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The Sisters of the Winter Wood

I’m not a fan of fantasy and truthfully when I read the blurb of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I wondered why I had added it to my list and who had recommended it to me.

But because we are all glued to Game of Thrones and witnessed strange transformations there and Kafka’s cockroach has survived many generations and yiddishkeit holds a fascination for me, not to mention any story about European shtetls and persecution of Jews, I began the story of Liba and Layla, daughters of the Rebbe Berman in Dubossary, a town between Moldavia and the Ukraine. Dubossary conjured for me the pictorial landscape of Marc Chagall’s Russian hometown of Vitebsk in Russia with Chassidim, travellers, farm animals and lovers.

The sisters, temporarily abandoned by Mami and Tati, as occurs in many coming- of- age novels, must fend for themselves, while the parents deal with pressing familial obligations in Kupel nearby. However before departing, Mami imparts strange information to her very different daughters, Liba, tall, dark and big-boned, and Laya, graceful and long- limbed: Liba is part bear like her father and Layla is part swan. This unsettling knowledge complicates the lives of the almost 18 and 16 year old adolescents.

With many authors, we might guffaw and stop the read immediately, but in the hands of Rossner,in spite of this being her debut novel, she has tweaked our interest and curiosity in the plight of the sisters, living at the edge of the forest, all ready not totally accepted by the town yentahs : because Mami is a convert to Judaism, not always covering her hair.

The story is told from the dual perspectives of the girls who know themselves to be Jews. They are aware of their lineage from the Berre Rebbe and the lore that has marked them as special; Tati insists that the young men in the village are not to be considered suitable marriage prospects. But in most tales of becoming, love plays a major role. Laya is enchanted by Fedir, a “ goy ” who along with his handsome brothers travel from town to town, selling fruit; their origins Rossner tells us in an Afterward, is derived from Christine Rossetti’s Goblin Market wherein the protagonists’ names also happen to be Laura and Lizzie.

Liba, too, experiences her first sexual awakenings with Dovid Meisel, the local butcher’s son, whose entire family reaches out to her. Aware and perplexed by her difference, Liba reflects, “I feel his breath on my neck and I think, we breath the same air. We are not as different as we seem…we believe in the same god, practice the same religion, like the same food, laugh at the same jokes. I want a normal family and a home where I don’t need to fear the woods around me.”

In parallel stories, the girls face infatuation and love. But along with this comes anti- semitism aroused by Fedir and the townsfolk. Based on actual events that occurred in Dubossary in March in 1903 , two non- Jewish victims were discovered drained of blood, one in a fruit garden. Often to explain terrible events in times passed, Jews were harassed, slandered, and their blame attributed to the myth that Jews baked matzoh with the blood of non- Jews. In Rossner’s novel as in the real life event, the Jews of Dubossary organized, fought back and prevented a progrom. But overhanging antisemitism was and continues to be real.

In both the truth and fiction, Jews in nearby villages were not so lucky. Five hundred in the Kishinev area were murdered, hundreds injured, their stores and homes destroyed. Between 1880-1920 there were over 1300 pogroms in the Ukraine. And in 1940, back again in Dubossary , the Nazis rounded up 600 Jews in the synagogue and burnt them. The remaining 6,000 were lead into the nearby woods and shot. Not surprisingly, Rossner dreamed of the ghosts of the town, personally effected, as her lineage comes from Dubossary , fortunately a great uncle having escaped to America years earlier.

Rossner was raised with Chassidic tales such as the Shpoler Zeiyde, Russian superheroes such as “ bogatyrs”, fairytales such as Snow White and Rose Red, and Jane Yolen’s Holocaust retelling of Briar Rose, later she was influenced by Jonathan Foer Safran’s Everything Is Illuminated and others. To sweeten the dark violence of these tales in her recreation of the events in The Sisters of the Winter Wood, Rossner includes the sweetness of her own Romanian grandmother’s expressions so that every few pages underlines her background: with Yiddish evocations such as “ zichrono livracha (May her/ his memory be a blessing)… shidduch (arranged marriage)…niggunem (melodies)…shaynah madele( lovely girl)…oyam ( world).” When dreaming of varenikes, Liba speculates, “ They are soft and plump and the onions and gribenes she serves them with are always so crispy. Her ( a neighbour) borscht is thick and creamy and she never skimps on the marrow bones that flavour it. There will be sweet wine, too, and Mami already brought over some of her flakiest rugelach. I lick my lips in anticipation.”The melding of Yiddish and the description of Jewish foods works to augment the warmth of a strong tradition in a village where Jews are not trusted, merely tolerated, yet there is vibrancy in their presence that recalls our sense of shetl life before the wars. The novel is an echo of significant influences that have shaped both Jewish life and Rossner’s growing up.

When Laya disappears with Fedir, Liba attempts to rescue her from the enchantment that has turned trees to fruit- bearing, overloaded with sweet succulent peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots … dizzying in their smell, touch, lure. Yet their roots have encumbered Laya’s movement, for she is held captive, but a willing one because of love she imagines for her green eyed suitor. For Laya, being in love has altered the faces of Fedir and his brothers. Soon she will realize her mistake and like the veils in Blake’s Book of Thel and other poems, stories of maturation, she eventually sees clearly, understanding the forest for what it is.

Libya’s comprehension of love and life is less dreamy, as she learns how to arrest her transformation to avenging bear: by calming herself, focusing on water, ensuring she does not respond emotionally.That knowledge will come to Laya later so the girls can learn to command their metamorphoses.

However, what is most difficult to accept is the girls’ transformation to bear and swan. But even Libya’s awareness of this strangeness mirrors our own as readers when she murmurs, “It’s a dream…it must be a dream. A fairytale coming to life in my head, nothing more…maybe I’m sleeping…” When she observes her own powerful muscles and paws with claws, she marvels, “ None of what I am, what we are, makes any sense at all.”

Yet one might consider the many Russian folktales about bear- men and women the traditional donning of brown fur cloaks at the time worn to celebrate the new year and chase away malignant spirits. So too, Chassidic tales of Tati’s great grandfather’s kindness of averting persecution of other Jews as the Shpoler Zeiyde, as the retelling of his dancing with a bear in a contest to win the freedom of destitute Jews forced to pay rent and taxes on time. Liba explains, “ My mother once told me that my great grandfather became a bear because of great need…we can all become what we need to be in a time of danger.” And so we recall modern stories in which a mother somehow lifts a car off the body of her child pinned beneath or other extraordinary measures to save a loved one.

And in a similar moment of amazement, we might recall the mother of dragons in The Game of Thrones calling her babes home. And although we might not accept Zeus changing himself into a swan, or magical raindrops to impregnate Danae, we do not doubt him as a god of power. Or even the ability of Captain Marvel to propel herself into space or transform her arms to efficient attack machines. And what do we make of Spider-Man or Batman possessed by the power of transformation in times of greatest need? Magic is magic, and the possibility of transforming to another form, ice to water to gas, or human to superhero or animal is- at the very least- provocative. So we watch, read, transfixed.

Metaphors and similes in our language also allow for comparisons between the mundane and the exceptional so we accept that we might be as hungry as a bear or as sly as a cat, ready to trick or outwit our opponents. The woods around us can be internalized or external, alternatively inviting or threatening, suggestive that there are forces, spirits that await in the darkness. Why else do children insist on nightlights at bedtime?: to prevent witches or goblins from dragging them away. This is Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief that permits our leap to imagine and to engage in other realms.

The notion of transformation as presently witnessed in the films based in Stan Lee’s comics is welcomed by audiences, perhaps as an anecdote to the craziness of life. And even today as congresswomen cast aspersions on our people, or riots in Charlottesville where even the U.S. president does not disparage or condemn the white suprematists, terribly, antisemitism has not disappeared. Not in the bear dancing contests, the attack of blood letting for matzoh, or being pushed to the edge of forests, whether real or imaginary, it has endured. Sadly, that image of Chagall’s diaspora Jew emerges as I write this, the outcast traveller’s pekkalah on his shoulder, searching for a place to live freely without harassment. Liba’s statement comes to mind, “ Being a Jew means always changing- staying true to what you are, but adapting to your surroundings.”

Rossner gives us a fairytale that is underpinned with history and the reality of Jewish discrimination we continue to face. Would that we were like the sisters able to transform and learn how to defeat the biases that continue to confound us .

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Also see The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition), Canada Mar 16, 2019 O8 French journalist and novelist latest book Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us) by MARC WEITZMANN

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Summer Roundup

As a child, I believed summer stretched forever, an unending beach that unwound along the endless shore. And even though I now spend part of my year in San Diego, summer here at home always beckons with the feel of promise, a break from routine. 

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 But this summer has been unusual and has vanished in a flash, but as I reflect on it, I have to admit there have been some really wonderful moments. In spite of Howard’s fall, our travels in overcast rainy Europe were fun, particularly wandering through Copenhagen’s Fredericksberg park and watching the baby elephants nuzzle their moms; and as tourists feeling welcome in that city as we sought out differing varieties of cinnamon buns at local cafes. But even as a girl traveller I was drawn to Copenhagen time again, maybe the magic of the Tivoli drawing me in.

And recently, our time in Berlin was something very special too, the echoes of the clang of the war incongruous with the present day ascendancy of an incredible aesthetic, particularly in its magnificent eclectic buildings. There is a buzz here, particularly the art scene, exemplified in the outdoor East Gallery marking where one section of The Wall demarcated the city. Even hobbling and waiting in line, Howard responded to the Pergamon, museum of antiquities, remarking with awe at the turquoise tiles of the Gates of Ishtar with its dragons, serpents and strange creatures assembled piece by piece in the museum by wise architects -way before IKEA numbered their pieces, and the Marketplace at Miletus from 2 AD reconstructed by the Germans after an earthquake in the 1900’s.

We wandered and read and tried to imagine Berlin divided into quadrants. We walked and walked, each morning there at a tiny bakery where the fraus upbraided Howard. Their kuchen fresh from the oven, fragrant with heat and spice, a perfect way to begin the day after our nights spent at the fabulous boutique Hotel Am Steinplatz , an art nouveau designed hotel where Brigitte Bardot and Nabokov slept- but not together.

Berlin hustles and throbs, the people aloof and mainly unhelpful. Yet a supper at Nobelhart and Schmutzig, greeted at the locked door by a man with a messy man bun askew at the top of his head was memorable for its rose blush on venison, tiny new potatoes dusted with lavender and fennel ice cream. Along the long bar, we were seated beside a hotelier from Hawaii whose lover lived in Norway. The restaurant reminded us of Allo, Canada’s number one restaurant, but focused on locally grown ingredients allowed to shine in themselves, not entwined with myriad others- quite spectacular, except perhaps for the frozen, grated pinecones! They described their cooking art a “performance” and their chefs “actors,”and it was true that we were served with great confidence as our offerings were meticulously described.

Berlin overwhelms as you never can see it all, museums, intriguing spaces, that contrast of old and new that is difficult to assess and evaluate. As a Jew, I wish for an enduring rebuke to the past, but as a human touched by the evolving growth of an incomparable city, I applaud the beauty of advancement, that beat of art and architecture that pervades this perplexing city.

And in the raggedly beautiful Dubrovnik overrun by cruise ships, reminded me of Italy’s Cinqueterre with orange tiled roofs amid overgrown shrubbery. It too was an amazement, the quiet of tainted Lokrum where one cannot stay at night or die!, so the legend warns, reached by the gently rocking ferry. And later home watching Games of Thrones and recognizing the throne from which the wicked Geoffrey and manipulative Cerses committed their disastrous crimes, and the comment by a salesperson in the old city on the origin of the tee- shirts: “They’re crap”, he gleefully offered,”but the tourists love’em”. Huge smile.

And in spite of the torn thigh muscle for Howard , a milestone birthday where the stunning grandchildren all in sparkling white, assembled to pull off a surprise that even the all knowing Howard had not uncovered. An evening in the Cave Springs Winery, really a soirée of a tiny familial group prancing and dancing to the guitars of father, son and teacher as they strung and sang. Children well behaved, twirling, whirling and delightful to be caught by the artful photographer in a night not to be forgotten. Perfected scenes frozen forever we will want to return to and wonder at : four month old Georgia’s twinkling smile ; the mischievous antics of the boys; Aaron’s wild fling of a dance in a secluded corner; Carter’s impeccable rendition of Hallejuah on the recorder; or Remy finally breaking into smile at the black eyed susan; an overtired Rhett by the end of the evening, running around the table, signalling it was time for festivities to end . And Howard, who in spite of insisting on no celebration, had celebrated, the rock star of his own event. And me, quietly appreciating the ephemeral bliss of family when every carefully planned element falls into place, even the weather gods calling off the storms in the nick of time. Just wondrous.

There were quieter times too as we went to Stratford to catch a play.

We are aware but unaware of time, only marvelling in the photos of how we have changed: stomachs less taut, wrinkles more, faces softened by the years. One protagonist in Wagamese’s Ragged Company book reflects on how we cannot stop time, but how it is in us, as we change, but hold our memories of what has passed in ourselves and in photos as well. There is no evidence of time, no tangible proof. We cannot grab a handful of it, or take a picture of it as it moves: slowly, when I was a schoolgirl contemplating my days away from school; quickly as an adult when years appear to disintegrate and I ponder what events occurred just three or five short years ago. Yet I know poets have lamented, contemplated and considered on the passage of time, the incongruities as they explored times past, present and future, attempting to capture all in thoughtful, meandering words , a response to the unending march that eventually consumes us all.

This summer, the terrorist attacks, the idiocy of a Trump response to Charlottesville and the threat of North Korea elicit my thoughts of years long gone, of how my mother hoped for a better world for her children and the future. But even today, the 21st century, we are insecure in a world threatened by bombs, antisemitism and discrimination. Yet my friend Anne rebuked by her brother for her narrow view of the world submits there is beauty and good in the world too and she chooses to focus on that rather than the wider circle of the awfulness we read of, and experience vicariously every day in the news media.

Perhaps that is why my small candles in the light wash over me today as I seek to share them in my blog.

Gratitude.

Coincidences or not

The latest trend seems to be writing on gratitude- not that is a bad thing as it doesn’t hurt anyone to pause and consider the good in our lives. But just as words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to have forfeited its meaning as people post their reflections: on Facebook , for example, and there attach them to certain notions and expressions that have become rather hackneyed or taken for granted.

When we worked at the College, Fred M ( he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases had lost their original intent because the “actual” meanings had been subverted and perverted as individuals put their own spin on expressions : words such as “Post-modernism” -so that we often debated what was really being spoken of. One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a dishonourable action in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and co-operate when they are engaged in their daily activities. Holocaust images of women who conspired, hair rudely shorn, shouts out at me as the signs hung beneath their necks publicly proclaimed them as collaborators, heads wobbling low. A bit like Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame on a recent episode of Game of Thrones.

My Pilates instructor has begun her writing and I complimented her on her second piece that extolled water, connecting her experiences in a communal bath with friends in Morocco. It was an exceptional piece and I told her so. She segued into revealing how writing had triggered an unexpected line of events. She explained that several years had passed since she had lunched at Marche downtown with her sister and a friend, F . Deciding to frequent the restaurant with another friend who was leaving town, she was aghast to run into F again: as they had not seen one another or spoken in quite some time.

I offered a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-created an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece, ( spoiled it by adding my name too flamboyantly) and presented it to my sister when she graduated from medical school. Some years later, my husband and I were in London and rambling this way and that through the British Museum, with no specific plan, in the medieval section where precious pieces were housed beneath glass. Even few days, the manuscripts and the books were changed, pages turned or repositioned. As we strolled casually, my eyes were drawn to something that looked vaguely familiar. As we approached closer, I gasped to note that on display was the REAL manuscript- exposed there for only a few days- in the time when I chanced to pass by in my meanderings. How was that possible? How had my path crossed that of my manuscript?

And similarly just in the past few weeks, I suddenly discovered that my grandson was the ringbearer at a wedding where my best friend from high school whom I had not seen in 40 years- was the mother of the bride. The bride now carries the same name as my daughter-in-law. Spooky stuff!

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. To this I gloomily queried, then we have no free will as our journeys appear determined by something or someone, and we are perhaps like “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.They kill us for their sport.” William Shakespeare, King Lear. She, my Pilates person, might say no, that we are all intertwined in the cosmos, Gaia, the personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities, the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe. But I also reflect on the three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, stuck in the factory of human beginning and ending the of our lives as so many garments.

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, I structured my classes with different theories of creation, referring to the male and female origins adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting ideas, some also harking back to Gaia. I recall relating to my students interpretations of the story of Rapunzel where transformations from single to multiple could also be discussed in light of the earth’s beginnings of asexual and sexual reproductions… along with ideas of communities of womanhood… and even explanations of the witch not being so witchy as she endeavoured to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales.

So many concepts about where we come from, where we are going, the whys, the wherefores and perhaps ultimately how we choose to describe our own limited comprehension of our miniscule place in the scheme of things. Some might venture , Hey, whatever gets you through that long dark night.

I am not skeptical but hold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quotation of “the willing suspension of disbelief “-for the moment, which constitutes perhaps poetic faith and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages. Maybe we veer here towards the mystics defined as “one who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding, (The Concise Oxford Dictionary 1911) which also adds, “whence mysticism (n.) (often contempt)!” Contempt??????I imagine ladies in séances poring over crystal balls and Madame Blatavsky, her Theosophists influencing Kandinsky, Mondrian and Gauguin, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum and others.

As well a fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of a divine life. I think too of the Romantic poets and their landscapes such as Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Worsdworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism; indeed, symbolism and mythology substantiate the language of the poet. Wordsworth believed in an inward eye focused to visions, infinity, the boundlessness of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental.( SeeThe Project Gutenberg EBook of Mysticism in English Literature by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon). Often artists and poetics see so deeply into a reality hidden beneath their paints and words that lights them towards another level of existence that disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution- even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky the inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society.

Maybe we have come full circle to the notion of gratitude with which I began this string of thoughts and I end with my favourite but likely crazed William Blake who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (Auguries of Innocence)

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