She Smiled Again: Ruth Lowe’s Biography Hits the Right Notes

Dec. 23, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The long-awaited biography of Ruth Lowe, the Jewish songwriter from Toronto who helped launch Frank Sinatra’s career, has finally been published.

I’ll Never Smile Again held the No. 1 spot on Billboard for 12 weeks in 1940 and has since become a standard that’s been covered by many jazz legends, including Billie Holiday. Lowe wrote the song, recorded by Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, in 1939, a year after her husband died.

Lowe’s biography, Until I Smile At You: How One Girl’s Heartbreak Electrified Frank Sinatra’s Fame (Castle Carrington Publishing), is by Peter Jennings, with contributions from one of Lowe’s sons, Tom Sandler. The book includes a foreword by Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, and contains plenty of photographs and memorabilia from Lowe’s storied career.

It covers the two acts of Lowe’s life: her musical pursuits during her teens and 20s, and her semi-retirement from music, after remarrying and having a family. Jennings interviewed scores of people for the biography, some of whom knew her personally and others who knew her only for her brilliant song.

Born in 1914, Lowe grew up poor in Toronto during the Great Depression. Her father, Sam, a butcher and grocer, experienced successive business failures. Lowe’s younger sister, Muriel (Mickey) Cohen, describes their father as a man who was longer on entrepreneurial spirit than business smarts. “He and my mother, Pearl, seemed to always struggle to keep ends together,” she said.

But Sam Lowe was a charming man, and musically gifted. “He could sing and dance and loved to entertain. Ruthie caught that bug from him,” Cohen said. Despite their poverty, the Lowes always had a piano at home. Lowe took a few lessons, but as a natural talent, she was mainly self-taught.

At 16, she dropped out of school to help out at home, playing piano at a “song shop,” where customers could hear tunes before buying sheet music. When Lowe’s father died in 1935, the family’s financial situation became even more precarious. Lowe earned extra income by performing in a two-piano nightclub act with the singer Sair Lee and she became the staff pianist for a Toronto radio station. In 1935, Lowe joined an all-female touring band, The Melodears, led by the singer and dancer Ina Ray Hutton.

Lowe married Harold Cohen, a music publicist, in 1938. Hardly a year later, Cohen, 29, died of kidney failure during routine surgery. Devastated, Lowe left Chicago, where she and her husband were living, and returned to Toronto. One evening, she sat down at the piano and transformed her mood into the melody for I’ll Never Smile Again. She also wrote the lyrics, unusual at a time when most songwriters worked in pairs, one writing the music and the other the words.

Lowe returned to Toronto and got a job playing piano at the CBC, where she met the Jewish bandleader Percy Faith. He recorded I’ll Never Smile Again with his orchestra. When Dorsey came to town with his orchestra, Lowe pitched the recording to him, a year before Frank Sinatra joined the band.  Sinatra’s rendition backed up by the Pied Pipers, became, as they said, number one with a bullet.

To this day, Sinatra holds the unique distinction of singing on the first Billboard #1 single. I’ll Never Smile Again went on to sell nearly one million copies.

The song’s release during the Second World War was a factor in its early success. “Ruth’s ballad, born from her own sad loss, managed to catch the mood of Americans – and then the world – reflecting the delicate nature of all wartime romance,” Jennings writes.

The song’s popularity endured even after the war, with contemporary artists like Canadians David Clayton Thomas, Michael Bublé, Molly Johnson, and Alex Pangman recording it in recent years.

Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, told Jennings that he considers the song to be “in the top 50 of great American songs.”

The music producer Quincy Jones first heard I’ll Never Smile Again when he was 10 years old. “Not only do I only remember the song, I remember the story behind the song. It was one of the songs that inspired my career,” Jones told Lowe’s son.

I’ll Never Smile Again was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Dorsey-Sinatra recording was honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1982.

Lowe co-wrote a second hit song for Sinatra, Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day), his signature closing number. Although Lowe is remembered for the two songs, she was a prolific songwriter in the early 1940s, often collaborating with other writers at the Brill Building in New York, an incubator of talent.

Ruth Lowe with Frank Sinatra (left) and Tommy Dorsey (Photos courtesy Tom Sandler)

Lowe’s success was her ticket to a glamorous world of the celebrities of the era – musicians, songwriters and comedians like Duke Ellington, Sammy Cahn, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Buddy Rich, and Al Jolson. But Lowe tired of the pace of living the high life in New York. “Mom told me she’d got to the point where fun was fun, but this had become a little much,” Sandler told Jennings. “It was relentless, and maybe a little overwhelming for her. It had lost its allure.”

Bob Hope and Ruth Lowe

On her return to Toronto, Lowe went on a blind date with a Toronto stockbroker, Nat Sandler. After a whirlwind two-month romance, they married in November 1943, when Lowe was 29. They had two children, Tom, named for Tommy Dorsey, and his older brother, Stephen.

Aline Sandler, Tom’s wife, confirms that Lowe missed the New York music scene. “I do know she missed the limelight,” she told Jennings. “I mean, it’s hard for a performer not to perform. Don’t get me wrong: she loved her life, she loved Nat, and she loved her children and grandchildren. But you can’t replace the celebrity experience she’d been through, you just can’t.”

In 1951, Nat Sandler opened a posh nightclub, the Club One-Two on Adelaide Street in Toronto, and Lowe used her connections to book the talent. The story was that Sandler had bought the club during an afternoon of drinking at a pal’s house, after leaving a synagogue service.

Music was a passion for Lowe, who continued to play piano and write songs in the living room of her Toronto home. An upbeat gospel song, Take Your Sins to The River, which she wrote with her son Tom, was recorded by The Travellers in the 1960s. But songwriting didn’t come so easily for her any longer.

Sandler told Jennings he thinks his mother, who died of cancer in 1981, had more great songs in her. “But she had become tied to a new lifestyle: a family and different values to which she decided to dedicate herself,” Jennings writes.

Perhaps Lowe’s lifestyle was no longer fertile ground on which her songs could sprout. As Sandler told Jennings, “trying to write a hit song and get it out…is a huge amount of work.” He goes on to ask: “Are you going to do that? Or raise a family?”

Nonetheless, it is a shame Lowe had to make a choice.

Jennings tells Lowe’s story in a cheerleading, conversational style with quite a few digressions, some of them more relevant than others. He provides quite a bit of biographical information about Percy Faith, described as “a gentleman who would go on to fame in the U.S. and worldwide.”

In a preface to his interview with the singer Dinah Christie, who was involved in the staging of Smile Company’s 1987 show about Lowe, Ruthie, Jennings goes into detail – perhaps too much, describing the community surrounding Christie’s “100-acre spread in Grey County, Ontario.” Mentioning that the community hosts the Holstein Maplefest and the Holstein Rodeo Expo has nothing to do with Lowe.

Some of the best parts of this biography are Tom Sandler’s loving memories of his mother.

While Until I Smile At You may be a rambling account of Lowe’s life, we’re fortunate to have a biography of her. If you’re a music lover, it’s worth checking out.

It’s Short, but Film About Birthright Packs Meaning

Dec. 22, 2020

By SOPHIE HERSHFIELD

In only 24 minutes, Israeli filmmaker Inbar Horesh delightfully unpacks a complex account of identity, language, and belonging in her short film Birth Right.

This brief but evocative piece is based on the true story of its lead actress, Natasha Olshankaya, and the experience of a Russian tour group on a trip offered by Taglit Birthright, an organization that takes Jewish teens from around the world on trips to Israel.

The girls we meet have different reasons for taking the trip: Natasha is hoping to escape family drama at home, while another girl is hoping to find a husband. The organization’s ulterior motive – encouraging Jewish immigration – lingers in the background.

Horesh portrays some of the lighthearted drama of a classic Birthright trip: Trying to “hook up” with cute Israeli soldiers, getting drunk and dancing to Hebrew songs that no actual Israeli listens to, trying to tan but accidentally burning after a lengthy camel ride – while also touching on many of the complicated rules around who is or is not a Jew according to Israel’s immigration laws.

Horesh explains: “Israel is deliberately and officially encouraging immigration of people that don’t consider themselves Jews and didn’t grow up Jews.” While the film may not seem political on its surface, it subtly draws out highly contentious themes and raises important questions.

One of the big questions Horesh contemplated while making the film, as she told the CJR, is “if Israel is encouraging immigration of non-Jews…why is Israel avoiding giving citizenships to people who already live here?” The film carefully challenges notions of nationhood and Jewish identity by telling the stories of characters whose connection to Israel and Judaism does not match the stories typically paraded out to Birthright’s donors.

While it is not uncommon to see Russian-speaking Israelis in Israeli media, their portrayal strikes a notably different tone in Birth Right. Horesh remarked that while casting Russian speaking extras for the film, many actors said it was their first time playing a normal Russian young person, rather than one to do with “drug dealing, prostitution, or being a cleaning lady.” Instead, Horesh portrays the multi-faceted experiences of being Jewish in Russia and being Russian in Israel.

The film, in Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles, showcases two soldiers who are asked to talk to the Birthright tour group, Ilya, who speaks in broken Russian, and Shlomi, who fluently sells the fantasy of immigration to Israel. Some of the trip participants are decked out in Magen David necklaces, while others admit they hardly feel Jewish at all. 

Horesh mostly cast non-actors and ended up incorporating many of their own personal stories into the film.  Rather than telling the more mainstream story of Jewish nationalism, she does not shy from showing the many sides of Israeli and Jewish identity.

In the film’s cleverly crafted final sequence, Horesh shows two tour buses trying to pass each other on a narrow bridge. This scene smartly shows, as Horesh explains, “the feeling of an ongoing factory, this assembly line” of Birthright trips that pass through Israel’s most popular tourist spots every year. Horesh takes a step back from the very individual and personal stories to remind audiences of the sheer scale of this tourism and immigration industry.  

As a tour guide proudly declares, “Welcome to your historical homeland,” Horesh shows us a group of genuine, confused, and excited young people who are exploring a new country for the first time – a country they are told they belong to, despite its troubled history and complex present.

Horesh beautifully dances around complex and political issues of identity and nationalism in a touching, personal, sometimes tragic but also funny way. Her film is artfully shot and carefully constructed to be subtle and vulnerable.

The film leaves its audience contemplating critical questions about homogeneity, nationhood, and identity, and provides a nuanced and intimate connection to individuals who have restarted life in a new country where they do not know the people, the language, or how exactly they fit into their “historical homeland.”

To view a trailer : https://vimeo.com/357166278

Birth Right can be seen at several upcoming film festivals, including the Toronto Jewish Film Festival June 3-13, 2021.


Sophie Hershfield is a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg and studies literature, film, and culture.

The Tailor Project: Our Brothers’ Keepers

By PAULA DRAPER

In the spring of 1948, Max Enkin, a prominent Toronto Jewish community leader and clothing manufacturer, spoke to a gathering of his peers. He had recently returned from visiting Europe’s post-war displaced persons (DP) camps, where he led a small team of garment industry manufacturers and labour leaders on a mission.

Their goal was to bring as many Holocaust survivors and their families to Canada as they could squeeze through obstructive, antisemitic immigration restrictions. Enkin and his colleagues – Sam Herbst, Sam Posluns, Bernard Shane and David Solomon – had been deeply moved by the plight of the survivors they met in Germany and Austria. They were shocked by the degrading conditions they witnessed in the DP camps, many constructed on the sites of former concentration camps.

Limited by the government to a quota for Jewish tailors, the five men were forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about who could be included among the chosen. They returned determined to inspire their fellow Canadian Jews to do all they could to help the survivors when they arrived.

Through articles in the Jewish press and public speeches, the team pleaded with community members to open their hearts and homes to the survivors who were beginning to arrive as garment workers. They faced a community both exhausted by its pre-war failures at rescue and unable to comprehend the uniqueness of the survivors’ experience and their desperate need to rebuild their lives.

“I am beginning to doubt,” Enkin told them, “if many know or appreciate how these people find themselves there, who they are, and what we owe them if we are to justifiably uphold our own respect and genuinely acknowledge that we are our brothers’ keeper.”

The Tailor Project (the book, which came out in October), is a study of Canadian Jewry’s efforts to rescue Jews stranded in the killing fields of post-war Europe and find homes for them in Canada – to be their brothers’ keepers. Prof. Harold Troper’s introduction summarizes the obstinate restrictive government policies that preceded the post-war opening of Canada to immigration. The authors then examine the post-war bulk labour schemes and how these programs were devised to import skilled and unskilled single men into the growing post-war economy.

Young, unmarried Jewish survivors were more than willing find a way out of the camps by applying for Canadian labour schemes; their applications, which noted their “Hebrew” religion, were invariably rejected. Realizing the potential these programs offered for opening the doors to Jewish DPs, the Jewish Labour Committee, Jewish clothing manufacturers and the Canadian Jewish Congress banded together to create the Tailor Project.

In our book of the same name, we explore the personalities and community politics that coloured the attempts to bring survivors to Canada after the Second World War. This is also a study of the Jewish-dominated garment industry and the Tailor Project’s unprecedented collaboration between garment manufacturers and unions.

Funded by the Canadian Jewish Congress in conjunction with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society and other agencies, they succeeded in settling some 2,500 European Jews in cities across Canada in 1948 and 1949.

The history of the Tailor Project is complemented by the reminiscences of the survivors and their families who established new lives in Canada. Some were trained as tailors before the war and continued working in the garment industry. Others were barely able to sew a buttonhole and forged other careers after their arrival. All understood that the program was their chance at rebirth.

Survivors and their children describe their journeys to Canada, the challenges of their early years of settlement, and the extended survivor families they created in their new homes. The Jewish garment workers and their families were the first large group of Holocaust survivors to gain entry to Canada. They were soon followed by DPs who joined other labour programs initiated by the Jewish community – notably by the furrier and hat-making industries.

Mendel Good was one survivor who came to Canada with the Tailor Project. He was 23 and an experienced tailor when he arrived in Ottawa in 1948, sponsored by the garment workers program. After suffering over six years in ghettos and camps, the only survivor of his extended family, Mendel spent three years recovering his health. He met and married Valerie Blau, another survivor who had come to Canada under the domestic bulk labour program.

Mendel established the M. Good Tailor shop in the Byward Market, a business still open today. His positive spirit and gregarious nature left a lasting impression on both his clients, and the thousands of Ontario students he educated about the Holocaust.

Mendel died last month at the age of 95. Rabbi Reuven Bulka eulogized that Mendel “became a tailor because he wanted to stitch together a better world.”

The Tailor Project is the story of how Canadian Jewry came together to rescue the remnants of European Jewry, and how Holocaust survivors like Mendel reshaped Canadian life.


Paula Draper

Paula Draper is co-author of The Tailor Project. How 2,500 Holocaust Survivors Found a New Life in Canada (Second Story Press) with Andrea Knight and Nicole Bryck, introduction by Harold Troper

Meet the Authors: The Tailor Project

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Dec. 18, 2020

Dave Cohen (Aug. 8, 1985 – ): Country Music Keyboard Player, Songwriter, Producer

By DAVID EISENSTADT

“Nashville cats, play clean as country water
Nashville cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville cats, been playin’ since they’s babies
Nashville cats, get work before they’re two…”

Defined by that Zal Yanovsky/Lovin’ Spoonful lyric, country music keyboard player and producer Dave Cohen is a “Nashville cat.” And he’s Canadian.

At 35, Cohen is one of the most in-demand musicians in Nashville, playing on many Top 40 Country hits with artists like Big & Rich, Chris Young, Ed Sheeran, Florida Georgia Line, Joe Nicols, Josh Turner, Kip Moore, Old Dominion, Rascal Flatts, Reba, Steven Tyler (see photo above, Cohen left, Tyler right), Toby Keith, and Wynona Judd, among others.

He was born in Toronto to Robert and Shelley Cohen, and the family moved to Calgary in 1989.  His father played the guitar, and Cohen started playing piano at five. As a teenager, he joined the PT Junction Blues Authority, a group that included my cousin Sandy Shuler’s son, Josh Goldenberg, as guitarist and lead singer. She told me about Cohen and how they won the battle of the bands at his high school, Henry Wise Wood.

Kid Rock and Dave Cohen

Rachel Barsky noted in The Canadian Jewish News that Cohen didn’t plan to become a musician. “It was in Grade 12 when he was accepted to Humber College’s jazz program in Toronto that he started thinking about becoming a professional musician.” 

Cohen told me, “I wasn’t that passionate about jazz itself as an art form. More so as a tool to learn music and become a better player. A soon as I had an opportunity to go on the road as a sideman, I dropped out.” 

He continued to work as a freelance musician in various groups in Toronto. “That’s how Cohen got his first major gig, as the keyboard player for Amanda Marshall, which led to playing with her at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in front of 55,000 people,” Barsky reported. That was in 2006, and led to working with Scottish-Canadian country music artist Johnny Reid.

After touring with a few Canadian acts, “I realized there was a ceiling as to how high my career would go if I didn’t move to a larger market,” he told me. So Cohen headed to Nashville in 2007.

Tired of the rigours of the road in 2012, he settled into a studio musician’s life. Speaking with Hanna Jessica of Building Our Own Nashville blog, he said, “Every artist does things differently, but broadly. We get set up and ready to go at 10 a.m. We listen to the songs we’re going to play that day and make charts so we can all be on the same page. Then (we) make music until 9 p.m. some days. Everything I play in a session is improvised. We often have a demo recording of how the songwriter intended the song to be played, but we’re not locked to that. We’re free to give ideas.”

In 2017, he received the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Piano/Keyboards Player of the Year Award. “My first thought was that my career was peaking too early and that I was destined to fade out early,” he told thecountrynote.com. “Those thoughts quickly turned to how I could live up to that title. It’s obviously a huge honour to win an award like that. A lot of the records I have worked on are consecutive and it’s a very cool experience to have your own rapport with the artist you’re working for. Many times in the studio, you just show up and do your job and don’t really feel connected to the project. With consecutive records, it’s cool to have a relationship to build on and use as inspiration for the tunes.”

His Jewish connection to music came from his family and growing up in Calgary.

“My years at Camp B’nai Brith Riback in Pine Lake, Alberta were where I got together and sang songs with my camper peers,” he recalled. “During high school, my bandmates were Jewish and all members of BBYO, playing at dances and band battles. I owe a lot to the Calgary Jewish community for laying the groundwork for me both musically and socially to be able to thrive in this career.”

Of late, Cohen has been doing more producing in addition to songwriting and session work. Musicrow.com reported that he recently signed a worldwide publishing deal with Spirit Music Nashville as “co-producer of eight No. 1 songs and session musician on over 50 No. 1 songs. He joins a roster including songwriter Jonathan Singleton, Grammy-winning songwriter David Garcia, a MusicRow Song of the Year winner and Grammy-nominated writer Jeremy Bussey, and ACM Guitar Player of the Year Derek Wells as well as Bobby Hamrick, Brinley Addington, Frank Ray and Neil Thrasher.” 

Not bad for a Nashville cat from Calgary.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding Partner of tcgpr.com the Canadian Partner firm of IPREX Global Comunication. He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

A Family History is Told Through Possessions Left Behind

Dec. 18, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Clearing out a home after a parent dies or moves to a care facility is bound to evoke memories and often turn up surprises.

Sharon Kirsch
Sharon Kirsch

Toronto writer Sharon Kirsch’s widowed mother’s departure for a seniors’ residence and the sale of the family home set Kirsch on a years-long research project. She delved into her parents’ relationship, and hers with them, as well as the lives of long-dead relatives they rarely talked about – for very different reasons.

Kirsch’s new book The Smallest Objective (New Star Books) is a very personal memoir set in the Jewish Montreal of the 20th century, fascinating for its frank examination of mothers and daughters, revelation of family secrets, and showing how the past is always somehow present.

It’s about what material goods we leave behind say about us – and her parents left an awful lot behind.

Born in 1960, Kirsch was the only child of Rene née Rutenberg and Dr. Archie Kirsch. She grew up in the suburban split-level her parents bought new in 1955, the same house Kirsch was tasked with disposing of after her mother’s worsening dementia made it impossible for her to continue living on her own.

Rene Kirsch signs the registry on her wedding day, April 4, 1955 at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal

Kirsch avoids pathos. In fact, the book starts out as a mystery. Her father, a Second World War veteran 17 years older than her mother, always claimed he had buried a treasure under the floorboards of the master bedroom.

Kirsch spends considerable time and expense, even hiring experts in ground penetrating radar, but finds nothing. It was only the beginning of obsession.

Sharon Kirsch’s great-grandfather Abraham Kirsch (father of Simon), who brought the family to Montreal from Lithuania.

That micro exploration grows to the macro level as Kirsch methodically goes through her parents’ stuff. While not exactly hoarders, the couple seem to have kept all manner of ephemera, in addition to the usual photos and documents, letters, postcards, invitations, recipes, grocery lists, newspaper clippings and obscure collections.

These prove to be a more valuable trove than the illusive hidden booty. The ever-unfolding memorabilia contrasts with the mental decline of her mother, a once fashionable and fastidious woman, until her death in 2013.

Kirsch comes to a better understanding of her mother’s lifelong anxiety and the fractiousness that marked her marriage. Although she had attended college and become a teacher, Rene, typical of her generation, gave it up for an idealized domesticity.

The title, The Smallest Objective, is a term that expresses the magnification power of a microscope, a found object that takes Kirsch on a journey back to the generation before her parents. It also suggests the minutiae which affords a glimpse into the bigger picture.

The microscope had belonged to her father’s father, Simon Kirsch, a Lithuanian immigrant and son of a peddler who got into McGill University and studied botany, earning a PhD in the early 20th century.

Sharon was named for Simon but he died long before she was born and was only mentioned at home in vague terms.

Simon Kirsch would work for the U.S. Forest Service in the Wisconsin woods, then become a McGill professor, unusual for a Jew, she finds out. He then branched into real estate and left academe to make a modest fortune investing in land and mining around Quebec. At his death, he was regarded as a respected Jewish community leader.

After finding clippings of his obituary, Kirsch then set her sights on the family “black sheep,” her great-uncle Jockey Fleming, born Moses Rutenberg at the end of the 19th century to a Russian immigrant family.

Charitably, Jockey was a colourful Runyanesque character who hobnobbed with entertainment and sports figures and was a favourite subject of Montreal newspaper gossip columnists. More realistically, he was a ne’er-de-well who lived on the margins of the law, scalping tickets after earlier stints as a featherweight boxer and singing waiter.

Kirsch was 14 when he died in 1974 but she only saw him by accident on a downtown street. Her mother quickly steered her away from him, muttering the family was ashamed of him.

As she does with Simon, Kirsch spins bits and pieces into an imagining of the larger historical and social circumstances that made Jockey into who he was.

The other relative almost as rarely mentioned by her parents was her aunt Carol, her mother’s younger sister and sole sibling. The reason was not shame; on the contrary, Carol Rutenberg was beautiful, talented and outgoing. She had a career as a physiotherapist and married a dashing ex-Air Force pilot.

Pregnant with their first child, Carol miscarried and died days later at age 26. Kirsch, who was not yet five, has only vague memories of her. It seems the shock and grief was so great, her mother simply shut her emotions away with cherished mementoes of that short tragic life she kept in albums and boxes.

These were the true buried treasure.

As Kirsch concludes, “I began The Smallest Objective by studying possessions and myself became possessed, claimed by my subjects.”

Film Review: Valley of Tears: Competent but Ho-Hum

Dec. 17, 2020

By SHLOMO SCHWARTZBERG

Valley of Tears, the latest Israeli television series to arrive in Canada, comes laden with accolades for its accuracy and commentary on its expensive nature – $1 million per episode, pricey for an Israeli production. (It was sold to HBO Max in the U.S, but premieres with two back-to-back, Hebrew language, English subtitled episodes on Dec 19 on Hollywood Suite in Canada. It only recently finished airing in Israel.)

I can’t quarrel with those facets of the 10-episode series, reportedly the first of at least two planned seasons, but neither can I endorse the show, or at least the episodes I’ve seen. As of this writing, five episodes had been made available as streams to reviewers.

Set just before and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught in surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria on Judaism’s holiest day, the series attempts to paint a picture of this fraught time when the country seemed, briefly, on the brink of extinction. It links various individuals, all apparently based on real people, caught up in the chaos and maelstrom of war.

They include, among others, Yoav (Aviv Alush), commander of an intelligence outpost overrun by the Syrians; Dafna (Joy Rieger), Yoav’s girlfriend, who’s trying to link up with her boyfriend; Melakhi (Maoz Schwizer), a member of Israel’s Black Panthers, a militant Sephardi group fighting for its rights in the Ashkenazi-run country and who is attempting to get back to his tank unit after escaping from jail; Marco (Ofer Hayun), another Sephardic soldier, trying to keep the peace in the same (squabbling, battle scarred) unit; Menny (Lior Ashkenazi, from Foxtrot and Walk on Water), a reporter and counterculture writer looking for a son he doesn’t know who recently came to Israel from Paris to bond with his absent father; and Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), who serves in an intelligence unit and is the first to realize an Arab attack is imminent but, mostly, functions as an hysterical irritant, scared he’s going to be tortured and killed at any moment.

Taboch’s performance is annoyingly one-note, but the rest of the cast, though adequate, aren’t particularly interesting as characters, with the Sephardic ones pretty much reduced to pouting and occasionally giving in to anger.

I had no use for HBO’s other purchased Israeli series, Our Boys, a one-sided and distinctly unsubtle pro-Palestinian screed based on the true story of the murder of an innocent Arab boy in 2014 by Orthodox Jewish settlers bent on revenge after three of their own youth were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

But that series, monotonous as it often was, at least seamlessly integrated its various personalities into a coherent whole. Valley of Tears awkwardly juxtaposes its storylines which, too often, come across as flat and contrived. That applies especially to Menny’s plight, and though I’ve long considered Lior Ashkenazi to be one of Israel’s best, if not its very finest actor – he had a small part in Our Boys, too – there’s not much he can do with what amounts to a cardboard cut-out role.

The hackneyed rendition of the Black Panther story is particularly galling, as it’s an important part of Israeli history that many Jews and even some Israelis I suspect don’t know. (That Sephardic anger had much to do with fuelling Likud’s victory in 1977, as Menachem Begin capitalized on that community’s disgruntlement, wresting power away from the long-ruling, Askenazi dominated Labour party.)

Even the movie’s battle scenes, though scrupulously authentic, utilizing tanks that were actually used in the Yom Kippur War, are pallid, particularly when stacked up against the powerfully visceral war scenes in films like Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon or even Ari Folman’s animated Waltz with Bashir. That flatness can be laid at the feet of director Yoav Zilberman, who co-wrote many of the episodes too; the series was created by Ron Leshem.

Zilberman’s credits include the fine documentary Watermarks, about a famed female Jewish swim team many of whose members return to Austria decades after the Nazis chased them out, and A Late Quartet, an American drama about a string quartet roiled when one of its members is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Zilberman directs fact and fiction in a very low-key manner, befitting the former but undermining the latter. But that laid-back quality is deadly for a production that needs to be running on adrenaline to be dramatically effective.

In the episodes I viewed, I never felt the country’s turmoil and angst as it transformed from a remarkable military victor in the Six-Day War in 1967 to an army seemingly falling apart at the seams a mere six years or so later. There is one attempt to humanize the Syrian enemy, beyond otherwise portraying them as faceless killers, but, unfortunately, it’s the most predictable scene of all the ones I saw.

There’s a mild political subtext running through Valley of Tears, whether it’s a soldier cursing Prime Minister Golda Meir when the war breaks out, or Menny’s referencing of General Moshe Dayan’s infamous quote that he’d rather have Sinai without peace than peace without Sinai. Menny’s declaration that Dayan, in effect, goaded Egypt into the war because of what he said might shock Western viewers, but it shouldn’t. Israelis have long debated the facts behind the seminal turning points in their country’s history, but let’s face it, there’s always been a patina of propaganda overlaying what Diaspora Jewry is taught or believes about key events like the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

I fear, however that I’m making Valley of Tears seem more provocative and probing than it actually is. It’s competent enough but, mostly, and ultimately, ho-hum.


Shlomo Schwartzberg
Shlomo Schwartzberg

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the London JCC, among other venues. He is also the co-founder of the noted Critics at Large cultural web site. (ww.criticsatlarge.ca)

Book Review: The Village of Little Comely-on-the-Marsh

Dec. 16, 2020

(2020), By Alan Simons

By RALPH WINTROB

So here’s the conceit: A sturdy band of Welshmen, the progeny of intrepid pioneers, have established themselves in an isolated village in the south of France. They eschew any contact with the locals, and live as if they have never left Wales.

What happens when a stranger, injured in a car accident, is brought to the village to recover? Of course, he becomes an instant curiosity, and turns the village inside out and upside down, especially when the town elders have to determine what to do with him when he recovers.

And let me tell you, the ending is a total surprise.

So what’s the Jewish connection, you may ask? Well, that’s part of the surprise. Author Alan Simons has a Jewish affairs website read worldwide. And he has a long record of Jewish organizational activism and leadership in the Toronto community. He’s also the author of several books, for all ages.

But more to the point, what does a nice Jewish lad like Simons, born and bred in London, know about Welsh village life or the jaw-breaking Welsh language for that matter? It turns out he had relatives who were shopkeepers in just such places, and he used to visit when he was a kid. Obviously, something stuck.

Simons’ characters are delightfully loopy, the product no doubt of generations of inbreeding. They are not so loopy that we can’t identify with them, and Simons spends a good part of the book elaborating on their peculiar ways.

Like one of the town councillors, who is accompanied everywhere he goes by a blown-up balloon of a blowsy partner attached to his ankle and waist, but of course is a real person to him. And would you believe nobody in the village bats an eyelash at such behavior? He turns out to be another interloper. How did he integrate so well? That’s what we find out…at the end.

Speaking of the town council, it meets frequently at the local pub-restaurant for a full Welsh breakfast, described in detail. It takes up so much of their meeting that not much in the way of town business is ever accomplished. But what a breakfast!

The book is less than 100 pages and in that small space, we have hived off to another world, like the intruding stranger in the story, and like him, with our heads swirling. We’re more than engaged. We come away imagining the story as a staged farce, or an animated Disney version, vying for which part we’d like to play ourselves.

It just sends our imaginations spinning, and I mean for any age level. After all, the characters are all adults – kind of. And in fact, Simons has promised us a sequel, if the book finds its audience, and lets him know they want more.


Ralph Wintrob
Ralph Wintrob

Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian, longtime instructor at The Life Institute (the senior studies program at Ryerson University) and presenter at seniors groups in Toronto. With his wife Kitty, author of I’m Not Going Back, Wartime Memoir of a Child Evacuee, and a proper Cockney, he has seen Wales in all its natural beauty and human charm.

Seasonal Song Covers Religious, Cultural Bases

Dec. 14, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Just in time for the festive season: The Toronto-based comedy duo of Roula Said and Maryem Tollar has released a hilarious new, all-purpose holiday tune, Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews.

In part, the song is the ladies’ response to COVID, with its prohibitions against gathering and the lockdowns, Tollar said. “We just wanted to put out something funny and fun to put a smile on people’s faces,” she said.

What they and many others have noticed is that the children of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century wrote many of the Christmas classics.

Jewish songwriters wrote secular holiday songs for Jews and Christians. Johnny Marks’ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer could be seen an expression of the desire to be accepted by the mainstream.

Famously, Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) wrote White Christmas. Recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, it became, at least according to the Guinness Book of Records, the best-selling single of all time.

Jewish songwriters tended to celebrate the holiday season rather than the birth of Jesus, with subjects like snow (Let It Snow!, written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne), or an evening spent in front of the fireplace (The Christmas Song) by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé – both Jewish.

Both Canadians of Arab descent, Said and Tollar said they could relate to the feeling of being an outsider. Said grew up in a predominately white suburb of Toronto in the 1970s and ‘80s during the “Paki bashing” era. When Tollar’s family immigrated to Canada in 1969, they were only the second Egyptian family to settle in Halifax.

Said and Tollar – the duo is known as FAOC, or the Friggin’ Arab Orchestra Company – have added a new dimension to the tradition of the holiday song by being who they are. Said is from a Palestinian Christian family and Tollar has a Muslim background.

Said related that ever since she learned many Christmas songs were written by Jews, she’d wanted to record some of them. Instead of recording Christmas standards for this year’s holiday season, though, the duo decided to write a new tune.

“This year, with COVID, and Maryem and I living in a shared house, we developed this comedy schtick that came out of our friendship,” Said noted. “It seemed like the right time to do this little brainchild of mine, and it occurred to me that it would be fun to actually write our own song.”

The music of Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews could have come out of the Great American Songbook. The ladies’ song references past Christmas tunes and they sample riffs from several of them. But their lyrics are contemporary – COVID and cannabis are mentioned – and the song is inclusive, reflecting Toronto’s diversity.

Tollar learned Christmas songs while singing in her school choir. “I totally love them and know them very well,” she said.

People who grew up without Christmas celebrations may relate to Tollar’s account of how, as a child, she felt left out of the seasonal excitement and tried to recreate the holiday for herself.

“One year, my parents had a Christmas tree in their house and the next year they thought it’s not a good idea because that’s not our religion. I was so sad. I remember praying to Santa Claus, telling him I believed in him and I knew he would make Christmas happen for me,” she said.

“And of course that didn’t happen. And my cousin who lived with us, she felt sorry for me. So she bought me a little plastic Christmas tree and I would wrap my own toys and then unwrap them at Christmas.”

The unofficial tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas merits a mention in the song, as is Honest Ed’s, the now-demolished bargain store at Bathurst and Bloor. The song concludes with Said and Tollar bantering about the store, where Said and her husband, David Buchbinder, purchased their wedding rings.

Recording the effort was a family affair: It was arranged by Buchbinder, who plays trumpet, and Maryem’s husband, Ernie Tollar, plays additional piano. The couples’ children contributed, too, with Joska Tollar on bass and Laila Buchbinder on guitar.

Said, a singer, dancer, actor and poet, co-leads the funked up Arabic-Roma band, Nomadica, whose first recording, Dance of the Infidels, was nominated for a Juno Award. She creates music for dance performances and theatre, and runs the Om Laila Studio, where she teaches Arabic dance.

Tollar is a renowned vocalist whose voice has been heard on the theme of CBC’s television series Little Mosque on the Prairie and A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood hit, Mayya Mayya. She performs with several Toronto musical groups, including Al Qahwa and Turkwaz. Tollar won the inaugural 2019 Johanna Metcalf Prize for Performing Arts.

Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews  will premiere on Facebook Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2853347698280607?active_tab=about

It is also on YouTube at:

The song may be purchased on Bandcamp at:

https://faoc.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR3scixqK0ukHC7EAjIuv2h_R1zcsJtFaK_XagS2Mr1v-OpnFVkCwWrihBA

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Dec. 7, 2020

Sheldon I. (Shelley) Posen (Apr. 12, 1946 – ) Folklorist, Singer, Songwriter, Museum Curator

By DAVID EISENSTADT

Shelley Posen is “keenly concerned about Jewish continuity and aware of the realities we face,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.

Posen has written two (of many) songs that reflect his concerns: Will The Children Light the Candles? from his CD, Menorah: Songs from a Jewish Life and The Chanukah and Christmas Song, about an interfaith household “because there are so many and some very close to me.” That one will be on his next recording Jacob Solomon, to be released post-COVID.

Thanks are due to friend Cynthia Nathanson, who introduced me to Posen, a versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist whose career includes researching, teaching, writing, composing and performing.

For the past decade, Posen has been writing “Jewish songs that sounded as if the Gershwins or Irving Berlin had written their music about Jewish life instead of about southern Black folks or Christmas, and weren’t afraid to use Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic.”

As he explains, his Jewish songs “aren’t religious enough for Orthodox Jews, are too religious for Israelis and some Europeans, aren’t Yiddish or ‘klezzy’ enough for klezmer lovers and have too much Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic in them, not to mention religion for secular and non-Jews. One of my songs, And We Sang Ha Lakhma Anya, I’m told, is sung around Pesach seder tables the world over. That’s tremendously satisfying.”

Born to Aaron and Bernice (Bidnowitz) Posen in Toronto, young Sheldon and the family reveled in music. “My Mum made singing part of everyday life and Jewish holidays,” he recalled.

He was a Beth Sholom Junior Congregation cantor while at Associated Hebrew Day School. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., majoring in choir and operetta. He played ukulele and guitar, and learned to play the banjo, influenced by Pete Seeger.

Posen toured with the Hart House Glee Club and the University of Toronto Chorus, continuing to perform folk music at festivals and hootenannies. He was a regular at two iconic Toronto coffeehouses, the Riverboat and Fiddler’s Green folk club.

“My Dad was less supportive of my venturing into music as a career because he wanted me to follow him into orthodontics,” he said.

Posen pursued graduate studies in folklore in 1970 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he “absorbed the music of fishermen singing in their kitchens and of the Irish and country music entertainers in popular St. John’s nightspots.”

He became a founding member of the Newfoundland bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe, and while writing his Master’s thesis in Toronto, “served as Director of Mariposa in the Schools in the pre-dawn of the Canadian children’s folk music boom.”

He received his doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, carrying out ethnographic research on Irish-Canadian singing traditions in Chapeau, Que. on Allumette Island, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ont. Posen said he became involved in the burgeoning northern revival of southern American choral singing from The Sacred Harp, an early American hymn book. His thesis became a text book in 1988, Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun.

Posen moved to Ottawa in 1983, formed the Ottawa Shape Note Chorus, and taught shape note (a musical notation to facilitate group singing) and harmony singing at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. He also directed Congregation Beth Sholom’s men’s choir.

He formed the vocal trio Finest Kind with Ann Downey and Ian Robb in 1990, and for the next 25 years, the group recorded seven CDs and performed in Canada, the U.S. and UK. Around the holiday season each year, they reunite to perform seasonal concerts in the National Capital Region, but for 2020. they will perform virtually.

Posen was curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 2001-2015; his wife Maxine Muska is assistant director of Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

He has recorded five solo CDs covering various genres and styles. Others have sung his songs. One about the end of the Newfoundland fishery, No More Fish, No Fishermen, has been performed by folk legends Gordon Bok and Lou Killen, and was a favourite of Helen Schneyer. Eve Goldberg, Claudia Schmidt and Jane Voss recorded his Cole Porter-inspired song Having a Drink with Jane.

“I am not religious,” Posen reflects, “but I write many songs as if I were because I am intimate with and highly value Judaism’s beauty, fragility and resilience as a religion and as a culture. If Jews of whatever persuasion and non-Jews see themselves in my songs and find them entertaining and meaningful, then I’ve done my job.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

It’s More Than Just Sand: The Wilderness Focuses on the Power of the Desert in the Bible

Dec. 3, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

Stories of desolation, abandonment and contemplation of what lies beyond the known – all inspired by the outsized role deserts play in the Bible – make their world premiere this Sunday, Dec. 6 on Canada’s YES TV network.

The Wilderness, a 10-part biblical docudrama series created and produced by Toronto-based Canadian filmmaker, videographer, and producer Igal Hecht, explores connections to God, the Prophets and the desert through dramatization and interviews with religious and historical experts.

“The Biblical prophets knew that the mystical expanse, the barren earth and the endless terrain were fertile ground for revelation and direct exposure to God,” Hecht told the CJR. “It is in the most desolate places where God has made the most significant appearances, where He speaks into the lives of His people.”

Director Igal Hecht and DOP Sergey Maydin Israel
Director Igal Hecht and DOP Sergey Maydin in Israel

The Wilderness was filmed in the biblical heartland of Israel and the southern region of Mitzpe Ramon, where Abraham, Jacob, Jesus and many other biblical figures had dialogues with God.

The stories explore the lives of Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mary, Jacob, Hagar, King David, King Saul, Cain and Abel, Job, Lot, and others. Hecht called it “a labour of love.”

“It’s a snapshot of seeds that happen in the wilderness and how the desert plays such a major part in every biblical story,” he explained.

Hecht got his inspiration from his 2016 docu-series Daughters of Eve.

“I did a show which focused on women in the Bible where we took stories and recreated them with a much larger budget and much larger cast,” he said. “I was travelling through the desert on another project and stopped to get some visuals and started thinking of the stories in the Bible that take place in the desert. A couple months later I came up with a demo. YES TV gave it a green light and it went from there.”

The Wilderness opens with the temptation of Jesus. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights in the Judean desert.

In episode two, Hecht portrays the biblical patriarch Lot, who accompanies Abraham and Sarah in their journey through the desert.

“I act when I don’t have to speak,” Hecht said. “In this case, it was because of my beard. In [the story of] Cain and Abel, we got to recreate the first murder. We gave it a Guy Ritchie kind of feel – a stylistic way the murder happens shot [from] different angles. We had some fun with it.”

Working with a limited budget, the production began in late 2019, and lasted about five weeks. The small crew included Lior Cohen as assistant director/aerial photography, cinematographer Sergey Maydin, and Gai Hoffmann on makeup. There were more than 30 Israeli actors.

“The challenge we faced was losing light,” said Hecht. “The sun goes down quickly in the desert.”

Post-production was done in Canada at Hecht’s Chutzpa Productions.

Although filmed in Israel, the series is in English. “We were very careful with the text. All of the dialogue is taken directly from the [Hebrew] Bible or the New Testament,” Hecht said. “Some of these stories have no dialogue or have one line.”

Each episode features a number of experts telling the story, lending perspective and analysis.

“We don’t preach,” said Hecht. “We are retelling biblical stories for people interested in history, maybe trying to understand what the Bible is about and what [it] can incorporate in your life in 2020.”

Born in Ashkelon, Israel, Hecht moved to Toronto with his family in 1988. In 1999, he founded Chutzpa Productions, showcasing controversial and thought-provoking films that have focused on human rights, politics, land disputes, conflict, satire, and pop culture.

He’s been involved in the production of more than 50 documentary films and some 20 television series. His work has been screened nationally and internationally on Netflix, BBC, the Documentary Channel, CBC, YES TV and HBO Europe.

The Wilderness airs Dec. 6th on YES TV at 6:30 p.m. and repeated at 11 p.m.

A trailer may be viewed at:

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Nov. 30, 2020

Erica Goodman (Jan. 19, 1948 – ) Harpist 

By DAVID EISENSTADT

When I think about the harp, the first person who comes to mind is Harpo Marx. Though he said he played the instrument “the wrong way,” according to imdb.com, he taught himself well enough that when he took proper lessons from various harpists and music teachers in New York and Los Angeles, many were fascinated by his approach and even adopted his techniques.

So I was intrigued by a recommendation from friend and neighbour Sheila Katz Levine, who told me about Canadian Jewish harpist Erica Goodman. Robert Cummings, writing at allmusic.com, called Goodman “arguably the most prominent Canadian harpist of her generation, and easily among the top several from North America. Her technique is all-encompassing and her interpretive skills incisive and imaginative.”

Her father, also Toronto and Jewish-born, was violinist and teacher Hyman Goodman. She began piano lessons with Myrtle Guerrero at 10, and at 11, started to study the concert chromatic harp. A performer in her teens, she played under the baton of Igor Stravinsky when he recorded in Toronto. Erica’s teachers included Carol Baum at UCLA in 1966-‘67; summer sessions with Charles Kleinsteuber at Interlochen in Michigan from 1959 to 1965; and with Judy Loman from 1958 to 1965 at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

In Philadelphia, she studied with Marilyn Costello at the Curtis Institute of Music and performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

After graduating from Curtis, Goodman joined the newly-created National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa under Mario Bernardi, who gave her the honour of playing, as a soloist, Harry Somers’ Suite for Harp and Chamber Orchestra at the orchestra’s New York Lincoln Center debut performance in 1972, reported galleryplayers.ca. Music critic Jacob Siskind of the Ottawa Citizen wrote that Goodman’s “tremendous technical ability makes the listener believe that the harp has no restrictions.”

Goodman is “acclaimed as one of the world’s outstanding solo harpists,” lauded Artoftimeensemble.com.

She has appeared at international festivals and across Canada, the United States and Europe, and in hundreds of radio and TV productions, commercials and film scores. She’s performed with Tony Bennett, Gene DiNovi, Percy Faith, Hagood Hardy and Henry Mancini, among many others.

In 1978, she was the first co-winner, with Lawrence Pitchkin, of the Mona Bates Award, a scholarship established to honour the respected pianist-performer and teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Two years later, Goodman garnered the Grand Prix du Disque Canada for her recording Flute and Harp with Robert Aiken, and then a Juno Award for her solo album Erica Goodman Plays Canadian Harp Music. A NOW magazine “Best of Toronto” readers’ poll selected her as Best Classical Musician in 1996.

She is a member of Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, with which she played Alex Pauk’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, composed for Goodman in 2005, and is frequently featured as a concerto soloist with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Over the years, Goodman has also appeared with Camerata, the Elmer Iseler singers, the Festival Singers, her father Hyman Goodman, flutist Suzanne Shulman and opera soprano Riki Turofsky. Canadian composers Marjan Mozetich and Jeffrey Ryan also wrote works expressly for her.

A New Music Concerts Ensemble charter member, she has recorded three albums on the Naxos label featuring the music of ToruTakemitsu (awarded Editor’s Choice by Gramophone), George Crumb and Elliott Carter).

Check out her albums on tidal.com: For There and Then (2012), Jeux A Deux (1982), and Erica Goodman and Friends (1992). Reflections: Romantic Duets for Cello & Harp (2007) is guaranteed enjoyable listening. My favourite is Heavenly Harp from 2013.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.co, the Canadian member of IPREX Global Communication. He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

2020 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature Announced

Nov. 23, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The winners of the 2020 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature were announced at a recent live virtual ceremony presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts. The prize in each of the four award categories was $10,000.

Sarah Leavitt won in the fiction category for her graphic novel Agnes, Murderess (Freehand Books), based on the legend of the Scottish-born British Columbian killer Agnes McVee. The book “explores and then metaphorizes the ways in which childhood and adolescent trauma can pursue us into adulthood, shaping our obsessions, our decisions and our actions,” Andrew Woodrow-Butcher wrote in Quill and Quire.

At the awards ceremony, Leavitt said that although McVee isn’t Jewish, the character is an outsider who feels Jewish to her.

“I always felt when I was writing about Agnes that she is hovering around the edges of the world and trying to figure out what she is looking at because she felt like a complete outsider,” Leavitt said. “And when I was growing up in small towns in Maine and in the Maritime provinces, I always felt like an outsider as a Jew. Agnes to me feels like an honourary Jew.”

The history prize went to Matti Friedman for Spies of No Country (Signal, McClelland & Stewart), about Jewish spies who operated from Beirut during the Israeli War of Independence, from 1947 to 1949. Part of Israel’s first intelligence station in an Arab nation, the four men hailed from the Arab world – Syria and Yemen. 

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Friedman quoted spy novelist Johnle Carré, who observed that espionage is the secret theatre of our society.

“Countries have covered stories and hidden themselves, just like their spies, and our clandestine basements conceal insights into the world above ground,” Friedman said. “This observation is why I was drawn to these men and this strange adventure. Who they are has something important to tell us about the country they helped create.”

The awards jury’s favourite for non-fiction was Naomi K. Lewis’ Tiny Lights for Travellers (University of Alberta Press), a memoir about a journey she embarked on after her family found a diary documenting her grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942. Travelling from Amsterdam to Lyon, Lewis retraced his journey to freedom.

Lewis included excerpts from her grandfather’s diary in her book and said she sees him as a co-writer. “I can only hope that he would have approved of how I followed, included and elaborated on his words.”

She added her grandparents and other family members have grappled with issues of identity and belonging and what it means to be Jewish in a sometimes hostile world.

“By researching and writing this book and by speaking to readers, I’ve come to understand more clearly that there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. Receiving this award has provided me a form of acceptance and a kind of closure that means a great deal to me,” she said.

The young adult/children’s literature winner was Broken Strings (Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers), co-authored by Kathy Kacer and Eric Walters. “Broken Strings seamlessly blends themes of young love, artistic identity, 9/11, grief and the Auschwitz orchestra into a moving and insightful young adult novel,” the awards jury, comprised of authors Judy Batalion, Allan Levine and Shani Mootoo, said in a release.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Kacer said that writing the book gave her the chance to write about an aspect of Holocaust history she had long wanted to explore – the orchestras made up of Jewish musicians who performed on the train platforms of death camps, “playing those unsuspecting new prisoners to their death.”

A child of Holocaust survivors, Kacer has dedicated her life and career to writing about the Holocaust for young readers. “This was one more chance to pass important history on to the next generation,” she said.

Kacer added that as co-writers, she and Walters, an award-winning author of young adult fiction, developed “a seamless working relationship, trusting where the story was going, challenging those moments that didn’t quite work for one of us and rewriting and rewriting until it sounded exactly as we wanted it to.”

The 2020 Vine Awards shortlists included:

Fiction: David Bezmozgis, Immigrant City (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and David Szalay, Turbulence (McClelland & Stewart).

History: Zelda Abramson & John Lynch, The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust (Between the Lines), and Heidi J.S. Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Harvard University Press).

Non-fiction: Ayelet Tsabari, The Art of Leaving (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka (Heritage House Publishing).

Young adult/children’s literature: Edeet Ravel, A Boy Is Not a Bird(Groundwood Books) and Kathy Kacer, Masters of Silence (Annick Press).

The books can be purchased at benmcnallybooks.com.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Nov. 17, 2020

Ofra Harnoy – (Jan. 31, 1965 – ) Cellist

By DAVID EISENSTADT

Listening to Ofra Harnoy, the Israeli-Canadian cellist’s new album, On The Rock, brought back a memory.

In the spring of 1998, I was working on a Temple Sinai Brotherhood fundraiser with Lew Rasminsky, Allan Kalin and Frank Berns. We were fortunate to book Harnoy, then a young cellist with a serious pedigree. She delivered an extraordinary concert that left the Temple Sinai audience breathless.

“The only time I really feel that I’m making music,” Harnoy told Tim Janof at cello.org, “is when I’m performing. I love the vibrations of the audience, when they hold their breath through the silences, which is when I really feel a bond. It’s an incredible experience.” 

Her family immigrated to Canada from Hadera, Israel in 1971 for her father, Jacob Harnoy, to enroll in a master’s of engineering program at the University of Toronto. 

Harnoy began her studies at six with her violinist father. When she was given her first student-size cello, she thought her legs were supposed to go through the instrument’s F-holes.

As a teenager, she studied with respected masters Jacqueline du Pré, Pierre Fournier, Vladimir Orloff, William Pleeth and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Her soloist debut with an orchestra came at 10, and at 17, she won the International Concert Artists Guild award at Carnegie Hall in 1982.

She has performed on five continents and played for princes, presidents and prime ministers. A five-time Juno Award winner as Best Classical Soloist, she received the Grand Prix du Disque. In 1995, she was named to the Order of Canada.

Harnoy has collaborated with Jesse Cook, Placido Domingo, Loreena McKennitt, Igor Oistrakh, and Sting. 

About her recording Ofra Harnoy & The Oxford String Quartet Play The Beatles, she said: “The album is a compilation I recorded when I was 16 or 17. The arrangements are beautiful sounding, somewhat like Schubert string quartets with a cello solo. I was hesitant when [the] CD first came out, since many people concluded that I must not be a serious classical musician.”

By the early 2000s, she had recorded 43 albums and was touring 10 months of the year. From 2004 to 2011, Harnoy focused less on music while raising her two children and caring for her mother, who died of leukemia in 2011.

Her last performance included scheduled concerts with pianist Anton Kuerti in 2011. But the rigours of touring and recording had taken their toll. Harnoy battled an acute shoulder injury and required reconstructive surgery. During that period “many felt she’d fallen off the classical radar,” wrote Classical MPR’s Julie Amacher.

In 2017 and 2018, she reconnected with childhood sweetheart Mike Herriott, a multi-instrumentalist, arranger and co-producer whom she married and who helped in her recovery. Harnoy returned to the stage with an official comeback performance in November 2018. She released her 44th album, Back to Bach, in early 2020.

“One day when I was in the stage of coming back to playing, Mike pulled out his trumpet and we took some music and said, ‘Let’s see what it feels like to play together,’” she told an interviewer. “And neither of us could believe the musical connection that we had. We think exactly the same musically. We breathe the same musically. And that was like, ‘Wow. We need to do something like this.’”

As TheWholeNote related, “In bringing her vision to life, Harnoy also wanted to experience with using brass instruments instead of the traditional string or pipe organ accompaniments, so Herriott created complex brass arrangements and performed all the parts himself – piccolo trumpet, trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and trombone. There are literally only a handful of individuals in the world who could have accomplished what Herriott has so deftly done on the remarkable project. This recording is a triumph and a must-have for any serious collector.”

Harnoy now lives in St. John’s, Nfld. where her husband grew up. In September, she released On The Rock, celebrating the sounds and spirits of Newfoundland.

The album features many Newfoundland musicians, including Alan Doyle formerly of Great Big Sea; fiddler Kendel Carson; vocals by Ofra’s daughter, Amanda Cash; vocalist Fergus O’Byrne; and St. John’s jazz chanteuse Heather Bambrick, the morning JAZZ.FM91 host. 

“The more I explore this beautiful island and get to know the people, food and the culture, the more I feel Newfoundland is becoming a part of me,” she said. “Through these songs, I can really express the wonderful connection I have with my new home.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner firm of IPREX Global Communication. He’s a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

On The Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Nov. 10, 2020

Morris Eisenstadt (Nov. 6, 1926 – Nov. 21, 1991) – Saxophonist, Clarinetist, Flautist, Composer, Teacher

Morris Eisenstadt

By DAVID EISENSTADT

Earlier this year, Toronto lawyer Michael Fraleigh’s generous acknowledgment of one of my columns inspired me to write about my woodwind player and composer uncle, Morris Eisenstadt.

“Your tribute to Ben Steinberg (CJR, June 15, 2020) was really appreciated,” he wrote. “As an active Temple Sinai lay leader, it was nice to see Ben get the recognition he deserves. Speaking of recognition, as a teenager, I took up clarinet in senior public and high school. At the same time, my parents thought it would be good for me to take private lessons, which were arranged through the Royal Conservatory. I was taught by Morris Eisenstadt. I remember him to be a kind, compassionate, very accomplished player. He had endless patience, which I suppose was important for someone teaching teenagers. I look back on those years fondly and while I stopped pursuing the instrument after I entered university, his passion for music was something that I have carried with me throughout my life.”

Morris Eisenstadt taught saxophone at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto for three decades, starting in 1959. From 1966 to 1968, he also taught at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Uncle Moe called these his “pin money gigs.”

The youngest of my grandparents’ Harry and Toba (Frankel) Eisenstadt’s four sons, Morris (Moe) studied the saxophone and in 1941, at age 15, joined the Calgary Musicians Local 547.

In 1950, he moved to Toronto. His career took off as a tenor and alto saxophonist, playing both for well-known band leaders. He continued studying and working on his clarinet skills with Herb Pye, on composition, and orchestration with Sam Dolin, John Weinzweig and others.

On Oct. 15, 1953, a string quartet by Morris Eisenstadt was performed at the Composers Festival at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. More of his works were performed on CBC Radio.

He played tenor and alto sax under the iconic Moxie Whitney, leader of Canada’s then-gold standard dance band, based at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel during the 1950s and 60s. They played all the CN and CP railway hotels’ ballrooms, including the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, the Palliser Hotel in Calgary, Banff Springs Hotel, and the Chateau Lake Louise.

Morris Eisenstadt, on right, seated (Canadian Science And Technology Museum Archives; X-44112)

During this time, he came to a career crossroads. His friend, the renowned flautist Moe Koffman, urged my Uncle Moe to consider playing on jingles and commercials, at a time when work for studio musicians was growing. 

But he declined, choosing instead to pursue orchestral composition. He composed the Suite of Three Canadian Dances in 1952, “which includes one movement of Indigenous and one of Inuit-based music,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

I’ll never forget how proud our family was when he sent us sets of his three vinyl LPs. We listened for hours to his orchestral music on my grandparents’ RCA Victor record player.

From 1950 to 1960, he joined the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps Band under Lieut. J. Alan Wood in Toronto. During that decade, he also played theatre and artistic performer engagements at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Ice Capades at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Canadian National Exhibition.

That led to landing a permanent woodwind chair in 1961 under O’Keefe Centre Musical Director Dr. William McCauley. For 26 years, he was one of the longest tenured members of that orchestra. He faced some challenges and explained that when McCauley retired, buget cuts meant the new conductor was tasked with downsizing a number of musicians.

“I was told that if I wanted to keep my chair, I’d have to learn to play the flute,” he recalled. So like the pro he was, he did, at age 62, and kept his chair until health issues forced his retirement just before he died.

Before enrolling at grad school in Ottawa, I spent a week in Toronto in September 1966 with Uncle Moe. I watched him perform in the O’Keefe Centre’s orchestra pit, met the fellow who made his saxophone and clarinet reeds, and got to see Moe Koffman at George’s Spaghetti House. He also took me to Honest Ed’s and to two musicians’ haunts for lunch and dinner: Mars on College St. and Bassels on Yonge St.

My dad, Max Eisenstadt, unable to attend his brother’s funeral because of his own health battles, wrote a eulogy. “I remember how Morris’ lifelong dream was to play with a big band and how one of his first gigs was with a four-piece group about a block and a half from where he lived in Calgary. I recall the pride he had after coming home with a $5 pay cheque for three hours work.” 

A passionate and respected woodwind musician, somewhat under the radar, he is remembered as a “nice guy” who never fussed over that sometimes elusive big payday. In our family, Uncle Moe will never be forgotten.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He’s a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

A Jewish Tour of Northern Ontario

Nov. 10, 2020

By ROBERT WALKER

Since I started learning about geography in elementary school, I’ve been mystified by Canada’s vastness and enormity. A country of nearly 10 million square kilometers – almost 500 times the size of Israel – Canada is almost incomprehensibly large.

And it wasn’t just Canada’s size that intrigued me. It was the fact that, growing up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the rest of the country was so dissimilar from the megacity where I was raised.

So, this year, after the Jewish holidays ended in October, still very much in the midst of the COVID pandemic, I decided to start – modestly – to explore a small corner of Canada that I had always wanted to see: northern Ontario.

First, it’s worth pointing out that Ontario is nearly 1.1 million square kilometers, or still about 50 times the size of Israel, but it far from entirely accessible. A large swath of the province has no year-round roads leading to it, and locals – mostly small native villages and reservations – rely on trains, winter roads (either packed snow or frozen lakes) and float planes to access their remote communities.

My goal was to see a part of Ontario – wild, natural and rugged – and I began my road trip heading north, towards North Bay. I had one Jewish spot marked on a map that I had read about, but I didn’t realize how Jewish life would become a much bigger part of my visit.

Sunny and warm on the day I visited, North Bay, Lake Nipissing and environs were beautiful, and the town itself has an established but small Jewish community, as well as a semi-functioning synagogue, Sons of Jacob, in the downtown area. According to its website, it remains the oldest Ontario synagogue north of Toronto still in use, established 107 years ago.

Heading north further is a blink-and-you-miss-it town of Temagami, home to a 100-foot fire tower on top of a 400-foot small mountain, affording views of lakes and hills over a wide area.

Further north still is the town of Cobalt, a once-bustling centre of silver mining, but now tragically crumbling, though Tesla is reported to be searching for lithium, a necessary battery component, in the region. There are still vestiges of the old mining history throughout the town, including a self-guided driving (or walking) tour, in which closed silver mines can be seen up close.

Ten minutes east is the town of Haileybury, a larger but otherwise nondescript place, except for its location abutting the crystal clear and large body of water, Lake Temaskeming. On the other side of the lake is Quebec, and the views, in my opinion, were better than anything Muskoka could offer.

The cemetery in Krugersdorf served Jews in North Bay, Kirkland Lake and Sudbury

One hour past Haileybury, I had read online about a small Jewish cemetery of about 60 graves established more than 100 years ago. When there was a tiny Jewish community in Kirkland Lake and surrounding areas, a cemetery had been set up in the hamlet of Krugersdorf to serve local Jews. And although I had directions, it was still surprisingly hard to find. Turning off highway 11 (a modest two lanes by then) onto a dirt road, I passed logging trucks and machines, and drove past utter nothingness for about 10 minutes until I caught in the corner of my eye a sign reading “Hebrew cemetery.”

Continuing another few hundred meters, I didn’t see a cemetery, so I stopped on the side of the road and approached a local farmer. I asked him where the cemetery was. “Across the street,” he replied. I looked and saw nothing, but he told me it was there, so I crossed the dirt road, opened a small gate, and walked 200 feet into an open field, where I finally saw 60 graves, some dating back around 100 years, and a small white building with a sign announcing, “Northern Chevra Kadisha: Krugersdorf. Est. 1905.”

A sign for the chevra kadisha (burial society) in Krugersdorf

I stopped to say the Kel Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the deceased, and a psalm, knowing that probably no Jewish visitors ever found their way to this remote graveyard.

Continuing north-west about two hours is Timmins, the commercial centre of the region. Although it has a population of only 45,000, it feels much larger because of temporary workers in lumber and mining, in addition to truckers and transporters passing through.

A wooden menorah, now in the Timmins Museum, from the town’s B’nai Israel Congregation, which closed in the early 1970s.

The Timmins Museum chronicles the town’s history, and while perusing the items on display, I noticed a wooden menorah from B’nai Israel, the now-defunct local synagogue. Seeing Jewish items in a museum was definitely a sobering experience.

‘Synagogue Avenue’ in Iroquois Falls

About one hour northeast of Timmins is Iroquois Falls, a small village which was once home to a modest Jewish population, but now “Synagogue Avenue” is its only vestige.

Next, I headed west, through the hinterland towards Chapleau, site of the world’s largest crown game preserve, and a large population of bears. There was about a one-hour drive on which there was no store, no house, no radio coverage, no evidence of human existence. After a night in Chapleau, I continued west to Wawa.

Scenic Wawa, population 3,700, felt like British Columbia. Nestled on Lake Wawa and surrounded by hills and canyons, I found it resembled Vancouver Island.

Congregation Beth Jacob in Sault Ste. Marie

My next stop was Sault Ste. Marie, home to Congregation Beth Jacob, established in 1945 and still functioning. Although the Jewish population once numbered 250, it is now under 100, but it is still widely involved in local Jewish life. 

The interior of Congregation Beth Jacob in Sault Ste. Marie

My guide in Sault Ste. Marie told me about a small cemetery, about 1.5 kilometers east, in a hamlet called Massey, where, off to the side of a non-Jewish cemetery, were eight Jewish graves, the oldest dating to the late 1800s. The final resting place for Jews who lived in Sudbury, about an hour still east of Massey, a number of the graves were of infants, and given the year on a couple epitaphs – 1918 – possibly victims of the Spanish Flu. I once again stopped by to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead and to pay my respects to Jews who likely receive virtually no visitors.

A grave in Massey, Ontario

The final stops on my way back to Toronto were in Sudbury and environs, home to another shul, Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, but time did not permit more exploration of the city’s Jewish life. 

While I did not intend to do a Jewish tour of northern Ontario, one vestige led to the next, and allowed me to peer into a nearly-forgotten corner of Canadian Jewish life. Although at its peak, in all of northern Ontario – Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Iroquois Falls, North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and other smaller towns – probably didn’t ever total even 2,000 Jews – the impact of Jewish life there far outweighed numbers.

And while these Jews didn’t disappear – their descendants live largely in Toronto and southern Ontario – visiting northern Ontario was a stark reminder that Jewish life anywhere is not a guarantee, but rather requires constant infusion of energy, dedication and commitment.


Robert Walker is a Jewish community consultant in Toronto.

All photos by Robert Walker

French-language Quebec Novel Wins Top J.I. Segal Award

Nov. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—A French-language historical novel by a well-known Quebec author that captures the political ferment during the Depression in Montreal’s working-class Mile End district is the winner of the top prize of the Jacob Isaac Segal Awards, sponsored by the Jewish Public Library (JPL).

Le Mammouth by Pierre Samson, published by Héliotrope last year, is based on a forgotten actual event: The fatal police shooting in the back of Nikita Zynchuck, a Ukrainian immigrant labourer, in March 1933.

PIerre Samson

The police officer who delivered the fatal bullets – himself the son of Italian immigrants – is never brought to justice, a scandal that rallied trade unionists and civil rights defenders across ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

The incident was illustrative of the authorities’ fear of growing communist sentiment, especially in immigrant communities, a movement in which Jews were predominant, while less attention was paid to fascist sympathies.

Samson weaves into the fictional narrative such real-life Jewish figures as labour organizer Fred Rose, the first Communist Party candidate elected to Parliament, and lawyer Michael Garber, later president of Canadian Jewish Congress, who led the outcry against the killing of Zynchuck, nicknamed le mammouth because of his size.

Le Mammouth was chosen the inaugural Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme, which carries a $5,000 prize, by an independent jury. The four members hailed Samson for “portray(ing) the Jewish community, which occupies a prominent place in this world of immigrants in the first decades of 20th century, with admirable topographical and psychological precision, while being sensitive to the internal tensions that divide it and the relationships it maintains with the francophone community and the other groups of recently arrived immigrants.”

The jurors, all writers, were literary critic Alberto Manguel, former director of the National Library of Argentina; University of Montreal French literature professor Catherine Mavrikakis; philosopher and Columbia University professor Emmanuel Kattan; and Adam Gollner Leith, former editor of Vice magazine.

Le Mammouth was a finalist for this year’s Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal.

The other 2020 Segal Award winners are Boris Sandler, former editor-in-chief of the Yiddish edition of the Forward, for Antiques from My Travel Bag (published by Yiddish Branzhe), selected for the $1,000 Dr. Hirsh and Dvorah Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature; and, sharing the Rosa and David Finestone z”l Award for Best Translation of a Book on a Jewish Theme, also worth $1,000, are Goldie Morgentaler, and, jointly, Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné.

Morgentaler, a University of Lethbridge English professor, translated from the Yiddish her late mother Chava Rosenfarb’s Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays.

This collection of non-fiction by Polish-born Rosenfarb (1923-2011) covers a variety of subjects, including her experiences during the Holocaust, reminiscences about Yiddish writers she knew in postwar Montreal, where she lived for many years, and travel writings, especially on Australia, a part-time home. Rosenfarb is best-known for her trilogy novel set in the Lodz ghetto, The Tree of Life.

Saint-Martin and Gagné are cited for their translation into French of Canadian author Gary Barwin’s novel Yiddish for Pirates. The translation was published as Le Yiddish à l’usage des pirates by Éditions du Boréal.

The Segal Awards will be presented at a virtual ceremony on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m., when Samson, two of whose earlier novels were nominated for Governor General’s Awards, will be interviewed.

Reservations may be made at https://bit.ly/37pnEjS.

JPL executive director Michael Crelinsten said the introduction of the Quebec book category by the Segal Awards, now in their 52nd year, reflects the JPL’s “double, but intertwined, mission of being both Jewish and public. With the new format, the JPL also highlights the contribution of Jewish culture to a richly diverse contemporary Quebec.”

On Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Jewish Book Month, the JPL presents an online lecture by Chilean-born writer Isabel Allende on “Write What Shall Not Be Forgotten: A Journey into Memory and Soul.”

Toy Designer is Changing the World Through Empathy

Nov. 5, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

Ilana Ben-Ari, inventor of the Empathy Toy, has been making waves near and far by bringing the transformative power of child’s play to thousands of schools and offices in some 50 countries.

Ilana-Ben-Ari

Ben-Ari’s expanding collection of toys, workshops, and training programs places crucial emphasis on toys teaching what textbooks cannot, with the accent on empathy.

“Empathy is the number one job skill,” Ben-Ari told the CJR in an interview. “Empathy, resilience and creative-concept problem solving have never been more relevant. These are skills that we are taught in kindergarten but then we stop.”

Ben-Ari is a multiple-award winning design entrepreneur, Ariane de Rothchild Fellow and TEDx Speaker. Her company, Twenty One Toys, has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Bloomberg.

The Empathy Toy has been praised by Time magazine as a technology that is “reshaping the future.” The Empathy Toy is the first in a series of toys Ben-Ari has designed to tackle and challenge what and how people of all ages are learning. The toys invite kids to be creative and to explore curiosity.

The Empathy Toy is a blindfolded collaborative puzzle game that can be solved only when players understand each other. In less than 15 minutes, players must recreate each other’s puzzle patterns without sight. Players can be as young as six or as old as 99, and a group can be two or 200.

As Ben-Ari explained, “Each toy piece has a different shape and texture. One player starts with a pattern of assembled puzzle pieces, and everyone works together to recreate the same shape with the matching pieces.”

The Israeli-born designer and social entrepreneur credits her early years living on a moshav near Carmel as the catalyst for her success.

“Growing up on a moshav left a huge imprint on me,” said Ben-Ari. “The importance of community is a different way of existing in society that has influenced both the products that I design, as well the reason I went into social entrepreneurship.”

Ben-Ari’s parents met while students in Israel. Her father was from Winnipeg and the couple moved back to Canada when Ben-Ari was six. She graduated in industrial design at Carleton University in 2006, and founded Twenty One Toys in 2012. Now in her 30s, she lives in Toronto.

Her goal is simple: “To positively impact the world.”

Ben-Ari originally designed the Empathy Toy in university as a navigational aid for the blind. “It took a number of years before I had the chutzpah to decide I was going to start a business,” she said.

Last year, she launched the Failure Toy – a game of balance and experimentation that helps players build healthier relationships with failure.

“It teaches how you manage risk and how competition and expectations play into your behaviour,” Ben-Ari explained. “You have these abstract pieces and you have a limited amount of time to make a shape that is as ambitious or safe as you or your team wants it to be.”

The game, she said, makes players just uncomfortable enough to gain insights into how to better handle patience and frustration.

Ben-Ari draws inspiration from the inventor of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, who also came up with a series of abstract educational tools he called gifts.

“Twenty One Toys stands for 21st century skills,” said Ben-Ari. “Froebel designed twenty toys… we like to say we are picking up where he left off.”

The next plaything will be dubbed the Improv Toy, which builds on her earlier work. The idea is that empathy, failure, and improvisation are foundational to human development. While empathy “is key to understanding a child’s inspiration and research phase, and failure is all about prototyping and innovation, improve ties into brainstorming and collaborative ideation,” says Twenty One Toys’ website.

You (and/or your children) will have to wait a while to try it out.

Cardiologist Follows his Heart and Becomes Composer

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jaap Nico Hamburger’s mother gave him two invaluable pieces of advice. 

When he was young, she told him that, yes, he played the piano very well, but he must have a reliable profession. Decades later, after Hamburger had achieved international recognition as a cardiac surgeon, she said he had worked hard enough as a doctor and it was time to devote himself to his first love, music.

So it was that, mid-life, Hamburger gradually wound down his practice in Vancouver in minimally invasive heart procedures, which had begun in his native Holland, and embarked on “the great adventure” of being a full-time composer of classical music.

That transition was completed this year when he left the University of British Columbia where he had been a clinical professor since 2000, and moved permanently to Montreal to be composer-in-residence for Mécénat Musica, a donor-supported cultural program.

The cross-country relocation also meant settling down with his new wife, Kathy Assayag, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal.

His mother’s counsel proved wise – not that Hamburger ever doubted it. Janny Moffie-Bolle, after all, had survived Auschwitz and other camps. This formidable woman died in 2016 at age 95, still a force to be reckoned with.

The Holocaust was not an off-limits topic when Hamburger was growing up, but he has not attempted to give it musical expression – until now.

In advance of Remembrance Day, Hamburger released an album on the Canadian label Leaf Music of two new compositions for chamber orchestra that evoke the Holocaust and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. (His Piano Concerto, featuring Israeli pianist Assaff Weisman, was put out by Leaf in August.)

Chamber Symphony No. 1, performed by Montreal’s Ensemble Caprice conducted by Matthias Maute, is subtitled “Remember to Forget,” a phrase from the Tanach that cautions against the futility, even destructiveness, of second-guessing oneself. Self-criticism should lead to self-improvement, he explained, and the biblical Joseph serves as a model for perseverance.

Hamburger was inspired by the life of Hungarian-Jewish composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), who survived the Holocaust, unlike his father and brother. Ligeti, who later fled communism, became an outstanding classical composer, known for his avant-garde style. The soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed from Ligetti’s work.

Hamburger’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, “Children’s War Diaries,” performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under the baton of the Dutch Vincent de Kort, is also optimistic.

About 20 years ago, Hamburger read the diaries of five teens who had perished in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s was, of course, the most famous. The other four, largely forgotten – unlike Frank, who stopped writing after she was discovered in hiding – bore witness to what they experienced in the death camps.

In 2010, Hamburger’s 89-year-old mother, who was a teen at the start of the war, published her autobiography. With her at Yad Vashem for the book’s launch, he was shaken by the memorial to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children. After emerging from its darkness to the blazing Jerusalem sun, he was impelled to translate his overwhelming emotions into music.

“The contours of a new symphonic work came to mind virtually complete,” he said. “I went home and wrote “Children’s War Diaries” in five short movements.”

The work’s world premiere was recorded at the “Violins of Hope” concert held last November at the Maison symphonique de Montréal in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by the 1st Canadian Army.

The actual Violins of Hope, which belonged to Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, have been restored by father-and-son luthiers in Israel. They are played with orchestras around the world as a symbol of victory over tyranny.

This is the spirit Hamburger intends in his symphonies. He is not, he emphasizes, trying to capture the horror experienced by those who survived the Holocaust.

“That would be presumptuous and impossible,” said Hamburger, who was obsessed with Beethoven at age three and began his music education soon after. “I could read scores before I could read language,” he said.

He earned a soloist degree in piano from Amsterdam’s Royal Conservatory while studying medicine. He became an expert in the development of laser coronary angioplasty at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and travelling around the world. He stopped giving recitals, but continued to compose in his limited spare time.

“The only thing I can do is try to use the language of music to express how I experience what I know, and what I think the Holocaust means for the world today. We always said, ‘Never again’, but we see what is happening all over.”

The release of his album on Nov. 6, fortunately, was not stopped by the COVID pandemic, unlike another of Hamburger’s big projects. His first opera, Goldwasser, was scheduled to premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York in March, featuring laureates of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. All being well, Goldwasser will debut next season.

Typically, Hamburger looks on the bright side. It was at the foundation gala in 2018 in New York that he met Kathy, a fellow opera lover, and would start a new chapter of his extraordinary life in Montreal.

Hamilton Jewish Book Fair, Holocaust Education Week Combine

Oct. 30, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Holocaust heroes and survivors. Mossad spies. Infamous Nazis. Wealthy Jews who once controlled Shanghai.

These and other inviting subjects are set to be explored at Hamilton’s Jewish Book Fair and Holocaust Education Week.

Usually separate events, the celebration of Jewish books and Shoah memorial has been combined into a series of online programs this year.

Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said that in the age of COVID, merging the events made sense.

“Instead of asking people to register separately for both events we’d do them together,” he told the CJR. “It’s also a chance for some of our young families to get familiar with Holocaust Education Week.

“We think it’s important for our young people to learn about that now and not wait for a teacher to bring it up in school,” he added.

“Everyone has a responsibility to talk about the Holocaust, not only in educational settings but conversations need to take place at home. It is shocking that a large number of young Canadians are unaware that over six million Jewish men, women and children were killed during the Holocaust.”

The plan for this year is to centre around nine books – five during book festival events Nov. 1-4 and four during Holocaust week, Nov. 8-12.

Leading off the book festival is Jonathan Kaufman presenting on his book The Last King of Shanghai. It chronicles the moral compromises, foresight and generosity of two extraordinary Jewish families – the Sassoons and the Kadoories – who ruled over Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years.

Both originally from Baghdad, they profited from the Opium Wars that tore China apart and then survived the communist takeover of the country.

Now the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Kaufman spent 30 years and won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News.

In an interview, Kaufman said the idea for the book was born in the late 1970s when, newly arrived in China, he began to see traces of a century of Jewish influence on the country.

In addition to being a story of wealth and power, Kaufman said the book adds an important piece to our understanding of Jewish history.

“We tend to think of Jewish history as the stories of poor European immigrants who work hard and rise to great heights,” he said. “This is another part of the history of Jews who also worked hard and climbed to great heights.”

Kaufman is also the author of A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe and Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, which won a National Jewish Book Award.

The book festival will also include presentations on Red Sea Spies, the true story of the Mossad operation that used a diving resort on the coast of Somalia as a cover to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews and smuggle them to Israel. The book was written by long-time BBC Middle East correspondent Raffi Berg.

On Nov. 2, former New York Times reporter Howard Blum will discuss his book Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin. It’s the true story of a Nazi plot to destroy the leaders of the Allies during their Tehran conference in 1943. With their leaders dead, the German hope was that the stricken Allies would then be willing to make peace with the Third Reich.

Concealed, to be presented Nov. 3 by author Esther Amini, tells the story of her struggles growing up in Queens, N.Y. in the 1960s – the daughter of Jewish-Iranian refugees trying to find a balance between her parents’ traditions and her longing for American freedom.

The final book festival presentation is slated for Nov.4. The title for that night will be Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bess Kalb’s recounting of family lore and secrets from her grandmother chronicling the lives of four generations of women and the men who loved them.

Holocaust Education Week events kick off Nov. 8 with a presentation of Toronto author Kathy Kacer’s true story, The Brushmaker’s Daughter.

It tells the tale of a 12-year-old German-Jewish girl and her blind father on the run from the Nazis. They are sheltered by brush factory owner Otto Weidt, who employs blind Jewish workers in his factory, determined to save as many as he can.

Kacer, a former psychologist, has written often about the Holocaust and the people who struggled against it. In an interview, she said “as soon as I heard about this, I knew it would be the next story I would tell. The example of individuals who exhibit that kind of moral strength is a great one, especially today. Capturing stories like this is even more important today. We still have a small window of opportunity today to capture those stories.”

Kacer added that while the central character of the story is fictional, Weidt and his factory are historical. Weidt and all the people he helped are now dead but the factory itself survives and has been turned into a museum.

Capturing Holocaust stories, she added, is important because her parents were both survivors: Her mother hid during the war while her father survived a concentration camp.

On Nov. 9, author A. J. Sidransky will discuss his novel The Interpreter, the story of a 23-year-old American G.I. Kurt Berlin, who returns to Europe to help interrogate captured Nazis as part of a program to recruit them to work against the Soviet Union in the coming Cold War.

Former Nazi hunter David Marwell will discuss his book Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death” on Nov. 10. The book explores how an ambitious researcher could become a faithful servant of the Nazi cause.

Marwell served as chief of investigative research at the U. S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s and worked on the hunt for the notorious “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele.

The final book presentation for the week is slated for Nov. 12, when journalist Peter Ross Range will discuss The Unfathomable Ascent, his detailing of Adolf Hitler’s eight-year march to the pinnacle of German politics.

Holocaust Education Week also incorporates the virtual exhibit Vad Vashem: Shoah: How Was it Humanly Possible, and the Nov. 15 special presentation Voices of our Holocaust Survivors with young Hamiltonians interviewing Holocaust survivors.

Times and details for all events are available at https://jewishhamilton.org/2020jewishbookfestival

Book Review: Borders and Belonging (Palgrave Macmillan) By Mira Sucharov

Oct. 29, 2020

By DUSTIN ATLAS

Mira Sucharov’s Borders and Belonging is an intimate memoir of formation, something of a Portrait of a Political Scientist as a Young Woman. A contemporary work, its trajectory is non-linear: hopping from year to year, we see intimate flashes of feelings, events, and relationships; there is no sense at the book’s end that the process is complete, or that the insecurities which propelled the story have been resolved. This, along with the book’s intimacy, is one of its many strengths.

Sucharov, a political science professor at Carleton University, fearlessly arms the ungenerous reader. I myself would not be capable of writing with such transparency, and left the book respecting her bravery.

However, this is not the main reason the book is valuable. There are, after all, many “unflinching memoirs.” It is valuable because of the way the book tackles a difficult question: How much of a person’s political position is owed to their ideals, and how much to their pathologies? The position in question here is, as one might expect, the issue of Israel and Palestine.

This issue, which inflames arguments, ruins parties, and deadens critical thought, is the book’s breadcrumb trail: the shifting of Sucharov’s position is well detailed, and the arguments found along the way will be familiar to many. What is less familiar is how candid Sucharov is about her own psychological investments, and how they inform her politics and thinking. Where less honest writers claim to be fighting for justice, or perhaps loyalty, or some other transcendental virtue, Sucharov’s memoir reveals a tangle of insecurities, humiliations, sexual desire, hypochondria, panic, allergies, and a need for affirmation. And through it all, Facebook, relentlessly amplifying these insecurities, trivializing them while intensifying them. The book’s art is in neither reducing her politics to these pathologies, nor in separating them cleanly, acting as if they have nothing to do with one another.

So, while Borders and Belonging may not have a specific answer, it does have a question: how much of our politics is owed to coping with being a human being – something which is never easy, no matter how generous life has been – and how much is owed to reasoning or disinterested ethical commitment? The book shifts between argument and psychology, unwilling to give either the final say.

Sigmund Freud features as a character in the background, but not in a heavy-handed way. If anything, he offers comic relief: the young Sucharov intones his words without understanding them, the teenage Sucharov anxiously talks about his Jewishness to a security guard. The same goes for the narrator’s many political arguments: they are serious, but Sucharov shows us how a passing insecurity or flirtation can disarm the most strident case. Rather than decide between the two, the book gently asks the question, “is this a matter of justice, or just a way of coping?” and then performs the answer. To use a cliché, Sucharov shows us an answer, but does not tell us one.

This is a brave book, and will be of interest to anyone looking to delve into an anthropology of academia, who wants a collection of snapshots from Canadian Jewish life, or who has spent too long trying to honestly discern why we care about the causes we care about.


Dustin Atlas

Dr. Dustin Atlas is the Director of Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He specializes in contemporary Jewish thought, identity and aesthetics, especially works that concern fragility, imperfection, and non-human creatures.