Category Archives: Canadian Jewry

Comfort Food

by Gili Haimovich (Gyva’taim, Israel)

I practice on my kitten what I would answer

If I would ever have a child and he or she would ask me:

“Mum, where do your words come from”?

Well, my Canadian kitten,

My English words come from above,

From the emptiness.

From the void space

In my mouth.

Between the upper and the lower

Gums.

“But where does your Hebrew come from, Mum? With me you always speak Hebrew”.

Well, my child,

(The child would not be Canadian nor Israeli, but just a child),

My Hebrew is lying in my tummy,

Like comfort food.

Waiting for you.

Gili Haimovich is an international poet and translator who writes in both Hebrew and English. She has six volumes of poetry in Hebrew. Her most recent, Landing Lights (Iton 77 Publishing House, 2017), received a grant from Acum, as did her previous book. She also received a grant nominating her as an outstanding artist by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (2015). Her poetry in English is featured in her chapbook, Living on a Blank Page (Blue Angel Press, 2008) and in numerous journals and anthologies, such as World Literature Today, Poetry International, International Poetry Review, LRC – Literary Review of Canada, Poem Magazine, Asymptote, Drain Magazine, Blue Lyra, Circumference and TOK: Writing the New Toronto as well as main Israeli journals, newspapers and anthologies including The Most Beautiful Poems in Hebrew (Yedioth Ahronot Books, 2013). You can visit her website for more information about her and her work:  www.poetryon.com.

“Comfort Food” originally appeared in Drain Magazine, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Filed under Canadian Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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Building Community with Soul

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

I can no longer live a meaningful life without my Jewish community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.

Since ancient times, philosophers like Aristotle (Politics, 1.1253a) and more recently, Spinoza (Ethics, IV, prop 35) have argued that we are social animals. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14) In other words, “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39A, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5).

The Talmud actually defined the type of society where scholars were allowed to live: The chosen city had to include a beit din (law court), an honest charity fund, a synagogue, public baths and toilet facilities, a mohel (circumciser) and a surgeon, a notary, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a teacher (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b). As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has explained, “in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all its members’ spiritual and physical needs” (www.myjewishlearning.com).

Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for such community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. “We should be buried within the community where we live,” was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne, Australia, for more than 30 years.

He was espousing the teachings of both Rabbis Hillel and Tzaddok, who urged us not to separate ourselves from the community (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, 4:7). Indeed, Judaism teaches that those who are not prepared to feel their community’s pain and help out when the going gets tough, will not enjoy comfort in the good times either. As the Talmud warns, “The man who secludes himself from the community, which is in distress, shall not see the prosperity of the community” (Ta’anit, chapter 1).

A midrash goes even further, maintaining that removing yourself from the community is like overthrowing the world. It tells the story of the dying Rabbi Assi, who was depressed because although he had been a great scholar and kind and generous man, he had not been involved in communal matters or disputes. As he told his nephew, “I might perhaps have been able to render some service, had I not kept to myself but taken upon me the burden of communal affairs” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).

When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Although we had belonged to various Orthodox synagogues in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we had flitted from one synagogue to the next, sampling a different one on each Jewish holiday but not feeling “at home” in any of them.

Nevertheless, I was touched when one of the rabbis, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon my father’s first yahrzeit (anniversary after death), the same rabbi offered me his synagogue for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation – after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do.

That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year. Judaism ensures that mourners do not grieve alone, stipulating that Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which God’s name is sanctified, only be recited publicly in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish adults – the minimum number required for community). Celebrations also become more meaningful when enjoyed together in community.

As our sons have grown older and undertaken preparation for their Bar Mitzvah, our family has come to attend synagogue every Shabbat. Our shule of choice is Conservative (Masorti): Integrating tradition with modernity, it allows us to sit together as a family instead of banishing me behind a mechitza (partition to separate men and women).

This egalitarian ethos is particularly important to me as I do not have any daughters and would otherwise be sitting apart from my husband and sons. Nevertheless, it was several years before I felt comfortable being counted in a minyan and agreed to be called up to the Torah. Not that there was ever any pressure on me to do so – our synagogue accepts a certain variety of Jewish practice.

It also gives us the freedom to question and acknowledges our right to consider different interpretations and viewpoints. As Robert Gordis, chairman of the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, has explained: “Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom” (JTS: Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 1988, Introduction p14).

In addition to my synagogue, the Jewish day school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work for tikkun olam, making the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the School Board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.

According to Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:2). In other words, the early rabbis were urging us to be ethical when we undertake communal work. As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “We must act with pure intentions, with no ulterior motives” (“Community – Then, Now, and Forever, www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/holocaust/no3.html).

Humility is also an important factor: The Talmud not only regards leaders as the “servants” of the community (Horayot 10a), but also stresses that they should always carry “a basket of reptiles” on their back so that if they “became arrogant”, they could be told to “Turn around!” (Yoma 22b). In other words, never forget that family skeleton hidden in your closet!

Recognizing the frailties of human nature, the ancient rabbis resorted to divine reward and punishment as a means of encouraging ethical communal leadership: those who cause others to do wrong will not be “given the opportunity to repent”, while those who lead others to do good will be credited with their community’s merit (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:18).

Sure, as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has pointed out, the rabbis did not think it fair that communal leaders should enjoy heaven while their followers rotted in hell, but is there really no hope of redemption for those who lead others down the wrong path? Here scholars disagreed, with some arguing that while God would not help the wrongdoers, they were still free to repent on their own. In contrast, the medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides is much more damning in his assessment: for him, there is truly no hope of salvation for such wicked leaders (Hilchot Teshuva 4:1, http://blog.webyeshiva.org/teshuva/inights-in-pirkei-avot-the-implications-of-causing-others-to-sin).

Admittedly, such threats have little effect in this day and age when many of us don’t even know whether we believe in God. Nevertheless, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilization. Conservative (Masorti) Judaism recognizes this position as valid: “One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions” (Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, p17).

My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just “a group of strangers singing together”. Yet, I have certainly discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at synagogue services and communal celebrations like the Pesach Seder.

To quote the writer Alain de Botton: The “relevance” of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism “to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together … or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together” (2012, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, London: Penguin Books, p50).

De Botton – who was born Jewish but describes himself as a committed atheist – argues for the removal of religion’s “supernatural structure” before it can help solve “many of the problems of the modern soul” (pp311-312).

My soul, however, does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within Judaism. All I need is my community.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  and at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

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Touched

by Bracha Mirsky (Jerusalem, Israel)

In Memory of Itka Rochel bas Shmuel z”l (1930-1974)

I’m a proud third-generation Canadian. I grew up in Ottawa the capital of Canada; the winters were long and cold. I remember the snow banks were higher than I was. Although my father was born and raised in Ottawa, by the time I was growing up most of my dad’s family had left the city. My mother was from Montreal where she had a large close-knit family she left to raise a family in Ottawa. We would visit and embrace the warmth of our family in Montreal as often as possible, but in Ottawa my mother was as isolated and lonely as if every day was winter.

I remember my grandparents’ towering gray stone house in Montreal. Even now, I can see through the eyes of a child and feel the warm wonder of the sights, smells and sounds of Pesach:  sweet gefilte fish, chicken soup, matzoh, grape juice, spilling the drops from our cup …to lessen our joy at the memory of the suffering of our enemies. I have fond memories of my grandfather, uncles, father and brothers at the head of the table singing. I looked forward to examining the drama of Pesach in pictures in a small, brightly colored Haggadah. My mother was a quiet woman; her attention was always focused on her children, ready with a kind word and a hug. She would help my grandmother prepare and serve the meal.

I’m nine-years-old.  I shyly ask my bubby, “Can I help too?”

“Of course,” my bubby replies. “What a big girl you are now. A shayna maideleh!”  I would help serve the gefilte fish and collect and wash the cutlery. I would bask in the glow of my mother’s pride in me.

My mother loved us so much! She was the emotional core of our family, yet we had no idea that in her quiet way she was instilling so much in us. She was a stay-at-home mom, with six children — that was no easy task! Dad worked hard but it was always difficult to make ends meet. There was no money for Hebrew school and so I went to the local public school.

As a child the world was puzzling to me. I could not connect the dots that others seemed to have no problem with; the world did not make sense.

“Dad, no one likes me, they won’t play with me, they’re mean and always try to get me in trouble.”  His only reply was, “Make yourself a small target.”

“Mom why do they call me a ‘Christ-killer’?”

“Just ignore them; they don’t know what they’re talking about.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was hard to ignore them while the boys were beating me up after school as the girls watched. Canada, 1968, I was 11-years-old.

“Where are you going Mom?”

“There is a protest to free the Soviet Jews.” My mother never missed a rally or any event to try and win the freedom of a fellow Jew. This woman who loved children and her people so much, who would not hurt a fly, always put a heavy wrench in her purse before each rally. Just in case the KGB tried to break it up, she intended to take a good swing at one!

I can still see Mom lighting Shabbos candles and the whole world seemed to glow in that soft light. With my mother at my side, the world was at peace.

Shul — a place to sing! Awesome! Reading the stories of the Bible, imagining what it would be like to have such faith. I already knew that God was everywhere and I could talk to him whenever I wanted. Talking to God was easy, understanding God was the hard part.

“Mom, are you not feeling well again?”

“No dear, don’t worry I’m OK.”  But she wasn’t. Visiting the hospital, not understanding, “When will Mom get better?”

“Soon dear, soon.”

It seemed so gradual, I didn’t even notice it. Mom could do less and less and I did more and more. I’m 16, my two older brothers are away at university leaving me, now the eldest at home, to look after and cook for my father and three younger siblings. My youngest brother is only six- years-old.

I visit Mom in the hospital every evening with my dad but she looks worse and worse, no one says anything. A wall of silence, we didn’t know…how could we not know? She kept the truth from us, it was cancer.

Waking up erev Rosh Hashanah, I can hear my dad talking on the phone “…last night…” I stiffen in my bed, my body rigid, waiting, but no one comes. I get up and go down to breakfast; Dad acts normally and sends us off to school.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

I sit at the back of the school assembly hall right up against a wall. In that big darkened room with only the stage lit up I’m in a tiny corner all alone, feeling with every part of my being that my whole world has come crashing down and no one else notices it, their world hasn’t changed at all. Yet I still try to deny it, I repeat to myself, “I must have been mistaken, Dad would have told me if anything happened, therefore nothing happened,” I say this to myself over and over again. Surrounded by a sea of people, I’m all alone in the dark.

That afternoon I begin my slow walk home from school with a heavy heart, thinking to myself, “It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.”

I’m about half-way home, alone as usual, when something softly brushes my cheek. I stop and stand still. My hair is tied back in a ponytail, there is nothing near me. Again, something softly brushes my cheek. My heart leaps out — NO! It can’t be! It’s not you, you’re not dead! It must be the wind!  I turn to face the opposite direction. The same soft touch brushes the same cheek. Then I knew…she was gone.

Stunned, I sit on a nearby rock, I don’t know for how long. Now numb and beyond pain, I accepted the truth. Then I began to wonder at the strength of my mother, to come to me and give me this gift. To reach out and touch me to say goodbye.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

My mother taught me many things. She taught me about family, to be a proud Jew and to never stop caring. In her last moments on earth she taught me that God is real and that nothing can stop love, not even death.

* * *

I look after my father and siblings for three years until I’m 19 and then it’s my turn to go away to college. I become a nurse and meet my husband. We are married in a lovely ceremony in an Orthodox shul. I miss my mom, but I believe she is happy for me. I could not have anticipated the surprises that were in store for me.

I married at 23, and two years later I give birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Oh! How my mom would have loved this! Never have I missed her so much as then. For the first time since her passing, I can see her in my mind’s eye, holding her grandchildren, and the joy from her face is blinding!

Public health services provide a really sweet woman to help out for the first few months, but after that initial period I am on my own. I am told by the supervisor, “No one can manage on their own with triplets; you’ll have to hire some help.”

“Really?” I say, “We’ll see…”

God, fill our hands with your blessings. In this, I am truly my mother’s daughter. Five years later I give birth to twin boys. Life is busier and happier than ever!

They grow, the years pass and they develop as proud Jews who know their God, and they are very proud of their people and love every one of them. I know exactly who they got that from. All the Bible stories are real to them, they love going to shul, singing and giving me joy.

And their mother tells them stories of a special soul, the bubby they never knew.

Mom, pray for them.

Bracha Mirsky is a mother of triplets and twins, Registered Nurse, Labour Coach, Certified Parent and Infant Consultant and Diabetes Educator. She has worked as a member of the St. Elizabeth Nurses Maternal and Infant Care Team as a specialist and with her local Family and Child services, assisting families with parenting issues. Bracha is a guide to parents through classes, as an advice columnist and as an author. Her book, What Makes Kids Tick? Giving parents the tools to shape child behaviour, is based on the counseling she has given parents and her own parenting journey, filled with stories of the challenges and rewards of raising multiple children and the insights the adventure has given her. Bracha can be reached at www.whatmakeskidstick.com. She has recently made aliya.

This story was reprinted with permission from Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume III, edited by Liz Pearl. For more information about the book, visit:  http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll3.htm

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Being Jewish

by Marcy White (Toronto, Canada)

In memory of Frank White z”l (1933-2010)

The first time I refused to go to shul for Rosh Hashanah I had the biggest fight with my father. We didn’t speak for one week because my dad expected me to do what he wanted. I was a 16-year-old struggling with the existence of God and refused to sit through a four hour service.

I couldn’t stomach the annual shul scene: everyone dressed in brand-new outfits, whispering about who gained weight, who looked good, who was unemployed or single. Eventually, I stopped attending services altogether. It was a gradual break, evolving over several years. I would wait at home for everyone to return and partake in the post-synagogue meal. Despite the comments from my father, I didn’t feel guilty about my religious lapse and I didn’t harbor secret feelings of being struck down for my agnostic beliefs.

Growing up in Montreal, I attended Solomon Schechter Academy and Herzliah High School. I ate kosher food at home and kissed the mezuzah before leaving on a trip. I went to Jewish camps and all my friends shared my religion.

When I was in my early 20s, I moved to Toronto and still practiced the customs: I lit Chanukah candles, ate matzah on Passover and nothing on Yom Kippur. I enjoyed the traditions but the shul sanctuary did not fill me with a sense of belonging.

When my first child was born in 2002, he spent three agonizing months in the hospital fighting for his life. From the second Jacob emerged from my body, every breath he took was a struggle. He was tethered to countless machines monitoring his breathing, his oxygen levels and his heart rate.

During that excruciatingly painful time, I did not find myself bargaining with God for assistance. I did not promise to eat kosher if Jacob would breathe without needing to be suctioned or become more observant if he would swallow without choking. But many friends who came to sit with me did so. I sarcastically joked that if there was a god, there were so many caring people of various religions praying for Jacob we’d have all the deities covered.

My son’s bris occurred under a general anesthetic when Jake was six-weeks-old, at the same time he underwent a surgical procedure. Instead of being held by his father or grandfather as dictated by our tradition, Jacob was lying on a gurney, sedated and intubated, under the glare of the operating room lights. It was a fortunate coincidence that one of the surgeons was also a mohel.

When Jacob was 10-months-old he was diagnosed with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD), a rare neurodegenerative disease. Although it was a relief to finally have a name to put to the assortment of symptoms, it was a crushing blow to learn that he would never walk or talk and would always be fed through the tube that was surgically implanted into his stomach on the day of his bris. I learned there is no cure and Jake’s symptoms would worsen over time.

When the shock of the diagnosis wore off, I resolved to give my son the greatest chance at a long and healthy life. I reasoned that if his body could be strengthened, it would be harder for the degenerative aspects of the disease to progress.

When Jake was 16-months-old, I hesitantly enrolled him at Zareinu Educational Centre, a school for children with special needs. I was wary of exposing my son, whose immune system was incredibly weak, to other germ-infested children. Until then, Jacob had been virtually sequestered at home, safely removed from others because a simple cold could be fatal to him. The opportunity for Jacob to receive an assortment of therapies to help his muscles develop, coupled with a vat of antibacterial hand wash, outweighed the benefits of keeping him sheltered at home.

The school was run by the Orthodox Jewish community. I’ve always heard that “they”, the devout Jews, who strictly observe all the rules of the religion, don’t consider “us”, the secular Jews, who drive on Saturdays and eat in non-kosher restaurants, Jewish. I wondered how Jacob would be treated in this program because our religious practices were vastly different from theirs. Would he be invited to participate with the others, or would he remain an outsider, the not-really-Jewish Jewish boy? Would the other parents try to keep their children away from my son?

Jacob, the most medically fragile child in the room, was welcomed into the class and received all the therapies and education the program had to offer.  My son was included and supported. It didn’t take me long to feel comfortable in the group.

Around the time Jacob turned four, I learned about Yedidus, a Sunday morning children’s program near our home. It was run out of Bais Yaakov High School, an Orthodox girls’ school and was open to all Jewish children with special needs.

Initially, I was skeptical about the qualifications of the leaders. How could teenage girls be comfortable taking care of my son when most adults were too afraid to be alone with him? My concerns were squelched when I observed the girls, all dressed modestly in long skirts and long sleeves, welcome Jacob into the group with an abundance of warmth. I knew he would be accepted despite our differences along the religious spectrum.

In the five years since we timidly wheeled Jake into the school on a Sunday in mid-October, my categorization of “us” and “them” has dissipated. Jacob was unequivocally enveloped by this extraordinary community.

Jacob’s Princesses, the frum girls affectionately named by Jake’s younger twin sisters because princesses always wear skirts, shower my son with attention, love and compassion. Unlike the typical teenagers depicted in the popular media, these girls do not devote their free time to listening to music, hanging out in shopping malls and playing video games with their friends. Consistent with the concepts of Gemilut Chassidim and Tikkun Olam that they see practiced in their community every day, the princesses’ after school hours are spent visiting hospitalized children, taking care of the elderly and helping their mothers with various chores. And they do this without hesitation and without complaint.

Jacob has been invited into their homes for Purim, Chanukah and to spend the night on Shabbat. For the past two summers, four incredible princesses took Jake to Camp Yaldei, an overnight camp in the Laurentians in Quebec, for a month. The girls spent entire nights at our house, awake while most of the city was sleeping, watching our nurses tend to Jacob so that they would be comfortable with all aspects of his care.

Thanks to these extraordinary Orthodox teenagers, Jacob is able to enjoy some typical childhood experiences, including sleepovers, camp and a house over-flowing with friends and laughter each year on his birthday.

Because of Jacob’s Princesses and the empathy and love they shower on him, I developed a new appreciation for Judaism and Orthodoxy. I realized that a religion that is based on helping other Jews and giving back to the less fortunate when life treats you well deserves a second look. Motivated by the relationships I developed with these incredible girls, I started to re-evaluate my commitment to the religion into which I was born.

I learned how to make challah and my family lights Shabbat candles together. My daughters sing the brachas and Jacob knows when to vocalize for his favorite part, the “amen” at the end of each prayer.

When we visited my parents two years ago in Montreal, my dad’s face glowed with pride as he listened to my children ask the four questions during our Passover Seder. He was thrilled once again when they came with him to shul for Rosh Hashanah.

Sadly, my father passed away a few months ago. Although I still question the existence of God, I believe in the goodness of the Jewish community. In honor of my dad, the person I used to argue with about attending synagogue, I go to shul every day to say Kaddish. For him.

Marcy White enjoyed a career in the investment industry that was sidelined with the birth of her son in 2002. Her academic degrees did not prepare her for caring for Jacob who was born with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD). Since Jacob’s diagnosis at 10-months- old, Marcy has become an advocate for her son and furthering PMD research to help find a cure. Marcy has written many articles about Jacob that have appeared in publications such as the Globe and Mail, Canadian Jewish News and Exceptional Parent. She co-founded www.curepmd.com to educate people about PMD and fund research into finding a treatment. Marcy lives in Toronto with her husband, Andrew, and their three children, Jacob, Sierra and Jamie.For more information about PMD visit www.curepmd.com.

Reprinted with the permission of the author Marcy White and with the permission of Liz Pearl, the editor of Living Legacies – A Collection of Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women – Volume III. (PK Press, 2011). For more information about this publication or to order copies please contact liz_pearl@sympatico.ca.

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Zaidie and Ferdele

by Carol Katz (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

I loved Ma’s father, Zaidie Gedalia. He and Bubby Bobtze lived on City Hall Street near Mount Royal Ave. This was Montreal in the 1940s, the era and area of Mordecai Richler, Baron Byng High School, and Wilensky’s juicy smoked meat sandwiches on rye, served with a generous portion of greasy, salty French fries. But the unique geography of Montreal is its high mountain in the middle of the city. I also remember the marble grey statue of Jacques Cartier, the bandstand, and Beaver Lake. Zaidie and I spent hours together each summer watching the katchkes (ducks) and walking in the woods. What I cherished most were the horse and buggy rides.

I lived with Ma, Daddy and my younger sister Rona on Park Avenue between Bernard and Saint Viateur Streets. Our tiny one-bedroom apartment was situated above Duskes’ Hardware Store. Ma and Daddy slept in the living room. Rona and I shared the one bedroom. Park Avenue in the 40s and 50s was primarily Jewish. I remember Ben’s Delicatessen across the street and Pascal’s Hardware Store at the corner. I took ballet and tap dance lessons at Rialto Hall, now a movie theatre. Since Park Avenue was a main thoroughfare, the rumble of the streetcars often disturbed my sleep.

Passover Seders at my grandparents’ home were the highlights of each year. The number nine streetcar on Park Avenue took us to Mount Royal Avenue. We walked four blocks on Mount Royal Avenue, passing the Y.M.H.A, and the Jewish Public Library. As soon as I arrived at Bubby’s and Zaidie’s, I jumped onto Zaidie’s lap and showered him with hugs and kisses. His white, wispy hair blew from side to side as he shook his head and his large, dark-framed glasses fell onto the bridge of his nose.

His face lit up when I bit into those sweet, soft, half-moon Passover candies.  He didn’t mind my sticky, sugary fingers on his cheeks. Then I went into the warm cozy kitchen to kiss my Bubby’s red cheeks and greasy hands. She was at the stove with its black, thick, iron-stove pipe reaching up to the ceiling. I still taste her succulent roast chicken and potato knishes, filled with onions and pepper.

At every Seder, I was chosen to recite the Four Questions from the Haggadah. I began with the first one: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But, each year, I added a fifth and sixth question: “Zaidie, what was life like for you in the old country? Why did you leave?”

Zaidie’s answer was the same: “Meydele, (little girl) I already told you my story last year.”  I would laugh and pretend that I did not remember.

Then he began: “I was born in a shtetl (small Jewish town) called Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, which was part of Russia. I worked in a shop that made iron for stoves. One day, I noticed a young woman who had entered the shop. I immediately knew that I was going marry her. I fell in love with her beauty and gracefulness. Sarah and I were married within six months.”

“Your aunt Jenny was born in the first year of our marriage. Five years later your mother, Libby, came into this world. We spoke Yiddish and Russian. I read the Haggadah in Hebrew, which I learned in cheder” (Jewish elementary school).

“One morning, as I was about to leave for the iron shop, we heard a loud knock on the front door. I answered. A gun was pointing at my nose. Two burly, moustached Russian soldiers forced me backwards into the living room. Bubby was sitting on the couch, knitting a sweater. Jennie and Libby were in school. Bubby began to scream. I begged them to let us go. The younger one stared at us with piercing eyes and hesitated. Without warning they both walked out.”

We all knew the rest of the story—how Bubby Bobtze, Auntie Jenny and Ma came first, the long, tiring, ride on the ship, the seasickness, and the arrival in a strange country, not knowing the language. They stayed with Zaidie’s brother Berel on St. Urbain Street.

Zaidie found work as a scrap peddler soon after he arrived in Montreal. In the 1950s, horse-drawn wagons still plied the streets of Montreal. Zaidie owned a horse that he called “Ferdele” (small horse).  Ferdele had a light brown sheen with a silky, long black mane, a white, furry face and pink nose. The fur on her long white legs covered her hoofs. She gazed at me with such intelligence and understanding. Ferdele looked enormous beside Zaidie’s small stature and thin body. However, she neighed with pleasure whenever Gedalia stroked or fed her. I became attached to Ferdele. The stable was in back of his house on City Hall Street.

I begged Zaidie to let me accompany him on his selling jaunts. But his answer was always the same: “You are too young, maydele, and you are too small to reach the reins.” I put my wish aside and concentrated on my schoolwork.

But one day he changed his mind and called me. Zaidie had decided that 12 was old enough to hold the reins. I ran all the way to his house, my heart skipping a beat, my hands trembling and my legs weak. Hand in hand, we walked towards the stable. There was Ferdele, standing tall in all her majesty.

The wagon with its rickety wheels stumbled along slowly. Ferdele seemed to know when to adjust her pace. As we passed the houses, we shouted: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” People would come to us, pick some items and give us a few cents. I felt a sense of wonder at a world so different from the classroom.

Suddenly I wasn’t a poor school girl anymore. I was a princess riding in my gold coach with Zaidie the King. I held the reins in my royal hands and led Ferdele, our royal steed. On and on we journeyed down the avenue towards the palace. I began to relax the reins. Without warning, the wagon jerked, the wheels started grinding and the horse began to speed up. Before I knew it, we were in the air, soaring like a kite. I grabbed the reins and held on tight. Zaidie was laughing, saliva streaming down his long greyish-white beard blowing in the wind. His kipa (skullcap) slid off his head and whirled downward. Ferdele began climbing higher and higher, her black, silky mane drinking in the air. The whitish-grey clouds enveloped us in a soft, cotton blanket. My cheeks were flushed. I closed my eyes.

I heard a strange sound. I opened my eyes. Zaidie was shouting: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” A woman came out of her house and picked an old, long, flowery red skirt, a nickel in her hand.

Ferdele obeyed Zaidie’s commands most of the time. However, this horse had a stubborn streak in her. One day, as Zaidie sat in the wagon, pulling on the reins as he did every other day, Ferdele came to a sudden stop. Zaidie was jerked back in his seat. In an instant, glass bottles rolled out of the wagon, miraculously not smashing into smithereens when they hit the road. Dresses in all shapes and colours flew out of the wagon, helter-skelter. Cars honked. Drivers yelled. Some got out of their cars. People ran out of their houses and jumped into the pile of clothing, retrieving whatever they could. Two ladies were seen fighting over the high-necked, silky green dress.

But Zaidie remained calm, sitting in his seat, staring at the mess. After all he was King of the road. He was clothed in a red, velvet cape with white fur trimming, a golden, shiny sceptre in his hand. A silver crown, studded with diamonds, adorned his head.

Zaidie gazed at Ferdele. He was looking at a magnificent mare. Her white, furry face appeared majestic. Her brown sheen turned into white, silky fur, adorned with a long, silvery mane stretching across her back. Zaidie’s face shone like the crown on his head as Ferdele pranced gracefully on her golden, dainty feet along the red-carpeted road. She was no longer just a small horse from the shtetl. She was Zaidie’s royal princess. Without warning, Zaidie dropped his sceptre and climbed onto princess. They soared and soared, cape and mane flying in the wind.

The commotion on the street pierced Zaidie’s ears. His eyes looked down at his hands. With a quick tug on the reins, Ferdele began to move again.

“Bottles, Rags, Clothes.”

Carol Katz has worked as a teacher, librarian, archivist and administrative assistant, and her short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews have appeared in various anthologies and journals. Her most recent story, “Zaidie and Ferdele,” was published in Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 2. Edited by Liz Pearl. Toronto: P.K. Press, 2010, and it’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

She lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her husband, Sol, a bibliophile, and has two wonderful children.  She can be reached at: katzcarol2@videotron.ca

For more information about Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, visit: http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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A Jew by Choice

by Anna Gersman (Schomberg, Ontario, Canada)

Doubts, fears and uncertainty have plagued my life and the choices I have made, including my decision to become a Jew. I was brought up an atheist, knowing nothing of God, prayer or ritual. I feared religion and avoided it. I could not understand its purpose. Growing up, my ears were filled with jeering words of ridicule for those who did have faith. “Religious people were weak;” “Religion has caused all the wars and problems of the world;” “There is no scientific proof or rational thought to verify religion;” “Look at the millions murdered in the name of religion,” I was told. As a child, places of worship filled me with dread. The great emptiness of godlessness clouded my childhood. I was firmly exiled from God.

The conversion of an atheist is not easy. The long process, for me, was a series of small steps, gently guided by the encouragement and patience of those who loved me, my family and friends. I found my way cautiously with great fear and distrust.

The initial strands of my journey began when I met my Jewish sailor husband in the early 1980s. I fell in love with his warmth, humour and kind spirit.  We sought adventure and together one glorious September, we set sail for the Caribbean in our sailboat. Looking back, I wonder what guided me, where my inner faith and strength come from that helped me push off from the shore. We were not of the sea. He was a Jewish boy from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was from Newmarket, a small town in Ontario.  Together we sailed out onto that massive expanse of water, enveloped by its surging power and energy. As we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda, our world was endless sky and sea. We felt God’s breath blow across the surface of the ocean, softly, gently at times and then fiercely.

Caught in our first storm at sea, I was terrified of capsizing and being pulled down into the cold dark depths of the Atlantic. I did not know how to pray, and yet I prayed with a desperate conviction for survival. I felt God’s presence many times out on the ocean, in the power of the universe, in the vast array of stars, in the schools of dolphins leaping in the moonlight. I realized I could not feel exiled from God at sea, and after several ocean voyages, I was no longer an atheist. I knew there was a God and yet I was a long way from formal religious practice.

My husband was a secular Jew, and we enjoyed the social part of being with family and friends during the Jewish holidays. My mother-in-law accepted me as a non-Jew, regularly encouraging me to “just have a baby dear.” Her words were wise because in fact the miracle of childbirth brought me significantly closer in my journey towards Judaism.

When my oldest daughter was five-years-old, prompted by discussions at school, she asked me “Mommy, what are we?” Those words sent a hollow echo reverberating though my godless soul. I sensed my duty as a mother was to understand my own spiritual identity and pass this on to my children. I had learned over the years to prepare the traditional menu for the Jewish High Holidays. I could make chicken soup and knaidlach (matzoh balls), but I did not understand the rituals or historical significant of the holidays. I spoke to my husband about our children’s sense of uncertainty about their religious identity, but he could not fully comprehend the void I experienced. He had an unshakable confidence in his own heritage, a strong sense of belonging and identity. He had difficulty seeing the yearning and bewilderment in our child, but he took her hand and went to find a synagogue to attend High Holy Day services.

For me, the goal of parenting is to create an independent, capable person. My understanding of the goal of conversion is to create an independent confident Jew, eager to explore further. For my children’s sake, I knew I had to convert. I told my husband and he looked at me tenderly saying, “I have waited a long time to hear you speak those words.” I felt privileged to have married someone, who stood by me while I stumbled on a personal journey towards faith. We joined Temple Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue. Our children were enrolled in Saturday morning Hebrew school, and gradually over time the unfamiliar became familiar.

I cannot describe the joy I felt learning the Torah stories alongside my children. The stories of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, came alive for me as I slowly painted my interior world with their ancient symbols of hope, redemption and forgiveness. The first few times we attended services my husband wept as emotions long buried in childhood flooded back. The Hebrew prayers and melodies he had long forgotten came back with new significance and meaning as he sat with his family in shul. It was wonderful for me to witness his reconnection to Judaism, and his experience helped me feel secure in my decision to become a Jew.

During my conversion interview the rabbi asked me, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” “For my children,” I replied. “I want them to know God.” He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he said “usually we want people to choose Judaism for themselves, but this is a good place to start.” At first I struggled to be part of the synagogue world; I was uncomfortable with the prayers, fearful I would do or say the wrong thing. The rituals of Shabbat drew me in like a moth to a flickering flame. Gradually, as I stumbled through the Shabbat blessings each week, I came to know the peace that Shabbat brings.

At synagogue services I wrap myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) designed by my husband and painted by my daughters, feeling the shelter of God’s love when I draw it around myself. I have learned the great comfort of communal worship, being led in prayer as though through a beautiful garden. Now, I feel safer to ask questions as I continue to search for my own way of being Jewish. The loving ancient words of the Torah and the siddur (prayer book) bring me solace and comfort in this fast paced high tech world.

At my daughters’ B’nei Mitzvot the rabbi spoke to them, stating “our hope is that you will continue in the path of Jewish learning.” I hear that universal message and know that their journey, like mine is ongoing. I hope one day to visit Israel, and to chant Torah, but for now I listen for the sound of God’s voice as often as I can in all that I do.

It is not easy to convert from nothing, to construct a religious life without a solid foundation set in childhood. Each person undertakes their own unique and personal journey towards faith. I have been fortunate.  I chose a loving Jewish partner who waited patiently for me to make my choice; lucky, to have chosen a shul and congregation accepting and tolerant of differences; lucky, to have found a rabbi able to encourage and welcome the unaffiliated, the disenfranchised, and do the holy work of outreach. As we read in synagogue, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mishkan T’Filah – Reform prayer book.)
___
Anna Gersman grew up in a large family in King City Ontario. She has traveled and sailed extensively in South Africa and the Caribbean with her husband and children. She has been a nurse for over 20 years. She is currently working with seniors as a case manager in home care and as a camp nurse at URJ Camp George during the summers. Anna has been a member of Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario since 1997. There she found a spiritual home, encouraged to develop every aspect of Jewish life. Anna is currently working on a memoir of her journey to find her Jewish voice. She lives in Schomberg, Ontario near Toronto with her husband Sydney, and their teenage daughters Ariel and Liora.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author from Living Legacies –  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl,  PK Press: Toronto, Canada, 2010.  For more information about this publication or to order copies please visit http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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Filed under Canadian Jewry, Jewish identity