Wednesday, August 23, 2017

We Are the World (1985)

Mir Zenen Di Velt


Via: Youtube

The story behind the recording of “We Are the World,” the theme song of United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa, made up of 45 well-known musicians who came in and took part in this recording session at A&M Studios in Los Angeles on the evening of January 28, 1985; Quincy Jones is the producer. 

This recording session was the inspiration of Harry Belafonte, who was inspired by Bob Geldof’s Band Aid the year before. This is narrated by Jane Fonda, an actress and political activist. The final result begins at 42:00. For more details and background information, go [here], [here], and [here].

Yes, these might be a group of “do-gooders” at work, wanting to make the world a better place, by putting their creative and artistic talents to helping others. Can you imagine why? Vus eppes? Because they do not have the power of politicians, but they do have the heart of humanity. If not us, who then? After all, mir zenen di velt.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mending The Torn Curtain (2015)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

A new weekly feature: Starting today, and on every Monday, I will post a performance of Yiddish theatre, film, documentary film or radio drama. The first presentation is from my hometown of Montreal, and it is about an important person in Yiddish theatre.



Mending The Torn Curtain (2015): This is a 70-minute documentary about the first International Yiddish Theatre Testival, which took place in a nine-day period (June 17–25) in Montreal in 2009. It was directed by Raphael Levy and produced by Ben Gonshor.
Courtesy: Digital Yiddish Theatre Project; Vimeo


Montreal is indeed fortunate to have a thriving Yiddish theatre; and much of the credit for this goes to Dora Wasserman [1919–2003], a name synonymous with Yiddish theatre in Montreal. Wasserman, who was born in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Chernikov, Ukraine, came to Montreal in 1950. In 1958, she founded what has become a preeminent Yiddish theatre, the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, one of the few remaining in the world. Rarer still, it has a permanent home at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.

As for the documentary film, it is about preserving and promoting Yiddish theatre, the site says:

On the eve of WW II there were approximately 12 million Yiddish speakers around the world and hundreds of theatres. After the war only 7 million remained. Today there are less than 2 million speakers...and less than a dozen Yiddish theatres. Mending The Torn Curtain tells the moving story of the creation the first ever Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival – an in gathering of all the surviving Yiddish theatres from around the world for a week long celebration of theatre, cinema, music, outdoor events, learning exchanges, all with the aim of igniting a spark to light the flame for the future of Yiddish theatre and Yiddish culture and of promoting this legacy for future generations to come.
This was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, a great achievement; it was done to celebrate Yiddish theatre. Ben Gonshor, who co-wrote the documentary film (along with Raphael Levy), put it this way in an article (“Mending The Torn Curtain: A documentary film about the First International Yiddish Theatre Festival;” December 23, 2016) for Digital Yiddish Theatre Project:
Mending the Torn Curtain – a title created by Edit Kuper, a stalwart of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and one of the key members of the team that put the Festival together – not only pays tribute to Dora’s remarkable dream, but captures a vital moment in the history of modern Yiddish life, and Yiddish theatre in particular. Today the film is in homes and leading academic libraries across the globe, where the story of the creation of the first ever International Festival of Yiddish Theatre will continue to be told for years to come.
Yasher Koyakh to all.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Projections of Life: Jewish Life Before World War II

Di Yidisher Velt


“Keyner iz nit azoy toyb vi der vos vil mit hern.”

Pre-War Jewish Life: This rare and intimate footage (almost 30 minutes) of di Yidisher velt, most of it shot by amateurs, is provided courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive. It shows a vibrant Jewish life—a Yiddishkayt—before a war (“the krieg”) that resulted in the destruction of Europe, in the destruction of a thriving Jewish community in Eastern Europe that has yet to be restored. With such great losses, with such great numbers (6 million individuals, of whom one and a half million were children), it would be a miracle if the European Jewish community could ever return to its former glory. Yes, it has survived, and we are thankful for this, but we mourn what and, most important, who was lost—so many people, including those in this video. We continue to do the good that we can, the good that we ought to, the good that we have a moral obligation to carry out.
Via: Youtube

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked (2015)

Post-War Jewish Montreal

“Gey redt tsum vant!”
Yiddish expression


Nobody Was Interested. Nobody AskedThe Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), by Max Beer of Montreal.
Via: Youtube

INobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked The Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), a one-hour documentary of the Montreal Jewish community, Max Beer shows how those who survived the Holocaust were marginalized by those who arrived before. Montreal’s Jewish community is unique in North America, one reason being that the Jews had to find a place in a city and a province that was long dominated by tensions between the English and the French.

Montreal after the war become home to Canada’s largest community of Holocaust survivors; and after New York, the second largest in North America. Equally important, Montreal by the mid-1950s became home to the third largest community of Holocaust survivors in the world, after Israel and New York. This is an important to know, because it is important to know that many Holocaust survivors made Montreal their home. With this in mind, Beer explains his reasons for making the documentary film:
In 2006 I completed my thesis What Else Could We Have Done?: The Montreal Jewish Community, the Canadian Jewish Congress, The Jewish Press and the Holocaust. which focused on the reaction or lack thereof to the Jewish tragedy by the Jewish community and the leadership during the war years. I then gave presentations on this subject to various groups.
One of these talks was to the Association of Child Survivors and Hidden Children of Montreal. After the presentation and the Q&A session, a survivor told me that the indifference to the fate of European Jewry continued in the postwar period. There appeared to be little interest to what had happened to these people in Europe. Survivors were sometimes told to get on with their lives and to forget the past. People could not comprehend the enormity of the tragedy.
One of the reasons I decided to make this film was to counter the long held conviction in the community that the refugees were unconditionally welcomed to Canadian shores. There was also a belief that somehow all the survivors were silent about what they had gone through in Europe and refused to talk to the locals. When I began to interview survivors and members of the community who had witnessed their arrival, I realized that the story was much more complex. The film shows the history of Holocaust awareness and how it took years for the community to come to terms with the Shoah and gradually accept the survivor population into Montreal Jewish society.
I should add that my interest in this subject also stems from the fact that I am the son of survivors who came to Montreal in 1949. I too remember the divide in the community between the local Jewish population that had come to Montreal before the war and the European immigrants.
I find that the most visceral response I get to the film is from the survivor community and their families. Many remember well the prejudice that existed in the postwar period. Many remember the terms Mocky and Greener, derogatory words used to describe them by members of the local Jewish community. Among Jews who were born in Canada and had no links to their European coreligionists the Jewish catastrophe seemed to be a sideshow, overshadowed by the war itself. While the film tries not to place blame, it hopefully clarifies a very difficult and tragic period in time.
And break the silence, long overdue; although I am younger than Max Beer, I share some of his experiences and views. His father and my father were friends, as much as I remember such things. In a great sense the Holocaust and the Second World War that produced it created a dividing line. Much of this was due to the Jewish ethos at the time to “keep a low profile.” Sha Shtil! was implicitly said, lest more trouble arise. Anti-Semitism was still prevalent in the province of Quebec, including in its largest city, Montreal, where most Jews lived.

The Jews were between “the two solitudes,” the British on one side and the French on the other. In response, Jews in Montreal built a third solitude, which in the post-war period did not immediately allow any discussion of the Holocaust, possibly because of the history of anti-Semitism that permeated Quebec culture. The newcomers from Eastern Europe were initially unaware of the history and just wanted to build a better life, so they focused on this. Yet, there was a history.

In many ways, this film is a sobering look at how people were inadvertently marginalized, possibly as a result of the communal fear of repercussions, of the fear of making the majority culture angry, notably if they were in any way“forced” to look seriously at uncomfortable truths of their past (e.g., French-Canadians embracing Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s [see also here, here and here]; truths that have long been buried). This was also the waning days of British snobbery and elitism, which naturally would exclude the Jews.

How much further from acceptance were these post-war European Jews. These men and women were not the aliens (with strange foreign  accents) they became in the eyes of many, but heroes who overcame great obstacles, yes, greater than those who preceded them before the war. My father was one of those European Jews who arrived in Montreal during this post-war period (1947–1952) who never spoke about his life in Europe, and who rarely complained about life in Canada. I guess that he got the general message that it’s “time to move on” and that the ”past belongs in the past.”

In many ways, this is good advice, but it can’t apply for everyone. I don’t remember my father being bothered or concerned about fitting in or belonging to the broader Jewish community of “the locals.” He seemed fully content immersing himself in Yiddishkayt, and di Yidisher velt. Language is partly to explain, but not fully. I, on the other hand, wanted then to integrate and assimilate into Canadian culture. My father had other desires, and perhaps I disappointed him in this area of life.

Nu, this is the way it was. Even so, this does not mean that it has to stay this way. I have decided to make some  personal changes; and I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, other than to say with a bit of figurative language, to which only Yiddish can do justice: Es iz a veytik in meyn harts.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Halifax’s Pier 21

Post-Holocaust Jews in Canada
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn


“Alts ken der mentsh fargesn nor nit esn.”
Nahum Stutchkoff
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)



Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the first place in Canada many immigrants saw. Between 1928 and 1971, when travel by ship was still common, one million immigrants disembarked at Pier 21. A subset of this figure are displaced persons (DPs or war refugees). Between 1946 and 1952, during the post-war period, Canada received about 160,000 displaced persons from Europe, or about 16% of the one million DPs post-1945 who were not repatriated to their native lands.

But the chief victims of the Second World War were not the ones who were most welcome: the estimated 250,000 European Jews who survived the war, the Khurbn Eyrope (חורבן אײראָפּע; “Destruction of Europe”), as it is called in Yiddish. Canada accepted no more than 8% of them (the “them” being our people, my people), or no more than 20,000 Jewish individuals. But then again there was already a precedent in place. Between 1933 and 1945, for example, Canada accepted only 5,000 Jews from Europe, and even then with stringent economic conditions.

In truth, Canada then was not too welcoming to Jews, reflecting a desire to maintain its white Christian identity. The situation changed only decades later, starting in the 1970s, two decades after the war and a decade or so after Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1959), Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) were translated from their original languages and published in English. Afterward, fact-based stories written in a personal and approachable literary style helped to change people’s sensibilities in the English-speaking world about racial identity and people-hood, particularly as it applied to the Jews.

But that was decades later; immediately after the war, there was not much sympathy shown for the European Jews, despite having lived through a nightmarish 12 year reign of terror, which included the Holocaust, a central piece of The Second World War. Lest we forget, this was a war started by Nazi Germany (1933–45), whose purpose was military expansion, notably of Europe and ethnic cleansing, notably of the Jews. Its ideology of domination and destruction, based chiefly on racial superiority—as evil an ideology as have ever existed—was thankfully defeated by the combined might of the Allied armed forces.

Even so, the end of war brought with it new urgencies, new imperatives, leaving little time to mourn and reflect; that might come later. In its place is an urgency to move forward, shown in the human spirit of tenacity and perseverance, and reflected in the belief that things will soon be better. The first steps, the return to humanity began in the DP camps, which despite their many shortcomings were already better than what preceded it.

From that point onward, for the survivors, the displaced persons, the refugees, the persons without a home, it was about “building life,” about finding a place to “build a new life,” which many did after arriving in Canada, at times with unimpeachable success. One such shining example is found in The Canadian Encyclopedia, which writes:
One war refugee, Rosalie Abella, summarized what Pier 21 meant to her: “Opportunity, generosity, and idealism is what this Pier stands for — Canada’s best self. It is the Canada that let us in, the Canada that took one generation’s European horror story and made it into another generation’s Canadian fairytale.” Abella was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1946 and arrived in Canada with her parents in 1950. She would go on to become the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
How far she has come: Yasher Koach. This is a great success by any standard and all the more so knowing the humble beginnings of Rosalie Silberman Abella, to wit, having started out life in a DP camp in Stuttgart, Germany, symbolically on July 1, 1946. She was appointed to Canada’s highest court by Prime Minster Paul Martin in August 2004, where she continues to serve honourably.

In a powerful commencement speech Justice Abella made to graduates of Brandeis University in Massachusetts (on May 21, 2017), she recounts lessons learned from her childhood, post-war, which no doubt influenced her thinking: “Indifference is injustice’s incubator; it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

What a gute neshome she has. This is as true today as it was 70 years ago. My father was another of these Jewish displaced persons (displaced from his home in Poland) fortunate to be allowed to come into Canada; he was 40 when he landed at Halifax’s Pier 21. He made his way via train to Toronto (a trip that likely took another few days), but he decided shortly after to move to Montreal, which then had the largest Jewish community in Canada and where there were more persons like himself, Yiddish speakers from Poland, his landslayt. After New York City and Israel, Montreal had the largest number of Eastern Europe Jews who survived the war.

One of the first things my father did after coming to Montreal was join The Workmen’s Circle, for which he had a lifelong commitment. With their help, it was in Montreal where he quickly found work (as a cabinetmaker); it is also where he met and married my mother, in 1952, a year after arriving in Canada. It was about building a new life, replacing the one that was destroyed in Europe.

My father made his life in Montreal, which was far better and safer than the Europe he left behind. I don’t remember him saying anything about “missing Europe.” He was successful in that he did more than survive; he built a new life, worked hard and raised a family while imbuing us with a sense of purpose and identity, with Yiddishkeit. He simply followed his view that “the past belonged in the past,” while quietly maintaining the culture with which he was familiar.

He seemed content enjoying Montreal and the surrounding countryside and making trips to the American border towns in New York and Vermont, where we often spent summer vacations, in the 1970s, in cheap motels that had kitchenettes where my mother did the cooking. We didn't venture more than an hour away from home; we never for example visited New York City. He enjoyed the America he saw, as I did then, having many fond memories of the people and the places we visited.

Pier 21 closed in 1971, when air travel supplanted ship travel. There is now a national museum, The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which tells the stories of immigrants who arrived in Canada via ship, who started their journey here, as my father did in Halifax, in the 1950s, where he made a new life in a new land. This is never easy, but it is made easier when the process of integration is helped by those who arrived earlier.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, August 18, 2017

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flight of the Monarchs (2012)

Beauty in Flight

Flight of the Butterfly (2012)
Via: Youtube

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippu) are one of my favourite animals to see during summer, and these winged creatures correspond with summer, at least this is the case in my mind, as I have come to view the world since childhood. They start their journey from central Mexico, a distance of 4,800 km, making this annual flight the world’s longest insect migration. What is all the more wonderful to behold is that this annual migration (both in the spring and the fall) involves multi-generations, Wikipedia explains:
Starting in September and October, eastern and northeastern populations migrate from southern Canada and the United States to overwintering sites in central Mexico where they arrive around November. They start the return trip in March, arriving around July. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip; female monarchs lay eggs for the next generation during the northward migration[2] and at least four generations are involved in the annual cycle.
While scientists in the last decade have been reporting a declining population of monarchs, the good news is that I have seen more monarchs this year than the combined sightings of the last few years. I have not been able to take any photos of monarchs, but my youngest son did manage to take a picture of another orange- or pumpkin-coloured butterfly, what seems like an eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) during one of our recent nature walks at the park near our place of residence.


Eastern Comma Butterfly (Toronto): This was taken by our nine-year-old son, Eli, during one of our nature walks.
Photo Credit: Eli G. Greenbaum; July 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading Now (August 2017): The Puttermesser Papers

Heavenly Comedy


“Yeder mentsh hot zikh zayn pekl.”


The Puttermesser Papers, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, is Cynthia Ozick’s fourth novel; she is known for her short stories and essays, including The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), All the World Wants the Jews Dead (1974) and The Shawl (1989). This is another recent find at a second-hand bookstore, where I paid 50 cents. I am enjoying the book from one of America’s finest writers.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum


The Puttermesser Papers (1997), by Cynthia Ozick [born April 17, 1928, in New York City], is a collection of five stories centered on the life of Ruth Puttermesser. There are many Puttermessers spun out of the imagination of Ozick, including a feminist and a creator of a golem who helps her become mayor of New York. The novel, although comic in tone, is a search for meaning and a place to fit in, but not necessarily through the usual social channels.

The book begins with her at age 34, a New Yorker living alone in her parents’ apartment in the Bronx. She is an intelligent but restless New York Jew who decides to quit her job at a “blue-blood” Wall Street law firm, mainly because she sees no future. The scene describing the New England-schooled partners taking out Puttermesser for a farewell meal is priceless, only because I have had similar experiences in my professional working life:
An anthropological meal. They explored the rites of her tribe. She had not known she was strange to them. Their beautiful manners were the cautiousness you adopt when you visit the interior: Dr. Livingstone, I presume? They shook hands and wished her luck, and at that moment, so close to their faces with those moist smile-ruts flowing from the sides of their waferlike noses punctuated by narrow, even nostrils. (8)
Puttermesser, it should be noted, is Yiddish for “butter knife,“ which suggests how easily a knife like this can cut through butter. At least a good well-made butter knife can do such a trick. As names go, it is not a pretty one, something her uncle Zindel points out:
And such a name. A nice young fellow meets such a name, he laughs. You should change it to something different, lovely, nice. Shapiro. Levine. Cohen. Goldweiss. Blumenthal. I don’t say make it different, who needs Adams, who needs McKee, I say make it a name not a joke. Your father gave you a bad present with it. (15)
With a name like this, was her fate sealed, “as it is written.” Perhaps all the good names were already taken when names were handed out many generations ago in the old country. Does the book suggest that the gods are laughing? I think so; and we humans are not only not amused, we are also oblivious to it, so much are we consumed by our own thoughts of self-importance. Such concerns touch no one and are of little consequence other than to ourselves. Such is the way it is; such is the way it has been written. What can one do?

Most just play along, but I can’t resist remarking on the absurdity of our actions and our many moral failings, the decisions that we make and don’t make, and how our laws don’t necessarily line up with progressive human morality that invokes not blind justice but thoughtful mercy. (Biblical morality is long on obedience and justice and short on love and mercy; this forms the basis of western law, or so it seems to me on what I have read and observed.)

Humans have an ability to make many wrong decisions, including wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. I can understand a morally wrong decision made for the right reason, but not one for the wrong reason. Stealing a loaf of bread because you are hungry is far different than you embezzling millions to feed a jet-set life-style. I have sympathy for the former but none for the latter. Under the eyes of the law, however, both are equally guilty.

Yet, this is where literature can help us understand the difference between the two, A good review of Ozick is found in The New York Times Magazine article (“Cynthia Ozicks’s Long Crusade;” June 23, 2016) by Gilles Harvey:
According to Ozick, literature is different from all other human activities, and its singularity consists in its recognizing and honoring human difference. Its purpose, she has said, is “to light up the least grain of being, to show how it is concretely individual, particularized from any other.”
This is not a new argument, but it is one that bears repeating. This is important to understand, and once you do you will forever be changed in thoughts and actions. A few earnest individuals will take this to heart, but not many by my reckoning. Sad to report that I have in the last decade or two met only a handful of such people in my life. This is not surprising, since most decent folks focus on survival (economically, financially) and do not spend too much time considering such existential questions.

But then again so were the many Yiddish speakers—self-taught, self-educated—who formed a good part of my father’s generation, part of my father’s landsmen. They viewed survival as not enough, that they had to do more than survive, that their mission in life was helping not only themselves but also others achieve their potential, chiefly by improving conditions for all. They did not sit there and wait for the messiah to come; they acted on their convictions. Hope is acting on the belief that it will not always remain hopeless.

Given the meshugas around her, Ruth Puttermesser didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, understand this simple truth, but then again Cynthia Ozick didn’t allow her to even consider this in this crazy dark comedy she wrote—where all roads are paved with fabrications, prevarications and stories that have the basis of truth but are fare from it—much like the politics of today, and like much of the world that we inhabit. It is, after all, only fiction. Yet, others who live in the same world as Puttermesser might say in Yiddish: Trevst mayn folk; eyn tog es vet ale zeyn beser.

—Perry J. Greenbaum; August 14, 2017