Vaccine Rollout Brings Hope to Maimonides

Dec. 17, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Every December, Beverly Spanier has organized a Hanukkah party for her friends. That celebration, held in a favourite restaurant or hotel, continued even after she moved into Maimonides Geriatric Centre five years ago.

Planning the party was a project the retired high school teacher worked on for weeks in advance. A paraplegic, she got to the site via the city’s adapted transit service.

That, of course, did not happen this year. Spanier, 75, has not left Maimonides since the pandemic began in March except for three hospital visits. In fact, she has been confined to her room for the past nine months, save for some time in its garden during the summer.

Beverly Spanier
Beverly Spanier

For the first months of the pandemic, all visitors, including paid caregivers on whom Spanier relied, were barred from Maimonides, and remain restricted.

For Spanier, Hanukkah has been limited to looking at the menorah in a municipal park from her fifth-floor window.

When Maimonides was selected as the first site in Montreal for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout, she didn’t hesitate to consent. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Spanier was among the first of the first in Canada – and indeed the world – to be inoculated.

Maimonides, a long-term care institution in Cote Saint-Luc, and a Quebec City nursing home, Centre d’Hébergement St. Antoine, received the first vaccine shipments to Quebec. The highly anticipated cargo landed at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal on the evening of Dec. 13.

Maimonides took delivery of two boxes of 972 doses each, and 150 residents and staff received their first shot on Dec. 14. Almost 95 percent of Maimonides’s approximately 350 residents have agreed to be inoculated, as have, at time of writing, 40 percent of its roughly 500 employees, according to CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that administers Maimonides.

Surplus doses from this initial batch will be made available to workers at other health care facilities in the local network.

The day after the first of her two shots, Spanier said she felt fine, with only a little redness at the injection site on her arm. Although she has much faith in medicine – her late brother was a doctor – Spanier was nervous about any adverse reaction and wondered if Maimonides had sufficient medical support on standby should a problem arise.

(CIUSSS officials reassured the public that it does have a trained team in place and precautions, such as a “crash cart,” to treat anaphylactic shock.)

“It is miraculous how the scientists and pharmaceutical industry have been able to produce an effective vaccine in such a short time, but you do worry,” Spanier said. “We are still, in a sense, in the midst of an experiment.”

On balance, she realizes that her risk of catching COVID is far greater than any associated with the vaccine. The consequences for Spanier, who has respiratory issues, could be fatal.

She also has a sense of responsibility toward society. “I think that we all have to do what we can to overcome this terrible disease and allow the world to return to normal.”

The psychological toll of the pandemic has been brutal, she said.

Maimonides has been hard hit by the coronavirus, twice. In the first wave, a third of residents were infected and 39 died, according to government information. It took the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and, after that, the Canadian Red Cross to help overwhelmed staff get the outbreak under control.

In early October, Maimonides was proud to announce there were no more active cases. But within weeks, the numbers went from zero to over 50 and, after trying to care for the sick in an isolated ward, transferred many to hospital.

On Dec. 16, Maimonides site coordinator Jennifer Clarke made public that, in the second wave, a total of 88 residents have had COVID and 19 have died. There are currently nine active cases, she reported.

Spanier compares her life to being on a “battleground,” with its fear, disruption and grief.

“We are a community here. I knew some of the people who died, or know someone who knew them,” she said. Her hope today is tinged with solemnity because she can’t forget the havoc the virus wreaked.

Much hoopla surrounded the rollout at Maimonides, with Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on hand for a ceremony held outside the building just before the first shot was administered to resident Gloria Lallouz, 78.

The politicians hailed it as a historic occasion. Hajdu, who did not hide her tears, said, “I see this as the first step toward the light.”

Spanier is more cautious. The first battle to be won is ending the pandemic, but the definition of victory in the long term, she believes, is changing society’s disregard for the institutionalized frail elderly.

“If any good has come out of this, it is that light has been shed on what is happening in chronic care places. We can’t just dump people, and the resources have to back that up. One orderly for 35 patients at night is not feasible anymore.”

Israeli-Canadian Ya’ara Saks is Liberal Hopeful in York Centre

Oct. 5, 2020

By LILA SARICK

It’s been the challenges of being a single parent and business owner during the pandemic that led Ya’ara Saks to seek the nomination for the Liberals in this month’s federal byelection in York Centre.

As the city went into lockdown, the demand for services at the mental health agency where Saks is the director skyrocketed, she told the CJR in an interview.

Meanwhile, the yoga studio she owns had to shift to online classes and employees were struggling.

Ya’ara Saks

“My staff are part of the gig economy – many of them are women – and watching them try to figure out how to get through this, and the vulnerabilities it exposed, was a real eye-opener [that] we never really addressed,” said Saks. “This is the moment to address them.”

Last month, Saks was appointed the Liberal candidate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bypassing the traditional nomination process.

“I was as surprised as anyone,” said Saks, pointing out that the party’s decision accorded with its guidelines.

Gary Gladstone, who was unsuccessful as the Liberal candidate in last year’s federal election in Thornhill riding, was also seeking the nomination in York Centre. He said that although he was “disappointed” there was no riding vote, he would be supporting Saks. “I think she’s a wonderful candidate.”

Saks will face Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson, a Filipino-Canadian businessman who lost his bid for a seat in Mississauga in the 2015 federal election. Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, which does not have a seat in Parliament, has also indicated he is running in York Centre.

According to the 2016 census, 17 percent of the riding’s residents are of Filipino ethnic origin. The 2011 National Household Survey found that 13.6 percent of York Centre residents indicated they were Jewish. It has traditionally been a safe Liberal seat, although in 2011, Conservative Mark Adler defeated Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden. The Liberals recaptured the riding in 2015.

The byelection, scheduled for Oct. 26, was called after MP Michael Levitt stepped down to become CEO of the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Apart from owning a yoga studio in the riding, Saks, 47, is the director of Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, a charity that focuses on mental health. Addressing mental health issues, especially challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, will be a priority if she is elected, she said.

Saks, who was born in Toronto and has an Israeli father, spent her early years in both Canada and Israel, and her first language is Hebrew. “My family’s moshav, Even Yehuda (just outside Netanya) was and remains a central part of my life,” she said.

She moved to Israel in 1995 and earned a master’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in international relations and diplomacy. She spent several years in the Jerusalem mayor’s office, working on community engagement projects, and moved back to Toronto in 2006.

The Liberal stance on Israel dovetails with her own philosophy, she said.

“The policy of the Liberal Party as it stands today is that a negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be in the best interest of both societies, and I am in complete agreement,” she said. “I think that Israelis have the right to be safe and secure within their own borders. I also think that Palestinian society should have an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate as well.”

Saks has been a committee member of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF), and said those who fear the organization leans too far left should examine its mandate, which is to “support Israeli society and uphold its Declaration of Independence, which were the founding values of the country.”

The NIF’s goals are in fact “in very close alignment with Liberal values,” she said.

“If we want to push back against BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel], then we want to show that Israelis do care about having a strong, democratic and socially just society. If we can show that, what better way to push back against BDS and the underlying voices of antisemitism that come with it?” she asked.

Running an election campaign during a pandemic is a challenge, but Saks says it was crucial to hold the byelection now so constituents would be represented as the number of COVID cases climb again.

Elections Canada is working with the candidates to ensure that voting can be done safely, she said.

Saks is not concerned that she could be engaged in a second campaign soon after this one should the minority Liberal government be defeated in a non-confidence motion.

Reflecting on the years she lived in Israel, she noted she had experience with the country going to the polls multiple times.

“An election is not something to be afraid of,” she said. “An election is an opportunity to highlight your commitment to the values and the policies that have been put forward and to encourage voters to use their ballot to let us know what they want.”

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.

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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