even Buenos Aires. With only the first names of those who signed the heart , the search is complicated. The names Fela, Guta, Helena, Eva, Ruth, Hanka, Mania,Giza and others are discernible still. Even when the leads do not produce results, Leblanc pursues the quest. With the death of her father, Sandy sorting through his papers, unexpectedly comes upon a letter sent fifteen years previously from a Lidia Vago in Israel.

Heidi, continues, “Since everyone was aging, it was hard to know if anyone was still even alive, but this woman in Israel had kept a dossier of women survivors from Auschwitz.” Comparing signatures, they see names align. It is a moment of triumph for Leblanc and Vago. Helena now living in Cannes acknowledges the making of the heart by telephone, but refuses to participate, taking her memories to the grave with her, but Fela, now 86, her remembrances dimming recalls signing and Zlatka in South America contributes,” [we] felt like sisters.” Bronia has now passed away, but Fania is asked to represent her as a kind of grandmother in absentia at her granddaughter’s wedding. Sandy and Fania are welcomed as guests , the family feeling that it was as if their own mother was attending in spirit, reminiscent of one of the girl’s thoughts penned on the little heart back in the camps, “…not dying will be winning.”

And from this remarkable impossible story, a children’s book and the film, a film my friend Heidi had related was so emotional, so breathtaking , particularly as the surviving women met again.

How do we talk about the deep and haunting introspective looks that appear on Sandy’s face as she walks through Auschwitz with her daughter. Or the daughter of Bronia who almost whispers, “ She ( her mother) had the biggest heart for everyone but me,” but told me nothing about the years of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Vivian Rakoff and Helen Epstein have written of the devastating effects on the children of survivors, those who relived their parents’ horrors vicariously. We can observe in Sandy’s face the traumatizing pain as she confronts her mother’s life in Auschwitz and struggles to keep her emotions private, away from the camera that seeks to document and record the trajectory of her mother’s birthday gift so many years ago.

Words. The words in the little heart, incandescent perpetual flames that guide us back to the time of our forbearers, and the unknowable times of terror, when girls were torn from their homes and thrust into hell. We, the observers, can never know the complete narratives, but the words of the heart, the words of the school children in Montreal in Leblanc ‘s film attempt to establish a balance perhaps, providing hope, for the school children have listened and are the living words that will go forward with this terrible story from the past, remembering the little heart made for a birthday .Fania writes”,I read the messages my friends had written. Their words gave me strength and carried me through each day until the war ended , and I was free once again.”

Fania’s Heart written by Anne Renaud, illustrations by Richard Rudnicki,Second StoryPress,2018

The Heart of Auschwitz Film by Carl Leblanc, 2010

Reviewing Paul Auster’s 4321

There are those books and authors we tend to identify as “Jewish”: Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irene Nemirovsky, Nicole Krause, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Nora Ephron, for example. We consider these books Jewish because the protagonists exhibit characteristics we are familiar with, they interact with other Jewish people or the set of cultural events reflect our religion or history. Often the authors use their own Jewish lives as reference points in the stories they are sharing.

Interestingly, Paul Auster, the author of 4321, is himself born in New York to Jewish parents, four grandparents Eastern European Jews. Facts regarding his own background are woven into his tome, such as being close to his mother, distant from his father, his work as a translator of French poetry, passion for writing and writers, and even a childhood friend being struck by lightning. Yet, I would not have believed that Auster nor his protagonist Archie is Jewish.

In fact, on reflecting on the catalyst of the unravelling of 4321, – only the opening vignette of the book appears to be a Jewish one- Reznikoff from Russia arrives at Ellis Island and is counselled to give the name Rockefeller to the border agents, a name more worthy of respect and able to provide a smooth transition into the new world.However unable to recall the name when questioned, the haggard immigrant mutters, “Ikh hob fargessen” and so he is renamed Ichabod Ferguson. Seemingly it is a cynical not so funny tale story we’ve heard before, and we let it go, shaking our heads, familiar that in our own lineage the family moniker “ Yskervotiz”had been rechristened “ Ash” as an insensitive or uncaring agent unable to understand a foreigner’s accent had altered the names of Jews coming to America.

So, anticipating more Jewish- ness to the book after this incident, I’m surprised to find none, deciding the author has merely decided to use the anecdote as a structural moment that will unravel the tale he will so expertly relate. There is no bris, bar mitzvah, no Jewish geography, except New York, no get togethers at Passover, no Yom Kippur atonement, yet the names of the people with whom Archie associates are all Jewish: Adler, Marx, Blumenthal.However, I no longer expect that this book will be Jewish.

Yet, eventually I realize the enormity of this single joke, for the theme of the book concerns the identity of Auster’s hero, grandson of Ichabad, that will unfold into four chronological parallel tellings , each similar but different, meaning four boys all named Archie with the same parents, dreams, aspirations and predilections, but each living in a different house in differing economical circumstances in Manhattan, Montclair, Millburn, and Maplewood. In the voice of Archie, Auster writes,

One of the odd things about being himself..that there seemed to be several of him…a collection of contradictory selves. And each time he was a different person, he himself was different as well.

Jewishness aside, if you were a baby boomer as Archie is, born March 1947, 4321 will recreate for you the terrible sixties which you may have mythologized as a Woodstock love fest complete with love beads. Rather, this socialist- realist novel reminds us of the Viet Nam war, the anti war protests, Rosenberg Trials, Kent State, Columbia sit- ins, Chicago brutality, murder of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, all in precise, factual riveting detail. Archie’s involvement varies as reporter or witness, certainly aware of the trajectory , but except for a stance associated perhaps with a Jewish concern, philanthropy and belief in the democratic process, he is not in the trenches of these world altering events. Even Philip Roth in American Pastoral situates the daughter, Merry Levov, of his main protagonist, “ Swede” in the Newark riots, yet Auster’s protagonist although swept up in the tide of politics, repercussions and fallout, is not an instigator, more bystander to the history in the 60’s.

The stories of the four Archies resemble Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, although her protagonist Ursula seems to skirt around from country to country, her personality changing as she plays central roles in say, an attempt on Hitler’s life, etc. Our likeable Archie is less a risk taker, adoring his photographer mother, the beautiful Rose Adler, as Auster did. All Archies are fascinated by Amy Schneiderman, alternately love interest, step- sister or cousin. Archie immediately mesmerized states,”…there it was, a feeling, an intuition, a certainty that something important was happening and that he and Amy Schneiderman were about to set off on a long journey together.” In all four stories, he exudes deep love and affection for the politically- committed girl he first encounters as a toddler so they both grow up together, stories entwined, no matter which university each attends: Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr or Brooklyn College.

Coming of age accompanied by a search for life’s meaning is a constant feature in 4321. From disabling car crashes, insurance fraud, involvement in sports, a father who is burnt alive in one section while simultaneously growing an empire of appliance stores in another to diverse sexual partners, an ongoing love for New York, a sojourn in Paris, the novel amplifies the twists and turns, the happenstance that results in paths and journeys to unanticipated destinations for the main character.

Other reviewers have commented on the initial confusion in sorting out which Archie is which, evoking Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, roads that are pursued, those ignored, this novel certainly providing multiple pathways. But again, nothing suggests anything particularly Jewish in the routes Archie explores. We do not conceive of him growing up as a Jew, for Jews alone do not hold a monopoly in developing moral consciousness as a liberal minded Archie does, his positive attitudes exemplified towards race and gender, for example when he is colourblind to a young prostitute, insulted when questioned if he would like another black girl for his teenage trysts.

There is much sweetness in Rose and Archie’s escape to the movies when his father dies, and his mother’s attempts to put their life back together, his raucous joy at watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy that wind up underpinning a first book. There is a charming first endeavour at writing a novella about the inseparable shoes “Hank and Frank” when Archie is only 14. There is a palpably intense scene as the older Archie awaits the Vietnam Nam draft lottery determined by birthdates, the sudden death of his doppelgänger friend Artie Federman and camp relationships that catalyze into lifelong friendships.

All of this is intriguing, recognizable and written in a way that in spite of 800 pages or more never bores. As Archie himself refers to his delight in studying a plethora of new authors and thinkers and translating French poetry to make it his own, we think of Jonathan Franzen, Borges, Dickens and Salinger, so many authors who have followed their heroes through the spirals, curves and initiations into adulthood.The following line,

The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from a book and it would always be summer as long as they did not breath too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were 19, finally almost finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying goodbye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.

Conjuring F. Scott Fitzgerald as the great Gatsby gazes at the green light at the end of the pier, these nostalgic thoughts suggest an overlay of longing in this Bildungsroman that prepares us for the quests and follies our own lives will follow.Or ironically, we as Archie’s peers, have ourselves all ready experienced.

Perhaps Archie is a modern Jew, raised in a loving home with Jewish values of respect and responsibility post World War II, primed to be educated and fully assimilated in America, the home of freed immigrants and refugees like his grandfather, people who did not want to be differentiated by faith or religion at all, desirous to fit in, work hard and achieve the American Dream. I want to claim Archie as Jewish because in all of his manifestations, I really do like him. I can identify with his passions and pursuits, his fallibility and his attitudes towards life.

Yet unlike Jonathon Safan Foer in Here I Am, the very title from Abraham’s biblical response to G-d in the wild, triggering the novel of modern Jewish angst, his character, Jacob Bloch’s contemplation, strong connection to Israel, daily Jewish observances, the holocaust, all fictionally realistic, perplex and make me want to distance myself as his Canadian cousin, so I pine for something Jewish to connect me to Archie, but sadly , Archie’s thoughts about anything Jewish never figure in 4321, except as a structural stylistic note to bring the novel full circle, a tool, a device manipulated by a clever writer.

And although I too have assimilated, I carry with me Jewish connections- to family holiday celebrations, beyond Kafka to Jewish literature, an understanding of basic Jewish practices, a respect for the travel of my ancestors who brought us here, a link to Jewish worlds of repression and oppression, Jewish humour, even anxieties and neuroses because I am Jewish although many would scoff that I have created a stereotypical image rather than one that penetrates a Jewish sensibility. 4321 severs the ties with all of that, only leaving the names of his friends and some family as indicative of our origins, wisps of torn paper to be carried off in the wind.

In the end, we are left with the cumulative incident, the joke- Archie’s name “ Ferguson” or ” Ikh hob fargessen” which isn’t a joke because without your name, your identity has been banished and young Archie moves among his four identities, none that tackles, unriddles or comes to grips with his birthright. I cannot help but recall Eva Hoffman’s memoir, Lost in Translation, in which she searches to resurrect her past lived in her first language Polish. It is true that Archie grew up in English, however, the vestiges of a communal past have the power to reach out and shape who we become, an epilogical ghost from the past perhaps. So like the Jews of old, our Archie wanders among four deserts, searching. Without a past, we exist only in the present, no matter how charitable, how charming or charismatic we may be, twisting in that cold and bitter wind.

Maybe that is why I yearned for a speck of Jewish connection in a tale that is predicated on a Jewish joke so that Archie might come to know his roots and travel on to a secure future where he might confront and acknowledge his past, muttering, I did NOT forget.

Those Moments

When I lectured to groups, I’ld begin by asking my participants to close their eyes and attempt to recall a moment from their earlier lives. What always emerged, without any prompts, concerned a birthday, a family gathering, a funeral, an event detailed with sense experiences, a visual- perhaps of a glowing candlelit cake, the sound- of sweet laughter or the rub of a cheek against their own. I could see the faces of people transported, actually reliving those moments.We would discuss that it was impossible to remember every single day of a life lived, but those heightened by extreme happiness or sadness did in deed reside in our heads, available for easy recall.

When I taught high school previously, I also posed questions to my students,”How are you similar or different to your ancestors.” It was a postcolonial literature class and I was teaching books from Africa, India and the South America: the point being to bridge worlds and diversity, reminding the classes that we all came from somewhere and our own progenitors were once immigrants too. Moving from themselves through personal anecdotes to first person narratives by authors to indigenous cultures and novels gently lead them into a process that erased the demarcations of me and them. But once again, it was asking them to search in their heads for that special shared time with a loved one.

Often I used Margaret Laurence’s personal essays in Africa, a middle class Canadian herself, moving on to Rohinton Mistry or China Achebe or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In deed, One Hundred Years of Solitude is so full of magic, surreal situations of exaggerations and fantasy to delight and confound even Harry Potter fans. There are people in the book who can fly, others who literally shrink in old age, suggestive of a fairytale but based in actual horrendous events, reminding the reader that truth is often stranger than fiction.

To my initial prompt, student Rebecca had written about a yearly visit to her grandma in Germany who had grown up in wartime, a grandma who penny pinched, reused, recycled. Rebecca was not enamoured of the summers because she felt her Oma stingy. In a moment of revelation, the granddaughter realized that in her own eco saving moments, she too had disparaged the waste of disposables and had emulated her grandma’s stance of thriftiness, even organizing recycling groups. There were other stories that connected personality traits and role models, shuffling bubies who had lived in Kensington and kept fish fresh in their bathtubs until it was time for dinner. And with a self conscious guffaw and some amazement, the students comprehended that they might have inherited more than their names from their progenitors.

But what interested me was the moment, the flash, the epiphany and why certain memories had been retrievable while others languished with the business of daily routines. Of course, I intuited the memorable event was flagged by the emotion surrounding it, but true enough, our lives are filled with so many experiences conceived in or surrounded with joy, delight, anger or distress, times we wish we could hold on to, renewing them when we need comfort, or resurrecting them to better understand ourselves. Why did certain moments rise to the surface of consciousness , while others were lost deep in our heads?

Last night while attempting to sleep , I combed through my own life, searching for those episodes that still continue to haunt me. For the most part, there were single flashes: a grade one teacher who wore shiny brown oxfords along with a look of disdain for me, and a class in which unable to cut out leaves for the construction of leaf people, the boy who sat in the seat ahead turned with a soft smile to surreptitiously perform the act. And I in present time, re- experienced the relief of not enduring my teacher’s scorn and my gratitude towards him. But why had this small event of maybe 2-3 minutes persists and, I, still able to feel the embarrassment and relief of maybe 60 years ago?

Rummaging through my head again, I recalled a Halloween, married with a three year old, me intent on creating a big bird mask for her, spending days with papier mache, the result looking a bit like big bird on crack for the features although were distorted. When she saw it, she loved it: the essence of Big Bird obvious to her. However on the walkabout that dark night, other children spying macabre eyes too big, an oversized mouth, a lolling tongue, festooned with shaggy ocher bits of floating feathers of their favourite character, she began to shriek and cry out. My poor daughter, not understanding that she herself was NOT the cause of alarm, fused momentarily with her mask and terrified, refused to go out on all subsequent Halloweens for years. I can relive this event in full as if it were occurring before my eyes even today.

But not just the moments of extreme emotion rise in my memory, pictures of festivities such as backyard parties with friends interacting at tables set with golden decorations, lavish drooping white flowers, glittering glasses of wine, soft music and the happiness of celebrations marking transitions. Were there other scenarios that have not lodged, found a niche, a dark corner in my brain, but not eclipsed or overcrowded by other similar moments? Surely so.

As I get older and want to piece together what has contributed to being me, I am frustrated at not being able to locate other small gems that might provide insight. Hardened like tiny crystals, so many other experiences do not come forward, even in whiffs of dreams. What I have is a broad outline perhaps that is composed of the basic person I am: the art, the books, the teacher, the mother, the planner of events that afforded me pleasure, the broad strokes of a life. It’s a bit like Sisyphus climbing the rock over and over again, except I wish I had a small awl or hammer to claw away at the rock in hope of dislodging some fragment forgotten.


Sometimes from nowhere, you are given an unexpected present. It’s not your birthday, you haven’t done anything special, there’s no reason and then something pops up.

Being a total computer Luddite, I’m often unsure about what buttons to push or what messages to retrieve. Okay, if someone from Nigeria has information that I ve been left a small fortune from my long lost cousin Hector, I know not to respond. But I saw the yellow “ 2” on my Facebook page and took a chance that the message might be all right and no bug would be imported to corrupt my entire system. And I so, I pushed the tab, held my breath and waited.

From this vast vast world, a young woman wrote saying she had been cleaning up old books from her family home and had come upon a card, I,her teacher, had written to her in the late 90’s and it had encouraged her to continue on writing. In my mind’s eye I envisioned her, a bandanna wrapped around her dark head, she bent over a desk in the corner of her once bedroom where perusing her life from high school, as documented in a pile of discarded mementos, she came upon a small note tucked in a book, perhaps an adjunct to a favoured novel we had taught at Northern so many years ago, or maybe a loose scrap festooned with doodles that had captured her daydreaming of a future beyond our narrow walls. And loosening the pages, the note had edged out, just enough to catch her attention.

It had been a hard week and so I appreciated her taking the time and trouble to reach out to me. It meant so much. Some weeks or even years are hard as they are filled with our frustrations, our failures or confusions. For me, fall is always a time of disruption, sadness. Maybe because I harbour in my bones the time my dear mother passed away, and my head is filled with the outset of my father’s polio, also on a Labour Day weekend. As you age, some events become stronger, clinging to you when you least expect them, ghosts that continue to haunt and knock at your mental door, dragging you back to days described or lived in pain. For us who live in the north climes, the bare ness of trees, the shrivel of flowers, the recession of the warming glaze of the summer sun can trigger further your sadness.

And yet in the midst of my gloom, an unexpected gift from a shadowy face, someone I might pass on the street and now not recognize. We never know how we impact( or not) on the lives of others, or when we have said the right thing at the right moment, connecting, brightening someone else’s day. On the other hand, we may alternatively never know when we have erred in our judgment, made thoughtless, distracted by our own issues, and too late wish we could go back and apologize.

My years at Northern were a gift in so many ways. I had a wonderful supportive principal, a forward thinking smart department head, insightful colleagues and outstanding classes, the brightest and the best in many ways. It was difficult work and after an awkward beginning where in a grade 12 class horrible Hamish lead the troops to scribble on my blackboards, overtalk and/ or ignore me, I won the confidence of that class because one boy, Daniel, who suddenly raised his head from a posture of sleep, actually listened and admonished his classmates to do likewise. Hamish sat in a funk, unable to provoke further chaos and more heads turned towards me because what I was saying about The Tempest was interesting and challenging.

I prepared and over prepared often having three times as much information as necessary for a class. I sought innovative ways to engage the students, encouraging their own search in their studies, finding an angle, an interview, a vignette, an image and area they might want to explore. In one class where we brainstormed and, I encouraging their finding their own avenues, the result was brilliant presentations and outcomes that demonstrated their knowledge. From time machine scenarios and the creation of children’s storybooks to connections between physics and the rise and fall of themes, imagination, delight and understanding soared. These are moments that continue to warm me.

Was it being part of group work that had triggered my unexpected writer last week, or the quiet words I had shared written to congratulate my student on a composition of a perfect sentence that revealed insight or something deeper?

Teachers today are often maligned, disrespected as in the line, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. And true perhaps of some who muddy the waters or whose personal bias makes for uncomfortable classrooms and not great learning. But as in any profession, not every teacher’s pedagogy will meet the needs of every child. But so it is in every profession. Those who dazzle and those who limp along, trailing bodies of those disenchanted- doctors, plumbers, programmers all.

And that is not to suggest that every child in my classes soared., for you always recall the losses, the scowls, the complaints, harbouring the wish to return: try another tactic, face down a stare with a smile or make right what has continued to trouble you, a forever pebble in your shoe.

But I suppose I did have a few fans, quiet thoughtful types with mischievous grins whose sparking eyes or reflective assignment made me react and so because, I’m not a gregarious type although I have been known to be effusive unable to stop myself…, I must have written something significant that communicated heartfelt congratulations and encouragement to my student, urging her to stretch further.

And now , my note had come full circle, back to me, encouraging me to lift my head in the autumn doom of my thoughts, that to believe there is worthiness and in the tiny buds that will spring back to life.

Sad Days even a week later

Carol Shield’s final book Unless concerned a daughter who sat with a begging bowl at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. She wore a placard with the word “Goodness”. The daughter appeared to be so overwrought with the state of the world that like an alms-begging monk ,she had retreated from polite society, her own cosy, loving home to the hard pavement, brought down by the numerous calamities of daily life.

I understand that image of the bereft woman so well these passed weeks. The world with Donald Trump and our mini-sized Trump here in Ontario delight in destruction. This past Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving began for us with The Star’s reporting the threat of destroying Bill148 that upholds workers’ rights. For the States, in last few weeks the Kavanaugh debacle that ended in his selection and confirmation to the Supreme Court made me want to weep. His behaviour perhaps uncorroborated in the past by a few select witnesses, still portrayed the man in the present in a toddler’s rage, marked by a level of tantrum, insults, egotistical, self- pitying, beer drinking embarrassment that does not, I believe, align with the coolheaded judgements he will be asked to make as a supreme jurist.

Leaving me aghast was Susan Collins who voted for him, a supposedly independent thinker who occasionally moves against her party.For her to affirm the nomination was treacherous, strange and pitiable as a woman. All who listened to Blasey Ford found her credible, 100% identification of her attacker and her demeanour impossible to criticize, yet now she is cast with all the other survivors of these acts indelibly etched in their souls, their testimonies ignored. And worse yet, society since the Anita Hill investigation, believing themselves more open, more caring, more listening and more supportive of women, have shown that is not the case at all. Perhaps only more two- faced. In fact, we cycle and recycle the same old terrible stories with the same sad terrible results, the victim tossed aside, the perpetrator, like his pussygrabbing boss, boasting false innocence, faces shining in triumph. Small heroes, but heroes in deed were Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota who voted against Kavanaugh, the later who will lose her seat but not her rational ability to see clearly and act appropriately.

And here too, the women one had once believed independent, clearheaded thinkers have sided with our Premier, all ready demonstrating their allegiance to outmoded ideas and the brutish shenanigans that accompany their party head. A colleague of my husband’s suggested Caroline Mulroney is ever too much a daddy’s girl, willing to please her father figure boss,Ford : ironic as her real father disagreed with commandeering the Notwithstanding clause that hangs over our heads for anything or anyone who disagrees with him. And Christine Elliot, another we had believed to be rational, perhaps still in her husband’s shadow, not finding her own legs, more confident to ride the coattails of the head man here. It certainly perplexes in these times when women are supposed to be more empowered, able to knock their heads against glass ceilings. But perhaps still unable or in this political situation unwilling to break through that ceiling. So much for the chatter around Sheryl Sandberg’s “ lean in”, be assertive mantra. Rather, smile sweetly and nod your pretty little heads, girls.

What begins to emerge are two worlds, the division in the States as promoted by Trump, a world where compromise, cooperation, empathy, research and thoughtfulness is tromped upon, and the yahoos prevail. The people who cheer Trump on no matter what he says or does. That the US economy rises must be self-satisfying, yet he takes credit where he deserves none, riding on Obama’s coattails. And one begins to wonder, incredulous that Barack Obama once was even elected and lived in the White House. How did that happen when such a reversal has occurred? I shaking my head at the inconsistencies. And still worse, the blockheads who buoy up the Trump era, agreeing that ‘ fake news’ or the dirty Democrats are responsible for all of society ills and complaints.

I begin to think that some of us do live in a totally different world. Yes, we see the protesters who not only storm the steps in Washington, but hold Jeff Flake’s elevator door, shouting their truth. We read the reports in credible papers such as The New York Times. We watch John Oliver’s weekly and Stephen Colbert’s nightly attacks , laughing at the incredulous, ludicrous behaviours perpetrated on immigrants, dreamers, women, all “the others”, and know these voices that speak out are in deed preaching to the choir because the voters who put these men in office PUT them in office. Even Lady Gaga and Robert Di Niros are mere whisperers among the raucous shouting of the mesmerized.

And what of these blind folk who follow, do not think, the populous who have endorsed with their votes, their shouting rage, their staunch feeling that Trump speaks for them? They recall for me the Peter Brueghel painting of The Blind Leading the Blind, one attached to the other, ready to topple over another, not just blind but unwilling to see. Who are they that they can persist in a notion of the future where climate change, isolationism, and greed will support and improve the lives of their own children? Even some of the supporters must be women or have daughters?

Where do we turn, transfixed , heartbroken by the shape of our society?

When I read Unless so many years ago, I was not particularly impressed, The Stone Diaries and certainly Larry’s Party exerting a stronger impact on my evaluation of Shield’s writing. However in these present times, the symbol, the depiction of the daughter Norah and Norah’s mother, Reta’s helplessness in the scourge of their times persisted and resurrected itself in my head.

Perplexed but understanding of the daughter’s action in Unless, Shields writes,

“Why is Norah acting, or not-acting, as she does? Tom thinks she’s suffering post-traumatic stress, but he… [l]acking answers, and under the influence of Danielle Westerman( therapist), Reta adopts a theory of female exclusion, which she expounds in a series of letters addressed (but not posted) to men guilty of failing to recognise women’s achievements. As Reta sees it, ‘The world is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.”

So sad moments. As we treat women, the disenfranchised so we treat ALL people. To be alive in the 21st Century and to be behaving thus is incomprehensible, shameful. So I weep.

Reposting of The Weight of Ink

I think we often look for Jewish connections and enquire of friends and family about “Jewish geography”: points from which to unravel our identity as people belonging to a particular religion with shared knowledge , ideologies, beliefs, customs and traditions.

A friend of mine remarked that a certain reviewer she knew was always looking for books with Jewish themes. Not surprisingly, that reviewer lectures mainly to bookgroups at synagogues so why wouldn’t her topic revolve around authors whose interests relate to Jews?And yes, I agree it’s important to empathize and stretch, expanding our perspectives beyond one’s own realm, but oftentimes when we peer deeper into ourselves, we begin to understand others better.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish has been making the rounds, especially as a Jewish book award winner, it has attracted much attention. The story contains two entwined stories, one in 1660; the other in 2000. Documents secreted in a hidden cubbyhole of a house are the rallying point for a story that showcases the lives of two independent women, the main protagonist, orphaned penniless Ester Velasquez from Amsterdam and Helen Watt historian from London. Unlike Ester, Helen is not Jewish, but has had a meaningful relationship with Dror, a Holocaust survivor in Israel.As well, Helen, has lived on a kibitz around the time of the War of Independence. Life in Israel stimulates an interest and an enduring remembrance of a Jewish love. She has a sketch of Masada on her walls and is drawn to research that recalls her passion for the country.

Similar to A. S. Byatt’s construction of a historian’s unearthing important documents in the book, Possession, Helen is the taciturn seeker who initiates the search into Ester the young Sephardic woman, an anomaly for her times. There are many parallels between the women: their questing, intelligent minds, their unfulfilled love lovers, their strong sense of self, and disregard for authority, especially male imposition. Complimenting the story are other Jewish women, not side figures who are poorly written, but memorable women with their own personal ambitions, histories, desires and limitations due to the times into which they were born. For example, stoic Rivka, survivor of Polish pogrums; flirtatious wealthy Mary a confused teenager, abandoned by her father, whose adventures lead her to danger, Ester’s Portuguese mother whose discussions regarding love are perplexing confidences to the developing Ester. All women have deep connections to Judaism: of what is written, allowed and forbidden.

Particularly as the Inquisition has damned Jews in Europe and depending on the particular King who sits on the throne in England , Jewish lives are accepted, ruined or made miserable. In all cases, antisemitism is promoted . In one shocking scene in the novel, in order to save their lives, the “ Jewesses”, Ester, Rivka and Mary, must turn over Mary’s family house and its contents to the Church, rather than be put to death by a mob pelting windows with excrement and stones.

Even the Jewish men in the story are multidimensional from Aaron Levy, American doctoral candidate who works with Helen in the rare manuscripts department, to blinded Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who encourages Ester as his scribe and confesses that she is brightest of two pupils he has ever taught: the other being the excommunicated Spinoza. HaCoen Mendes regrets the role he has played in Ester’s life, accepting guilt on his deathbed that he encouraged her studies, allowing her to be his scribe when her brother could not – particularly in a time when women’s learning was not tolerated.Ester distressed by betraying Mendes’s trust through her dalliance in correspondences , tells herself she would not have changed a thing.

To confound the notion of love and loyalty is gay Alvaro HaLevy whose father signs him up for the life of a sailor and Mary’s lover, Thomas Farrow, ribald actor and disgraced son who refuses responsibility in regards to his deeds. Laced throughout are troubling writings considered heretical , some by the banned Spinoza who equates G-d and nature. For Jews in 1660, to even consider such thoughts, but even worse to put pen to paper to share these speculations, was reason for excommunication, treason and death.

But the protagonist, Ester is fascinated and troubled, pondering ideologies and ontologies while her female contemporaries plan marriages and provocative dresses. So too Helen is a serious scholar whose discovery of Ester as author is a breakthrough advance for feminist history.

In her 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon refers to books like this as “historiographic metafiction.” Such novels display a special awareness of the relationship between history and literature. They combine real events and lives from the past, unconcerned with accuracy. Kadish uses The Plague and the Great Fire of London along with real documented facts and attitudes held by the English towards Jews, even situating Ester and Mary at a play that resembles Sir George Etherege’s The Comical Revenge: or, Love in the Tub ( 1664).Her protagonist Ester is a creation, her relationships fictional, yet Ester is the readers’ gateway that brings insight and awareness into lives lived by Jews at the time, but especially of Jewish women.

Historiographic metafiction is an intrinsically postmodern form, by Hutcheon’s definition, and so it follows that these books have special pertinence to the moment of their writing. Interestingly, The Weight of Ink delves into seventeenth-century Jewish culture in Amsterdam. In Heretics, Leonardo Padura Fuentes also focuses on a Jewish assistant to Rembrandt, forbidden to make representative images by The Ten Commandments.

Both novels investigate the crisis caused by Sabbatai Zevi, the seventeenth-century rabbi who claimed to have fulfilled the role of the Messiah. Both novels also address the herem—or shunning—of Spinoza at the age of 23, as well as the significance of the return of Jews to England.

As Rachel Kadish is a woman, she explores the life of a woman by her own reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Here the notion was contemplated: what if Shakespeare had a brillant sister, what would her fate have been( see questions with Rachel Kadish at the conclusion of the novel). Although Woolf speculates that “Judith” Shakespeare would have died young, unable to test her intelligence, Kadish gives us tough minded Ester in a narrative that imagines the possibilities of one young woman- a Jewish woman at that- provided by fate with the tools to drive a personal need for knowledge and enlightenment.

Labelling herself as” unnatural” and an” empty vessel”, Ester is more than a copyist or mere scribe to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Kadish noted that Ester “speaks the language of philosophy..her mind incandescent.” To engage the thinkers who are likewise ponder questions of existence, Ester uses male pseudonyms, spurring questions and replies on metaphysics and religion with some of the greatest thinkers of the 17th-century, such as Van den Enden, Thomas Hobbes and even, Spinoza.

Criticized for being over written in its 600 pages, The Weight of Ink does fully develop and extend a picture of a world inhospitable to Jews, made more difficult for some Jews themselves through their “crypto- conversion” from the Inquisition, pettiness, exclusionary tactics for self protection and their adherence to unflinching rules and traditions to safeguard remnants of faith that is constantly used against them .Yet in light of repressive and terrible consequences, anti Semitic attitudes that could result in death, the communities in Amsterdam and London endeavour to survive by any means possible. That Benjamin HaLevy and Rabbi HaCoen Mendes soften, display kindness and even provide opportunities to a young woman,Ester, demonstrates the glimmers of hope in the worst of times, for the most beleaguered in society.

In light of the few female names that have survived in the visual and written arts, one wonders how many women actually painted and wrote in attics , at dusk or dawn with forbidden brushes or pens, how many struggled to overcome the edicts of their days, and their birth – and how many allowed their desire to die or whither in fear of punishment or worse.

It is a fascinating story and truth of past lives.

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