Wednesday, January 27, 2021


A few thoughts on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day: 

When my mind wanders these days, it often returns to a moment, to a windswept field just south of Rohatyn in Western Ukraine. Most my Father’s relatives came from this small, ancient town before moving to Canada. The ones who didn’t are likely buried in this field, one of two sites of mass executions in Rohatyn. I was there in the summer of 2019 with my Aunt Helen, to see the places her parents and their relatives had lived. And died. It was a warm June day when we visited the field, today covered with tall grass and scattered patches of the striking, yellow rapeseed that’s prevalent in the area. 

 The first Aktion was on March 20, 1942. It would have been cold. The Jews had been enduring increasingly difficult persecution since the start of the war. But, things were about to go from bad to much, much worse. This was to be a day of organized chaos, meticulously planned havoc. I’ll spare you the details; it was horrific. By the end of the day, 3,000 Jews, including 1,000 children, had been killed, most of them having been marched out to this field and murdered in cold blood. 

 Today, the field is mostly unchanged; the locals are superstitious and avoid it. But, bad weather and grave-robbers occasionally bring human remains to the surface, which must be inspected and reburied under rabbinical supervision. Americans Marla Raucher Osborn and Jay Osborn have been leading the arduous efforts to safeguard this site, clean up local Jewish cemeteries (including locating and repatriating stolen headstones) and, yes, deal with human remains. Aunt Helen and I had joined their group that day. 

I heard Jay say he needed a shovel and pail from the car and put two and two together. “Jay!” I called out. “I’m coming with you.” He slowed so I could catch up. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. [I didn’t realize that he also took a photo of me.] As inconspicuously as possible, we collected what we could, then moved them to a secure spot and covered them with earth from the roadside". Then we joined the others and continued with the tour. This certainly wasn’t the first time for Jay but I doubt he’ll ever get used to it. 

I still reflect upon the implications of this moment. The horror of it, of course. But, also the sad truth that for the victims on that day there was no difference between rich and poor; no distinguishing the righteous from the corrupt. There was no difference to our killers if we kept the Sabbath, or wore a kippah or not; no special consideration for impassioned liberals or thundering zealots. Bullets silenced those protracted disputes just as abruptly as our spontaneous shrieks of terror. As Jews, we died... 

...I'm going to stop there. Writing this, I realize I’ve put myself in the field, on that cold day. It was a lot to process. I guess it still is.  

Under the Long, Yellow Rapeseed by Morey Altman (2020)

It is no small thing to hold a man by the jaw, 
under the long, yellow rapeseed he lay 
until I found him in pieces, anchored 
in time and still, like an old, shattered watch 

Last night I dreamt of a man with hair of straw, 
I turned and asked him the time, we looked down 
at the rusty clasp at our feet, scattered 
and godforsaken parts, unable now to latch  

There is no small thing not worth the time to kill for 
or plunder, like gold filled teeth in the dirt 
he lay until I could retrieve him 
in bits and pieces, under the long, yellow rapeseed  

Friday, November 11, 2016


Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.
I can’t say anything here about Leonard Cohen that won’t be said and written on his brilliance for years to come. So I give this space to Cohen’s mentor and friend Irving Layton, who helped him get his first book of poems, ๐˜“๐˜ฆ๐˜ต ๐˜œ๐˜ด ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ ๐˜”๐˜บ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜จ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ด, published in 1956. The two men each, in his own way, helped establish Montreal at a city of poetry and art. It was probably a complicated relationship; how could a friendship between poets not be? But it survived until Layton’s death in 2006. Leonard Cohen read Layton’s The Graveyard at the funeral. In the end, all that’s left are the words.
͏๐—ง๐—ต๐—ฒ ๐—ง๐—ฟ๐—ฎ๐—ด๐—ถ๐—ฐ ๐—ฃ๐—ผ๐—ฒ๐˜ by Irving Layton (1964)
He affirmed life.
He affirmed it as though it were an extraordinary
rock melon, ripe,
and his discovery.
And with yelps of gladness
he affirmed the brave toilers;
he affirmed the martyrs
whose burning flesh
sizzled hosannahas.
In despair
of ever equalling the courage
he had himself endowed them with
he stepped thoughtfully
before a chauffeur-driven car.
To the end
he praised the beautiful courage
of workers and martyrs,
and expiring at the finish
of a long siren screech
died as he had lived
affirming life.

Monday, June 13, 2016

10 Things I Hate About You

It’s surely simplistic to suggest that a violence epidemic is the result of this, or the result of that; there are myriad factors in cahoots with each other. But I will say this: a political party or religion or social movement which condones the marginalization of one group can’t be surprised when others do the same.
Overlooking antisemitism in Europe, for example, has meant a proliferation of attacks against more groups because people who discriminate aren’t usually that picky; they hate everyone. Denying rights to LGBT people in the U.S. has sent a message that some people are inferior and don’t deserve equal human rights. That’s an easy launchpad for someone already predisposed by a mental illness or a belief system that advocates violence as an acceptable means of surmounting an obstacle.
That’s how marginalization works, spreading within and without, like mold in a wall. It’s also hypocrisy’s home port, and there’s nothing sicker than the sorry sobs of bigots and opportunists who would just as likely cheer if it been their own bรชte noire against the wall.
Yes, the victims in Orlando were targeted because they were gay; but, more importantly, they were targeted because they were different - different than the madman who took the readily available rationalization of marginalization to the next level. But, here’s the thing. I’m different, too. And if you think about it, so are you. The fact is we’re all on someone’s hit list, as long as anyone's intolerance is condoned.
Frankly, that scares the living daylights out of me.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Challenge of a Hopeful Future

It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Lee Vladislavsky – Tel Aviv, Israel
Forty years later and I can still remember how profoundly I was affected by the Isaac Asimov short story, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”

A young boy, a few hundred years in the future, is sent to a psychiatrist because he won’t use a “Door,” a ubiquitous teleportation device, preferring to walk outside. By the end of the tale, the psychiatrist, Dr. Sloane, agrees with our young hero’s viewpoint himself bypassing “the Door” saying, “You know, it’s such a beautiful day that I think I’ll walk.” It’s a brilliant tale on many levels, not least of which the examination of our relationship with technology, a debate that currently rages over wearable devices like Google Glass.

I was also struck by the concept of the challenge of a hopeful future. You read that right. The central challenge of the story is a character’s conflict with technology that actually makes life easier.

It doesn’t take much to disrupt the status quo. Consider the Kalahari villagers in the 1980 comedy, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The plot revolves around the consequences of a Coke bottle being dropped from an airplane into the remote African village. The locals had never seen glass, let alone a pop bottle. Inshort time, the bottle becomes indispensable, but its usefulness quickly leads to arguments and fist-fights over its ownership and use. The film raises a number of important issues: how does new technology affect a culture; and is all new technology necessarily inevitable?

To be sure, these aren’t new debates. Similar disputes raged 150 years ago over both steam-engines and experiments to harness electrical power, both of which survived the debates and have transformed the human experience.

These concerns about technology understandably diffuse into popular culture. Early science-fiction literature engaged in many cautionary tales about technology and societal change, in works likeNineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (in which television has replaced literature, intellectualism, and basic human interaction.)

Interestingly, modern mainstream science-fiction, on the other hand, seems overly preoccupied, if not infatuated, with self-destruction. We seem to be seeing more depictions of a future world that is both dystopian and apocalyptic. In films like the Hunger Games and TV shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, we predict the worst to come. And it’s usually the fault of science.

Is it possible that we’ve reached a stage where simple trepidation has been replaced by an outright fear of science? A recent Pew Research Center study tried to determine public opinion about rapidly advancing science and technology. The study found that many technological advances are welcomed but, people are “concerned about developments that have the potential to upend long-standing social norms around things like personal privacy, surveillance, and the nature of social relationships.”
It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Lee Vladislavsky – Tel Aviv, Israel

In other words, we may love our gadgets, but we are beginning to ask the right questions about where it will all lead. Along with these modern devices that have certainly improved our lives, have come some important questions worth debating. We should be talking about privacy, for example, whether it’s in relation to ongoing surveillance or information available on the Internet. We should be concerned with intellectual property ownership in the digital age. We also need to find ways to diffuse technology across socioeconomic lines.

And if we accept that more mind-boggling technology is coming, it doesn’t mean the Terminator androids are going to take over.
It does mean that we should vigorously consider how technologies like artificial intelligence will affect, and even, alter us as individuals and societies.

The problem with the apocalyptic prophesies is that they tend to discount some truly alarming possibilities. Frankly, I’m not worried about pandemics and zombies; I am thinking about human beings augmented by nanotechnology and genetic engineering. I am wondering about artificial meat and driverless cars. I am, years later, still thinking about the challenges of a hopeful future.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s such a beautiful day, I’m going for a walk outside.

Originally published on the Blonde 2.0 blog. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Wrecking Season

It's been hard to avoid seeing, if not following, the recent debate over pop singer and actress Miley Cyrus and her media antics. Citing Sinead O'Connor as an influence dragged the Irish singer, who enjoyed her own 15-minutes of controversial fame in the past, into the fray. O'Connor publicly warned Ms. Cyrus that she was simply being exploited by a misogynistic music industry that cares not for the rights and well-being of artists. That exchange has set off a flurry of debate on female sexuality. For example, Sociologist Dr Lisa Wade, on her blog, shares her 'two cents' on the issue, saying Cyrus and O'Connor are "both right, but only half right."

Wades conciliatory contention is interesting, but I think ultimately wrong. Her entire thesis hinges on one line, one postulation: "Is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs?" Wade says no. But, she offers no evidence that Cyrus has not been manipulated, either overtly or subconsciously. Indeed, based on everything we've seen, she lacks the maturity and depth to be making the sort of long-term decisions that would infer that her behaviour is a valid of expression of feminist power and privilege in the 21st century. What she appears to be doing is selling her body for money. As Occam's Razor suggests, sometimes the simplest answer is the truth.

More important, in my opinion, is the disturbing lack of debate on the infantilism of sexuality. We've accepted as a norm that forty year-old women wish to look twenty-five, as an affirmation of beauty and fertility. Now, we're seeing 20 year-old women looking - right down to the Brazilian wax - and dressing like 12 year-olds, in order to be, in their minds, arousing. But are they?

Cyrus's appearance in her music video 'Wrecking Ball' is not remotely sexy. What she presents is a puerile caricature of sexiness: there's nothing provocative or enchanting; no sense of feminine mystique or sensuality. Cyrus comes across as a little girl play-acting, not a mature woman seducing. The fact that so many men, and more importantly, women buy into this reduction of sexuality to children's theatre is, frankly, very disconcerting.

There's been a sense that feminism, as a movement and ideology, has taken (at least) two steps backward the past few years; whether true or not, this is an issue worth open discussion. I suppose we can at least thank Cyrus for invigorating a debate on feminism and female sexuality that has needed to enter the mainstream for a long time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Music Man

The new Star Trek film wasn't great but it did at least include a very brief cameo of one of my favourite people: Leonard Nimoy.

Although greatly admired as an actor and director, the role of his Jewish background in his work isn't always appreciated. In the book “Stars of David” by Abigail Pogrebin, Nimoy talks about his experiences dealing with anti-Semitism growing up in Boston. “Jews were always to keep a low profile,” he explains, “so as not to become targets.”

Fortunately, Nimoy learned to incorporate his Jewishness into his career. One of his first parts was in a play that featured a Jewish family. “I was seventeen years old...playing this Jewish kid in this Jewish family just like mine; it was amazing.” That role led to several performances in Yiddish-language theatre. Yes, Nimoy was fluent at a young age because his grandmother only spoke Yiddish. 

His portrayal of Spock, an alien, has always moved me because of the depth with which he played the part. To a large degree, he used his background as a Jewish-American to create a character that both wants to fit in and retain its own cultural identity.

As an adult, he’s continued to explore his Judaism and the Jewish-American experience.  After a discussion with a rabbi cousin of his on the feminine presence of G-d, he decided to explore the subject in pictures.  In October 2002, Nimoy published “Shekhina”, a photographic study of women, which provoked some controversy because of his use of nude models wearing traditionally male Jewish garments. 

Recently, he’s joined forces with the Milken Archive, (which I mentioned in a previous post) as the host of American Jewish Music from the Milken Archive with Leonard Nimoy.  The online series covers a wide-range of Jewish music from religious works to songs of Yiddish stage and film. Information on streaming the series is available here.

Incidentally, the Milken Archive website contains all sorts of current and never-before-released content and information on Jewish music and culture in America. It’s well worth checking out.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

We Can Be Heroes

Time and again, as I've studied various aspects of the Holocaust  and its callous and most permanent effects on my family in Eastern Europe, I've been struck by small astonishing stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Holocaust wasn't simply some unexpected event, like a freak hailstorm. It was the desired result of cynical actions by real people against other people, in many cases neighbours and colleagues. Which is why it's so vital to seek out and reflect upon individual stories rather than view the Holocaust in terms of numbers and dates.

There are no shortage of tragic stories, tales of horror and sad, heart-rending cruelty. There are far fewer tales of heroism, but there were heroes; undoubtedly  many met the same fate as the Holocaust's primary victims. But make no mistake about it, the Holocaust's engineers understood that they could beat populations into submission, just as they reduced other populations to ashes. Who among us would risk our lives for strangers? Who would risk the welfare of their own family for nameless children?

Heroes come in many forms. I recently stumbled on a book about one such story. "Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project", tells the story of Polish gentile Irena Sendler who smuggled around 2500 Jewish children single-handed from the Warsaw Ghetto. She was recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations but her story largely forgotten for decades.

But as I've said, heroes come in many forms. The book describes the efforts of three grade 9 girls, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Jessica Shelton, and an 11th grade girl, Sabrina Coons, who discovered the story of  Irena Sendler and made it their mission to learn more about this remarkable woman and, more importantly, share it with as many people as possible.

Irena Sendler died in 2008. The girls had an opportunity to meet her in 2001. Since then they've continued to tell the story, presenting a performance on Sendler before hundreds of audiences. The project is now being supported by the Lowell Milken Center, a sponsor of similar projects on the power of "unsung heroes."

While the heroics of Sendler's amazing feat goes without saying, it's also worth recognizing the merit of schoolchildren who saw a story that must be told, and ensured that it was.