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Jewish voice

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

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

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

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

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

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Class Voices

I’m sitting in Paula Draper’s Ryerson course and usually I really don’t have much interest in listening to the voices of the other students after presentations as so often conjecture is boring and self-indulgent, but this is different today. Rather than their inward-looking ponderings, these are remembrances of lived experiences. The topic is Anti-Semitism in Canada between the wars. It appears the people in the class, largely Jewish, hail from Winnipeg, but some from Montreal. They are describing events that were motivated by antagonism towards Jews in years that are fogged with time. One man recalls a sign in a restaurant in St. Agathe that prohibited both dogs and Jews to the premise. I am reminded of Lita Rose Betcherman’s work on Centre Island here in Toronto, the same story with different words, echoing Goebbels films and slogans that Jews like vermin must be eradicated. And the book None is Too Many by Abella and Trooper, chronicling the refusal towards Jewish refuges to land on Canada’s shores during the 1930-40’s, most memorable the St. Louis, boat of desperation rejected by Cuba, then attempting sanctuary in Canada, but eventually forced to return to Europe with its human cargo destined for death.

In class, Draper has just mentioned McKenzie King’s personal attitude towards Jewish immigration; he even purchased land around his own home to avoid Jews from coming too personally close. Blair, his immigration minister openly rejected Corrine Wilson’s plea to allow 1000 Jewish families into Canada. He finally agrees to 100 orphans with only two actually permitted entry. Yet, Draper states that the newspaper was rift with Nazi barbarism and Jewish terror. Ironically Joseph Kennedy maintained he could trust Hitler; obviously Neville Chamberlain believed likewise.

In Canada again, I reflect on the exclusion of Jews from professions, quotas by universities such as McGill and U of T and shake my head. We have come a long way–maybe. Yet at my grandson’s school they have cancelled Multicultural Night where moms were to bring ethnic foods, a version of “Holidays and Heroes”: which even in my1996 thesis research I found to be stereotyping attempts at integrating diverse cultures. But I wonder why the reason for cancellation. Perhaps parents are too busy and cannot concoct delicatissies that reflect the origins of their families. Maybe there reasonably hides some latent resentment at being classified by food their grannies once prepared and are now too old to deliver to a night event at a nearby school. I know there is acceptance of all at this mid-Toronto school and do not for a second consider there is a link to discrimination or racism. My grandson studies Mandarin in a noontime program and the faces emerging from school at the end of the day provide wide evidence of Canada’s changed policies of immigration.

I  wonder what food would represent Jews from Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Lithuania. Bagels? Matzoh balls? Pierogi? Goulash? Strange for my grandsons whose first foods were edamame and pizza. They did not even taste fabled chicken soup until years later. I chuckle to consider that one grandchild’s favourite Saturday lunch at Pickle Barrel commences with chicken soup followed a hot plate of tomato and meatball spaghetti. He is not eating Ethnic. He is merely following the trajectory of his taste buds. Should we say he is combining the food predilections of several foreign countries, he might look quizzical and continue slurping his soup.

When my children were young, we were always expected at the Friday night supper at my parents. I recall my young son cease his eating to frown, look up at the assembled family and query, “ What if we are only a dream in G-d’s head?” Stunned by his utterance momentarily, my mother admonished, “ Just finish your soup”. And he returned to his bowl of hot chicken soup. Perhaps his philosophical questioning squashed forever!

We learned in school that Canada was a mosaic, tiny glittering squares, individual but separate,special and unique, showcasing the qualities of our immigrants, unlike the United States’ melting pot, the gooey non-descript sludge that results when all the ingredients become indistinct from too much chopping and cooking. I often thought of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Transition where upon entering kindergarten, her name was changed, anglicized to fit into a 1950’s world. From that point, she wrote that her early years growing up in Poland had become inaccessible to her because they had been lived in another language she was no longer permitted to speak in the land of milk and honey.

We here felt secure about our identity that looked to the past but was conjoined with the present to represent all of our realities, that mosaic thing, later to become the mantra of Post-modernism thought. But yesterday when the soldier guarding the war memorial on Parliament Hill was gunned down, I think everyone wondered. ( Remember I write my blogs to be edited much later) Of course anywhere where guns are available, there is no safety. Did the US smirk and think, you’re not so different Canada. Terrorists can also infiltrate your shores, blatantly walking into your home, spreading cloaks of evil and death. The National Post (November 7, 2014) wrote, “Was he ( the gunman) driven by mental illness and drugs? Was the attack a function of extreme religious beliefs, a reaction to the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham? Or was it a copycat crime possibly triggered by the killing of another Canadian soldier in Quebec two days earlier?”

I don’t know how to think about this horror. It is a wide leap to blame immigration, carding, identifying good people from bad. How do we know? Do we really want to try to read the faces of every person who jostles us on the street, scrutinizing by beards, sneers, limps, thick glasses, funny hats and outlandish clothes, or maybe the ones who look most normal like Paul Bernardo: wolves in sheep’s clothing. Ironically, the mother of the gunman (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau born in Canada in 1982), Susan Bibeau, worked as the deputy chairperson of the Immigration Committee at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Having just returned from visiting the 9/11 Museum in New York, and caught in the teeming continuous flow of people in the streets, I cannot know who possesses the madness to pull a trigger or grab my hand in friendship. How do we make judgments that will keep us safe in our home, in our country?

My Pilates instructor that morning suggested that watching the news of the gunman on the hill was like a film trailer of a new catastrophe films. When I worked at the College and rushed in to witness the Twin Towers pierced by the plane,s I thought the same: just rewind the tape and remove the catastrophe, I silently pleaded in my head.

This film’s events at Parliament hill shot by Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove were raw and brutal, revealing the bravery of the police/ RCMP that tailed the shooter, not hanging back. Maybe a bit like the Blair Witch documentary with the smudgy, dropped camera that tracks a murderer in small town America. Loose focus ,but mouth-dropping brave. And the story-our story of the Sergeant at arms who practices weekly with his gun, who was at the ready, and acted immediately. High, hideous, drama in deed.

We, the observers, stand outside the drama gawking, but truly we are inside in the heart of the violence, in our theoretical home, our head, our parliament that organizes our lives in this country. I never drive the Highway of Heroes without reflecting on Nathan Cirillo’s final ride and the people who stood at the edge of the road in freezing cold. His stepfather said, “We are not only mourning as a family, but also a country.”

When I taught my Post-colonial class at Northern, I instructed my classes, “ We all came from somewhere outside Canada; we are all immigrants to this country.”

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