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Notre- Dame

Interesting articles by author Nancy Huston and Joseph L. Clarke, assistant professor of architecture, in the Globe today, both focusing on Notre- Dame. Every art student has studied the Gothic cathedral built in the 1200’s by Violet-le- Duc, recalling the competition among cathedrals between towns : to build higher and higher into the heavens to reach God, until the structures unable to support their magnificent heights eventually began to tumble. Constructed from wood, churches were prime targets for the candles that kept them shadowy lit.

I chortle to recall learning the parts of the church, nave, transept, rose windows, gargoyles, spire, and the reason for the long aisles: to efficiently move the flow of tourists, yes tourists even back then, pilgrims, up one side , down the other, and out into the hubbub of throngs of stalls hawking things, stalls pushed up to the very edges of churches to tantalize the tourist trade. I chortle because I also continued to call the flying buttresses, those winged side supports to hold up the buildings, “ flying buttocks” as both ensured the bodies held upright. Even my professor guffawed.

But my memories of Notre- Dame are- as well -personal. I worked two jobs at university so I might travel to Europe and see for myself the hundreds of slides flashed on the screen during an hour in university class. I was so smitten with art history and the stories behind the artifacts. So I continually saved so I could fly to Europe every summer and haunt the churches. Paris where the most important treasures were located was my goal. As I rambled in the city, I discovered and immediately was charmed to stay at Hotel de Notre Dame, a sign I noticed as I wandered the streets with my heavy backpack that held my three wrinkle free dresses and assorted necessities for three months sojourn by myself. Sounding fabulous and magical, the name of the establishment was a revelation. Hotel Notre Dame was in reality a tiny bug- infested holeup above a café close to the cathedral, but the name called out to me and every meandering walk took me past the doors of the magnificent cathedral. So enchanted with the location and ignoring the bedbugs that laced my body, year after year I returned, even writing ahead to ensure a bed. Many years later I noted the petit hotel had been transformed to an establishment worthy of the epithet.

And when we toured Europe with our children, they absolutely had to see and climb the turrets of Notre Dame, we recounting the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo crazy in love with her. Houston picks up on the idea that the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame dwelled on outcasts,” the usual refuge of all those wretches who came to conceal in this corner of Paris, somber, dirty, muddy and tortuous, their pretended infirmities and their criminal pollution.” :truly the story of les miserables as presently we view them on screen, in the theatre from Victor Hugo’s books. Like the grandmother rarely visited that Houston evokes in her article, Notre Dame was a bulwark, a base, an enduring presence you appreciated because you felt grounded by something eternal, a family part, a piece of history that situated you in a rich culture of dreams, society, a landmark with which you could measure how far you had come from the medieval ages, a kind of cultural talisman.You didn’t have to enter it more than once or twice a trip, but note it -you did, giving it a friendly wink, acknowledging a relationship, but like the demise of that fond grandparent, you truly miss when gone, wishing you had explored further the tales that might have been shared.

But Joseph L. Clarke, that architecture maven, takes another look at the cathedral, also capitalizing on some thoughts from art class. We,once in seminar , debated how architecture can become redundant, fossilized if these structures do not change with society: the need being that artifacts do not stay stuck, unused in the past but somehow become remain relevant so people truly interact as they are reinterpreted for the present. Clarke cites the Neues Museum in Berlin, bombed but reconstructed. What is conjured for me is Daniel Libeskin’s addition to our ROM in Toronto, criticized for not really enhancing or working with the original design , or the Louvre with the strange black pyramid set against the rest of the building. It is hard to fathom a new limb on Notre Dame that does not cull from times past in an attempt to contemporize it. Often a mixture of old and new is a plan for discord, but perhaps a brilliant architect could manage a metamorphosis.

I actually think there are those pieces that should remain in tact,reminding us of another time, another world, not necessarily better, but different and unique, hallmarks against which we can measure our own growth, our distance. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, ancient libraries, castles and landmarks that provoke debates, contemplation of the evolving situations of freedom, liberty, strife and success. In Berlin, remnants of war ruins are juxtaposed with new joyous constructions and somehow the old and new coalesce, the old not erased with the memories they hold for those who endured during those terrible days.Perhaps ironically, however, the Memorial to the Jews Murdered in the Holocaust across from the Reichstag has become a spot for picnicking, selfies and jumping from block to block. Impossible to stop, many of the inhabitants of the city obviously feel no need to maintain the piece as a place for respect. Could one consider this a fitting tribute to the dead? Likely because a new generation is able to roam there, accept its presence as a living spot: the ghosts that may wander there can smile down that life continues and people can move freely without the fear of destruction. Yet there is something within me that would have preferred it become a shrine of sorts, the dead respected in a way I deem appropriate.

But I am of another generation, savouring all tales that connected me to the lost ancestors, cousins and relations slaughtered. Perhaps the mere words that honour that loss should suffice, for no actual relationship to the present inhabitants in the city may have caused this insouciance of behaviour.

Everything changes, but in deed, some memorials, some buildings like Notre- Dame will survive, their meaning open for learning or meaning for those fascinated by history and those who believe there is deep import and significance in preserving works of art because they hold unerasable truths.

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 .


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

Rosh Hashanah Reflections

On Passover, we ask, “ Why is this night different from all others.” Yet it holds the sameness of all other holidays: our religious gatherings at nightfall when all of the precious people of our family come together around the festive table to celebrate our history, our faith. So here we are again at Rosh Hashanah. All of us dressed better, in a happier mood, relishing the food, the time, the love that binds us at the beginning of the new year and the demise of the old one. Here we all are again, anticipating a clean slate, forgiveness, expectation as gleaming as our grandchildren’s shining faces. I’d often heard of family “ brogus” being set aside at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived.

Heralding the brightness of new beginnings along side the darker desire for atonement and reflection, we will watch as Poppa points to those Rosh Hashannah symbols represented by rosy apples, dripping honey, warm challah and sparkling wine, his prayers sanctifying them, the children’s unblinking eyes glued tightly on him.In unison, we will yell, “ Oi- men”, and laugh, delighted to pass the fruits of the earth to one another, the work of our hands, the blessings of G-d. These repetitions provide the hallmarks of enduring memories throughout our lives.

For me, the days of preparation for dinner is a combination of old favourites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my mother-in- law’s excellent gefelte fish . Mine either lacks correct spicing or too watery even after my yearly attempts to follow her loose descriptions of “ pinch of this…handful of’ll know when…” Usually the food receives compliments but I believe the fish is consumed as part of the New Year pattern :that fish precedes soup which proceeds kugels en route to multiple deserts. Still I wonder if some special ingredient has been omitted from my fish.

My buby Molly was legend in her realm of cookery, but my Aunt Goldi confided that the” family” cabbage rolls were transmitted to others without the squeeze of lemon so that the original recipe could go to the grave with the original chef who no doubt thought it a family secret to forgo one ingredient in the recitation of ingredients. So like a story whose sections are embellished or deleted in the telling, some element is omitted – even between relatives- so the result cannot be served completely in tact.This troubles me greatly.

And because my mind always leap to other places, it flies to the whispered repetitions of coveted foods in women’s sections in concentration camps during the Holocaust where a scrap of paper or smidgeon of shoe leather was the repository for a special recipe. These lost moments of a tangy smell, a sweetened taste, a loving glance around the table stimulated familial celebrations of beloved faces and cherished voices, and a necessary hope that life would be restored, the madness disappeared and rituals restored; that the food, the preparation, the coming togethers were only just stalled until the entire mishpucha would once again reunite, safely around the burning candles that dripped streams of wax on a fine linen table cloth passed down throughout the generations.

At this time of year, I, too, hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashanah dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work that necessitated my mother to rise even earlier than usual or fall into her bed, energy depleted, after the last plate dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quietly beamed at us, taking in our families, while chanting the prayers, his pronunciation of certain vowels differing from our Hebrew School learning, we noted, wondering why.

My mother darted back and forth, serving and occasionally perching, her legs aching from the last days of cooking, cleaning and now placing her dishes before us . Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt also collapsing into whatever chair available: to suck chicken feet – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to the dining room where uncles sported dark fedora hats and aunts like preening peacocks were festooned in special navy dresses, and we, cousins, waited expectantly for the moment when we might depart the table heaped with food, bound into the rec room below to hoot, shout and play games without adult supervision.

We were not religious people but we came together as a family at these holiday suppers, reminding me of Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights as she narrated the annual arrivals of her far flung family in the shetl, Vitebsk, at the end or commencements of the harvests, family on horseback, in carts, the women bearing heavy pots, depicted in her narration of unending dinners that continued late into the velvety nights under Russian skies.

Many years ago my son invited his university friends to Rosh Hashanah dinner and I set myself the task of making as many different kugels as I could find ; fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured cookbooks that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we chortled, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal, even foods resembling that cycle of creation and endings of our rituals. Since then, though, the meal has been pared down to only two potato kugels, one sweet , one plain, three or four fruit pies, of course, a honey cake and at least one other completing desert, usually chocolate, contributing to eating ecstasy. The laughter, the camaraderie, the delight of being together, sharing a meal whose very basis is the reason we gather at dusk.

Although the table heaped with offerings is the centre of focus, one year, post -dinner wrestled for attention as we received a midnight call, requiring immediate babysitting. Perhaps unable to battle all the kugels, soup, side dishes, meats and deserts crowding his space, grandson number two decided to exit six weeks early. He was named Aaron, the high priest.

But, as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events- sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one Labour Day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned Rosh Hashanah that year, arguing whether it had been “early” or “ late.” I imagine in my mind’s eye, the family dinner, quieter than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I, more than a year, squirmed in her arms.

And my mother again- close to 92, so many years later, shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room, passed from this world of beginnings to another.

Perhaps because this is season of my father’s polio, she was always anxious around Rosh Hashanah as a period of transition, likely focusing on holiday preparations to banish frightening thoughts from her mind. She is, not surprisingly, is at the periphery of my thoughts during these days. Now as I age , there is so much I would share with her: questions I would ask ( about knitting, for sure), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance : that all would be well and turnout fine. She was so fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall asunder and require reassembling by her able practical hands, handling and rearranging our lives, a task she completed as in the child’s story of The Little Red Hen that she never ceased to cite in deference to the lack of assistance by her family: “ALL by her self”, she would loudly affirm, moving between the real and the storytale, endowing herself with magic to erase our troubles and difficulties she had encountered but overcome in our lives. She, our mother, always silently praying, that this New Year would be better than the last.

If she were still on this earth and we were meeting for Saturday lunches, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non- existence, probing more deeply and certainly, more sensitively. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she wished she had become a nurse or an interior decorator. With greater compassion and kindness, I would NOT counter now, to change the subject,”Well, an orange cannot be an apple”. Truthfully, as she pondered her life, combing through lost opportunities, I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be hurt by some detail I had not all ready heard.

My parents had a wonderful way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah beyond our family gatherings. Yearly they would travel to the North where in Ontario at this time of year, the air is crisp, the autumnal leaves ripe on the trees, a kaleidoscope of colours. They might spend a day or several, driving through the beauty of nature, their thoughts far from the city. I stayed behind, but one year, cracked open the bottom drawer of a dresser in their bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I poured over the barely readable postcards sent from the hospital where he had spent nine months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs.

In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy”, as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the “t’s” are sloppy and resemble “d’s”, but the fragments break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. Tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words has taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother.In my talks to her, I do not want to re- awaken these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past. Perhaps this why she does not speak of the missed holiday dinner that separated them.

So I approach the New Year with a mixture of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey , and their chomping Honey Crisp apples carefully chosen by my husband.

I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I refused, but finally belligerently accepted, because they are heavily ornate, not my style at all. Now I am happy for their place at my holiday table, a silver treasure, their quality beyond cost and symbolizing that I am a thread in my family that has unwound, as evidence of immigrant migration from Poland. I gaze too at the fine porcelain tableware, wishing I had investigated the stories the plates must withhold, although remembering my mother had related: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon or dish – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there , until she had put aside enough dollars to complete a full set.No wonder that even at 90 my mother precariously stoops to pick up a penny!

I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of deserts, some strange detail that I imparted such as my grandmother’s delicious dun- coloured handmade wine from purple plums, or the reminisces of rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet?

This year, the first ever, my family from Philadelphia will arrive for the family dinner completing the circle . How excited am I ,covering their beds with toys and new clothes.Usually we fill that absence at Thanksgiving at there house, but it happiness of happiness, joy of joys, on Sunday night -in person – they will be here, participating in traditions that are saturated with love: from the planning of foods to the folding of napkins to covering the them” with uninvited hugs and sloppy kisses, steeping them in Rosh Hashannah adoration.

The traditions etched in my mind and body have indeed shaped me as a person, a Jewish person acculturated by my laxity of making the traditions fit my life, weighing the precepts of giving anonymously, living a honest life, not fasting when sick, sadacka, for example, scoffing at burying dishes in the earth, or not eating shrimp, etc: the strange bits I discover when reading the translation of Torah portions written in another age…

Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to belong to a religious ritual- even briefly -that is initiated by an old and sacred story, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most significant and meaningful in my life, that “time out of time”: as T.S. Eliot might conjecture, ” the still point of the turning wheel”. The family at the core of one’s life, the family that even when we’re gone will continue to interrupt the stream of their lives to sit down at dusk to reinvent and participate in a that yearly event that reaffirms difference but continuity in Jewish lives.

The State of the Union and other stories

Years ago Jerry Lewis used to host the Muscular Dystrophy Telethonon labour day weekend. Stars, celebrities ,sports people, big contributors would make their pleas to the audience, and we would be tied to our screens for hours on end. For some reason that weekend was almost always a rainy one so there was little to do but watch.

My father was taciturn and not given to outbursts , his strong opinions easily read in his handsome face. Yet inevitably ,he reacted to the telethon almost spitting out his contempt, for he despised the segments, the heart wrenching vignettes of children twisted and wasted by the disease. Not particularly sensitive, yet he was infuriated by the use of children to tug at viewers’ heart strings. He felt it was cheap and ignoble to use the frailty of others to raise money- no matter the cause; the end, in this case, not ever justifying the means. And sadly after so many years, still no cure.

I recalled my father’s revulsion at the exploitation of children watching The State of the Union last night as the stories of unfortunates, from welders to policemen to the parents of servicemen were commandeered for Trump’s political edification of self. Now more than ever is the age of individuals and their narratives, a way to open out the inner workings of persons who are different or special. People/ viewers/ readers are more tuned into first person revelations, considering experience almost as valuable as fact for research or decision- making: at least there is an acceptance, particularly in journals that these accounts can provide validity and credibility.

And truthfully The State of the Union, made for a good “ show” , a way to connect with the hearts and minds of an audience, for this person called president. Mindful of my father’s reaction and my own sensibilities to difficult passages in a life, I felt it embarrassing and demeaning to watch someone paraded out for reasons that did not know involve the person themselves. During this scripted for television affront, a small baby, the child of a drug addict presumably, conveniently named “Hope” was abruptly woken from her sleep, her cover pulled down to expose her as artifact, to thunderous clapping. She screamed, rudely brought out from the security of her mother’s chest ( who did look uncomfortable) used for unsanctimonious purposes: votes, popularity, the edification of the demigod.

In Hebrew school or history classes where the horrors of the past were included in the curriculum, we could turn our eyes away from the human skeletons, the naked starving children running from the hideous intrusion of napalm, the huddled, the dead laid out prone and butchered in fields and in the streets, the starved, the slaughtered…; however, we were being educated into the evils of the world, that never again would or should we have to confront the terrors and stupidity of the past, the wars; and the photos were burned into our consciousness. These to which I refer were photos and movies, and often ,too, in forums survivors of holocaust and genocide, although objectified in the former, did speak for themselves in the later, the stories from their own lips, relating the atrocities of their own lives. They sat with their audiences or if they stood before them, they, the subject or focus of their own stories, not a sideshow for the gratification of another- but last night, the false self congratulatory moves of a person who cares more for gilt than race, colour, infirmity or need, yet attempting to pose as empathetic, a caring human,( in between clapping for himself), using the pain of others for himself.

Of course, these “ special guests” last night were not forced to appear, to stand, to wave, to have their stories shared. Note, however: they did not tell the tales in their own way, in their own time, they allowed Trump’s speechwriters to frame their pain, their endurance, their American triumphs for his purposes. Most held back tears as they waved or involuntarily, a tear escaping from a tightly clenched smile. And perhaps most ironically with my mind returning to the scenes of the devastated in WWII, was it to watch the young North Korean man, his eyes overflowing, brandish his wooden crutches. And I pondered that these crutches are like a red flag, a provocation to another crazy dictator, igniting another reason to let flourish nuclear genocide on the world, causing the death, destruction, the need for more crutches for more amputees among fields of the tortured and dead. Such a circus, such a ridiculous game, such a cruel terrible provocation by a stupid stupid man- who will be locked safe in his golden cage as the bombs fall and destroy, lauding the need for smaller weapons of destruction. A utopian dream, he falsely dismisses.

Not surprising that most events today are showcases, the CNNs of catastrophe of the week- from the Las Vegas shooting to Hurricane Harvey: opportunities for hyperbole and the manipulation of human tragedy for money and political obfuscation. The human stories are in deed human, but just as Facebook makes every personal detail public so too the boundaries are crossed, putting out there to the millions who gawk and could care less the private stories of people who have suffered. Unlike Metoo, where the voices of all sing together, in protest to end human tragedies, what we witnessed last night, was used to fan the flames of an egomaniac who cannot be trusted to keep the world safe. These narratives were mere chess positions appropriated for the biggest and most terrible show on earth.

I believe in stories. I believe in people telling their own truths. I believe in the multiplicity and authenticity of voices that can rock the world, not their usage for a showmanship’s ulterior motives: one of destruction that although inspiring the façade of hope, momentarily and superficially, is beneath the surface, a tottering rotten platform for manipulation.

Here I Am :Jews in America

Books that have Jewish connections have always appealed to me. As early as kindergarten and only subliminally aware what being Jewish even meant through family dinners and Sunday school, I was drawn to stories that featured families that somehow conveyed to my developing brain that there was a connection, something “yiddishkeit.” Early walks with my mother to the library resulted in finding scary tales of the holocaust and children who were abandoned or hidden. Soon followed Anne Frank and her bravery. Eventually Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Elie Weisel and Philip Roth, among many others were my predilection for gleaning the face of Jews of the diaspora, these authors American who had lived knowledge of the “Der goldene medina”–the land of gold.”

Canadian versions of immigration from my parents’ quiet talk concerned a subtle anti-Semitism with shocking references to “ dirty Jews”, number restrictions in the professions and an alignment with any who had broken through the Jewish barrier to be acknowledged without any slur to their religion. Forest Hill-where I attended school although our store was perched at the farthest edge of the public boundary- celebrated more Jewish holidays than I knew existed and the population was almost 100% Jewish. So in spite of the wealth and airs of the country club kids and their summer camps, there was a safety in numbers and a push towards the student body making their mark in the world and not being defined by religion.

For whatever reason, Roth spoke to me of a contemporary American (and Canadian ) experience relatable to my personally alienated condition of life. Goodbye Columbus presented the misfit, the worries, the search for the American dream, all part of my own growing up and awkwardness. My Jewishness was not overt, but it was there. Brought up with traditions that forbade mixing milk and meat, eating pork, being a mensch, giving anonymously and feeling insecure, particularly about my curly hair, along with a need to know who might hide me should another pogrom or holocaust erupt, Roth’s scenes felt familiar. So throughout my life, I followed Roth, sometimes growing away from his exaggerations and hyperboles, but occasionally embracing them. In deed, much much later, I was caught breathless when he published American Pastoral, now a film I refuse to see- lest it dislodge the strong images he has engrained with words in my imagination. What shook me in American Pastoral was his depiction and the demise of The American Dream. If The Great Gatsby was the apostasy of the dream, American Pastoral was the crushing ruin of broken America in pieces, perhaps our own contemporary reality of the ruination of unattainable dreams, racism, and discrimination. In shock at the dissolution of the family and by extension America, I grieved for the loss.

Jonathan Foer is a worthy successor to Roth. His most recent book Here I Am is much like the proverbial stone that ripples outward and poses so many essential questions, wherein personal crisis stands in for the public one. Jacob Bloch, the protagonist is first an everyman representative of the metrosexual who is a sensitive, loving, a hard working screenwriter. He too is a Jew, a Jew in America whose Jewishness is as familiar to me as is his privilege in society, his wisecracking irreverent humour ( he wonders if the Germans will run out of “ guilt and lampshades”), his listening to NPR podcasts, his support of civil libertarianism, his Vitamix, his Ball & Farrow paint, his upscale home in Washington, D.C. There he espouses the markers of Jewish life: bar mitzvahs, the two days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at synagogue, family suppers celebrating minor holidays, a certain lapsing devotion to one’s parents, kvetching, questioning, sarcasm, and a loose relationship with Biblical stories from Hebrew school. He is a familiar face of a certain kind of non-observant Jew still governed by the tales and traditions of his faith.

Somewhere between the holocaust and the creation of Israel as the safehaven for the Jewish outcast and the wandering American Jew stands this story, the novel caught between a sadness for the relatives one can never know and Israel the tenuous land where one will never live. Foer’s ripples extend from Jacob’s progenitors to his sons and then on to his cousin Tamir, a sabra who lives in Israel.

What does the Jew in America look like? He is indistinguishable from anyone else. He eats bacon and shrimp, protests unjust causes, cares deeply for his children, is careless about his email, ponders putting down his dog, and worries a lot. But because his heritage is Jewish and Foer the writer is too, there is an embediness of Jewish schtick, the Woody Allen angst in much Jacob does. He is a likeable man in spite of his technological sloppiness and his self awareness that makes him try over and over again: to get it right. Much like Sisyphus, he rolls the stone up the hill, only to be dragged back down to the bottom of the heap. He confronts his fears, as early as the night before his own bar mitzvah, jumping into the lion’s den at the zoo like the Biblical Daniel, the intensity of the moment surpassing almost all others. Yet he laments to Tamir, regretfully,“ I am smaller than life.”

He wants to believe that his son Sam has not written inflammatory words in Hebrew school and champions him. He engages in truthful conversations with his other sons, attempting not to scare or scar them. With Julia, his estranged wife, he practices how to explain the marriage separation to the boys. Unable to fulfill Isaac’s, his great grandfather’s, last wish to be buried in Israel, Jacob sits beside the corpse for days, a responsibility usually fulfilled by Jewish others at the funeral home. He assumes the burden of putting down Argus, rubbing the animal’s stomach to ease him to sleep. And because Foer adores lists, when Jacob tells the reader about the times he will not forget, the last “times” the tiny details of our lives are noted, they resonate with our experiences, particularly with our children as babies, toddlers, and adolescents: the last bath, the last bedtime, the last bedtime story, the last whiff of an infant’s head.

But this is more than just a story about Jacob as it moves outward into America and gives us Israel. Like Roth, who teaches interesting information in American Pastoral such as how to make a glove in his factory in Newark, New Jersey, so Jacob a student of language also tutors us. He tells us that a group of swans are a “lamentation”, hummingbirds a “glittering,” orioles a “radiance.” After all, he is a storywriter, but also an enquirer, curious and wanting to learn, even writing a novel based on his family.

The stories of Jews are here too. At Isaac’s funeral, the young rabbi in running shoes with laces undone, surprises Jacob with his insight and visits to his grandfather, his eulogy focused on the Bible: what did Moses do with the broken tables hurled down from the mountain when he saw the golden calf used for worship? Why did Pharaoh daughter spy Moses in the bullrushes? What is Jewish crying like?

We learn there are three ways to mourn: with tears, silence and song, each proper in its own time and place. The word Israel comes from the root “ to wrestle”, a theme that we attach to Jacob’s manner of dealing (or not) , and are reminded that Jacob’s name in the Bible was changed to Israel when he wrestled with the angle; and even in Max’s bar mitzvah speech, he reflects, “What we don’t wrestle we let go. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle”. The emphasis on words, writing, miscommunication, word games and the need to communicate paramount in this novel.

Later when the prime minister of Israel summons Jews from around the world back to the homeland, he picks up a shofar and blows. The Biblical story of Abraham having to choose between sparing his son or responding to G-d is the backdrop to this novel. When G-d calls out to Abraham, he answers, “I am here”: the same words that are the title of this book. Abraham willingness to sacrifice what is dearest to him is also recalled by Jacob’s admission that he has too much love for happiness, that his love overpowers being happy for his children. Cousin Tamir asks,” You find such complicated ways to say such simple things”, but life for Jacob is incredibly complicated. And there are so many questions that this novel does pose: do we maintain tradition just for the sake of it? Are words so much more powerful than deeds that they should destroy a marriage? What role does Israel actually play for the Jew of the diaspora? Is it neurotic to love one’s children so deeply? Which choices are the right ones…

The novel is a meditation of sorts on loving one’s children, and how we must let them go. Sam’s bar mitzvah speech works out a compromise as he explains that unlike Hamlet’s question, to be or not to be is NOT the question. The question is “to be” AND “not to be”. The carefully drawn children are believable as they disregard their parents, mock them, experiment and find themselves. Sam’s extensive explorations into masturbation with rice pudding, “alien green aloe vera” among other substances and his desire to construct ( and demolish) a synagogue through the machinations of his female alter ego avatar on the internet’s, Other World, are likely the stuff of adolescent boys, even recalling Roth’s Portnoy’s fantasies.

The seemingly calm Tamir, Jacob’s cousin is his foil. Hairier, less worried about social niceties, out right brash and concerned for the fulfillment of the present, especially Israel, Tamir puts his own life on the line in the fight to save his country as does his son Noam. Tamir and Jacob, along with Sam and Noam, are two sides of the same Jewish coin, the one who stays; the one who goes, repeating their fathers’ and grandfathers’ legacies. In spite of the macro-conflict occurring in his life, Tamir patiently and kindly listens to Jacob’s micro-conflict with his wife, the destruction of the family paralleling the bombardment of Israel by a united Arab front when an earthquake happens there to destabilize the country.

Alex Clark in The Guardian speaks to “ the fetishizing their inner lives… that flirts with taboo and exposure.” In this way and others, I think of Jonathan Franzen’s books, most recently Purity in a desire to connect with one’s family, the intrusion of technology, casual relationships, over indulgences in today’s world, and an over-engagement in meta analysis. At the start of Foer’s novel, Jacob and Julia play word and mind games, wanting to identify what is bigger on the onside than the outside. Likely it is this over thinking, the abundances of thinking about too many choices and their consequences that leads them into the dark night of separation: regretfully, this is our society today, one that lauds multitasking and unriddling riddles, with a backdrop of oldsters, the baby boomers, wishing for a simpler time: when kids could cross the street and not worry about the pedophile or car rage- or the absolute best face cream or nursery schools for their kid.

Foer’s novel has been criticized but also praised, and by non-Jewish critics as well. It touches a deep chord on more than one occasion, promulgating the “ what ifs” and causing the reader to reread or lay the book down and actually think about something that Foer has thrown into the “eruv”, what he describes as a space in Hebrew as cordoned off, differentiated from the public into private. I like how Foer teaches me stuff, even Bible stuff. He’s not a self-hating Jew, or a particularly Jewish Jew. He’s an American with Jewish problems. He is a representative protagonist in American literature who deserves more than a glance, Jew or not.






I think California is in my blood, as my family, certainly not during The Gold Rush but sometime later sought a better and warmer life in California. My father’s aunties – Dora and Annie arrived and settled in Los Angeles. They had their children, Annette, Julius and Frances who married, had children and grandchildren in that state. And cousin Harry Geller from New York moved there too, somehow involved in the music business with a record or two under his belt. When we visited to celebrate one of my sister’s birthdays, Harry’s son in a station wagon drove us through the Hollywood hills and we felt very special.
I have no family tree so there is a tangle of branches, one that also involves an Uncle Joe, my grandmother Molly’s brother I think. He died penniless in Miami. He was, so the family gossip goes, a lover of show girls, a gambler, a “ good guy”: his profession an auctioneer, flitting all over the country. The first time my family visited LA, he must have been working Las Vegas and visiting his sisters in LA because he took us to a posh restaurant called Sportsmanship’s Lodge where we caught our fish for dinner. At least surprisingly, I did. He gifted my sister and me with silver pearl necklaces which I still keep in one of my jewelry drawers. So impressed was I by this handsome renegade that I wrote him a poem. I recall he seemed touched. He seemed dashing and cool, tipping everyone and gliding through that luxurious restaurant. To a young girl, he was the embodiment of suave and charming, a Jewish Clark Gabel or Harrison Ford, a guy with panache.
LA was a merry- go- round of novel experiences and sensations when I was barely eight years old: colourful family barbecues, mini amusement parks, sparkle, fun and sun. While I was struck by the lure of an endless summer, my father struggled with the dense and poisonous air that clogged the skies and so he returned home early as the smog caused him tremendous breathing difficulties, but my mother, sister and I stayed on: to be charmed and dined by the mishpocha in this place of low houses and incredible vistas.

This was my first taste of a life style that was relaxed and welcoming. Farmer’s Market with its fruits, vegetables and Mexican crafts, Disneyland with all its incredible lands that spread for acres. We panned for gold at Knoxberry Farm and we were loved and catered to by our glamourous peddlepusher clad family, frolicking in their crystal pools that glistened in the never ending sun. My first bite of the magic apple entreated me for more.

Later when I had completed Grade 10, I was allowed to travel by train, sitting up, for three days and nights -all by myself, even having to change trains in Chicago- to visit my mother’s sister’s family who also had recently relocated to LA. I chortle now for I would not have allowed my fifteen year old daughters to set off by themselves, but I do recall low voices arguing at night between my parents before that summer trip, but my mother surmising that my grandparents would be there later in the summer to supervise. Ha! Only then did my father finally succumb to our consolidated nonstop pleadings.
That summer was a whirlwind where I learned parents existed as only landscape, that teenagers moved in packs, rose before the sun or stayed out all night, apparently hunting grunions, that girls did not wear girdles, that they knew how to apply eyeliner and the only way to get to the beach was on the back of a motorcycle. It was froth for me that summer. I felt I belonged, that I had friends and I was liked not for what I did, how much money my parents had, what synagogue or country club I belonged to (NOT), how I looked, or what I had accomplished in school, but for me: whoever that might be and was evolving.
When the summer was over and the grandparents much more solicitous that summer of my aunt than myself, drove me to the train station, I wept copiously and clung to my cousins who had provided me deep insight into how adolescents should live, and the true meaning of freedom. My grandfather in amazement remarked he had only seen such grievous parting when families were torn apart in Europe to avoid the holocaust.
For me the sweetness of those days, of belonging to a roving herd of happy accepting kids contrasted markedly to the snobs at my school who had demarcated the lines that separated cool rich people like them with unkempt, socially awkward skrags such as myself. Even when I began my life back at home, my few friends disparaged of the language I had acquired during my summer sojourn. Into my sentences, I casually dropped such exclamations as ”bitchen” or “boss” as my Californian friends had as they lazily tanned and hung around Hermosa Beach or by the surfside of warming fires at night. In spite of the looks and raised eyebrows in Grade 11, I felt lighter, happier for my summer experiences.
I would return to California every few years, as my cousins inviting me, wanting to be part of their gang who partied, ate new and different foods and relaxed on the beach for hours. I even met my first real boyfriend there. I certainly learned how to tame my curly hair and rid myself of split ends.
Still, there was a shadow of disbelief regarding this lotus land, in stories passed down. For once my father’s grandparents had also packed up, intending to cast their lot with Dora and Annie in the Golden City. The story I heard was that polio had begun its devastation there and my grandmother fearful that her chubby children, but especially her beloved Solly might succumb, prevailed on my grandfather to return to Toronto.
She must have been terrified as I had heard that my stern and haughty grandfather who spent every Friday with his family ,berating my grandmother and accusing her of wasting their hard earned cash on new fangled and modern appliances such as washing machines, actually prevailed and they came back here. Life was hard and both grandparents labored for Tiptop Tailors, artisans, and perfectionists both. Ironically my father succumbed to polio when he was 29, I wondering if he had stayed on in Lala land, would he have escaped the cumbersome braces and necessary crutches and lead another life, free to walk holding his grandchildren? Would his attitude towards me differed?
My aunt Marion, born Minnie, hated her father’s father who was blind. According to her and her sister Goldi, it was rumoured he groped the granddaughters. My grandparent’s courtship that had begun with his gift of extravagant hats devolved into my grandfather tearing them to ribbons before my grandmother’s eyes. As well, my father would retell bitterly, his father hid chocolate medallions that the children loved, rarely sharing them. My father vowed never to argue about money as his parents had. So no matter how small his income, he never fought over finances with my mother, leaving her to figure out how to stretch the small amounts he earned from his passion: the perfection of sound from his investigations with condensers, tubes, circuitry that covered all of our cake boxes en route to creating the perfection of music and sound. When I think of my father, I see him, sitting at his worktable, focused inward, still, and listening to some sound he is coaxing from a piece of equipment, centred, unmoving, fixed in his investigation and pursuit of musical excellence.
Although our family did not derive much from his work, we always had the best of food and that was sufficient. Several times a year we would drive to Buffalo and purchase our clothes, or search the sales in Toronto. As a girl, my profound embarrassment involved standing at the corner bus stop of Eglinton and Bathurst with shopping bags that I implored my mother to turn inside out, bags that hid underware purchased from Honest Ed’s. I, fearful that some deb from school might see me and laugh at another transgression.
So my father’s parents had returned home to the drudgery of the sewing machines at Tiptop Tailors. I don’t think they ever forgave one another, only adding fuel to their fire. I recall the Saturdays that they visited. As the sun was setting, they came to the back of our store and into our living room behind the door, sinking deeply into the deep pink chairs in the corners of the room.
I think my grandmother’s face lit up when she saw my father. My poor mother always with the burden of cooking, running up and downstairs, ironing, cooking, making life seem as normal as possible, even interrupted should she try and bake a cake because customers had come into the store. When the grandparents approached every Saturday, she was always ready with supper, barely able to conceal her week’s exhaustion on her thin body, often lamenting why Saturday for those suppers?
Nights were the worst for her as she feared my father on a service calls to install hi fis or fix television sets might slip and fall in the snow, and how would he lift his braces-enveloped body from the ice and mounds of snow. I remember her sitting hunched on a couch, her eyes far away in worry. Only on Tuesday evening would the limping hunched Mrs. Ward appear to babysit us so my parents could go to a show.
So many years later, the call of California in my ears, with my own young family, we explored the coast line, delirious in Napa’s wine country, haunted by San Simeon’s Hearst castle, driving along Big Sur even in the foggy mornings to that miraculous zoo in San Diego where my parents had taken me long ago.
California holds for me so many memories at pivotal moments in me life, moments that buoyed me up, and floated me away from my ordinary self back home. Not surprisingly I continue to return, seeking the sun and friendship I experienced so long ago.


The American Landscape and Canada

I have often stated that I want- at this point- in my life beautiful. San Diego is that. However, arriving in LA for an event, I am confronted with everything I dislike about America. The buildings resemble 14th Century Gothic churches that eventually collapsed because of the competitive desire of the builders to touch the sky,pushing them higher and higher. Hotels here not content to be solo versions of rest and repose combine as the JW Marriott and Ritzcarlton have done here: the second a looming appendage to the first. The Weston sprawls for an entire block. Even restaurants are overly encroaching octopi, presiding over almost entire blocks.

The resurrection of Downtown LA reminds me that in spite of the line of overly heaped bundle buggies toppled here and there that the U.S. desires to be the biggest, and most imposing, stretching upwards to the stars and sideways wide to encompass numerous freeways and acreage. How appropriately had Betsy Ross envisioned their flag in 1776 to have created the symbol that flutters in the breeze!

As a girl in the 60’s who came to LA to visit her cool cousins, I had no sense of America’s expansionism- even though our history classes focused on the Monroe Doctrine or the Manifest Destiny or the Purchase of Louisiana. My cousins’ friends asked if I drove a dogsled to school and if l occupied a teepee. I merely giggled and guffawed at their lack of knowledge of Canadian history. I devoured my first big Mac in California and luxuriated in being away from home, alone, for the first time. I sped through traffic on the back of a motorcycle en route to beaches named Hermosa, lazing all day in the scorching sun. I was driven about in cars, even rising before my aunt and uncle, to trudge up some hill to watch the sun glisten through the smog.

Back then I cared little for politics ( although I still maintain that the play in politics is about power only using the issues as excuses for self-aggrandizement, cynic I may be ). If I was considered an oddity as a homegrown product of Canada as a visitor to the US back then, so be it. It played smally into my hedonistic teenage romp. Only later, did I realize that love for Canada is in deed bred in the bone. Much much later, when I noted that turning on a tap in a faraway place yielded beautiful drinkable water did I pause to consider that Canada was truly spectacular in many ways. And its vistas humbling.

Just last weeks at a Blue Jay game, I watched as a family struggled to contain a large man in a wheel chair. It was obvious that he was impaired, likely from a debilitating disease that had robbed him from not just standing unaided, but even keeping his head from bobbing this way and that, his glasses attached by a thick elastic to the back of his head. When our National Anthem played, he immediately leapt from his seat, terrifying his family that in his attempt to “stand on guard for thee” he might just topple over the glass barrier. How deeply does our passion for our country reach- and even when we cannot control our limbs, that we somehow jump to attention to demonstrate our feeling for this country.

Canada is my home. I applauded John Chretien’s refusal to align itself with the US, demanding real proof that were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . We stood alone. Our health care system demonized by US is still a thing of beauty, equalizing both rich and poor. We like to pride ourselves on being different from the Americans, that we hold different values. Sadly, however and over the ages, we too have looked the other way, on issues of immigration our statesmen touting none is too many or some such nonsense to crises of real life and death matters, opening and closing borders, separating serious practical concerns from theoretical ones. And in terms of our environment, while 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment, we have not enshrined it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, demurring that the price of enforcing it would bankrupt us.

Yet, we accepted same sex marriages, allowed women and their doctors to determine necessary abortions, promoted cannabis for the very ill, and are working towards operationalizing euthanasia. I reflect that no country is perfect and we ride on a tide of politicians who drive our boat into uncharted or fearful waters.

Yet here back in LA, it is the display of these ridiculously high and monstrously wide buildings that flash silver and reflect the sun right into my eyes that gives me cause for complaint. At the same time, I love the new Disney concert hall designed by our own Canadian Frank Gehry with its unbelievable shapes and curve. Just today I read that his fascination of the curvilinear was likely engendered by the fish kept alive by his grandmother for their Sabbath dinner. In Toronto.

I laud the Getty museum with its staggering art collection as a tribute to the good of some Americans. Yet I am uncomfortable with the showiness, the lack of humility and the bravado of the Towers of Babel that symbolize the presence, the riches of a country where at the bases of these edifices homeless people sleep in their dank hoodies curled like the tendrils of ferns. In my head is the ignorance of a Donald Trump insulting, bold, brash and so embarrassing allowed to compete for the highest position in the land. And the right to bear guns, well, that is an unbearable story.

It all confuses me: the display of power, who grabs more, who displays better?.

Later as we anticipated the event for which we had come to LA, I admired the dashing hubub of people in tuxes and black lace. We were beginning to worry we would not arrive on time at the Biltmore, lusciously tiled and gilted as the first home to the Oscars. My husband suggested we call Uber and before we knew it, a grey car burst through the entwined mess of traffic permanently stalled in the driveway of the Marriott. The driver who was cordial and accommodating managed to detangle his car and we were off for the short blocks that separated us from the celebration.

Chatting about the rise of Uber, our driver, a dark and handsome young man explained he worked for Uber only part time because he was studying to improve his speech which was very good I, a former English teacher, thought. Carefully and haltingly he responded to our questions, revealing he had no family in LA, that he had come from Syria only on year ago. Reluctant when we continued to question, he said only his flight from his home could be a book: he had swam from Turkey to Greece and the United Nations had allowed him to stay.

Always wanting to accept and believe, but sure there is a story behind the tantalizing tidbit, we respected his privacy and did not press. He was grateful to be in the country, hoping once his English had improved to follow his dream- of all things- into marketing. This revelation drew me back to a night at the Saigon hotel at the Rooftop Bar overlooking Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture where I considered the irony of a disastrous war fought for values that were in not in sync with the economy or desires of people.

I’m not sure of how to think about Syria. I want it black and white and people allowed to live and thrive in democracies so their lives are about good choices. I pondered how this Uber driver had afforded his car which he proudly proclaimed he owned. I wondered if he would meet some sympathetic beautiful Valley girl who would support his American Dream.

My thoughts on America are always tied to the Gatsby story and the image of the green light bouncing off the water. As well I carry with me Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with scenes of rotten decay that twisted the dream. Yet here in the flesh was not just a dreamer but a young man who through dint of determination was wrestling a new future for himself, fulfilling the dream.

Of course I cannot say to what lengths he had gone : had he bribed? lied? Or merely kissed his parents goodbye as they urged him to leave in the dead of the night? My imagination emboldened by my knowledge of the Holocaust and the fiction of heroic movies set my mind racing. Yet in the front seat, neat and quiet spoken was a person who like Tennyson’s Ulysses had striven…not to fail.


Almost a year later, the newspapers present us with the child washed ashore, an unsuccessful attempt for him and his family to achieve a safe harbor, his dreams dashed, and Canada at a pivotal point .

Pondering how far is the distance between connotation and denotation and confusing and conflating much else in between

The latest thing 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 like words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to lose 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, even twisting original notions into strange knots.

When we worked at the College, Fred M (and he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases no longer purveyed 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, what was anticipated , or morphed from the intended term.

One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a bad thing in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and to 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. No one would want to be called a “collaborator”!

So now I ponder what it is that “gratitude” actually means and how we have spun it into another realm of meaning. My Pilates instructor initiated her blog writing on the topic of gratitude 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. For example, 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. And I wondered is that gratitude or coincidence or a flick of fate?

I could offer a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-creating an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece 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 treasured 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? Was I filled with gratitude for this sighting?

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. Likely it is certain words that trigger our exploration and signify signposts around which we decide to allot meaning to certain events. To this I gloomily query, then we have no free will as our journeys then 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 those three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, perhaps! Stuck in the factory of beginning and ending the lives of just so many people as throw away garments.

All words- as we were taught in school- have both connotation and denotation, as we pad them out with our own interpretations and conjecture, layering and bundling them with more than the dictionary assigned, conflating “gratitude” with something else deeper and more mysterious. More likely, this is the work of imagination or faith or belief, for should we strip all words of their associations, we would inhabit a life of bare bones without colour or possibility. However, if we cannot trust what a word really means, are we able to communicate at all?

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage I structured my classes with different ideas of the Beginning, referring to male and female origins as adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting theories, 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 sought to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales that almost call for paradoxical interpretations as an invitation to debate and conceptualization. But I also think in terms of embroidering a term, blowing it up like a balloon, stretching it beyond the literal, and losing sight of the triggering denotation.

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 because we cannot live with utter simplicity.Play with your words; re-invent them; however, if we cannot agree on their meaning, we have returned to Babel: confused illiterates who cannot get the meaning of worlds because we all speak different languages and so we wander in our own small worlds.

I am not completely 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 and language. Maybe we veer here towards the Mystics as 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. But how far have we come when a “collaborator” is the aim of our education?

But what would life be without metaphor? 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 ponder too the Romantic poets and their landscapes in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Wordsworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism. Symbolism and mythology are, as it were, the language of the poet: Wordsworth staunchly trusting 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.( See The 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 enables them to light their works towards another level of existence: that happily disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution. Even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky, an inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society. But the populace on Facebook, plagued as well by all the burdens of everyday existence appears in their posts far from poets in using language.OMG!

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 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).

With ONLY “infinity” and “eternity” open for diverse interpretation.LOL!

Where is home and how do we get there?

Like one million others last year, my daughter who lives in Pennsylvania had been without heat and power for three or more days. It’s no joke with a seven month baby.

Unable to locate a hotel room, her small family moved in with an aunt and uncle, taking over their daughter’s room. My daughter felt badly putting cousin Catharine out of her bed so they moved on, seeking another place to stay. Fortunately their wonderful babysitter offered refuge to not only my daughter’s family but also to their pets.

As disruption continued on, my girl wrote,” I had a sad realization last night that I don’t know where home is anymore—our house didn’t feel like it. Home in Toronto isn’t the same anymore…I just felt so lonely and sad—despite the fact that there are so many people who have reached out to care for us…”

This put me in mind of a question that focuses the writer’s, J.M. Coetzee’s work,

Where is home? And how do you get there?

I responded to my daughter that home is not a place, but a feeling where one knows security and love, yet I am aware that is only partly true for a house houses the minutiae that are associated with memories of who we are, where we have been and where we might go. It is a tangible extension of ourselves. And for me, connotes Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on why we are unable to toss the old toys and items we grew up with when we were mere tots: having a relationship with those items provides a snapshot of ourselves- that we have a particular history- at a variety of stages in our own lives.

When I look around my own living room, I see the numerous photos that line the walls: of children and grandchildren at various points in their lives. I see objects such as a beaded horse brought back from Botswana; and the painting of purple and orange rocks and three blown pine trees that Howard commissioned for my 60th birthday. My eyes linger on us in wet suits just before we plunged into the waters of The Great Barrier Reef. I notice a smiling group of my children as young adults, smartly dressed with me at the center. I reflect on the pink walls of that room that were thought so bold but, so beautiful, and I recall that the seemingly impossible hotness of colour cured down.

I focus on our little grey nook in the kitchen with the huge uncovered windows where I sit and paint and write. My son-in-law admonishes me to cover them because we roast in the summer. I give a nod to the tiny red leatherette nook in my first childhood home when I was a curly headed child on Glengarry and imagine that the two nooks are linked to positive feelings of food and family.

I note the brown carpeted steps that connect up and downstairs in our home where children and grandchildren bounced off their bums before cautiously learning to navigate the small drops and eventually proclaim “I did it.” To our applause, of course.

A place becomes imbued with so much. And being removed from it is hard.

There is that famous question: if you had to leave your house immediately, what would you take with you? This was the fate of so many people during the holocaust. And what would YOU grab in your panic, your head spinning? Likely you might frantically locate something warm like a sweater or a coat; maybe money with which to barter, and for sure, a ring or photos of your loved ones. Book after book reminds us of the worn images tucked into a tattered shoe or secreted in a body fold that enabled a survivor to make it through dark passages and hopeless days.

Homes for writers, perhaps are a means to discover a sense of where their characters fit, where they can slump comfortably and rest and cease from their journeys or quests. The outward appearance and colours of a bedroom might suggest the inner sanctum or perpetual turmoil of their protagonists. A context substantiates clues of personality badly obfuscated.

The expression by Thomas Wolf, you can never go home again, is apt because everything changes. Although we might wish for the constants of a mother’s loving cuddle or joyous whoop of a dog as we enter through a door, these are only bits savoured and pasted into our hearts, fragments from a time before, that we may have idealized and cemented into our mind’s record book. The notion of home cannot be recaptured- only in memory can “home” remain fixed, and, thus, fantastical.

Yet, the thoughts and familiar objects we associate with home likely persist as signposts to feelings of acceptance and love, or ones we associate with belonging.

Today as I edit and rewrite this, the newspaper recounts stories of Nepal’s shattered lives due to earthquake and World Vision implores us to help; and Baltimore’s unrest shouts of unfathomable destruction and unrest in secure harbours where people can no longer return, meager habitations dashed where once they fragilely ensured respites from the day’s pains.

In our deepest and darkest of hearts, we carry the first nomads with us, the hunters and gatherers who searched for protection and safety from the elements, and our being homeless enjoins us with our primordial ancestors who knew the bitter cold, the need for fire and friendship to survive. We are terrified to encounter face to face our restless roots, fearing a return to that state of peril.

More than that, for us, there is a baby unsettled by missing the rituals of a morning schedule and his cosy crib and Dano, the massive dog, licking the baby’s chubby limbs. Yet with his mother, my daughter and his father, he must intuit the security that he is cherished, protected, held and loved in the most of unstable circumstances.

Where Home Is

Like one million others( last winter), my daughter who lives in Pennsylvania has been without heat and power for three or more days. It’s no joke with a seven month old baby. Unable to get a hotel room, her small family moved in with an aunt and uncle, taking over the daughter’s room. My daughter felt badly banishing Katharine from her bed so they moved on, searching for another place to relocate. Fortunately their wonderful babysitter offered refuge to not only my daughter but also to her pets which include several dogs and cats. As the disruption of their life continued, my girl wrote, “I had a sad realization last night that I don’t know where home is anymore—our house didn’t feel like it. Home in Toronto isn’t the same anymore…I just felt so lonely and sad—despite the fact that there are so many people who have reached out to care for us.”

This put me in mind of the question that drives much of J.M. Coetzee’s work,
Where is home? And how do we get there?

I responded to my daughter that home is not a place but a feeling where one perceives they are secure and loved, yet I knew that is only partly true, for a house is filled with things that we associate with memories of who we are, where we have been and where we might go. It is an extension of our inner selves.

When I look around my living room, I view the numerous photos that line the walls; of children and grandchildren at various points in their lives. I observe objects such as a colourful beaded horse brought back from Botswana, and the incredible vibrant painting of purple and orange rocks and three blown pine trees from Canada’s North that Howard commissioned for my 60th birthday. I reflect on the pink walls of that room that are so bold but, to me, so beautiful and remember how the colour cured down after we first bought the house. I think of our little nook in the kitchen with the huge uncovered windows where I sit and paint and write and read. I note the steps upstairs where children and grandchildren carefully learned to scramble, navigating and eventually proclaiming in triumph, “I did it.” Rooms and furniture become imbued with so much more; and they carry tales. Being physically removed is hard, especially when you have not chosen to leave the premises. I can certainly empathize with my daughter’s discomfort of having to depart her home.

I used to quote, making it a mantra that always invoked from my kids, “ Yes, we KNOW, Mom!” whenever we pulled into our driveway,“ Home is the place when you have to go there/, They have to take in (Robert Frost, The Death of The Hired Man). Back when I was in Grade 13, several millenniums ago we sat “provincial exams” and this poem was required text for the literature part of the English exam, but even then, the concept of home had been seared in my mind.

There is that famous question: if you had to abandon your house immediately, what would you take with you? Of course, this was the fate of the people during the holocaust.

And what would you take?

Likely you might grab something warm like a sweater or a coat, maybe a necklace or money to barter with, and -for sure- photos of your loved ones. Book after book reminds us of a worn image stashed in a shoe or a pocket covetously sewn into a garment overlooked by harsh authorities, a photo that somehow made it through dark passages and hopeless days.

I think too of the cookbooks scrabbled on bits of paper in concentration camps so that the inmates might reimagine the warming smells of challa baking or a fragrant roast, recalling home when the family once greeted Shabbos by candlelight, warm, safe, sated by love. Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin is one such book that describes how a remembered kitchen and kuchen prolonged survival.

For writers, maybe there is a sense of discovering where the fit is right for their protagonists, where they can slump comfortably and rest and cease their journeys or quests. The expression by Thomas Wolf, “you can never go home again,” is apt because everything changes so that the notion of home cannot be recaptured. It is Heraclitus’s famous saying, you can never step into the same river twice idea, for it is never the same: one moment tossing up sticks and leaves; the next calm and clear, your toes splashed or caressed.

Only in memory can “home” remain fixed, and, thus, fantastical. Yet, the thoughts and familiar objects we associate with home persist as signposts of acceptance and love, or ones that we associate with home. Being forced to leave one’s home is a brutal shock that causes one to experience feelings of being uprooted, unsettled and lost. I reflect always of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation in which the words gleaned in her new language do not connect with her childhood experienced in another. When her name is changed to make it “American”, Eva is displaced, unable to access her former self in even small scenarios: piano classes with a teacher who communicated with her in Polish words now rendered foreign and unreachable to her in the adopted country.

Even our one day pilgrimage to my son’s during the Christmas ice storm made me appreciate the warmth of my own bed once we were able to return for a cozy night’s sleep. Ahh, snuggling deep beneath accustomed sheets. Ummmm.

Maybe in our deepest of hearts we carry the first nomads with us, the hunters and gatherers who were searching for protection and safety from the elements. Being homeless recalls and enjoins us with our primordial ancestors who physically knew the bitter cold, the need for fire and friendship to survive. Yet at the same time, many of us long to travel, to leave home, to reach out, to explore, to encounter adventure, difference and diversity, to learn in foreign contexts –however, desirous of returning home to integrate that knowledge into the sanctity of our cherished abodes, dreaming perhaps of the excursions, but still hungry for more experiences. This is the archetypal journey described by literature. This rejoins us to our restless roots.

For my daughter, the exile from her home, there was a baby unsettled by missing the rituals of a beginning schedule and his cozy crib and Dano, the massive dog, licking his chubby body. Yet with the baby’s mother, my daughter, and his father, he must have intuited the security that he is treasured, held and cared for in the intensity of difficult situations. So home unembellished is a feeling, and a memory of being loved and cherished, rocked and resplendent in someone’s arms.

Maybe at the end of our days that is the home we will ultimately seek.

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