By RUTH SCHWEITZER
Ruth Panofsky’s latest poems revisit the world of Hoda, an obese Jewish sex worker and the protagonist of Canadian author Adele Wiseman’s 1974 novel Crackpot.
Panofsky, a Wiseman scholar, has produced a powerful first-person account of Hoda’s story in Radiant Shards: Hoda’s North End Poems, based on the Wiseman novel set in Winnipeg’s North End from 1910 until after World War II. Panofsky’s book includes historical photographs of the North End.
Hoda is earthy, bawdy, vulnerable and big-hearted, and stands out because of her big, bold personality. “Hoda demands that her voice get heard. That’s why I felt so compelled to write in the voice that I imagined for her,” Panofsky told the CJR.
The language of Radiant Shards (Inanna Publications) is contemporary, bringing Hoda’s story forward into the present. In the novel, Wiseman’s use of English is archaic, influenced by Yiddish, her first language.
As someone who’s struggled with her own body image, Panofsky said she admired Hoda for the easy way she inhabits her gargantuan body.
“I was heartened by Hoda in that her body was a source of pleasure,” said Panofsky, an English professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “She also took pleasure in her work, which is a radical revisioning of how the sex worker usually is presented.”
Hoda’s parents are poor Russian-Jewish immigrants living in a shack in the North End, a haven for Russian Jews who escaped pogroms.
Hoda’s mother, Rokhl, is humpbacked, and her father, Danile, is blind. Rokhl cleans houses to support her family, taking the infant Hoda with her to work. She feeds Hoda to keep her quiet, and Hoda becomes an overweight youngster other children torment.
Along with putting up with the young bullies in her neighbourhood, Hoda is faced with antisemitism at school.
“Wiseman’s story builds on stories I heard from my own parents growing up, about how teachers in the public school system would humiliate their Jewish students,” Panofsky related. “She (Hoda) was bullied by teachers because they were so dismissive of her as the ‘other.’”
When Hoda’s mother dies of cancer, the family’s source of income disappears. Her father’s Uncle Nate wants to leave Hoda at the Jewish orphanage and put Danile into the old folks’ home, but Hoda and Danile refuse to be separated. To support her father, Hoda becomes a sex worker, servicing the boys and men in her community.
Hoda and another sex worker offer their services in downtown Winnipeg, where they think the money will be better, but after being badly beaten, Hoda returns to the safety of the North End, never to leave.
“Hoda’s community eventually comes to accept her and embrace her. She provides a need for the community, but the community also protects her. They have a complicated relationship with Hoda,” Panofsky said.
Unaware she’s pregnant, Hoda gives birth to a son, David, who’s raised in an orphanage without knowing his mother. The first time David meets his mother is as one of her clients.
Wiseman’s Crackpot was rejected by publishers at least 27 times.
“That’s because of the profoundly difficult subject of incest that is at the core of it,” Panofsky said. “She is protecting him by not revealing herself to be his mother, and then continues having him as a client because she understands if she is to turn him away, she’ll destroy him. So she decides to take that trauma onto herself and protect the boy.”
Panofsky said she finds Hoda’s capacity to remain loving and kind in the face of the most profound traumas uplifting.
“I was heartened by the fact that she could go through what she went through and still survive,” she added.
Panofsky won the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for her 2007 book, Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices. Radiant Shards won a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award in 2018 under the working title Flesh and Bones: Hoda’s North End Poems.
To see and hear Ruth Panofsky read from Radiant Shards, visit: