On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Sharon Hampson (Mar. 31, 1943 – ); Lois Lilienstein (July 10, 1936 – April 23, 2015); Bramwell Morrison (Dec. 18, 1940 – )

Sharon, Lois & Bram – Children’s Music Trio, Family Entertainers

Sept. 15, 2020 – By: DAVID EISENSTADT

Skinnamarinky dinky dink
Skinnamarinky do,
I love you!

Kids, parents and grandparents the world over love that memorable tune, thanks to the inspired creativity of three Toronto Jewish actors/singers/musicians, Sharon, Lois & Bram, who sang those easy-to-remember but differently-spelled lyrics.

“That word actually means nothing,” confides supersimple.com. “It’s just a silly, made-up word originally from an early 20th century Broadway musical, and over the years, it has been sung (spelled) as skinnamarink, skinnymarink, skinnymerink, and more.”

At a recent Shabbat dinner, friends Marilyn and Frank Kisluk said their three-year old granddaughter loves the song, prompting me to look at this trio’s musical contributions, which generates lots of memories and smiles.

The threesome met in the mid-‘70s at a Mariposa in the Schools program, according to Jason Ankey, writing in artistdirect.com, and they shared a common philosophy of creating quality music for people of all ages.

A&M distributed their first album One Elephant, Deux Éléphants. With that, the pachyderm became an important visual element throughout the group’s 42-year career.

Sharon’s daughter, Randi Hampson, said Lois often joked that the trio lost their last names when they became Sharon, Lois & Bram. Hampson told me that for their first live performance, they borrowed a costume from a touring production of Babar, “and that’s when the dancing elephant made its first appearance.”

They had several elephant friends over the years on tour, appearing on their The Elephant Show, which aired on the CBC in the 1980s, and later on U.S. cable network Nickelodeon through 1996, featuring 30-minute episodes with children’s entertainer Eric Nagler.

They also worked with other children’s stars, including Raffi and Fred Penner. The show attracted other well-known performers and morphed into a second series called Skinnamarink TV, broadcast on the CBC and the Learning Channel in the United States from 1997-99.

They performed in major concert venues around the globe and headlined many stage and screen gigs. The trio were named Goodwill Ambassadors for UNICEF in 1988, and in 1996, were appointed spokespersons for UNICEF Canada’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Sharon Trostin
Sharon Trostin

Born in 1943 and raised in Toronto, Sharon Trostin started singing in coffeehouses and at hootenannies across North America as a teenager. She married Joe Hampson of the Canadian Travelers and had two children. A three-time survivor of breast cancer, Sharon is one of the founders of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada and has spoken publicly about her journey. She also speaks about the importance of music for children and their families. In 2007, she received the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction Award.

Lois Ada Goldberg
Lois Ada Goldberg

Chicago-born Lois Ada Goldberg was a classically-trained singer and pianist who studied music at the University of Michigan, where she met her future husband, Ernest Lilienstein. They moved to Toronto, where he taught sociology at York University. They raised one son. She retired from touring with the trio in 2000. 

Lois, said Randi Hampson, would occasionally appear for special charity events, the last of which was an outdoor concert in Toronto to celebrate an outdoor playground named in their honour. A music garden followed after Lois died in 2015 at age 78.

Bramwell Morrison
Bramwell Morrison

Bramwell Morrison, born Toronto in 1940, began playing coffee houses in the 1960s with iconic Canadian folksinger Alan Mills, who inspired him to become a music teacher. In 1975, Bram met Sharon and Lois at the Mariposa program and they began to play as a group. He and Sharon celebrated the trio’s 40th anniversary with a farewell tour in 2018, then retired from touring in December 2019 after releasing their first duo album, Sharon & Bram and Friends.

In 2002, they became members of the Order of Canada; Lois was named an honourary member as a non-Canadian. Their combined career track record includes numerous awards. The group produced 17 recordings, three songbooks, many compilations and a best-selling picture book, Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Skinnamarink. Their one-year TV series in 1997 was called Skinnamarink TV. In 2020, a Sharon, Lois & Bram YouTube channel was successfully launched.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Sharon has been performing virtually with daughter Randi, a family law lawyer who said she’s looking forward to returning to in-person, live performances.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Website Marks Decade of Publishing Jewish Fiction

Sept. 11, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The online Jewish literary journal Jewish Fiction.net is marking a milestone at an auspicious time: It celebrates its 10th anniversary this Rosh Hashanah.

The website is the only English-language journal in the world, either print or online, devoted exclusively to publishing Jewish fiction.

Founded and edited in Toronto by the award-winning author Nora Gold, the site has published more than 400 works of fiction, both short stories and excerpts from novels, over the past decade.

Nora Gold
Nora Gold

The current issue includes 16 contributions, among them five translations from Hebrew and one from Hungarian. There’s also an excerpt from Nessa Rapopart’s latest novel, Evening, which unfolds while the protagonist, Eve, and her family sit shivah for her sister.

Also in the current issue is “The House of Cards,” a comic story by Leonid Newhouse about a young Jewish couple sharing a room in a former palazzo in Leningrad at the end of 1940s.

A crisis created by the advent of digital publishing a decade ago gave Gold the impetus to launch Jewish Fiction.Net. At the time, she recalled, many writers told her, “look, I have a novel in my drawer and the publishers have been telling me it’s really good, but hold on to it for 10 years, until the digital crisis is over.”

Jewish fiction, Gold noted, is seen as a niche market by publishers, who, when facing difficult times, tend to avoid anything seen as niche.

Gold said she’s been lucky as a writer to find publishers for her three books. Her collection of short stories, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award, and one of her two novels, Fields of Exile, won a Canadian Jewish Literary Award.

Concerned that some amazing Jewish-themed fiction would be lost during the digital crisis, Gold got into publishing. Her professional background, in addition to being a writer, is in social work. “What happens for someone like me is, I thought in this case there’s a need, (so) I’ll fill the need,” she said.

With the help of an advisory council, she launched the Toronto-based journal, which publishes Jewish fiction from around the world and has readers in 140 countries.

Contributors have included such eminent authors as Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, Savyon Liebrecht, and Aharon Megged, and some well-known Canadians, like George Jonas, Morley Torgov, and Chava Rosenfarb.

A rigorous editorial process ensures that the quality of the writing, whether by famous or lesser-known authors, remains high. Submissions are blind-reviewed by an editorial team of three, located in Toronto, Houston and Jerusalem. “I was able to get people with very strong backgrounds in literature, Judaism and/or Jewish literature,” Gold said.

Contributors are unpaid, and fewer than one out of 20 submissions is published, she said.

In the early days of the journal and today, Gold continues to be concerned about the divisiveness, hostility and polarization within the Jewish community. An activist and co-founder of the New Israel Fund of Canada, Canadian Friends of Givat Haviva, and JSpaceCanada, Gold created the journal with the hope that it would build bridges.

“There would be a place where writers and readers of all different perspectives and backgrounds could meet and be exposed to each other, because fiction is very powerful,” she said. “When you read fiction, your defences drop and you enter the inner world of the other person. And it changes you. It broadens the way you think about things.”

She also tries to build a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora by publishing Israeli writers in translation.

“The younger generation in the Diaspora is so estranged from Israel,” she said, adding she hopes exposure to fiction translated from Hebrew might give young people pause or some opening to experience Israel.

Gold decided to forgo a paywall for the site and make the stories accessible. While she was developing the idea for the journal, she remembers passing a group of Jewish kids at a bus stop near Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

“I just had this whole fantasy about high school kids being able to read great works of fiction on the bus on the way home instead of playing computer games,” she said.

“I didn’t want even to be charging $5 per issue because there are people for whom that’s a barrier, either economic or psychological. I just wanted anyone to be able to read this journal. And not only Jews, of course. We have lots of non-Jewish readers.”

Program Explores War-Era Yiddish Songs About Sickness, Grief

Sept. 10, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Who knew that pandemics could occasion music? Songs written while typhus epidemics raged in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust will be aired on Zoom from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13.

The program, Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, is a lecture/concert featuring Psoy Korolenko on vocals, with guest performances by singer Isaac Rosenberg and the Payadora Tango Ensemble. University of Toronto Prof. Anna Shternshis will discuss the songs and their origins.


One of the songs to be premiered at the free event is I Am a Typhus Louse, written in 1942 in Transnistria (now part of Moldova and Ukraine) by L. Vinakur. It’s a comic song from the perspective of a typhus louse, whose greater numbers ravaged the Transnistria Ghetto, and now wants to turn its attention to the Nazi soldiers.

Spread by lice, typhus was rampant during the Second World War, as Jews and other prisoners in the concentration camps were victims of forced starvation and horrific living conditions. It killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

Remembering the typhus epidemic is all the more timely amid the worldwide COVID pandemic. When the lockdown started in Toronto last March, Shternshis began researching Yiddish songs about epidemics to see how past generations dealt with them.

I Am a Typhus Louse is one of the songs Shternshis discovered in 2005, in an archive at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. From the library’s basement, she retrieved thousands of Yiddish song lyrics, stories and letters.

The songs were written in the Soviet Union by men, women and children – Holocaust victims and survivors, and Jewish Red Army soldiers. They were collected from 1943 to 1947 by a team of Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by Moisei Beregovsky. The subjects of the songs include accounts of Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine. The songs often express the desire for revenge against Adolf Hitler.

“Some of the most striking findings from this archive were songs written in small camps and ghettos in Nazi-occupied areas of Ukraine from where there remain no photographs,” Shternshis said in a YouTube video. 

“Songs were written by amateur authors, often children, sometimes women, and none of them were professional poets or songwriters,” she said. “All of these songs document what mattered to people then – issues of daily life, pandemics, starvation, and violence in ghettos.”

Beregovsky had hoped to publish an anthology of the songs but the project was never completed, as he and his colleagues were arrested in 1949, at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge. The archive was seized and remained in unlabelled boxes in the library until the 1990s, when a librarian catalogued the contents.

Anna Shternshis, Psoy Korolenko
Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko

In 2014, Shternshis worked with Korolenko, who paired lyrics from the archive with melodies he adapted from popular Yiddish and Soviet Second World War-era songs. Since then, they’ve been performed in venues around the world, including at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. A collection of the songs, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 in the Best World Music Album category.

Among the songs featured in the Zoom program will be My Mother’s Grave, written by a 10-year-old who was a prisoner in the Pechora concentration camp, operated by Romania during the Second World War in the village of Pechora, now in Ukraine. In the song, the child details his grieving after losing his mother, and vows that the enemy will be defeated. 

Information on how to access Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, co-presented by Klez Kanada, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T and the Canada Council of the Arts, is provided on the poster that accompanies this article.

To watch the video I Am a Typhus Louse, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK8ERL5SSic

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Stan Fisher (July 26, 1935 – ), Phil Levitt (July 9, 1935 – ), The Diamonds

The Diamonds
The Diamonds (Phil Levitt, Front Row Right). Photo credit: Barry Worrell

Sept. 4, 2020


Friends Phil and Sheila Katz Levine (an accomplished pianist), my wife Rhoda, and I were recently playing rock’n’roll guessing games. Sheila said, “The Diamonds are Canadian. There is one Jewish founder named Stan Fisher.”

This piqued my interest as a possible “On the Record” column. Turns out there were two Toronto Jewish founders of The Diamonds: Stan Fisher and Phil Levitt.

So I connected with long-time fan Barry Worrell, who for years has monitored the group, to get the scoop.

The “Original Diamonds” quartet was launched in 1953 at the University of Toronto. Fisher sang lead and Levitt baritone, joining with tenor Ted Kowalski and bassist Bill Read. Kowalski and Read have both passed.

At a CBC audition for Pick The Stars, they met Dave Somerville, who tutored the amateur foursome until Fisher left to pursue his university studies. Somerville took over as lead vocalist. Contrary to popular belief (according to Snopes), Tom Hanks’ father never sang with The Diamonds.

So why did Fisher leave in 1953? Worrell explained: “Sometimes, an individual can be a founding member of a singing group without ever making one recording, giving any concerts, or driving one mile on a tour bus with that group. In many biographies, Fisher is mentioned as singing lead, which he was, but in others, he’s left out as if he was never there.”

Somerville, Fisher’s replacement, “had the distinctive voice that made the group. The guys made the right decision, even though it hurt like hell (for me) at the time,” said Fisher.

Born in Toronto, the son of Jewish Polish parents, Fisher is recognized as one of Canada’s top tier commercial arbitrators and mediators. Now 85, he graduated from Forest Hill Collegiate, then law school in 1956. Over the years, he has represented The Diamonds in legal matters, and remains friends with Levitt.

From the get-go, The Diamonds were able to interpret and introduce rhythm and blues to a wider pop audience. They tied for first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show, which resulted in a recording contract with Coral Records, which released four songs, including Black Denim Trousers & Motorcycle Boots, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, according to The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

They moved on to Mercury Records, where their first hit, Why Do Fools Fall In Love? reached number 12 on the Billboard chart (the song was first performed by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers). They followed that up with The Church Bells May Ring, originally by the Willows, which rose to number 13.

The Diamonds recorded three albums, 65 singles and several compilation albums from 1955 to 1961.

Their biggest hits went gold. In 1957, Little Darlin’ (originally by the Gladiolas) reached number two on Billboard’s Hot 100 and in 1958, The Stroll, which generated “a dance craze of the same name,” according to Worrell. The weekly music news magazine Cashbox listed those two tunes as the sixth and 30th most popular singles in 1957 and 1958 respectively. Over the years, numerous TV appearances including on American Bandstand, nightclub gigs, and film work kept the quartet busy.

In the late ‘50s, Levitt, Reed, and Kowalski were replaced by Mike Douglas, Evan Fisher and John Felten. Somerville departed in 1961 and there were no more hit records after that.

Also now 85 and also the son of Jewish Polish-born parents, Levitt was Fisher’s teenage pal. He graduated from Leaside High School, then enrolled in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto when Fisher went into law. Worrell reported Levitt saying, “the most marvelous thing about being part of the group was in the amateur days when, alone, we put together an arrangement for a new song. There were no microphones and no instruments, just our voices, and the blend was smooth and the sound was beautiful, to my ears anyway, and I remember wishing the song and the evening could just go on forever.”

Even though The Diamonds’ lineup changed, they continued to perform in nightclubs across North America. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame in 2006.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

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

Book Review: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, by Casper ter Kuile (HarperOne, 2020)

Sept. 3, 2020 – By AURORA MENDELSOHN

How has a non-Jewish graduate of the Harvard Divinity School become this year’s coveted speaker for Jewish organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Moishe House, and numerous high-profile synagogues?

In The Power of Ritual, Casper ter Kuile, now a “Ministry Innovation Fellow” at Harvard, has tapped into a view of ritual that resonates deeply with a Jewish audience, particularly those who struggle with traditional Judaism yet still seek meaning through observance.

The author sets out to free people to draw on the redemptive power of ritual without necessarily being tied to belief in God, a religion or a religious community. While exploring both religious and secular sources, he examines four aspects of connection that ritual can provide.

The first connection is with ourselves. The ability to connect with our authentic selves is often drowned out in the pursuit of status or money. The ritual described for enabling those connections is familiar: Each Friday at sundown, ter Kuile lights candles, sings, and turns off his phone and laptop for 24 hours. He reads for pleasure or engages in playful and creative pursuits. He does not travel or work. Yes, the first ritual described is Shabbat. His reasons for observing Shabbat are informed by a Jewish perspective and are dotted with references to Abraham Heschel’s classic book, The Sabbath.

Another ritual for connecting with ourselves is engagement with sacred texts, which is also deeply familiar to Jews. Studying Torah and Talmud are integral parts of Judaism, and methods of textual study permeate Jewish thinking. Ter Kuile expands the concept of sacred texts to include any text studied in the correct mind frame.

As a co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” ter Kuile uses Jewish study techniques like hevruta (paired study) and pardes (a multi-level engagement with text) to seek spirituality in the books of Harry Potter. The result is more meaningful than one might expect, and illuminates the powerful tools our tradition provides for sacred interactions with text.

Ter Kuile highlights two rituals that enable us to connect with others. The first is shared, communal meals that are repeated. This type of meal is the main aspect of Shabbat that many secular Jews observe, often without naming it as a ritual and without acknowledging its importance.

The second is connection through fitness communities like Soul Cycle. The description of people bonding through the vulnerabilities exposed during extreme physical effort seems genuine. But as someone connected to an organized community, I found the connection less reliable, both in the bonds formed and in the long-term viability of communities governed by corporate interests.

Ter Kuile suggests two practices for connecting with nature. The first is pilgrimage, which he redefines as walking with a purpose and focus in mind, and being present in nature. In modern Judaism, we see this practiced in the Jewish Renewal movement and less explicitly in the many Jewish camping movements.

The second is a liturgical calendar that connects people to the seasons, which is part of Judaism and many other religions. Ter Kuile selects from and adds to these to create seasonal rituals that help ground secular city dwellers in their place in nature.

The final chapter offers ways of connecting with transcendence without defining transcendence as divine or supernatural. Borrowing from the themes of traditional prayers, ter Kuile translates adoration, contrition, and thanksgiving into accessible practices the reader can choose to adopt.

What The Power of Ritual has done is unbundle many meaningful rituals from their traditional sources. While ter Kuile’s observance of Shabbat sounds very similar to how I celebrate (minus blessings and shul), hearing about the power of its many aspects from a non-Jewish author grants people permission and legitimacy to create their own versions of Shabbat without feeling obliged to take on the whole traditional package.

What remains to be seen is the cost of that unbundling. The advantage is increased access. But ad hoc rituals and spiritual communities make it harder to a find a single community that addresses one’s changing needs over many stages of life, and to ensure that practices endure in one’s life and across generations.

For both secular people and religious people who struggle with the content of belief, The Power of Ritual is an accessible and potentially transformative introduction to religious observance.

Aurora Mendelsohn
Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, ritual, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.

Ashkenaz Festival Marks Anniversary Online (Starts Tonight!)

Sept. 1, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The Ashkenaz Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary online. Live daily pop-up performances and a nightly archive series, will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube from Sept. 1 to 7.

Founded in 1995 as a biennial showcase for klezmer and Yiddish music and culture, the festival grew to embrace global Jewish art and culture, including dance, theatre and film. Ashkenaz has attracted audiences of more than 60,000 to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Due to restrictions imposed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, Ashkenaz is offering a pared-down virtual edition for 2020, featuring a musical sampling.

It’s a jolt to be unable to present the festival in person, said artistic director Eric Stein.

“But being able to mark that milestone in the way that we’re doing, with a look back and also a look at the present, I think is a nice opportunity,” he added.

Twenty-minute live pop-up performances by some of the festival’s Toronto-based alumni will be streamed daily at 4 p.m. from various outdoor locations in the city. The series showcases Sephardic singer Aviva Chernick; the Toronto Klezmer Society; pianist Marilyn Lerner with singer David Wall; Lemon Bucket Orkestra co-founders Mark and Marichka Marcyk; Moneka Arabic Jazz and klezmer/Balkan-style band Beyond the Pale.

Ashkenaz’s founding artistic director, trumpeter David Buchbinder, shot a video for the festival in New Orleans, where he’s based part-time, to be streamed during the festival.

Delivery of music has been completely transformed at this point, with venues not functioning the way they used to, said Stein, who also plays mandolin for Beyond the Pale. But, he added, there are amazing opportunities to hear music in unexpected places, such as living rooms, backyards, porches and parks.

The band “Beyond the Pale,” with Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein at far left.

“There’s such a hunger for music out there and there’s a hunger by musicians to get out and play, aside from the fact that they really need to work and earn something because all of their income has been so incredibly constricted,” Stein said.

The festival’s archival series, daily at 8 p.m., presents concerts from festivals from 1999 to 2018. “I would say the further back we go in time with the archival shows, fewer and fewer people would have seen these shows,” Stein said. “It’s like you’re seeing new content.”

Included in the evening series are 1999 performances by the Flying Bulgar Band, a legendary Toronto group that was part of the klezmer revival, and Hasidic New Wave, a band that fuses Hasidic musical styles, such as freylekhs and horas, with jazz, funk and experimental rock.

The archival series will revive a 2014 performance by Zion80, a 10-piece, improvisational horn-heavy band that combines the heartfelt melodies of Jewish music with the polyrhythmic intensity of Afrobeat.

Other highlights of the nightly series include a 2008 concert headlined by Joshua Nelson, an African-American singer who blends Hebrew texts with gospel melodies, and a 2018 performance by YID!, an Australian group that performs Yiddish music mixed with jazz, funk, electronica and indie folk.

The 2016 concert by the Israeli group, Baladino, whose repertoire consists of fresh yet authentic interpretations of Sephardic and Ladino melodies, is also being streamed for the nightly series. 

The finale of the 2006 Ashkenaz Festival rounds out the virtual festival. Featuring an all-star band, the concert is a tribute to the Moldavian clarinetist German Goldenshteyn, an important figure in the klezmer world who died months before he was to perform at Ashkenaz. Goldenshteyn brought his native region’s klezmer tradition to the United States in 1994, when he arrived there with hundreds of klezmer tunes he had transcribed over the years.

“This was a particularly spirited finale because there was an emotional resonance around the loss of German and how significant he and his repertoire had been to the klezmer scene at that time and still to the present,” Stein said. 

“It’s an amazing performance of a complete all-star cast of just about anyone you can imagine who is an important figure in the klezmer scene and it ends with about 40 musicians on stage.”

A virtual exhibition, 25 years of the Ashkenaz Festival, tells the festival’s story, from its launch in 1995 through to the 2018 event. Presented by the Ashkenaz Festival and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the exhibit is online until Sept. 30. 

The exhibit includes a narrative written by Stein, videos, photographs and digitized memorabilia – press clippings, excerpts from program books, festival T-shirts and the colourful, whimsical posters created for each past festival.

Stein said he put the exhibit together to give people a sense of what the festival has been throughout its life, how important it’s been to the artistic community, and to the community at large. It was also an opportunity for him to honour the people who created the festival and who have along the way been critical to its success and functioning.

Stein reflected that watching this year’s virtual edition is a way for people to remember the amazing times they had at previous festivals, surrounded by thousands of people at Harbourfront Centre and feeling the community and the vitality of the artists and the art forms. 

“That’s what we’re missing so much. We all hope we can back to where we can experience that live again,” he said. “But for now, this is the next best thing.”

For more information, visit http://www.ashkenaz.ca/event/ashkenaz-2020/ 

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

PAULINE DONALDA – March, 5, 1882 – Oct. 22, 1970

Pauline Donalda
Pauline Donalda

Operatic Soprano, Teacher, Administrator

Aug. 31, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Jewish musicians often changed their first and/or surnames, as did Pauline Lightstone, born in Montreal to Jewish parents who immigrated to Canada from Russia and Poland. Her family name was Lichtenstein. 

The soon-to-be Canadian prima donna began singing at an early age. After studying at McGill University’s Royal Victoria College with Clara Lichtenstein (no relation), she received a grant in 1902 from the college’s patron, Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) to attend the Conservatoire de Paris, where she studied voice with Edmond Duvernoy. Collections Canada notes that she adopted her new stage name, Donalda, to honour her patron.

Pauline Donalda

According to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Donalda’s artistic career burgeoned following a successful 1904 debut singing composer Jules Massenet’s opera Manon in Nice, France. In 1905 she sang the roles of Conception in Maurice Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and Ah-joe in Franco Leoni’s L’Oracolo for Queen Victoria at London’s Covent Garden, and at the Opera de la Monnaie in Brussels. In a Verdi opera, she sang with tenor Enrico Caruso in 1906.

That same year, she sang at the Montreal Arena with her husband, baritone Paul Seveilhac, and then joined the Oscar Hammerstein-founded Manhattan Opera House. But she yearned to return to Europe in 1907 to perform in Paris and London.

But she longed for Canada and chose to remain in Montreal as the First World War began, singing in a variety of music halls and concerts, including appearances in New York and Boston. She organized the Donalda Sunday Afternoon Concerts, with proceeds supporting various war charities.

She married her second husband, Mischa Leon, in 1918, after returning to Paris.

A Museum of Jewish Montreal review noted, “From 1922 on, she devoted herself to teaching voice. Twenty years later, in 1942, she founded the Opera Guild of Montreal, which staged the first Canadian performances of many operas. Among the first women to promote opera, Donalda made an exceptional contribution to the development of the arts in Canada. In so doing, she helped promote both the country and the Jewish community worldwide.”

As president and artistic director of the Opera Guild of Montreal until 1969, Pauline Donalda was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 “for her contribution to the arts, especially opera, as a singer and founder of the Guild.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner at tcgpr.com and is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Honest: There’s No Films Like These Anyplace

Aug. 31, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

UPDATE: There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace sold out!

The Ontario Jewish Archives and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival are presenting a virtual film series celebrating the life of theatre impresario Ed Mirvish and his beloved discount department store, Honest Ed’s, which closed in 2017.

The series, The Honest Ed’s Experience, which runs until Sept. 2, opened on Aug. 25 with the 75-minute documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, named for one of the bombastic signs on the store’s exterior.

Directed by Lulu Wei, the 2020 film profiles gentrification in Toronto through the history, demolition in 2018, and redevelopment of the Honest Ed block, which encompassed the 68-year-old store and the adjacent Mirvish Village on Markham Street, a row of houses where Mirvish rented inexpensive space to artists and art galleries.

For the documentary, Wei interviewed residents of the area, Bloor and Bathurst, who were affected by the loss of the block.

“Laments for these lost places and their dislocated inhabitants are captured by Wei,” wrote Peter Howell in the Toronto Star. “It’s not a feel-good memory piece about Ed Mirvish, who is seen only briefly in archival footage.” Mirvish died in 2007 at age 92.

Two of the films in the series focus on Mirvish: A Day in the Life of Honest Ed’s and Honest Ed Mirvish: The World’s Most Unusual Shopkeeper. A third film, Honest Frank, is the story of an immigrant who worked in the department store.

Ed Mirvish

A Day in the Life of Honest Ed’s is an eight-minute film made by a group of York University students in 1978. One of the young filmmakers was Larry Weinstein, who went on to make Inside Hana’s Suitcase and Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas.

Honest Ed Mirvish: The World’s Most Unusual Shopkeeper (1998) is John Martin’s 54-minute in-depth portrait of Mirvish, from his beginnings as the child of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Lithuania who ran a small grocery store on Dundas Street, to his being made a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. The film travels with Mirvish to his birthplace of Colonial Beach, Va. He shares stories about the opening of the store in staid postwar Toronto, his 35 years in show business – Mirvish purchased the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963 and refurbished it, revitalizing the Toronto theatre scene – and his creation of Mirvish Village as an artists’ colony.

Honest Frank is a six-minute documentary about filmmaker Danielle Heifa’s uncle, Frank Salerno, who started working at Honest Ed’s department store as a new immigrant in 1959 and retired when the store closed in 2017.

For information, visit ontariojewisharchives.org

ChaiFlicks ‘One-Stop’ Shopping for Jewish, Israeli Programming


One of the most notable cultural results of the COVID pandemic has been the increased importance of TV and streaming services, as people adjusted to staying at home.

So it made perfect sense for ChaiFlicks, an exclusively Jewish and Israeli content streaming service, to arrive on the scene. ChaiFlicks, which launched Aug. 20, has a very specific demographic in mind, said its co-founder, veteran film distributor Neil Friedman.

Neil Friedman ChaiFlicks
Neil Friedman, ChaiFlicks

“Our audience prefers to view Jewish and Israeli programming as a priority over other programming,” Friedman told the CJR. “We have always prided ourselves on our curatorial abilities. We like what we like, and audiences, critics and subscribers have followed.”

He described the service as a “repository for the best of Jewish and Israeli programming, all on one channel. One-stop shopping.”

ChaiFlicks’ co-founders are Heidi Bogin Oshin, also of Menemsha Films, and Bill Weiner, a former executive with New Regency Productions, whose films include The Revenant and 12 Years a Slave.

Friedman has some idea of what audiences want, as he has been offering them premium art house content since 1998 through his company Menemsha Films, distributor of such popular films such as Gloomy Sunday and The Rape of Europa. Since 2012, Menemsha has focused on releasing only Jewish and Israeli films.

The distributor acquires 10-15 films a year. Six to eight of those are released theatrically. In two-and-half years, three films met the $1 million benchmark for a successful foreign movie at the American box office: Dough, a British comedy starring Jonathan Pryce; an Israeli film, The Women’s Balcony; and 1945, a black-and-white Hungarian film.

Netlifix bought the first two, but not the excellent 1945. That galvanized Friedman and his partners to spring into action with a new business plan.

“We knew right then and there that we had to initiate our own SVOD (Streaming Video on Demand) channel to have a platform for our films if the other services were buying less and less art house fair,” he explained.

ChaiFlicks launched with a slate of 150 films, documentaries, shorts and television programs. Its first episodic show is the comedy Soon By You.

It has entered into multi-picture deals with the Israeli world sales company, Go2Films, the Los Angeles based Jewish Women’s Theatre, and the American Sephardi Federation, whose programming, as its name suggests, centres on the Sephardic experience.

The service won’t compete with Netflix or HBO Max, preferring to brand itself as amedium-sized niche channel. Neither will it limit itself to what qualifies as standard programming.

“We already have theatre on the channel and we expect to have comedy shows, cooking shows, and musical and dance performances, both classical and modern,” Friedman said. “There are no boundaries at all in what we could add to the channel from a programming perspective.”

But ChaiFlicks will still have an art house bent, he added.

“Our taste has always been more the intellectual type of programming. The films that excite us are [those] that cover new ground. If it is new and exciting for us, we believe it will be new and exciting for our subscribers.”

Friedman is confident that ChaiFlicks can build an audience quickly.

With cinemas generally closed, audiences are “slowly becoming skilled and comfortable accessing films at home,” he said. “Everybody has a grandchild or two that can teach the older audience this new conception of streaming films.”

And with no limits, Friedman compares ChaiFlicks with “going for a PhD in Jewish Studies, and that is the same path we hope our subscribers are on with the programming we provide. We hope.”

Learn more at https://www.chaiflicks.com/

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)

Inaugural Hamilton Jewish Film Fest Goes Virtual

Aug. 25, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The inaugural edition of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival (HJFF), originally scheduled for March, was almost a casualty of the COVID pandemic.

That is until Wendy Schneider, editor of the Hamilton Jewish News, watched movies online during the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in June.

“I found the experience to be very positive,” Schneider said. As a result, she and Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, agreed to produce a virtual festival locally.

The HJFF, presented by the Hamilton Jewish Federation and the Westdale Theatre, a Hamilton cultural hub, runs from Aug. 29 to Sept. 3. The fledgling festival will screen three movies: two feature films, The Other Story (2018) and Leona (2018), and a documentary, Picture of His Life (2019).

In The Other Story, directed and co-written by Israeli Avi Nesher, the newly religiously observant Anat (Joy Rieger) wakes up in the women’s dormitory of a yeshiva she attends. She’s about to marry another baal teshuvah (newly observant) Israeli rock star, played by Israeli singer-songwriter Nathan Goshen.

A scene from the film The Other Story

Anat’s secular mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), is furious about her daughter’s decision to choose a religious path. In another storyline, one of several in this complex movie, Sari, a young woman who has rejected her religious upbringing, meets up with Anat.

Nesher won the Israel Film Critics Association’s 2018 Best Director award for the movie.

In her review of The Other Story, Nell Minow wrote at RogerEbert.com that “Nesher skillfully balances a lot of characters and storylines, each illustrating a different kind of Israeli and a different connection to Jewish life, culture and practice, but he never lets any of them become symbolic rather than real.”

Leona, directed and co-written by Mexican director Isaac Cherem, is the story of a young woman, Ariela (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), a member of Mexico’s Syrian Jewish community, who has a love affair with a non-Jew. Once Ariela’s mother finds out about the relationship, she enlists various members of the community who try to persuade Ariela to end the affair. Leonora took the Excellence in Film Award at the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival.

A scene from the movie Leona

Cherem is part of Mexico’s Syrian-Jewish community. His great-grandparents were immigrants from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

“I think the Mexican culture is particularly strong, the same way as the Syrian-Jewish culture,” Cherem told the Jerusalem Post. “And that might be one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for both to coexist and integrate with one another.”

Picture of His Life, co-directed by Jonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, is about the world-renowned underwater wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum. For his photo shoots, Nachoum has swam with crocodiles, killer whales, anacondas and great white sharks, but the polar bear always eluded him. This award-winning film follows Nachoum in the Canadian Arctic as he prepares for his ultimate challenge: to photograph a polar bear underwater while he’s swimming alongside it.

A poster from the documentary Picture of His Life

One-hour Zoom Q&As with filmmakers, moderated by Fred Fuchs, follow the screenings. Fuchs is the former president of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s film production company. After moving to Canada in 2001, Fuchs worked at CBC, where he was involved with the production of the TV shows The Tudors, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Heartland.

Fuchs said Q&As add a lot of extra value when, after the film, the audience can speak to the filmmaker.

Now retired and living in Hamilton, he’s chair of a charitable organization that purchased and restored the city’s 1935 heritage Westdale Theatre.

While Fuchs wishes the HJFF could be held at the Westdale, he realizes a virtual festival has some advantages.

“I look at it positively because maybe we could have had 200-250 people at the theatre,” he said. “Here there’s an opportunity for many more people to participate and people who don’t live in Hamilton.” 

For more information about the festival, visit hamiltonjewishfederation.ticketspice.com/film-festival

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Zara Nelsova – (Dec. 24, 1917 – Oct. 10, 2002): Cellist, Teacher

Aug. 24, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

World-renowned cellist Zara Nelsova was born Sara Katznelson. Her Jewish parents and two older sisters emigrated from Russia to Winnipeg, lured by the offer of free land in Canada. Classified as a farmer, her professionally-trained flautist father, Gregor Katznelson, (later changed to Nelsov) recognized Sara’s potential at age four, converted a viola into a miniature cello, and as her teacher, helped Sara become an accomplished soloist.

Her father also arranged for young Sara to take lessons from Hungarian-born cellist (also a child prodigy) Dezso Mahalek, who played with a Winnipeg theatre orchestra.

The three Nelsova sisters (Sara was 10 at the time) founded the Canadian Trio in 1927, as The Telegraph reported, “touring the Dominion” and winning first prize at a Manitoba music competition.

One of the judges, Sir Hugh Robertson, conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, urged the family to move to London with the help of a grant from the province’s Ministry of Education. The clan was poor and needed subsidies.

Sara ultimately enrolled at the London Violoncello School, directed by Herbert Walenn. One of his previous students was John Barbirolli, from whom she claimed to learn her sound and who arranged for her to perform for renowned cellist Pablo Casals.

Wrote Sara Margolis in Strings Magazine, “At 12, she was already a great cellist. But seeking improvement long past the beginning of her professional career, she went on to study with the three great cellists of the day: Gregor Piatigorsky, Emmanuel Feuermann, and Pablo Casals. Nelsova’s humility in seeking out further guidance was coupled with confidence and assertiveness, qualities that stood her in good stead both musically and professionally.

“She gained the opportunity to study with Piatigorsky by showing up unannounced to play prior to an early morning departure at his hotel. She caught conductor William Steinberg’s attention by planting her cello directly in front of him after a rehearsal and just started playing. All that plus a name change, and before long, Zara Nelsova had been crowned cello royalty.” 

At 13, she was a guest soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, appearing with Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Over the next 10 years, Zara Nelsova played as a soloist and with her sisters Ida, a violinist and Anna on piano, travelling throughout Australia, North Africa and South Africa.

Returning to Canada in 1939, Nelsova became principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1940-43. She also formed a new Canadian trio with Ernest MacMillan and Kathleen Parlow.

After the Second World War, The Guardian reported, “Zara was left the use of a Stradivarius cello that belonged to [Portuguese cellist Guilhermina] Suggia. Though perhaps a little small for her very swollen fingers later on, it was a lovely instrument, and the sound she drew from it was exceedingly special.” Her 1726 Stradivarius cello was known as the Marquis de Corberon.

“Further studies with Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, and after 1946, with Pablo Casals, opened up solo and concerto engagements for Nelsova,” noted The Canadian Encyclopedia. “She made recordings with Samuel Barber and the cello music of Ernest Bloch, who said ‘Zara Nelsova is my music.’”

She became an American citizen in 1955, performing with many global orchestras as a soloist, including the New York Philharmonic and orchestras in Montreal, Winnipeg and Boston and overseas in Berlin, Amsterdam and Warsaw. She married American pianist Grant Johnannsen with whom she often performed and recorded.

As a soloist, she performed with conductors who became household names: Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta. She was the first American cellist to tour the Soviet Union in 1966, and taught at New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music from 1962 through 2002.

“For me, playing music is about sharing, sharing my love for music and sharing my love for what we are as human beings,” she told cello.org in 2000. “The minute I start to play, I’m in a different world, and I’m so caught up in the music and in my desire to share it with the audience that all else fades away. The overwhelming feeling I get is a sense of connection with each person in the audience; I want the audience members to know how much I love what I am doing and how much I love them. And how do I do it? I do it by trying to communicate my love through beautiful music.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Book Review: The Two-State Dilemma

The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (Barlow Publishing), By Michael Dan


Michael Dan’s new book, The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, makes three bold and provocative statements within its opening pages: One: “The two-state game has ended; a new game is now underway.” Two: “What’s happening today in the Palestinian Territories isn’t occupation – it’s colonization.” Finally, “What further use do we have for Zionism? Why bother clinging to an ideological relic from the nineteenth century?”

Dan writes dispassionately about issues that have inflamed passions on all side for decades, and in these three statements, he implodes the principal arguments held so dearly by progressive Zionists: That the two-state solution is dead, that we can no longer call for an end to the occupation because it is de facto colonization; and that Zionism is an anachronistic notion that has served its purpose and is no longer worth holding onto.

Dan pushes this even further by declaring that Israel is not a liberal democracy, but an ethnocracy, meaning that “according to its own constitution, Israel is not a ‘state of all its citizens.’ The legal sovereign of the state of Israel is the Jewish people – regardless of their citizenship status or place of residence in the world.”

Michael Dan
Michael Dan

The author makes clear his book is not prescriptive, but “it might help us to think about [the conflict] in original and counter-intuitive ways.” After setting the table with the above proactive statements, he gives a primer on game theory for conflict resolution, beginning with the well-known “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which two individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will never produce the optimal outcome, but if they cooperate, can both do better.

Game theory, as outlined by Dan, relies on non-zero sum (non-binary) solutions to difficult situations. He states: “Since biblical times, every major conflict in the Middle East has been framed as an ‘us versus them’ trade-off: a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains represent the other side’s losses. Game theory on the other hand provides “an opportunity for rational co-operation between two opponents.”

In the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners have an option of snitching on each other to the police or remaining silent, the best possible collective outcome for both is realized when the prisoners cooperate and remain silent. Betrayal of the other by both would produce the worst possible collective outcome. The key ingredient to cooperation is a high level of trust. Will the other party cooperate if I did, and what is the risk to me if they don’t?

When applied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Dan feels the best collective outcome is achieved by a one-state solution in which everyone will have equal rights and access to the entire land of Historic Palestine. Such a “utopian scenario” will require a great deal of trust between the two parties.

The two-state option is second best, given that while it produces, for each party, independence from the other, each side will have access to only their part of a divided land.

The author believes there are no desirable remaining options, which are a non-democratic Zionist state where a Jewish minority governs over a Palestinian majority (because of demographics); or a democratic Arab state where an Arab majority rules over a Jewish minority.

Dan’s focuses on the “Nash Equilibrium” and the “Pareto Principle,” and applies those to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Nash Equilibrium is when suspicion of the other leads you to try to undermine the other party before they do the same to you. It very much describes the behavior of Palestinians and Israelis throughout the Oslo peace process. The Pareto Principle is the opposite: Optimality is achieved by arriving at the best possible collective outcome. Dan writes:

From a game theory perspective, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be reduced to a dilemma between co-operating with the other side (be it Israeli or Palestinian) in the hope that they will co-operate with you, or betraying the other side because you’re almost certain that they will betray you. It all comes down to trust. 

Dan brings a cool, surgical approach to his analysis. Those traits come honestly: He’s a trained neurosurgeon and a PhD in medicine, with an MBA to boot. A social entrepreneur, he’s donated millions to First Nations, universities, St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, and various charities.

He’s uncompromising, both in his analysis of how we got here, and his conclusions in how to move forward. He lays out a strong case in support of his three opening statements, charting how the notion of two states failed 80 years ago with the Peel Commission and has “been on life support ever since.”

He unflinchingly makes his case that Zionism is a colonial project whose usefulness has run its course, while the occupation is a colonization by a military power. He supports these arguments by painting a detailed historical account of what has happened from the inception of the Zionist vision to today.

Dan denotes three Zionist dilemmas: Demographics (which do not favour Jews), Palestinian national legitimacy (recognized by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as part of the Oslo Accords), and the partitioning of Historic Palestine (that has continuously failed). Using game theory, he shows how each of these dilemmas feed into the other and renders the status quo an impossible zero-sum exercise.

The author’s scientific approach may defuse some of the natural emotions the reader will certainly bring to the subject. This dispassion also creates a feeling of neutrality that some might view as insensitivity to the plight of Palestinians. We would argue that Dan’s pragmatic approach is especially valuable in these times, in which rhetoric from both sides rarely allows room for objective reasoning.

Applying game theory to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bold new approach and this is a very worthwhile read. Dan’s precision in his examination of history and deployment of science in order to rethink this age-old conflict is refreshing. The integrity of his analysis is hard to come by, as is the courage of his convictions.

Raja Khoury
Raja Khoury

Raja Khouri is founder and CEO of  Khouri Conversations, was founding president of the Canadian Arab Institute, a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, is Canada Committee member of Human Rights Watch, and co-founder of the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group.

Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time.

Raja and Jeffrey are the co-authors of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in the Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two Diasporas.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Zal Yanovsky (Dec. 19, 1944 – Dec. 13, 2002): Guitarist, Co-Founder, Lovin’ Spoonful, Chef, Restaurateur, Cookbook Author

Aug. 14, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Just ahead of the COVID onslaught, three of the four remaining members of the Lovin’ Spoonful reunited on a Glendale, California stage for the first time in two decades. The original quartet last appeared together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Missing on stage that evening was their Canadian Jewish co-founder, Zalman (Zal) Yanovsky, who’d died 18 years earlier.

Zalman (Zal) Yanovsky

During my university years, this 1960s band got lots of airplay and regularly topped the charts with memorable tunes like Daydream, Do You Believe In Magic?, Nashville Cats, Rain On The Roof, Summer In The City and You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice. 

A rock music icon and fashion trendsetter, Yanovsky was the group’s conspicuous showman who wore cowboy hats and fringed jackets, a style emulated by Sonny Bono, David Crosby and Johnny Rivers.

The Toronto-born son of political cartoonist Avrom Yanovsky (his mother died while he was still a child), Zal was a self-taught guitarist and folk singer. He was taught to play the banjo at Camp Naivelt by Jerry Gray, who founded the Travellers.

A high school dropout who played the Toronto coffee house scene starting at age 16, Yanovsky moved to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz and later as a Tel Aviv street busker.

He returned to Toronto and hooked up with Denny Doherty who invited him to join his folk-blues combo, the Halifax Three. Doherty, later a member of the Mamas and the Papas, invited Yanovsky to play with that group and the future “Mama” Cass Elliot in the Mugwumps, as reported in Rolling Stone.

Yanovsky moved to Greenwich Village and teamed with another talented guitarist, John Sebastian, who told Rolling Stone, “He could play like Elmore James, he could play like Floyd Cramer, he could play like Chuck Berry. He could play like all these people, yet he still had his overpowering personality. Out of this we could, I thought, craft something with real flexibility.”

Then came bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, and the Lovin’ Spoonful, with Sebastian as lead singer, was launched.

So how did they choose their name? According to rocknrollmusichistory.com, it came from a line in a Mississippi John Hurt song, Coffee Blues, in which Hurt paid tribute to Maxwell House coffee, “which is so good, he only needs one spoonful, which he refers to as ‘my lovin’ spoonful.’”

The group’s first single was Do You Believe In Magic, a Top 10 hit in 1965. As a string of catchy tunes followed, the Spoonful challenged the Beatles and other British Invasion groups’ chart dominance.

But trouble was brewing in the band when, in 1966, Boone and Yanovsky were booked on pot charges in San Francisco, but escaped prosecution by turning in their dealer. In mid-1967, Yanovsky was deported back to Canada but was ostracized and quit the foursome.

He played guitar with Kris Kristofferson and in 1969, co-produced an album, Happy Sad, with his Lovin’ Spoonful replacement Jerry Yester. He recorded a solo album, Alive And Well In Argentina in 1971.

Fed up with music business politics in the early ‘70s, he took a shot a TV production, but ultimately found new career success as a chef and restaurateur. In 1979 he renovated a late 19th century livery stable, named it Chez Piggy, and opened a second restaurant, Pan Chancho Bakery, in 1994. Both would be hotspots in Kingston, Ont. Yanovsky’s business partner was his second wife, Rose Richardson. He also wrote the Chez Piggy Cookbook in 1998 which became a favourite for music and culinary fans.

Just six days before his 58th birthday, Yanovsky died of a heart attack. His daughter, Zoe, whose mother is actress Jackie Burroughs, has owned and operated both restaurants since 2005.

In memoriam, John Sebastian told Rolling Stone that “Spoonful reunions without Zal Yanovsky are more like get-togethers. (Whenever we do them), it will be a blast, but a reunion would be a misnomer.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

An American Pickle: A Bland Concoction


An American Pickle, the first feature film offered by HBO Max, (showing on Crave TV in Canada), doesn’t really move much beyond its basic idea.

Seth Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant to the U.S. who works in a pickle factory, circa 1919. When he accidentally falls into a pickle barrel, the brine preserves him, until he is discovered a century later. When he emerges into our world, he has to adjust to its myriad changes while also trying to bond with his great-grandson Ben (Rogen, in a dual role).

In many ways, the movie, written by Simon Rich, and adapted from his serialized 2013 New Yorker short story Sellout, never allows its viewers to suspend their disbelief as, for example, the fish out of water (literally) movie Splash did so well. Would the pickle factory, condemned right after Herschel’s accident, actually survive as untouched real estate for that long? Do they expect us to accept that that the scientists who get hold of the revived Herschel would not prepare him for his new world by showing him what has transpired since he was pickled? Yes, An American Pickle is a fantasy, but even that genre has to function logically.

Mind you, with its flat depiction of Herschel’s Eastern European birthplace (called Shlupsk – not as funny a name as Rich thinks it is), it’s apparent that the movie lacks imagination, resorting to lame Cossack jokes and quaint societal portraits. This isn’t Fiddler on the Roof, not by a long shot.

An American Pickle is pretty thin, as Herschel, after fighting with Ben, sets out on his own to make a success of himself. He undergoes a series of adverse events before finally connecting with his relative over their shared loss of family. That’s the whole basic, banal, plot.

What we’re left with are some jokes about Herschel’s perceived “authenticity” – his pickle business goes viral after a blogger raves about him – and how his backwards, prejudiced, early 20th century views are a perfect fit for our current age of ignorant Twitter utterances and internet trolls.

The movie does try to have it both ways, however, suggesting an innate genius for business on Herschel’s part, but also positing that he is not smart enough to keep his retrograde views to himself. Those include opinions on Christianity that no Jew, much less a put-upon one from the shtetl, would ever utter in mixed, non-Jewish, company. Yet, there’s also a commensurate and curious lack of antisemitism manifest in this world, where Herschel riles up so many Americans.

An American Pickle, directed indifferently by Brandon Frost, is also not that Jewish. Yes, Ben is very assimilated, which shocks Herschel. And Herschel is angered when he sees a billboard ad for vodka hovering over the neglected Jewish cemetery where the Greenbaums are buried, associating that drink with the dreaded Cossacks of old. But this is comparatively weak stuff. The movie never matches the scene in Knocked Up, in which Rogen’s Jewish character kvells with his Jewish pals over Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Finally, they can relate to a movie in which Jews kick butt and take names, instead of – as usual in films – having their butts kicked. And there’s nothing in the movie that’s as brilliant as the concept of Woody Allen’s Zelig, with that character symbolizing the Jewish affinity for melding into whatever milieu he finds himself in.

Rogen’s performances are also problematic. Herschel has some character shadings, though he barely seems to register that he’s in an entirely different world than the one from his past. But Ben’s persona is so pallid, that he fails utterly to register emotionally. And what were Rogen (who co-produced the movie) and company thinking in wasting the talents of Sarah Snook, who plays Herschel’s wife Sarah and was so great as the scheming Siobhan Roy in HBO’s superb TV series Succession? At least Simon Rich’s short story proffered a female love interest for Ben’s character, which would have made for a perfect opportunity for the filmmakers to utilize Snook in a deeper, present day dual role, rather than the blink-and-you-miss-her near walk-on part as Sarah Greenbaum.

And if you’re wondering if this film will offend you in light of Rogen’s recent intemperate comments about Judaism and Israel he made on Marc Maron’s podcast, don’t worry. It’s too tame and innocuous to raise anyone’s hackles, except for those who actually expect comedies to be funny.

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. (www.criticsatlarge.ca)

KlezKanada Goes Online for 25th Anniversary Edition

Aug. 11, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

KlezKanada is taking its annual summer festival of Yiddish music and culture – its 25th anniversary edition – online this year.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

More than 60 virtual workshops and classes, and several concerts are scheduled for the five-day KlezKanada festival, scheduled for Aug. 24-28.

The organization’s executive director, Sebastian Schulman, said cancelling this year’s festival due to restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic was out of the question, adding that the culture of eastern European Jewish life teaches about how to persist in difficult times. 

Asya Vaisman Schulman and KlezKanada executive director Sebastian Schulman. Photo Avia Moore

“There’s so many examples of Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews specifically, being able to create in the most dire of circumstances,” he said. 

“Our minds might go most immediately to the war and to the Holocaust. I think there’s (also) a really rich history for centuries of being able to look in the face of fear or catastrophe and to sing, to laugh, to dance.

“And that is a very Jewish way of facing a crisis. The world is in the middle of a crisis right now and our community says, ‘well, let’s put on a festival. Let’s celebrate life as best as we can.’”

Naoki Hishinuma, left, Adam Matlock and Aaron Blacksberg. Photo Avia Moore

While a virtual festival can’t replace KlezKanada’s camp, which has been held at Camp B’nai Brith in Lantier, Que., in the Laurentian mountains for 24 years, the online festival has its advantages.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

For one thing, KlezKanada is expecting registration to be higher than usual this year, with hundreds of attendees from around the world, including many people who have been unable to attend past festivals, Schulman said.

Some workshops, like Transcription Corner, where students will learn how to create sheet music from recordings, will be even more effective online, he said.

Having sheet music helps learning how to play klezmer and Yiddish music, as their sources are old recordings. The instructors will go through the different technologies for transcribing music.

“You could do it in person, but it would be a very dry class in person. If you do it online, you can really get into the nitty-gritty of the technology,” Schulman said.

The festival offers klezmer music instruction ranging from “Klezmer 101” for new players, to a variety of workshops for intermediate and advanced students. The ambitious program also includes Yiddish language courses, lessons in visual arts and Jewish cooking, film screenings, dance classes and children’s activities.

Performers on KlezKanada’s virtual main stage will include the Grammy award-winning band The Klezmatics, and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, a genre-defying artist who’s known for fusing Jewish music with hip hop. In concert, Socalled will be singing Yiddish songs backed by a string quartet.

Concert Highlights

“Where Have You Been?: 25 Years of KlezKanada in Lantier, Quebec,” based on research into KlezKanada’s camp location in Lantier, combines theatre and music. The piece was created in collaboration with indigenous historians, musician and writer Geoff Berner, and puppeteer Jenny Romaine.

Klezmer trombonist Rachel Lemisch and Jason Rosenblatt perform from their home in Montreal. She comes from a family of klezmorim that goes back generations, and he is one of the world’s leading performers of klezmer on diatonic harmonica.

East Meets West Revisited looks back to the 1980s, a time in contemporary Yiddish culture when artists from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reconnected with their counterparts in North America and western Europe. The concert features Michael Alpert (USA/Scotland), Efim Chorny and Suzanna Ghergus (Moldova), Sasha Lurje (Germany/Latvia), and the Strauss Warschauer Duo (USA).

Workshop and Class Highlights

Klezmer 101 Yoni Kaston and Ariane Morin teach the basic klezmer genres and explain modes and harmonies, and students will learn tunes in a play-along session.

Klezmexperimental Ensemble In this experimental music workshop, led by Dan Blacksberg and Frank London, for intermediate and advanced students, participants will explore creating pieces with no set tempo and try out different kinds of musical layerings, while they push the limits of what kind of music they can make live. 

Alternative Voice Techniques for Folk Singing Yiddish singer extraordinaire Sasha Lurje will help vocalists learn how to control their voices and use them as instruments. The class is open to both experienced singers and people searching for their voices.

The Beauty in Ugly Stuffed Vegetables – One thing that nearly every Jewish community – from Romania and Poland to Syria, Morocco and India – has in common is an affection for stuffed vegetables, the culinary technique that transforms a bit of meat or starch into a soulful and seductive centrepiece. Leah Koenig, the author of The Jewish Cookbook and Modern Jewish Cooking, explores the cultural particularities of this universal Jewish food. Recipes will be provided in advance of the class for anyone wanting to cook along.Dancing

Together Apart Avia Moore and Magdalena Hutter will lead participants in exploring Yiddish dance in relationship with the screens that are currently so central to our lives. They will explore concepts such as space, tempo, shape and gesture through Yiddish dance and ScreenDance. They will then send participants out into the world to record their own movement explorations, starting with a zhok (Yiddish dance) step.

For more information, visit http://klezkanada.org

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Louis Applebaum: April 3, 1918 – April 20, 2000. Film Score and Theatre Composer, Conductor, Theatre Administrator

Aug. 6, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

While looking for a full-time gig after graduating from Carleton University’s School of Journalism, I thought the National Film Board (NFB) might be an interesting place to work, but received an unexpected offer from the Canadian Film Institute (CFI), a non-profit, non-government film repository in Ottawa. That’s where I spent many a day, over a year and-a-half, in a darkened screening room writing short descriptors for film catalogues.

As it turned out, CFI managed the distribution of NFB productions that were available for rent or sale to universities, community colleges, schools, churches/synagogues, and community service and business organizations across the country.

Many of those NFB films I screened were scored by Toronto-born Louis Applebaum, and I have never forgotten his name.

Louis Applebaum

Records show that over 18 years, Applebaum composed the music for about 250 NFB productions. Three notable credits, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, include Royal Journey in 1951, The Stratford Adventure in 1954 and Paddle To The Sea in 1966.

Applebaum received a 1947 Academy Award nomination with a co-composer for The Story of G.I. Joe film score, and, as listed in Canada’s Awards Database, he received a 1968 Canadian Film Award for his non-feature music score of Athabaska and a 1989 Gemini Award for the Best Original Music Score for a Program or Mini-Series for Glory Enough For All.”

Applebaum began writing music when he was 15 and honed his skills at the University of Toronto with such luminaries as Boris Berlin and Sir Ernest MacMillan, and with Toronto Conservatory of Music’s Leo Smith. He also studied in New York with Roy Harris and Bernard Wagenaar. The multi-skilled Applebaum also wrote ballet music, and symphonic, chamber and choral works.

He served the NFB as music director and as a consultant from 1942-53, but his most stellar achievement, according to Playbill, was that he was considered “the dean of Canadian theatre composers” and as first director of the Stratford Festival’s music department, a position he held under founding director Tyrone Guthrie beginning in 1953.

Over 43 seasons, he wrote and conducted music for over 75 productions, working with eight Stratford Festival artistic directors. His fanfare composition marking the beginning of each Festival performance is well-recognized by theatregoers.

There was a confluence of the compositional and administrative aspects of Applebaum’s career; divergent to some, but not to him.

He moved to the private sector in 1960, becoming president of a TV production company, Group Four Productions, while serving as a music consultant for CBC-TV. He chaired an Advisory Committee for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from 1963 to 1966 and wrote a federal government commissioned report leading to the creation of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which included a first-time music department at the University of Ottawa.

During the 1960s and 70s, Applebaum held senior leadership positions with the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the Canada Council, the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the Canadian Music Centre, and the Canadian League of Composers. 

From 1971 to 1980, he headed the Ontario Arts Council and, as chair of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, co-authored the important Applebaum-Hebert Report – “the first review of Canadian cultural institutions and federal cultural policy since 1951,” reported the Canadian Encyclopedia.

“Essentially I’m working to improve the lot of my colleagues and I have been doing that for many years – at the same time staying on as a functioning artist,” he told Canadian Composer in 1974.

Known and respected as a strong supporter of young Canadian composers, Applebaum received many awards and commendations including the Order of Canada in 1976 (he was promoted to Companion in 1995) and the Order of Ontario in 1989.

The Ontario Arts Foundation established the Louis Applebaum Composers Award in 1998, and the University of Toronto created The Louis Applebaum Distinguished Visitor in Composition in his honour.

A public funeral for this larger-than-life personality took place on April 23, 2000 at Toronto’s Temple Sinai. I wish I had been there.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

Book Review: The A-Z of Intermarriage, By Rabbi Denise Handlarski

The A-Z of Intermarriage, By Rabbi Denise Handlarski (New Jewish Press, 2020)


This new volume tackles the fraught subject of Jewish intermarriage in a hopeful, good-humoured, occasionally pugnacious and humane fashion. The core idea is that intermarriage is not nearly as much of a threat to Jewish continuity as are unwelcoming Jewish communities who treat those who are different with fear and suspicion.

The A-Z of Intermarriage

In response to this characterization, the author is uncompromising in her advocacy of courage, compassion and kindness, both on the part of intermarried couples and of the families and communities that nurture them. She also expresses a deep-seated optimism that conditions are changing for the better, which augurs well, she believes, both for intermarried couples and for the Jewish future.

The book offers advice to already intermarried couples on how to make the most of their marriages, as well as to parents and family members on how to take a loving and supportive approach to the choices made by their loved ones.

It also expounds a robustly optimistic faith in individual freedom and the importance and possibility of finding personal fulfillment in all the activities of life.

Until last month, Denise Handlarski was rabbi at Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. In an article for Kveller in which she announced her departure, she confessed that she “found it impossible to juggle the responsibilities of my job alongside caring for my children during COVID – the strain had become untenable.”

Rabbi Denise Handlarski
Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Her former congregants are adherents of secular Humanist Judaism, a movement of those who value their identity as Jews but don’t hold to traditional Jewish religious beliefs. Rabbi Handlarski herself is intermarried and she writes freely about creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children in an intermarried family. Everywhere in the book she makes the argument for seeing intermarriage as an opportunity rather than a problem – for the couple, but also for their families and communities.

The volume is structured as a reference book, organized alphabetically by topic, from A for “Acceptance” to Z for “Zygote.” But it can be comfortably read in order from cover to cover. Rabbi Handlarski’s idea of what constitutes Judaism differs from that of this reviewer and will differ from that of many readers, but her attachment and commitment to Jewish community and Jewish identity radiates from every page.

The key ideas are worked out in longer sections, such as the one on Assimilation, in which she argues that an exclusionary attitude to intermarriage has backfired. Rather than preserving Jewish continuity, she claims, community restrictions on intermarriage have driven away people who might otherwise have remained engaged and raised their children in a Jewish community.

Rabbi Handlarski argues for a glass-half-full reading of statistics on intermarriage, which show that most intermarried couples raise their children with some form of Jewish identity. She sees this as a direct result of many Jewish communities becoming more accepting of intermarriage.

In the section on Marriage, she begins by asserting that all marriages are intermarriages, in that for all people have in common, there are always differences to be negotiated. She sees differences over values as potentially more challenging than those over religious beliefs and traditions. Every marriage must manage and resolve such differences if it is to be successful. She argues that a successful marriage requires “struggle, grit and perseverance,” whether the partners come from the same religious or ethnic background or not.

In the section on Parents, the author makes a passionate case for respecting the choices of your children. After first acknowledging that parenting is difficult, she goes on to cite all the reasons the children that you love deserve your support.

“Your kid is in love, is independent enough to make their own choices and is choosing to include you in their lives. Celebrate!” Rabbi Handlarski advises. “Your kid made a choice you wouldn’t have made and that’s hard for you? It’s their job to decide who they are and what they believe. If they are able to do that, you did a good job of parenting.”

In the section on Tradition, she explains that in her branch of Judaism, tradition gets a vote but not a veto. She remains attached to traditions that bring meaning to her life. Shabbat is an example. She is a strong advocate for bringing joy and celebration to as much of life as possible. Jewish tradition is a way of doing this for her, but working hard for joy and meaning is the core value. She discusses various traditions (thanking God that you are not a woman) that don’t, in her view, bring joy, and these she abandons. Tradition is only meaningful if it is congruent with contemporary values.

If you are intermarried, have a family member or friend who is, or are interested in how intermarriage affects Jewish communities, this book has something to offer to you. The author’s optimism, good humour and belief in each person’s capacity to find fulfillment will charm any reader willing to approach its important subject with an open mind.

David Roytenberg
David Roytenberg

David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa. He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Oscar Brand (Feb. 7, 1920 – Sept. 30, 2016): Folk Singer, Songwriter, Radio Host, Short Story Writer

July 31, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Does the tune Something to Sing About ring a bell?

The Canadian song propelled advocates to lobby Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government and Parliament in 1965 for the composition to become Canada’s national anthem. It didn’t happen.

Composed by Oscar Brand, Something to Sing About extolled Canada and became the premise for Let’s Sing Out, a weekly TV show hosted by Brand which launched on CTV in1963 and was broadcast later on CBC. It was the Canadian pavilion’s popular theme at Expo ’67.

Brand composed around 300 songs and released some 100 albums, many with Canadian and American patriotic lyrics, but was best known as a radio show host for an amazing 70 years.

The Guinness Book of World Records confirms he holds the radio show host longevity record, beginning on Dec. 10, 1945 and ending Sept. 24, 2016. His 10 p.m. Saturday fixture, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, ruled that slot for seven decades on New York City’s WNYC-AM 820. He never had a contract and wasn’t paid.

Of Romanian-Jewish heritage, Oscar was born in Winnipeg to Isadore and Beatrice Brand, and the clan lived on a wheat farm near the Manitoba city. His father was an Indigenous interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Co., ran a theatre supply company, then a pawnshop.

The clan moved to the U.S. in 1927, living in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City. Residing in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, his parents sought medical treatment for Oscar, who was born with a missing calf muscle, according to Brand’s obituary in the New York Times.

After graduating from high school, he barnstormed the United States with his banjo, working on farms to pay his way. Returning home, he graduated with a psychology degree from Brooklyn College.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1942 as an induction centre psychologist and edited a newspaper for psychiatric patients. Following his discharge, he moved to the Greenwich Village music scene and wrote a book, How To Play the Guitar Better Than Me.

The music bug had bitten Brand at age seven because he loved listening to player-piano rolls. He was a creative sort who, growing up, wanted to be “on the radio.” He was hired by WYNC, a New York city-owned AM station, and never left. 

His show was a coveted appearance for talented musicians like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Lead Belly, Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger.

As a radio and stage performer, Brand’s gritty and sometimes off-key voice had believability.

He applied the voice “to old, new and sometimes deliberately mangled songs, both on and off the air,” the Times pronounced. “He was also an accomplished songwriter: Doris Day’s version of his song, A Guy Is A Guy reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952.”

In 1959, Brand was one of the original organizers of the Newport Folk Festival. During the ‘60s he was on the Children’s Television Workshop Board advisory panel, helping to develop Sesame Street. A somewhat prickly advisor, it was rumoured that the Oscar the Grouch character was named after Brand.

Still in the ‘60s, he was a Mariposa Folk Festival mainstay, later in 1987 and at the Festival’s 50th Anniversary in 2010.

According to one profile, he scored ballets for Agnes de Mille and commercials for Log Cabin Syrup and Cheerios; wrote music for documentary films, published songbooks, short stories; and hosted the children’s television shows The First Look and Spirit of ’76.

As a budding radio jock at the University of Alberta’s radio station UACR in Calgary, I was taken with these performances. Brand’s Canadiana love-initiative revived the careers of folk music pioneers like the Womenfolk and the Weavers, and helped kick-start then little known musicians like Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

Brand was a civil rights activist who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. The House Committee on Un-American Activities branded his show a “pipeline of Communism because of his support for First Amendment rights for blacklisted artists to be allowed to have a platform to reach the public,” reported the New York Daily News. Even so, Brand, reportedly was anti-Stalinist and not a Communist Party member.

“Few have sung and strummed more prolifically,” his New York Times obit lauded. “The hundreds of songs he recorded include election songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, drinking songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties about Nellie the Barmaid.”

Sadly, much of his and hundreds of other artists’ original masters and recordings were lost in a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008.

His numerous awards and honours included a 1995 Peabody Award for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”

Brand died at age 96, survived by his wife Karen, four children, and nine grandchildren.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

‘Engaging’ Look Back on a Vanished Jewish Community


Janice Masur grew up in the Ugandan capital of Kampala’s tiny Ashkenazi Jewish community in the 1950s, at a time Uganda was part of British East Africa and African independence movements were close to ending British colonial rule.

At its largest – in 1957 – Kampala’s Ashkenazi Jewish community numbered 23 families, about 60 people in all, Masur writes in Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator (Behind the Book, 2020), a community history and memoir. Unsurprisingly, they found it difficult to form a minyan.

Masur was born in Asmara, now in Eritrea, in 1944, to Lily Janes, a Londoner who had immigrated to Palestine in 1935, and Helmut Masur, who escaped from Germany to Palestine before the Nazis rose to power. Masur’s parents met in Haifa and married in 1936. 

In 1942, they left Haifa for Asmara for better job opportunities, Masur writes. “Also causing my parents angst were the German troops in the Caucasus and Rommel with his fast-advancing Afrika Korps moving eastward through Egypt and toward the Suez Canal and Palestine.”

Janice Masur

Her father left Eritrea in 1949 to look for work in Kenya, a popular destination for Jewish immigrants, but he was unable to afford the 50-Pound tariff required for a would-be settler. A Jewish businessman from Nairobi hired Masur’s father to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork outside Kampala Township, in a tropical forest.

At the brickwork, Masur’s mother found rats bouncing and cavorting in the ceiling of their home, a tin-roofed shack. “Nor was she pleased to find a snake curled up at the base of the toilet one day and later one curled up in her sewing basket,” Masur writes. On top of that, “there were malarial mosquitoes aplenty and jiggers (parasitic insects) to burrow into unsuspecting toes if one ran barefoot.”

By 1952, her family’s circumstances had improved – her father had become a car salesman – and they moved to a rented house in Kampala. Their home, on an acre of land, was a tropical paradise, with blooming trees and bushes, and a tall palm that sheltered colourful weaver birds.

Janice Masur (first row, left) with family, in Entebbe Botanical Gardens, 1953

At her new home, Masur recalls her mother screaming at Odera, the family’s houseboy, in frustration at his inability to follow instructions, which, Masur later learned, was a passive show of rebellion against British rule.

Her father was part of a volunteer European auxiliary police force, organized because the community feared political unrest. “Armed only with a truncheon, he was to help keep the white population safe in case of African agitation for better work conditions or a potential political motive,” she writes.

Once, during a family holiday in Kenya, the men at their hotel were asked to join a special police corps to patrol the area. No incident occurred, “but the writing was on the wall, a warning about the future,” Masur says in the book. “My family began to discuss where to go when we were able to leave Uganda.” Masur’s family left for New Zealand in 1961.

While Masur does touch on the white population’s relationship with the Black majority in 1950s Uganda, the book’s focus is her little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community.

Meticulously footnoted, it’s an engaging read about a Jewish community that exists mostly in the memories of the people who were once part of it.

Some antisemitism did exist in 1950s Uganda, affecting admission to certain schools, housing choices and job opportunities. But the Kampala Jewish community was widely accepted by the white population and faced no open religious discrimination, Masur writes.

While there was no religious discrimination, religious observance in such a small community, without a synagogue, a rabbi, a Torah or a burial society was a challenge. Masur’s parents preserved Jewish traditions “as best they could,” she writes, offering their house for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

In 1953, a rare Yom Kippur service led by a rabbi from South Africa was held at her family’s home. “I was nine years old at the time, and I recall having been told by my parents to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would not know that I was not observing the traditional fast,” Masur writes.

“Many years later I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law was not fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered.”

Without an organized Jewish community in Kampala, children missed out on a formal Jewish education. Holidays were usually observed without services.

“When somebody died, there were people who could lead a service. Somehow I knew that I was Jewish and my parents made sure that I knew I was Jewish,” Masur told the CJR in an interview from her home in Vancouver.

Masur’s Ashkenazi Jewish community has disappeared without a trace. Even the small cemetery has vanished, overgrown with tropical vegetation, and its headstones destroyed, perhaps during periods of civil unrest in the country, she writes.

Today, a Black Jewish community of 2,000-3,000, the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in the Luganda tongue), with roots in the 19th century, thrives in Uganda. Kampala friends of Masur’s family, Phil Levitan and Victor Franco, gave the Abayudaya religious instruction in the 1950s.

“These two men might have offered clandestine financial and philanthropic support to this Black community and liaised with the government of Israel to alert it to the existence of the community,” Masur writes.

“In that era, the concept of Black Jews existing anywhere was almost unheard of and incomprehensible,” she goes on. “Their efforts initiated a process that has resulted in the present recognition of these Black Jews by North American Reform and Conservative congregations.”

Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator is available on amazon.ca.

On the Record – Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

SAMY ELMAGHRIBI/SALOMON AMZALLAG (April 19, 1922 – March 9, 2008) Singer-Songwriter, Cantor, Poet, Oud Player

July 22, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

By night, Samy Elmaghribi was dubbed the Moroccan Charles Aznavour – with a pop singer’s global reputation.

By day, he was Salomon Amzallag, the first Moroccan cantor at Montreal’s famed Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue. Known as Shearith Israel, on St. Kevin Street in Montreal since 1960, it’s Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, established in 1768. Cantor Amzallag served there from 1967 to 1984.

Cantor Salomon Amzallag

Two cantors have since sung from the Spanish & Portuguese bimah, including Yehuda Abittan and present-day chazzan Daniel Benlolo, who was one of Amzallag’s students.

Amzallag was Benlolo’s mother’s cousin, and so the Montreal synagogue became their family’s new home.

“He’s the inspirational reason I became a chazzan and his shul was where I received my training,” Cantor Benlolo said. “He was a wonderful mentor. Over the years, I have been privileged to serve Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations in Ottawa, New York, Atlanta and Caracas, to name a few. Two and-a-half years ago, I was pleased to return home to Shearith Israel to work and live in Montréal.”

Amzallag was born in Safi, a city in western Morocco. His family moved to Rabat in 1926. Growing up, he taught himself to play the oud, a short-neck, lute-type pear-shaped string instrument that dates to Assyria.

Early on, young Samy familiarized himself with Arab-Andalusian music, attending the Conservatoire de Music de Casablanca. Starting at age 20, he studied with many of the great Andalusian masters of his time.

Christopher Silver, an assistant professor of Jewish History and Culture at McGill University, has called him “a mid-twentieth century Moroccan superstar.”

“From his debut in 1948 through his professional zenith in 1956, he was a ubiquitous presence on radio and in concert,” Silver wrote in a recent issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

Samy El Maghribi - Cantor Salomon Amzallag

As radio spread across Morocco, Elmaghribi’s live performances on radio and constant playing of his records on air “helped cement his status as the nation’s voice during a formative political moment.”

His popularity spilled over to commercial advertising: Elmaghribi  became an official spokesperson for Coca-Cola in Morocco. “His spoken dialogues and musical hooks for the soft drink company were played in heavy rotation on Radio Tangier International over the next several years,” wrote Silver. During this period, he became the sound of brands like Gillette, Palmolive, Canada Dry and Shell Oil.

A popular entertainer, Elmaghribi built a world-wide fan base and reinforced his Arab-Andalusian musical heritage with performances in Caracas, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York, as well as playing for Moroccan fans in Oujda and Rabat. Listen to his music here.

Yet, he was committed to his cultural roots and to the sacred liturgical genre, said his daughter, Yolande Amzallag, who helped create Fondation Samy Elmaghribi.

Samy Elmaghribi and Cantor Salomon Amzallag “were one and the same person,” Yolande Amzallag told the Morocco World News at the foundation’s 2015 launch, “despite the fact they performed in different settings whose integrity was never challenged by the apparent dichotomy between the sacred and the secular.”

Her father’s allegiance to God was matched by his allegiance to art, she went on, “and he aspired to spiritual elevation both as an artist and as a practicing Jew.”

After he retired, Amzallag moved to Israel and founded Merkaz Piyyut Veshira, a centre for Sephardic music from where, from 1988 to 1994, he was pedagogical director, according to his biography.

He also co-founded and performed with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra. In 2006, the orchestra won the country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize.

In November 2008, a few months after his death, Elmaghribi was posthumously recognized by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who awarded him the Commander of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite medal for Meritorious Service to Morocco.

His wife, Messody Cohen-Amzallag, died in Ashdod on April 5, 2015. The couple’s children created the foundation “to perpetuate their teachings of respect for tradition, openness to others and generosity through the love of music.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.