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.Hauntings

In Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged Company, he presents his characters who are aware of the dead, passed spirits who are somehow present- by the side of the road, or even present at movie theatres. The four protagonists in the story accept them , acknowledging them without a second thought.
How do we feel about things or places imbued by those we once knew but who no longer inhabit this earthly realm? Yesterday as I walked out in the rare sunshine we’ve had this summer, for a second or so, I thought I recognized a few people on the street, but upon reflection, realized theyhad passed away. When someone dies, these spottings happen frequently, as a certain gait, the flutter of a scarf or even a body shape seems familiar and makes us want to rush over and greet them, grab their arm and say hi. Suddenly we are caught up by the realization that it’s not the person we thought it was, someone different and we feel kind of silly, but also duped or tricked by our maginations.
One friend engulfed by a storm of butterflies and another continually visited by a cloud of blue Jays insisted it was their dead husbands who wanted their presence felt. My  daughter reminisced  of a storm of hummingbirds that surrounded the casket of an adolescent whom she had treated, an ingenue too soon gone, but whose devotion to these tiny birds was well known.

Sometimes I wish I could feel my mother’s presence, encounter her on the street or have her come to me in a dream. I fear she harboured feelings of resentment before she died because I would not, could not remove her from the hospital at the end of her life. There was her suppressed rage, her seething anger and truly, I did not know how to handle it. I turned cold and she, she too was a separate frigid island, so different to the person who had guided and ensured my growing up . In deed my lingering memories are of her refusing to talk to me, more upsetting as we  had shared a warm and loving relationship throughout her entire life, she my constant support and later, my treasured friend. When she died , I felt as if the final words of companionship had not been uttered, her blaze of indignity and my helplessness in the situation unresolved.
In contrast, my sister was there when a passing rabbi entered her room to blow the shofar the eve of Rosh Hashana and I believe they experienced the warmth of the moment together. Later Wendy fed her spoonfuls of chicken soup. Then she was gone, vanished forever. As all must. Her words for me missing, caught somewhere, hanging, never released in the warmth of a smile, a touch I knew so well.
If I believed in an afterlife, I would have called out in the forty days, some say where the spirit circles, sending a caress  to her cheek or apologizing for my own standoffish manner in those final days. Perhaps because a hospital domain is my sister’s habitat, she knew how to ease her patient’s pain, make her comfortable, assuage her wants. But like my mother who dreaded and avoided hospitals at all costs, I withdrew. She had often recalled being an immigrant child coldly examined by indifferent doctors like some migrant specimen, and then with my father’s confinement at Riverdale when he had polio, she would lament that she had had “ her belly full of doctors”, their misdiagnoses, their pronouncements, their callousness, their unfeelingness to her emotional angst. With my cereal, I ingested her attitude, fear and resentment of the profession, myself demonstrating the “ white coat syndrome” of ridiculously high blood pressure when having to be seen, even by the kindest docs. Interestingly my sister embraced and not surprisingly, I retreated from doctors.
If I knew she hovered above, or wherever the dead persist, if they do, in deed, I would have entreated her to intercede in one particular family issue, but then, maybe the dead are only observers, witnesses to how life folds and unfolds from the unseen domaine of the spirits. But why should I harbour illusions of their power? From the tales of my friends and daughter, I want to believe they can turn themselves into a clump of butterflies or leave me a message in my dreams, but in the three years she has been gone, I have not experienced either.
Wagamese in Ragged Company suggests they are voices in our heads and maybe this is true, and rather than a ruminating superego who constantly warns us against crossing the street against the lights or running with scissors, they like Casper the Friendly Ghost provide safeguards for us. He, an Ojibway writer, reflects the world of his ancestors. I’m unsure what the Polish shtetl had to bequeath about the dead.  The year my mother and Jordan, early graduated from high school, were to share a grandmother- grandson trip to Las Vegas, she was hit by a car crossing the road near the corner of her apartment. She swore my father had instructed her to pull in her legs- or they would have been crushed. A concussion, blackened eyes, badly  bruised, she never traveled after that incident, another event we would hear her relate.
Wagamese through his protagonist the homeless tender Amelia One Sky also explains that when something sad happens in some place with some people, we leave a part of ourselves there, apart that wanted or needed hints to come out differently, a part that got separated from itself, a shadow of ourselves. Likely, I hunger for a resolution at my mother’s bedside, awaiting a final word of blessing or love, something that would crystallize decades of caring and constant love between us.

 

Says Amelia or her street name, One for the Dead, “If we never get right with it and we’re asked to move to the spirit world , that shadow stays here, revisiting those places and those people, hoping maybe that it can reclaim the part that got lost. By watching us learn to deal with our hurt, our losses, and reach out to life again. It tells them we’re okay. That they don’t need to patrol, revisit, or haunt those places anymore.”( p.213)

For me, I suppose I have not reconciled those final days, smiting myself for not finding some softness within to draw her to me and exterminate her anger. How ironic that in my father’s passing, she facilitated a last meeting where my father softened and was able to express love for me as I rubbed his feet, and yet there was no final resolution here at her bedside.
Mindfulness teaches to forgive ourselves past experiences, to permit an acknowledgement that we did the best we could at the time- and move on.

Were it so easy, I would. 

But as yet, I am trapped in a place where there are no butterflies or blue Jays, just empty space and the whiff of chicken soup.

Privacy

I’m not a prude, but some things just bug me. That Scaramucci was fired for his Reince Priebus diatribe did not bother me. I laughed at his obnoxious comments that could not be fully printed.Apparently oldster John Kelly, White House chief of staff, also felt the omitted words totally unacceptable .I can read all kinds of language, and always have, and it doesn’t really raise my ire or even one eyebrow. I remember when people banned Sons and Lovers and Catcher in the Rye for its naughty bits. I couldn’t understand the fuss. Still I’m glad another idiotic Trump minion has bit the dust.

However , in spite of the tender relationships among sibs and forthright sincere talk of “ Moppa”, in one of the initial scenes in Transparent , I did not enjoy was the pinching of Sara’s nipples by her partner Tammie in sexual foreplay. Is it absolutely necessary to present every detailed nuance that sends a person into erotic raptures? Is an audience incapable of knowing what tickles and sucking is involved in the bedrooms of couples in love? Might you think I have an issue with same sex romps, I’m no fan of explicit heterosexual many faceted penetrations either. Often I reflect, I’m not wild about the in depth examination of the workings of the inner ear either. I much prefer the well groomed façade to the sweaty interior excavation of body parts. Listening to WTF’s Mark Maron’s podcast interviews with stars from GLOW( Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) on explicit bedroom scenes also query, why is there no towel for messy mopups or where are we disposing of the condoms? So if shows are going for verisimilitude, where are the other corollaries of scenes that go into high detail of every grunt and groan? Breasts OK? Messy, wet sheets not?

Similarly I do not enjoy watching television characters on toilets, followed by the wiping of their bums. Should a character be checking for evidence of pregnancy I can allow for the collection of urine: it works with the plot. However, we all know what occurs in the bathroom, grunts of relief, fast whooshes of the hot chilis only partly digested, straining noises to avoid ruptures. Do you get my whiff? Have you enjoyed my foray into toilet talk too? Plop, plop.

 

Why must every intimate nuance, even ones that cause my grandchildren to tightly fasten bathroom doors and scream “privacy,” be made explicit on the screen. I add to that explosive puke of heavily seeded green vomit that we are treated to when personages hurl? I just don’t get why these instances that even a three year knows are private are treated as filmable and sharable? 
Interestingly, I can read about ablutions or the variations of lovemaking and do not turn the page to avoid the depth of descriptions, but I do not want to view them in living colour.Some people would conjecture that violence could be considered similarly, but often there is a thematic point, a metaphor or an explicit reason for the inclusion of these terrors: to advance the plot, to provide revenge to tactics, to examine concepts of victims and victimization, even to provide contrast to quieter moments…; although some are in deed gratuitous, there for the titillation of those who get off on slashing and mashing and mutilations. Noise and blood for edification. But as in the above of needless pain and suffering, sexual and bathroom intimacies stretches my understanding of their inclusion in a narrative where lovemaking or constipation/ diarrhea is hardly the point, just the de rigueur of daily existence.

I can’t recall but likely did cringe at the famous first scenes of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, the anonymous sex necessary for the plot; however the backstory that Maria Schneider was unaware of the use of butter during the rape scene violated her as actress and human, even as part of the story line. Even Brando expressed regret. Gratuitous violence and sex may titillate but is an easy crowd grabber that is flagrantly dishonest. And truthfully, even some younger members of the audience will avert their eyes- in distaste, disgust, disapproval or annoyance.

So perhaps you are thinking I should keep my nose in my books, and stick to Anne of Green Gables.It is a tough call as I do respect artistic integrity and long have argued against censorship. I suppose I would like to believe in artistic integrity( does that concept still exist?) of the creator, of the art form, and I would wager Lena Dunham might agree, but like most things gone the way of the dodo, it’s business, profits and money as the bottom line and I am increasingly cynical .

Today’s generation ( sounds like my mom, I know) seem unable to separate public and private acts, Facebook so overloaded with the tedium of superficial happenings that boomers like myself wonder why someone would include daily events that range from their cats’ antics to their relationship status. Maybe my generation who was constantly admonished, or maybe just me by angry parents, “ To think before I spoke” lest revealing our families’ secrets (????) might have lessened the burden by adding, ” anything you post may embarrass you in the future because the Internet has the longest memory- never erasable, kids”. Some facts of your life should be discussed with your parents, your therapist or your best friends in camera, not to all the hundreds of Facebook friends you may be loosely acquainted with.

From television and social media, we imbibe manners, mores and morals.That sexual congress is easy, unmeaningful, and as uneventful as a hi five just is not true, especially for adolescents. Sharing one’s body means something more. Perhaps the crazies who protest sexual education are also reacting to the loose goose of sexual adventures on tv, another axe to grind. Vital to growing up, sex education is more important now than ever, STDs still rampant, hearts broken, genitals in sexting a game for ridicule and worse-not love.

Hey, I’m not against sex. It’s the intricacies that we are made privy to during prime time tv along with other body functions best left in the privacy of one’s own home that I’m ranting about in this blog. And it’s true what we cannot see, but imagine is a helluva lot sexier- except in the bathroom. To which my grandsons would defiantly slam the door and loudly scream, “Privacy, please!”

To Party

Even for the most droll of us, there is some kind of party that is doable. Whether a soirée, an all out crazy dance time, a choreographed family gathering or even a simple lunch, there is a way to interrupt the flow of one’s daily routines and break up our ongoing days. I am not a party person, but even as a girl who would imagine herself invisible as she blended into the wall, preferring not to engage in any chatter or move to the beat of the music,  I occasionally craved a party.  And sometimes, we do in deed, need to party.

However, what I have always enjoyed is party prep, either as guest or giver. As guest, finding the right outfit, how to self style could fill several hours with fascination, contemplating the location, time and tempo of the event. How to straighten bangs that curled at the first hint of moisture in the air? Jeans or bling? But  even better for me , is to be the arranger of events, deciding how to enliven the mood, enhance the celebration and make the honouree of the party really shine .

Although my husband who does not meet his milestone birthday till next Tuesday had insisted without pause he did not want a party, I felt a party was exactly what was necessary.Optimism peppered with my strict commands and outright threats, for last year’s family birthday dinner had erupted into a diatribe between sibs about the existence of aliens( no joke) that left his 69 th in angry ruins, I decided to persevere with plans. In deed, children were sworn to good behaviour, avoiding such contemptuous topics. So without his consent but their promises, it had to be a surprise.  

Over the years, I have been able to surprise him for his fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays. The former was a trip to Boston where the children carefully fashioned for him a tourist map of all the activities planned, from five star restaurants to baseball games to museum trips . The sixtieth as well included two ball games in Chicago, this time our children and their partners coming along for the weekend. Special hotels, meals, diversions were all carefully considered although the sixtieth also included a backyard party with our close friends who shouted “ surprise” on cue. 

But this birthday party was to be different and I tried very hard to meet the challenge. Because I am now in California during the winter, I had to plan a July birthday in December before I traveled. I decided a small family dinner was just the thing amidst his continual grumbling that he did not want anything, particularly when friends and family persisted with, “ You MUST have something.” I pretended to support his irreverent decision, even planning to be in North Carolina when the day arrived.( Who knew he would trip in Berlin and make that trip impossible?)
No matter, the date chosen for the surprise was a week earlierthan his  actual  birthdate.

Our family has a special relationship with On the Twenty where Jordan proposed to Gillian. In the sweetest of family lores, over a dinner date more than ten years ago, he produced his journal for her to peruse over dinner, romantically kept from their earliest meeting. On the last page, he had written as she read, “ Tonight I will ask Gill to marry me”. So the out of town -usually 1 ½ hours if the traffic is good was far enough away and the stunning spot at the Cave Springs Winery was lovingly imbued with our own family history. Besides that, Howard and I, ourselves, had experienced the quality of farm fresh and locally crafted artistry of their fare numerous times when we needed a special dinner.

Fortunately there was a private room that would accommodate our family and so I booked it. Yup , back in December. They described the room as The Wine Library , not Cellar so there would be light and seclusion from the rest of the restaurant’s lively kerfulle. Knowing the Shaw Festival nearby and summer visits to Niagara Falls would fill the hotels and B&Bs, I also reserved accommodations for the kids in Niagara on the Lake and at White Oaks, putting Howard and myself at the Inn on the Twenty. Even back in December, believe it or not, not one location could meet the needs of all four families. So I spread them them out through the sumptuous wine country. 

Later in March and May, I could finetune the party. As the photographer suggested a colour scheme, I chose white, figuring all male members including kidlets would wear white polo shirts, the gals left to their own choices, but also whites: these, by the way, included one stunning Grecian number, two summer tops, one embroidered, the other peekaboo and my fav Max Mara maxi linen. To ensure the look, back in the the spring, I had ordered the shirts and sent them to my daughter’s house. If they had arrived here at our house, I would have throw them in a cupboard and retrieved them the day before.  

Wise woman that she is, Ariel opened the packages to discover a collection of black tee shirts, tank tops and mini dresses. One might think an exchange no bigee, but after fighting with a phone representative for half an hour, I finally demanded the manager who calmly and simply allowed an exchange.

.

For party favours, my preference is always chocolate. On line I could have Howard’s head inscribed on M&Ms, silver, pink and turquoise. Candy $6.98, mailing; $34.00. Gulp. Then came the great debate over the butt picture for the mini chocolates, both dark and milk chocolate. For really special events, I contact Simone Marie of Yorkville fame for her Belgian delights. On the wrappers she will provide your choice of photo and so there were three photos in the running: one official shot from Howard’s office; one with his back gazing out at the mountains at Joshua Tree ;and our fav of him in his Blue Jays shirt relaxing at The Tin Fish in San Diego. However the last also included a backdrop of another patron’s butt. Furiously back and forth, the children debated the pros and cons, the Joshua Tree could be any one in a park, the official one too stern, but what to do about the butt? In the end( ha), I could fortunately crop out the offending butt and we had ourselves a winner. 

Nervously I approached the day of the party, providing a ruse of wine tasting and a romantic weekend to entice my hubby to the spot. Although the newspapers promised a perfect sunny day, the rain thundered on the roof of our car and the traffic conspired to delay us. I worried that the children had not left in time, that accidents on the road would delay them. And what about our outside photo shot? Could a boardroom provide a dry albeit boring background?Would the drenching rain sour even the sweetest event? As I nervously picked the skin off my fingers as the car stopped in traffic, Howard casually marvelled at how his former partner had planned an outdoor wedding for his daughter on another vineyard several years ago. I recalled it had threatened rain that day but the sun had shone through with no need for the huge white umbrellas stored by the casks of wine. We had no umbrellas stored. But in spite of the favourable forecasts and even the radio’s assurance rain would end by 5!( our photographer arriving at 4), we were now caught in an annoying downpour. I frantically messaged the inn, the co- ordinator, Ariel, begging for another photo spot option. But only later did I realize I had no wifi and the cries for help failed. That worked to our benefit because the rain  eventually ceased and wound up bestowing interesting lighting in the garden dappled with hydrangeas, black- eye susans and lovely greenery. Post rain renaissance 

A public garden adjacent to our suite was to be the spot for the kidlets to cavort, and magically, thank you Weather Gods, it dried sufficiently for the grandkids to climb up and perch on the wooden bench. Even a pouting Remy was persuaded by a flower easily detached to contribute her two year old smile. Four month old Georgia only had to listen to the strains of Green Acres in order to burst into gurgling smiles.

And my curmudgeon husband , when our handsome soninlaw knocked at the door, was truly surprised. And somehow, too, Howard had chosen a white shirt for our outing so he even blended with the family colour scheme.

I knew what would please Howard was the presence of his guitar teacher Nick. Howard said that at first he didn’t recognize the long haired guy with the guitar who casually entered our dining room. Obviously not anticipating his Toronto teacher to be part of the celebration, Howard was again caught off guard. Jordan. Howard and Nick jammed on Howard’s latest hits that included Margaritaville ! Wonderfully Howard was the rockstar of the event, a command performance where his captive audience groved to his playing. Carter added his recorder to the mix to heighten the strings of Hallejuah. The kids danced, romped and even Aaron did a wild arm- flinging body swaying thing near the table, but all were engulfed in a fun evening, the delicious food enhancing the festivities.

A few people spoke, some did, some didn’t, but I contributed a brief speech, attached here:

In life, we are given gifts. I had no idea that my greatest gift would involve a guy in a funny flowered shirt on a blind date that has continued for 44 years of romance and adventure.

When you’re a kid, you take in a lot of information: on how the world works; who are the good guys and bad guys, what rings your chimes, how to live your life, and what you might want in the future. 

I was pretty ordinary, but had parents who loved and cared bout me. And I liked art- a lot. 

But when I met Howard suddenly my world came into focus. He made me feel I was special and smart and for the first time, I really believed in myself. As well, the values my parents had modelled became more real as I observed in him the integrity, honesty, intelligence and the strength to speak out. Even his admonishing an ancient lady who had skipped the line at Gryfes Bagels to get back in her place. 

Howard isn’t impressed by money or power and he is not judgmental.And he continues to teach and guide me every day. Ours is a give and take relationship. I’ve often repeated how before email technology , he made it a point to be home to have supper with the kids every night, returning to the office only after you guys were asleep in bed, sometimes midnight. He encouraged me and supported me to become a doctor of education, thus allowing for your truly wonderful dinners as the fighting family in the window of St. Hubert’s Monday nights when I was in class.

As a father, he has been exemplar, always there for you- whether calling with an attack of blindness from Albany; visiting for a weekend in London; or just hanging out at a Jays Game. Not to mention the family trips to Europe: of shivering in Brittany, eating pizza at Il Castillo in Montebuono and dumping scorpions out of our shoes, going down the wrong lane at Borghese Villa or blaming that poor Japanese tourist at Giverny.  

It is also true, life is no picnic, but dad is the cup full, not cup empty kind of guy. And win or lose, he soldiers on, putting life into context for me. 

So much goes into a relationship, the spaces between the pearls, as I said at Jordan’s wedding.But here on this magical night with my beautiful children, their spouses and  the grandchildren, I think we are all part of one another, and this spectacular man you call dad and I call Moo, I toast you as my heart my soul and my love. 

**********

Short and sweet. And he even cried as I did. Happy tears. There are those moments in life that we want to revisit and hold close. The night of the party and the next night the memory of the party and its preparation reverberated in my head. Truthfully I was delighted at the perfection of planning that brought together the family for the celebration of their father.He truly deserved every detail, every word.  A party to cherish.

Legs, horrors and things

Several weeks before my Aunt Marion, my father’s most unfavourite sister died, she said to my mother, “You and Saul were giants.” After years of snubs, put downs and an imposed snobbery, my mother appreciated my aunt’s words. Perhaps being confined to bed and contemplating how she might manage with a recently amputated leg, Marion was expressing empathy for my parents’ struggle in life, and in particular how polio had effected them.

 And it’s true, unless you personally experience a travail, you can put your thoughts into empathy, particularly if you are a sympathetic person, but living something is very different than imagining it. Such reflection had been previously expressed by Howard; however when he tripped and fell in Berlin recently, he was able to truly empathize with the life my dad lead. Being his regular curmudgeon self, Howard soldiered on- as my father did when polio took his legs at age 28. Now on crutches, Howard wonders how did my father do it? Steps are a problem, especially if there is no railing to hold on to, going up as bad as going down. At the Pergamon and Deutsches Museum in Germany where they did have elevators, he comprehended anew what obstacles must be overcome in daily existence. Surprisingly, many airports, believe it or not, do not make it easy for the handicapped either. 

I recalled our trip to Los Angeles as a kid and how my father had to navigate the staircase up to the plane. And again, in Europe, we too just two weeks ago, had not the luxury of an entrance or exit to the plane, but steep metal steps to be navigated up onto the plane, passengers stomach to back, bunching , trying to avoid the rain showering down. My father didn’t talk about his disability, except to resent the word “cripple.” I wondered freshly, how does one trundle on in life, always encumbered with a burden that physically sets you apart? And how does that work on your attitude towards getting out of bed, moving from sitting to standing, swinging your legs or standing upright when on a moving platform? Are you caught in closing doors on an elevator, eschew of course escalators, cross the street in time while the light threatens and does change?These seem small considerations when you can pop up from your chair, stretch out your legs and bound to the door.

As an adolescent, it bothered me my father would not wear shorts. I pestered him insistently, for what possible reason, I wonder now why. He finally spit out the words at me, concerning the ugliness of his braces. I had consciously refused to consider him different to anyone else, arrogantly so and because we differed on so many things, my hardness only added fuel to opposing him, never giving any consideration at how mounting three flights of stairs to use a washroom at the CNE might exhaust him? True, he grew up a male or in a macho kind of world where men especially did not display any weakness( do men ever?) My mother confided how the ancient aunts scoffed at his lost manhood that no doubt floored them when the miraculous birth of my sister post polio occurred.

We want to believe our parents are invincible and will always be there for us. That’s one of the things about aging and approaching or exceeding the years when our parents left us. Too late, we wish we could have spoken or expressed appreciation for them. Yet, it is only when we have matured, spent the years, reflected and encountered the difficulties that aging encumbers us with do we understand and experience the ravages of time.

In Berlin, Howard and I read East West Street by Philippe Sand. Upon the death of his grandfather Leon, the author explores his grandfather’s lost years during the holocaust years never discussed or shared. Eventually as the story unravels, along with concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, we arrive at The Nuremberg War Trials and the need for some to create a wall between the past and present in order to go on living. One woman explains that although she will not speak of it, nothing has been forgotten, the horrors always a part of her.One wonders at the bravery of so many to go forward into a future.

I think about my father and his rugged attitude towards life, only warm towards my sister and adoring to my mother: just keep on. Go out on service calls, absorb yourself in your music, don’t talk about the past. I understand now it would have been like pulling a bandaid off a wound that hasn’t healed. Too painful, too agonizing and why go back to a bad place, where you lost your legs, your independence, your partial sense of self. Why speak of the place where your dreams were extinguished and your manhood put on trial.
These are daunting journeys and I as well would not want to descend into the hell of those days.

However, there are the Eli Weisels, the writers who have returned to the Gehenna of Hell to relate he stories, some almost forgotten .Philippe Sand dispassionately takes us on a journey to a world where Jews were unwanted, despised, tortured, experimented on and made to disappear because they were Jews. The disabled and handicapped followed, like my father, afflicted by polio, their twisted stories, ghosts that shadow them. And my mind leaps to the parents refusing to vaccinate their children, believing the lies of movie stars or uninformed worriers, ignoring a future that will be corrupted and capable of ensnaring the healthy bodies of those blissfully unaware of sharing a cup of juice or kissing a chubby cheek. Propaganda that will impact on their and our world and destroy the limbs of helpless children, ruining their lives, separating them from the life they deserve. Years of research ignored, years of hard work to extend childhoods of safety.

These barbarians, dictators, the misinformed and worse are the poisoners of our world. Their narratives, told or hidden, the rocky roads that will detour the safety of untold journeys.

May we never relive those traumas of children or parents.

A  Jew in Berlin

I continue to say, “Oh, I was there before the wall came down- more than 40 years ago when I traveled as a student”, yet unlike other locations I have scant memories of Berlin and I am not sure if I’ve imagined being here when I rambled and roamed for summer months when I was a university student.

Yet I do remember vaguely K’dam as we called it and being fearful at the haughty looks of the soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie.

But the Berlin I’m now visiting overwhelms me with its aesthetics, its buildings, its trees and sprawling extensions of areas. We do the Hop on and off Bus,, linking the purple and yellow lines in an attempt to locate the museums and buildings we are here to visit. I’m intent on the Pergamon because it was unavailable back when the wall separated it from West Berliners and Westerners. Why would I have carried that fact around for so many years if an art history prof hadn’t lamented the impossibility of viewing famous Greek antiquities when I first studied them?

I know for sure that I was in Munchen( Munich) and Heidelberg( “ Ahhh…if only the Fuhrer were still alive,” , crooned the old women knitting on the benches near the schloss in the 60’s) I a hitchhiker then , took a bus to Dachau and then left, bemused and angered that the camp neatly scrubbed resembled summer camp.(“ NOT so bad,” with a shoulder shrug, said a couple of strolling overfed Americans.)

Today the buildings here are incredibly impressive but I’m confused as the Hop on- off guide keeps reminding us that almost everything was destroyed during the war. The well worded and spoken guide is very careful to point out the spot where all the ‘ dangerous’ books were burned, making no judgment really, almost sanitizing the Nazis’s horrors, but the voice through the earphones almost sniffingly demures there is an empty room beneath the square to remind us. As well, when the main railway station is pointed out, I imagine all the children separated from their huddled crying parents en route to concentration camps unknown. “Yes, the station was well used,”, the guide ironically underlines.

Yet I cannot take away from the very beauty of present day Berlin, the strikingly decorated facades of gingerbread, marble, mosaics , Bauhaus and Renaissance , Art Nouveau, Gothic, antiquarian balustrades, , cast iron patios overloaded with sparkling red flowers, Greek statues, gold cupolas, masterful craftsmanship with exquisite work- that one is aware of – even from far below.The Reichestag with its new dome, glistening Kulturforum , misshapen Jewish Museum, the moving Memorial to the dead Jews in Europe where parents photograph their babies next to the slabs of concrete and even The East Side Gallery demand your attention.
In spite of the crumbled preserved ruins of the past, Berlin bubbles and enchants and excites. From the guy who carries a the brotworst oven around his middle to the one star Michelin drama of the choreographed food courses at Nobelhart &Schmutzeig, Berlin is something quite amazing.

And I consider my thoughts. What bothers me? Would I prefer the ruins of tenements and bunkers as opposed to sanctioned refurbished holocaust monuments?
My mind flies back to The Hare with the Amber Eye and After the Fire and The Book Thief and even the history of the Rothsschilds forced to live in overcrowded ghettos and endure abuse from six year olds because they were Jews, the hatred of the Prussians and the French( remember the Dreyfus affair), a long history of debasement as early as 1000 because some believed Jews defiled the host and baked bread with the blood of Christian children.

I’m thinking of the troubled past that fomented until 6 million sizzled.

The antisemitism fanned by the Lutherans and openly acknowledged in tableaux and political broadsheets from early times of hook nosed Jews as Christ killers are tunes that whisper to me. And later in Weimar, belief that wealthy court Jews controlled the country’s finances and even small shop owners cheated their neighbours. Shame!
I’m frozen before these huge lush buildings that have honoured regimes and emperors to announce to the world their power and vision and provide” protection” and custody : language used by the Nazis to hold and remove undesirables from towns, city, the country. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews- jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents,Catholics, etc.etc.

On the ashes of empires and bombed destroyed buildings, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs. And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “volk” or common people played a huge part in initiating and perpetuating a rolling non- stoppable machine of death.

In Copenhagen where we stopped first! I could replay the newsreels of the holocaust on the buildings I saw, shivering to think of the people with only what they could carry doggedly head – into towards the station. But here in Berlin, much has been erased, cleansed by the shining new edifices built by Mercedes Benz, Boss, Sony, rejoicing in the pure beauty of buildings that scrape the sky or so wide they overtake entire blocks.
It’s hard to take: that these gleaming streets were full of a people I never knew whose dreams and future offspring had no chance to persist and flower. Maybe their ancestors should have packed up earlier and set sail to the new world. I can understand that even with the bad talk and discrimination that they could not bring themselves to leave their own cosy houses or trips to the surrounding forests or afternoon rambles in the Tiergarten , just continuing to live their lives , go to work, raise their children, kissing them softly as they sent them off to school, imagining a better, safer future in a preposterously beautiful city, no matter, the Prussians, the French, the Nazis…

Would I have been sage or frightened enough to abandon the beauty of this place?
I’m feeling guilty that I am seduced by this Berlin, would love to engage in its art scene and walk its wide wide boulevards, so clustered by streets that they bang on the roof of the Hop on hop off bus. I’m troubled by the repetition of history, and uncertain futures that remind of a horrorful past.

Telling a Story of Illusions

We had nothing planned for Saturday night but glimpsed an ad in The Globe, that there was seating availability for Streetcar Named Desire at the Four Seasons Opera Hall. We had missed ballet with our trips to San Diego, and I was hopeful we might procure tickets. Interrupting his Pilates session, Howard managed to get us two Rush tickets for the evening.

Of course we are familiar with Tennessee Williams, but as we tried to untangle the stories of Streetcar and Glass Menagerie , we realized that they shared quite a few elements: the family plantation in ruins, two sisters, illusions of a past life, promiscuity, a failure to adapt, and the presence of memory. We were fortunate that Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Cote were dancing Blanche and Stanley. So different to a classical ballet with pas de deux and reverie( French for jumps!!!), this production was story- based and moved along by the graceful interactions of the entire ballet corps. I felt I had entered a painting created in the first act in pastels, organza skirts ruffling, shuttered doors opening and closing against the softly draped arcades of the disintegrating family home, Belle Reve. Themes of wedding, homosexual attraction and self- doubt emerged from the tableau. Through it all, Blanche fluttered and preened , the centre of the tale in John Neumeier’s 1983 adaptation.Still black lace ghosts grounded the background, deathly personifications, and psychological overhangs of the doomed South.

In the next act, a stark contrast as we watch the French Quarter in New Orleans come to life in the 50’s, postWWIi: a Stuart Davis painting as the figures snapped their fingers, jerked up their shoulders, their movements angular but in tune with a life juxtaposed to the graceful decaying south, the music by Scnittje Symphony I, loaded and overlaid with contrasts.. Here Stanley Kowalski, Brando’s nemesis, is the rough, sexual, chest pounding guy, powerful and ignorant, a true stereotype, unable to tolerate Blanche’s posing and her deceptions, in particular her affectations, even covering a raw light bulb with a paper fixture to soften the harshness of the light she cannot tolerate.Their confrontations, of the faded ruined past and the stark too bright present is on the inevitable collision course as Blanche attempts to reconcile both in a relationship with Stanley’s friend Mitch.

 Asserting his American male dominance, Stanley must crush and painfully destroy Blanche, raping her. This segment in the ballet is incredibly conceived, Stanley’s red pyjamas, his muscular legs intertwined, straight as arrows, overpowering the fluttery birdlike legs of the aging debutant. His legs are the scissors, severing all ties with the past. For several moments we are unable to breath as Stanley inflicts his punishment on Blanche, for her attempt to drag Mitch from his world into hers. Beyond revenge, it is Stanley’s delight, his raisin d’être to punch, destroy and erase beauty: the machine age personified. His brash flashy green silk jacket, the fighter’s trophy that easily taunts and tramples the flowered bedsheets and fluttery robes with which Blanche had attempted to soften Her version of life,. Her loss of everything she has clung to( home, youth, notions of tradition) is torn away mercilessly, his prowess dominating is brutally danced out, trounced in terror and physicality that brings ballet into another realm – so much more than overloaded cream puffs that one drama head at Westview Centennial used to describe ballet..

Although the main characters have their moments, Streetcar Named Desire is truly an ensemble piece as the smaller roles, even the sailors on beds taunting names, the asylum keepers, the organza- draped bridesmaids and jazz dancers in their sequins contribute immeasurably to create the story of loss. There is so much to look at. The seduction dance between Blanche’s first husband and lover , dressed in black and white suits, as they attempt to come to terms with their feelings is standout, the inevitable outcome of Blanche’s illusory attraction foreshadowed by his reticence, teasing and magnetic desire to overcome societal inhibitions. Without a word spoken( ok, a few call out slanders) and even with no music in segments of the Prokofiev score in Act 0ne, we enter the world of the Deep South and we know it through dance.

Similarly although we do not hear the cacophonous blaring horns of New York, the squarish moves, the tumult of crowds, demonstrations and the fight ring pushes the 50’s into our laps.

The overall vision is imaginative, honest to its times and artfully depicted. We mourn the loss of Beau Reve along with Blanche’s illusions but know that a new era, one perhaps in league with the roughness of a Trump, is not far away

Alo

It’s Tuesday, not a dining out night but as a belated birthday present, my son has procured a dinner reservation at Alo. It’s been a muggy rainy on and off day but the skies now clear.
 I imagine a speakeasy or a New York resto tucked away innocuously- in a downscale neighbourhood. At the bottom of the stairs is a tiny elevator operated by an employee. We know the magic password so we are allowed entrance. Service, welcome, greeting pleasantly opens up to contrast the confines of that stifling elevator box. You don’t really absorb the flair of the entrance till you use the washrooms later and pass through a lively bar setting on the edge of a kitchen. There seems to be another eating area too but we are on leather upholstered couches facing large windows on lower Spadina.

Throughout the evening, whether sommelier, servers or waiters, you get the impression that these people are just as happy to be there as you ar: smiles appear genuine, not forced. 

The menu is set with three real choices, appetizer, main and desert in the course of seven .Dinner begins and the first starters that appear will foreshadow the rest of the meal: tiny perfect jewels of food that look too beautiful to devour. Stunningly assembled eatable pieces of art that both externally and inwardly showcase incredible talent. First there is toro, coconut and coriander and tuna loin, avocado and finger lime. Again they are almost too precious to eat and recall to my mind the pint size chocolates you might see at Nadege’s or an artful truffle shop in a hidden lane. 

I choose Hokkaido sea scallop, sudachi crème fraiche, daikon and ice lettuce for my starter. The freshness and melange of flavours is delectable but combines as a well played instrument in an orchestra of food. There is a sprinkle of something resembling a bit of carbon you hold momentarily on your tongue that gently evaporates, enhancing the total treat. My husband has the 30 year aged beef ribeye tartar,quail egg, brown sauce, Tete de Moine.How many ways can you say amazing? At each offering, I emit a noise: mmmm…. 

The pain au lait has been raved about in many other reviews so I won’t elaborate except to say it could also be one’s guilty pleasure. 

Two of our party vote the morel mushrooms in a lobster bisque, iberico loom garnished with eatable nasturtiums as their favourite, speaking to the surprise sensations of crunchy and soft, delicate and bold in this one dish. 

The other two diners go with the agnolotti of Beaufort cheese, the superb perfectly green English peas garnished with slivers of duck prosciutto as their fav.Mmmm…mmm … We eat with our eyes as well as our pallets and these offerings are tiny abstract paintings where the shapes and colours exact an additional observation as we’ve now come to expect – in this perfectly paced journey of food, textures bright, fresh, incredibly well chosen and always unique in themselves but carefully combined to produce a satiny elegance on the tastebud This artistry of presentation has been studied to evoke a strong aesthetic response from the diner. 

Striped bass, artichokes, mousseron mushrooms in a clam emulsion is a prelude to the choice of mains of veal ribeye and Quebec pork loin, Only here do the veal eaters comment: with such small ( thankfully) portions, the presence of tiny fissures of fat and a too too rare cooking mar an assemblage that includes young green asparagus, porcini mushrooms and ramps.  

There are three delectable deserts and an added surprise of a tiny chocolate ganache birthday cake with a candle that I imagine in a doll’s house. But of the three, we all laud the burst of the mandarin orange, honeymilk , with again that magnificent contrast set off by the flake of honeycomb. Small is definitely big here. 

Words of course do not provide insight into the diversity of tastes, and what can occur when one ingredient sidles up against another to create an unexpected pop or hint of the unexpected.

This has been an incredible night. The food and Italian wine have perfectly coalesced. The conversation engaging and fun, but certainly the food was the star.

Labels and Such

Last week I met a friend at AGO with the purpose of seeing the Georgia O’Keefe Exhibition. O’Keefe has been known for her association with erotic flowers that contest the phallic imagery of towers and trees. A female Maplethorpe perhaps. Interestingly the explanations at the side of the paintings dispute those associations. Furthermore, O’Keefe balked at her art being thrown in with the Surrealists. However, with her dislocation and contrasts of size, colour and idea, it is hard not to immediately view her work as being part of the Surrealism surge of that day. 

However, as I am curious, anxious and unsupportive of words that categorize, I can understand how O’Keefe wanted to be seen as a force herself and not lumped in with a trend that categorized her as abstractionist, or realist or landscape painter. Yet, standing up close to one’s art is very different from taking a few steps back and viewing it from the context of Time as we consider artistic waves into which we slot artists, such as Manet as Impressionist or Van Gogh as Expressionist: a disservice to the education, reflection, camaraderie and individual genius of those whose work has risen to the foam at the top of Art, to be labelled the stuff of critical examination.

Although Marcel Duchamp must have shared a huge guffaw with his peers when his Readymades, especially The Urinal was elevated to the status of high art, the thinking behind it is, of course, brilliant, ridiculing the difference between high and low art, poking at the elevation and placement of simple things that have been transformed by the noughts of the critics .And besides a new way of seeing -superficially perhaps, opening the door to ordinary objects removed from their context to be viewed for their own sake in term of shape, texture, colour, design, etc. The driving force behind the Bauhaus that comprehended the intrinsic beauty of functional items that showcased design features that were not merely decorative or extraneous.

Signage at the AGO for O’Keefe showed her as part of photographer Stieglitz ‘s bunch, the brightest and bravest of the day, gathered in New York to paint. Although Stieglitz’ s photographs of O’Keefe ( Torso 1918-19, his portraits) were beautiful, she is depersonalized as long willowy hands and an exquisite body, truncated if admirable parts, not declared as an artist, but just as someone else’s muse. I barely let my eyes slide over those tonal tributes, as they were soft, evocative, rather than the strong artist that O’Keefe was portraying herself to be through her oeuvre. In fact, in five years, Stieglitz had shown over two hundred of her paintings( 1925-29), drawing attention to her talent, and making her a public figure.No doubt, fascinated by her strong separate talent, but no doubt desirous of not being overshadowed by his upstart companion. Subject, not object- this intrepid woman- no matter the subservient beauty.

At one point, again the signage has her rebuffing a quotation that she is the best female artist of the day.She bristles and responds the word ” The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters, clearly underlining, I am an artist so don’t categorize me as a woman first that downplays me in the arena of all people, men or women, who make art. Bold and beautiful as documented in her work.

The erotic and mortal associations she also refutes, explaining she painted what she wanted, whether eggplants, flowers, doors. Suddenly spying a flower that appealed, she popped it next to the elongated horse skull that caught her interest in Horse Skulls with Pink Rose, 1931, exclaiming that it “ looked pretty fine” as a spontaneous arrangement. O’Keefe continued to deny all sexual or metaphysical associations, strongly retorting she painted what she saw( See Georgia O’Keefe.: In the West by Doris Bry and  Nicholas Galloway, 1989).The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by hubby Stieglitz. Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective last year was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.( See Hanna Ellis- Petersen,, Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe( sic) Tate show to challenge sexual cliches, March 2016)
As well, although Black Hills with Cedar, 1941, has been interpreted as a woman’s lower body, O’Keefe explains there were places that drew her in in New Mexico because of their “ lonely feeling” that she returned to over and over again in a range of weathers, valued for their shapes and sense of distance. This is what an artist does, inspired or challenged by something that speaks out to their sensibilities. Ironically, the titillation of sexual metaphors raised the appeal of her art, crowds intuiting something O’Keefe did not envisage in her paintings, but obviously others saw. Long before O’Keefe returned back to the Southwest to paint the siena- coloured houses and flat spaces of sand, artists and writers had been attracted to Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Eventually the distinctive culture and clime would appeal to other artists such as Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.

Very early in her career ( Music- Pink & Blue No 1, 1918) she foreshadows the pelvis bones that are associated with her painting. The 1918 ones apparently reflected sound waves for O’ Keefe, suggesting undulating forms like notes in a musical composition of tendons, bones and holes.Later Pelvis, 1944 revisits the forms, the play of what is called positive and negative space.
Her palette as well reoccurs with the soft blues and pastels one tends to think of as her colour. Yet the later abstracted doors and strong rectilinear shapes in Black Door with Red, 1954 resonate with the Color Field Artists and connote for me Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski. But again, to pinpoint O’ Keene as representative of a particular group is to tie a butterfly down as a specimen to a particular genus as opposed to observing its flights among flowers against a dazzling sky. In the same way, Picasso’s passage through a variety of “ styles” do not pinpoint him as either this or that.

My interest in the exhibit also focused on Purple Hills, 1935 because I knew that Lawren Harris had moved close to Abiquiu, New Mexico to be near to O’Keefe and one of her paintings here in the AGO exhibit was very similar to his. This image of purple hills connotes primordial monsters ready to rise up. How wonderful it would have been to be privy to their discussions.
With thoughts to the recent AGO exhibit, I’m not sure about its overall impact as presenting OKeefe fully. Examining it from the end, later pieces, to front, her early works, helped me identify the symbols and abstraction O’Keefe used over time. Somehow the show did not hang together in the same way that Lawren Harris’s did- for me.I wasn’t moved or caught up in the artist’s mind. Perhaps like O’Keefe, who described herself as “ an outsider”, we are kept away from really knowing the artist. I suppose that surface interest of the poppies, the skulls and skies may be enough to consider O’Keefe as accomplished in her own right. The bare facts of her life, her locations described at the edge of the paintings do frame the works- which ultimately must be judged on its own merits. However, the AGO reinforces her isolation rather than expanding her beyond. For many, they will come away from their the exhibit, persisting in their thinking that Okeefes painting is about vaginas.Too bad.

I’ll take another look next month before you  the show closes- aware that the labels that have trapped her should be avoided.

Snapshot

I read in the obits two weeks ago of the passing of a girl I knew. It seemed to me she was part of a snapshot of my youth.  

There were three girls who lived behind their stores, each adjacent to the other. The fathers’ stores reflected a range of professions: one a pharmacist, the other an upholsterer, and my father, the hi fi guru. People from all over the city came to ask him the really tough tough questions regarding electronics, the next wave of music or particularly to probe the depth of my father’s intellect. Whether Bay Bloor or Clairtone, their head hanchos would make their way to our store on Eglinton. But this tale is not about my father, but the girls who lived on either side of our shop, Tele Sound.

In each of the girls’ families, there were two children, perhaps in accordance with the times and the parents of boomers who having survived the fear of an atomic bomb anticipated better secure days for their families cautiously hoping for safer futures. All were hard working, my mother and the upholsterer’s wife supporting their husbands while. working with customers in their stores. They were intense dedicated women with tall and handsome husbands.

The upholster and pharmacist had each, an older child a son and their daughter who were, closer to my age and these girls played together in the lane behind our stores.

 Three is not a comfortable number, “ a crowd, “ some would say, so my relationship, particularly with H., the pharmacist’s daughter was more of convenience. Living at the very edge of the borough, We walked to school together, and she, of course, had access to great amounts of chocolate bars and comic books sold in her father’s store so with the after school anticipation of candy and reading material just next store, I posed as her friend. Because we lived behind our stores, we were not considered equal to the rich girls who went to posh summer camps or lounged at the pools at their country clubs so we tended to hang together in solidarity.

The daughter of the upholster was a year ahead of us and at school moved in another circle, but after school or early evening when kids played till dusk fell, she and H. could be found bouncing balls, skipping or darkly chatting in the lane. Often I would observe them from my pink bedroom that overlooked the lane, forced to bed early, sometimes before the stars were out twinkling.

Interestingly all three of us became teachers. H ‘s parents being the most traditional felt pharmacy was the right path for their son. So he unwillingly pursued that path- at least until his future wife motivated him to follow his heart into medicine, where he flourished as a cancer doctor. My parents encouraged my brilliant sister into medicine . My friend’ss parents were intent that rather than following her dream of going to university, that she marry young. Someone’s cousin from the States arrived to fill the bill-although I recall H, days before her marriage grieving he was not “ the one”, but the die had been cast and she felt she had no choice but to marry, barely over 21 years of age. I was off traveling the summer she asked would I be a bridesmaid. With no remorse or particular affection, I packed up my bags and headed off for California.

Back in the 60’s, one might take a year to attend Teachers’ College and viola, you were pronounced ready to teach in an elementary classroom. Poor H, not an exemplary student, pined for higher learning. But a mere female and a gentle compliant soul went along with her parents’ plan..

 In the upholsterer’s home,, both daughter and son did go to university, both thriving, although the son veered from his love of athletics to buy a day camp. The daughter became a history teacher, married ,had children and grandchildren. I never saw her again.

I was unsure what path I would follow. Although I had a passion for art. I was never really sufficiently talented to follow that route and my parents had their eyes set on university for me to widen my horizons. I thought I might be a social worker, but took the path of least resistance and also became a teacher. As my interest in art persisted I completed a Masters in Art History. Thinking I might make changes to the educational system if I possessed more degrees, I wrote a doctoral thesis that combined both art and education, believing as I still do: that the visual marries well with all studies, providing a tantalizing perspective to studies that may be dry or heavily pedantic. I married, had three kids and grandkids.

Some time ago through my mother, I heard H and her husband had split up and she had returned to Toronto, to find a way to study teaching at university. We met briefly, and I noted she had gained a great deal of weight, her face looking lost in her body. And years later, my mother received a distraught call from her. Eventually I hear snippets of hormonal imbalance and emotional issues and prolonged stays in mental health facilities. I never saw her again, but I assume she lives- and hopefully well. At heart, she was a good and kind person with lofty aspirations.

From what I surmise , both the upholsterer’s daughter and I have had lead successful lives.

Brought up in a good area by a mother and a father, we fulfilled our roles in society. We went to school, were involved in a helping profession and added to the gene pool. We were typical role models perhaps for our generation. Interestingly, we all considered and engaged in teaching the profession, perhaps unsophisticated enough to veer towards others. We did not live with our spouses before marriage and all were married in a synagogue, although none of us did more than attend high holiday services. As our parents, we were all hard workers, not slackers although the gossip regarding H entwined her with a need for money to subsist as her desire to end the marriage did not provide her with alimony.

Reading the obituary of the upholsterer’s daughter caught me off guard. A small paragraph reduces a life to a handful of sentences that outline 70 or a bit more years.Truly I barely knew those facts , except for my memories that she often was reading, had dark hair and what I considered “airs” back when I was a girl growing up behind a store.

It shook me that people of my generation, ones who had lived closed by, were dying although there had a few surprises earlier – like my first real male friend in high school, Billy Novak , a talented , writer who had gone to New York -along with the names of one or two other classmates. But these moments of epiphany appearing trite ( everyone dies, of course) call into focus the days of our youth, our similarities and our differences, our luck or misfortunes, with those with whom we have shared experiences. They reveal our ordinariness, our conformity ( more perhaps in the post war days), our trajectories, our accomplishments that a demographic alludes to. They are not bad, not good. They just are. That middle class girls of a specific time and place did what unexceptional girls of the time did. In the end, it is the measure of happiness and contentment and even security that speaks to a life fulfilled or not: facts known only to an inner circle of family or friends  who truly knew the deceased.

I cannot say about poor H, whether her life was finally acceptable and pleasing to her. In contrast the sketchy details of he upholsterer’s girl suggests- at least outwardly, that she was. And for me, I too, have few complaints.

Some of us are fortunate to ride the ashes of our parents’ exhausting work, to know the unflinching love of the people who raised and cared for us, dreaming a better world for their offspring. But as a parent and grandparent myself these days, I’ve learned not all of our desires are compatible with our children’s, and there are uncontrollable events that can hinder the course. Our lives, our pursuits, our dearest relationships are fragile, gossamer, at the whim of chance and fortune. Here today and whisked away tomorrow. Rest in peace Faygie. I hope your life was sweet, full of happiness, and rewards…

Updated : Jewish Voice( computer issues previously)

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,

Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In “Why the debate misses the mark,” Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.

Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer, discourses about Felix’s sister’s, Fanny whose contribution and actual writing of some of his music were attributed to Felix , her work diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society. Sara, their aunt, struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with so obviously an anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people. A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”

We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch, In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39, originally published in 1993)

I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Belfer too had likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists, and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario: “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Do writers need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside beyond their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements, crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their personal experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artifact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observes or reads, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Multiple voices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

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