Friday, 21 November 2014

Guest post: Jonathan Goldbloom, candidate for the Liberal nomination, Mount Royal Riding



Le français suit l’anglais

 Friends,

I prepared the text below in response to a request from the Canadian Jewish News to Anthony Housefather and me to submit brief articles on our respective candidacies. The newspaper is not going ahead with the initiative. I have, therefore, decided to share my contribution with you. 

My commitment is to be a strong voice in Ottawa for the Jewish community while being an effective representative of all residents of the riding. 


Shabbat Shalom.

Jonathan

***
 
Mount Royal: A Special Riding
An Article submitted to the Canadian Jewish News



Mount Royal is the federal riding with the largest Jewish population in Quebec.

This brings with it a special responsibility – one that has been admirably fulfilled by Irwin Cotler to be a strong voice on issues of importance to the community, from support for Israel to social justice and human rights.

As your Member of Parliament my commitment will be to build on Mr. Cotler’s work and my own track record to be an effective voice for the Jewish community in the Liberal Party and in Ottawa.
As a member of the Board of Directors of The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and its predecessor, and as a communications strategist, I have worked with our community on key issues including the fight against government efforts to close Jewish daycares and the maintenance of kashrut in health care institutions. I provided strategic advice and support to the Jewish community in the battle against Pauline Marois’ Charter of Values and have helped garner support for Israel in Quebec City and Ottawa. I also played key roles in restoring civility to the Concordia campus in the aftermath of the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech and in reaction to the launch of Israel Apartheid Week.

Representing Mount Royal also brings with it a responsibility to build bridges of understanding with other communities. With over 80 cultural communities Mount Royal is one of the most diverse constituencies in the province. As I have crisscrossed the riding over the past months I have been struck by what we have in common, rather than by our differences.
The economic resurgence of Montreal is at the top of the list for all of us. We all want our children and grandchildren to have attractive opportunities and compelling reasons to stay in Quebec. We have a rare window of opportunity to ensure Montreal regains its vitality. But for that to happen the federal government has to come to the table, investing, for example, in research and innovation and infrastructure. Making this happen will be a priority for me.

Health care is another issue that resonates with everyone across the riding. The Harper government approach is to provide the provinces with a blank cheque. It refuses to establish national priorities and to work to foster collaboration between jurisdictions. Voters are looking to Ottawa for leadership and direction on a wide range of issues from support for our aging population and developing a national cancer strategy to responding to the alarming number of children with autism spectrum disorders. These are areas that I am very familiar with.
I entered this race for many reasons. I care deeply about Israel and the well-being of the Jewish community and will work tirelessly on your behalf. Secondly, I want to build bridges between all communities so together we can tackle the economic, social and environmental issues our city, our province and our country faces. Working together is how we can build a Canada that reflects all of our dreams and aspirations.

My father Victor taught me about the importance of public service. He entered public life because he wanted to serve the community, and I want to carry on that tradition. On November 30th my hope is that Mount Royal Liberals will put me one step closer to serving the Jewish community as well as all the residents of the riding in the House of Commons.


***

Chères amies, chers amis,

J’ai préparé le texte ci-dessous en réponse à une demande du Canadian Jewish News qui nous a priés, Anthony Housefather et moi, de soumettre un bref article au sujet de nos candidatures respectives. Comme le journal n’ira pas de l’avant avec cette initiative, j’ai pris la décision de vous faire part de ma contribution.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jonathan
***


Mont-Royal: une circonscription spéciale
Un article soumis au Canadian Jewish News

Mont-Royal est la circonscription fédérale dont la population juive est la plus importante au Québec.
Cela comporte une responsabilité toute spéciale – une responsabilité que Irwin Cotler a admirablement assumée afin d’être une voix forte sur des enjeux cruciaux pour la collectivité, qu’il s’agisse de soutenir Israël, de défendre la justice sociale ou de faire respecter les droits humains.

Si je deviens votre membre au Parlement, je m’engage à prendre appui sur le travail de M. Cotler et sur mes propres antécédents afin de représenter efficacement la collectivité juive au sein du Parti libéral et à Ottawa.

Comme membre du conseil d’administration du Centre consultatif des relations juives et israéliennes (et de l’organisme qui l’a précédé), et comme stratège en communications, j’ai travaillé maintes fois avec notre collectivité sur des enjeux cruciaux, y compris la lutte contre les efforts du gouvernement pour fermer les cpe juives et le maintien de la kashrout dans les établissements de soins de santé. J’ai fourni des conseils stratégiques et mon soutien à la collectivité juive dans leur lutte contre la Charte des valeurs de Pauline Marois, en plus de contribuer à obtenir des appuis pour Israël à Québec et à Ottawa. J’ai également joué un rôle crucial quand est venu le moment de restaurer un peu de civilité et de courtoisie sur la campus de Concordia dans la foulée de l’annulation du discours que devait y prononcer Benjamin Netanyahu, ainsi qu’en réaction au lancement de la Semaine contre l’apartheid israélien.

Qui dit représentation de la circonscription de Mont-Royal dit aussi responsabilité de jeter des ponts de compréhension avec les autres collectivités. Avec plus de 80 groupes culturels, Mont-Royal est certainement l’une des circonscriptions les plus diversifiées de la province. Lorsque j’ai sillonné la circonscription au cours des derniers mois, j’ai été frappé par tous les points communs qui nous unissent plutôt que par nos différences.

Nous avons tous la relance économique de Montréal comme priorité. Nous voulons tous que nos enfants et que nos petits-enfants aient des possibilités attrayantes et des motifs convaincants pour rester au Québec. Nous avons une occasion exceptionnelle de faire en sorte que Montréal retrouve son dynamisme. Par contre, pour y arriver le gouvernement fédéral doit d’abord se présenter à la table en investissant, par exemple, dans la recherche et l’innovation, ainsi que dans les infrastructures. Je m’engage à faire de cet objectif une priorité politique.

Les soins de santé constituent une autre question qui suscite l’intérêt de chaque personne dans la circonscription. La méthode du gouvernement Harper est de donner un chèque en blanc aux provinces. Il refuse d’établir des priorités nationales et de travailler pour favoriser la collaboration entre les juridictions. Les électeurs se tournent vers Ottawa pour que le gouvernement fédéral fasse preuve de leadership et de direction concernant un grand nombre de questions allant du soutien à la population vieillissante à l’établissement d’une stratégie nationale sur le cancer, en passant par le nombre grandissant et alarmant d’enfants atteints d’un trouble du spectre de l’autisme. Ce sont des domaines que je connais très bien.

De nombreuses raisons m’ont amené à me lancer dans la course. Israël et le bien-être de la collectivité juive me tiennent véritable à cœur et je travaillerai sans relâche en votre nom. D’autre part, je veux établir des ponts entre toutes les collectivités pour qu’ensemble nous puissions aborder les enjeux économiques, sociaux et environnementaux auxquels notre ville, notre province et notre pays sont confrontés. Le fait de travailler ensemble est la meilleure façon de bâtir un Canada qui sera à l’image de tous nos rêves et de toutes nos aspirations.

Mon père Victor m’a enseigné l’importance de la fonction publique. Il a lui-même fait son entrée en politique parce qu’il voulait rendre service à la collectivité, et je veux poursuivre cette tradition. Le 30 novembre, je souhaite qu’en votant pour moi les Libéraux de Mont-Royal me rapprocheront un peu plus de mon objectif qui est de servir la collectivité juive ainsi que tous les résidents de la circonscription à la Chambre des communes.



Jonathan Goldbloom

Candidat à l'investiture libérale fédérale en Mont-Royal
Candidate for Federal Liberal Nomination in Mount Royal








http://goldbloom.ca/  

 

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

My Goodreads review of Sean Michael's Giller Prize Winner, US CONDUCTORS

(Just a brief one, not much detail or synopsis)




An extremely accomplished (first!!) novel that imagines, in exquisite detail, the lives of historical figures. Lev Termen was clearly a genius to whom we owe many diverse electronic inventions. I enjoyed this book...but:

--The choppy short sentences, especially prominent in the first half of the book, got on my nerves. Also, the detail was a bit too exquisite (50-100 pages-worth)

--Turns out I find the sound of the theremin quite repellant (though that's hardly Mr. Michael's fault)

--The story was only redeemed by Termen's suffering in the latter half of the book (aka thank goodness for the gulag). Unfortunately all too real.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Money and Jewish community or Dad, meet shul




I would be the first to admit that my Jewish education isn't deep. But it's deeply held, and rests on two foundational pillars: Rabbi Hillel's on-one-foot injuction, "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary -- [and now] go study." And "justice, justice shall you pursue."

Which is why Rabbi Jay Kelman's article in last week's Canadian Jewish News, "We need not price Jews out of Judaism," broke my heart. It did this by acknowledging the depth of a potential Orthodox convert's pockets as a serious issue. Kelman quotes (without attribution) Rabbi Zvi Romm, administrator of the Rabbinical Council Of American's New York beit din: "One of the considerations we make is, can the person hack it financially?...If a person says I have no money whatsoever, I can't afford the $400 fee paid out over time, the question you have to ask is, how are you going to make it as an Orthodox Jew?"

Kelman insists, "Rejecting a convert is to be done for religious reasons only," saying rejecting converts based on their bank balance "would seem to be sacrilegious." Of course, there is a "but": "with the cost of Jewish life such as it is, financial considerations enter the confusing calculus of the conversion process." 

Which makes a mockery of what I thought I understood about Judaism.

Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but the Bible, though I don't believe in its literal truth, I find filled with moving stories. Like the story of Hannah in the Book of Samuel. Hannah, though much loved by her husband, is barren, which is a great trial to her. She goes to the temple and prays, weeping with intensity. The high priest confronts her, thinking she is drunk. When she explains her situation, he assures her her prayer will be heard and her wish granted. He didn't ask her if she was sure her family could afford another child...

~~~

When I was growing up, we were far from wealthy, and my family struggled with this issue of money and community. Which may explain why the attitude toward synagogue membership I absorbed from my father was a riff on the Groucho gag, "I'd never join a club that would have me as a member!"

My dad was raised in a pretty traditional Montreal Orthodox Jewish family; his parents' unhappy marriage was arranged (in Poland) and produced seven children (one died in Canada in toddlerhood). According to legend, his mother did what she could to miscarry each pregnancy, though this may have only extended so far as taking bumpy carriage rides. My father is the sole survivor of this nuclear family.

The first shul I recall is set in my mind, as though I'm one of Erikson's ducks, imprinted on a particular version of a house of worship. Chomedey, a Montreal suburb, developed in the mid-sixties, rapidly transforming from farmland to tracts of "little boxes made of ticky tacky." When we arrived in 1964, fields with ponds and pussy-willows existed round the corner from our modest duplex. Over the next several years, these lovely "empty" spaces, actually teeming with so much life, morphed into apartment blocks and single-family homes. The postwar baby boom had the public schools I attended, nominally Protestant (as opposed to the Catholic ones, from which Jews were excluded), bursting at the seams.

The synagogue I imprinted on, Congregation Young Israel of Chomedey, might have been called "Our Lord of the Turquoise Folding Chairs." A gymnasium-sized room did double duty as a synagogue and community centre (the latter incarnation hosting hypnosis shows by the late Reuben Pecarvé and screenings of Mary Poppins, The love bug, and The computer wore tennis shoes). An Ashkenazi Orthodox shul, which meant most distinctively to me that men and women sat separately, though kids were free to swarm through both sections. And we did. Cleavage was also by tribe, with a Sephardic congregation meeting on the lower level. I never got the feeling that relations between these groups were warm.

We were members there by the good graces of my Dad's youngest brother, Issie (another Young Israel of Chomedey). Issie was an engineer and shul founder, active in the community, who worked hard to make Quebec a unique Canadian jurisdiction where religious schools received government funding for the non-parochial portions of their curricula. So Uncle Issie was a professional and a macher, the only one of his sib-ship to go to university. He went to McGill for his Bachelor's, and to the University of Tennessee for his Master's degree. After that, he took a job with Canada's Department of Defence, working, I believe, on the DEW line.

Family was very close in those days and the locus of socialization for my father, probably for both my parents (I suppose it could still be if there was enough of it). I was friendly with the eldest of Issie's four children, a girl a scant year older than myself. My dad was neither a professional nor a macher; he and his two partner-brothers were furriers who confronted bankruptcy in 1963. At the end of the previous season, they had gotten a deal on mouton, a curly short-haired form of sheep skin, the fashion of the moment. The following season, though, it was "out." The brothers sold a good part of their decades long stamp collection to make ends meet; one of my earliest memories is waking from a nap to an apartment full of strangers, there to peruse proof sheets and first day covers. 



Following the close encounter with insolvency, my family couldn't afford full synagogue membership dues; I'm not sure we could afford even part dues. As long as Issie was around, we went to the Young Israel, and I think my dad imprinted on that financial arrangement. Or maybe he just remembered what being part of a shul community was like when he was young and most Jews lived in poverty: organized Judaism certainly couldn't have been so concerned about money in those days (or am I just being nostalgic?). Issie made aliyah with his family in the early '70s, about the same time our suburban shul--and its increasingly upscale membership--decided to add a more ornate sanctuary to the building, the folding chairs relegated to the basement hall, for bar mitzvahs and weddings. That was when the arrangement broke down for us, whether over membership dues and/or the additional funds needed for the new facilities. So we became peripatetic synagogue-wise, true wandering Jews.

One place I remember attending was a really small, religious shul, a shteibl my parents called it, with a sheet-like mechitzah dividing the women from the men (and, of course, the Torah). I recall candles glowing candles glimpsed through the mechitzah, presumably for Yahrzheit observance.

By the mid-seventies, a new factory-style high school was thrown up and quickly filled with Jewish and Greek kids who were, like us, rejects of the English and French Catholic school boards.2 Other students came from the Indian lands of nearby Oka. I had a number of classes (mostly sciences) in rooms of cinder block, with fluorescent lighting and no windows. It was a bit of a polyvalent nightmare, including some students who ripped mirrors off walls and toilets from floors--and that was just the girls!--some toughies, with blond hair and black roots, skin-tight jeans, and kohl-rimmed eyes. Of course, among the reprobates there were also Jewish kids who hung out at the back doors, smoking dope (or worse), similarly accoutred and behaved. At least one girl came to school pregnant while I was there. I wasn't overly exposed to these kids because I was an excellent student and our classes were streamed:  enriched, regular and general. But I digress.

At that point, my parents were able to swing a small mortgage, so we moved to a suburb even further from Montreal: Pierrefonds. Our family now included a son whose religious instruction was apparently an imperative much stronger than mine had been. We joined Congregation Beth Tikvah, an organization run by the formidable Rabbi Zeitz. His priority one was a Jewish day school and, through force of personality, he got the Hebrew Foundation School up and running almost single-handedly, it seemed. My brother attended school there. And we were still on folding chairs on holidays! 

My brother was bar mitzvahed the year I married my non-Jewish husband, 1981 (please see note 1). And, true to form, once the school was established, and as the community prospered, the membership was assessed to raise funds for a new sanctuary, banishing those folding chairs to the banquet hall anon. This was probably about 1983. My parents decided they could no longer afford membership in this synagogue and wrote the Rabbi, expecting to be offered a fee adjustment. Instead, there was silence. And that was that. We were again cut adrift, and wandered to holiday services in Golden Age institutions with grandparents in varying stages of decay.

In March 1986, we had our first child. A couple of weeks later, I met a woman and her first-born at a new mother's group run by the local public community service centre. We became friendly and ended up at her house for Rosh Hashanah dinner the following year (my mother had pneumonia). She and her husband  told us about the Reconstructionist synagogue. A place, she assured me, that would accept our family and allow me to re-join my tribe, a need which became pressing with parenthood.

My Jewish education had been haphazard; I went to the A.J. Reisen Yiddish school on Sunday mornings for two years, starting when I was nine. I remember singing Lomir zingen for my father's parents on one of our weekly visits. The exquisite mixture of pride and embarrassment that accompanied such occasions is still fresh in my mind. To tell the truth, I felt some combination of those emotions most of the time.

My dad walked me to Yiddish class on Sundays, our dog Lucky trotting on ahead. One late October morning, I was an hour late, victim of a forgotten change to Daylight Savings Time. For an over-weight, overly-sensitive meatball of a child, the effect of all eyes swivelling toward me as I turned the brass doorknob and entered the classroom was profound.

By the end of the second year, we started a Hebrew reader with a red cover. I remember its first page:  an ink drawing of a large extended family group, and underneath, the single Hebrew word mishpacha. But by the end of that school year, I  began objecting, another salvo in the emerging rebellion against my parents, my mother in particular. The following year, I didn't go back.

By the mid-seventies, a new factory-style high school was built, quickly filled with Jewish and Greek kids, rejects of the Catholic boards (please see note 2). Others came from the Indian lands near Oka. I had a number of classes (mostly sciences) in rooms of cinder block, with fluorescent lighting and no windows. It was a bit of a polyvalent nightmare, including some students who ripped mirrors off walls and toilets from floors--and that was just the girls! There were toughies, with blond hair and black roots, skin-tight jeans, and kohl-rimmed eyes. Of course, there were also Jewish kids who hung out at the back doors, smoking dope (or worse), similarly accoutred and behaved. At least one girl came to school pregnant while I was there. I wasn't over-exposed to these kids because I was an excellent student and our classes were streamed: enriched, regular and general. But I digress.

As a young teenager, I was active in B'nai Brith Youth Organization, and at CEGEP, in Hillel. I went to Israel for a summer at 17 (and thought I'd return), but despite a smattering exposure to brief courses of Hebrew, I never progressed far beyond that single page of the red-covered reader until my husband and I took a course together during his conversion process. And any facility I have singing and following along at services nowadays is due to the instruction I received during my two sons' bar mitzvah preparations, and from my time spent in shul.

So as a young parent, I felt exquisitely ill-prepared to mother a Jewish family, a Jewish home: by that point, my family hadn't been synagogue-affiliated for about five years, I had married a believing Protestant, part of the fulcrum of that pride/embarrassment seesaw, my knowledge of Hebrew and many of the holidays was vestigial. But despite all this, I still felt deeply that I and my children were and would remain in the fold. There was never any question of bringing them up in both faiths, or of giving them neither. Especially because of the Holocaust, I was determined that we were going to have a Jewish family.

My mother told me how pleased she was to see what a warm and nurturing  mother I'd become. I was a scientist, had never expressed any particular maternal instincts that she could see, so it was a sort of happy surprise to her, she told me. She  tracked down an organization called Parveh, for the children of mixed Jewish marriages. She wrote away for their literature and brought it to me and, for a time, pushed me to join or otherwise subscribe to their newsletters and writings. Which infuriated me: I considered my son Jewish, not half-Jewish, as my mother kept suggesting. It took time to get this through to her, but she finally got the message.

She also had a conflicted attitude toward Judaism, due in part to a simplistic but common interpretation of the place it gave to women. She virtually never went to synagogue, either. Maybe on the high holidays. She continually mouthed the most scathing opinions about the over-emphasis of money in the community, how holidays at shul were mostly fashion shows, how little many of the people attending really cared about spiritual matters. Of course, I had noticed this myself.

By the time Dorshei Emet was suggested to us as a possible spiritual home, I needed it like the desert needs the rain. We went to a new members meeting, where Rabbi Ron Aigen told us he hoped this would be a place to feel challenged rather than comfortable. I suppose he was alluding to that adage of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," but for me, after all these years of spiritual aching, I longed to experience solace, healing and, dare I say it, comfort. I was among the afflicted in that sense, though I wouldn't have put it that way at the time.

My husband went to shul most Saturdays during the year he was studying to convert to Judaism, while my son and I worshipped at that other local Jewish temple, Cavendish Mall. And when our second son was born a year or so later, his brith milah was held at the shul. As the years passed, my father started coming with us to Dorshei Emet's High Holiday alternate service, usually held on folding chairs at a satellite location: a library hall or parochial school gym. This second service was held for two reasons:  the original synagogue couldn't hold the entire congregation (and various hangers-on) when we all decided it was absolutely necessary to attend. Secondly, the shul's originators envisioned it as a space to nurture the adult intellect. The alternate service was a more relaxed place where parents of boisterous young children would receive fewer dirty looks.

The warm-hearted organizers of the alternate services gave my dad various honours; he held the Torah, received aliyot, and was always warmly greeted. All of this gladdened my heart; it was a large part of what I hoped to find in a shul community. But somewhere over the five or so years of his attending with us, the zeitgeist changed. It could have been because paid members found it increasingly difficult to find seats on the high holidays due to an increase in non-paying freeloaders, or because the costs attendant on the second service were rising, or because a larger number of members were changing fee categories (from full-paying adult or family memberships to reduced-fee seniors) or for a mixture of these or other reasons. The synagogue board seemed determined to force those who only bought High Holiday seats to become full members. What had been a celebration open to all unaffiliated Jews in the city morphed into a service with fees of $200, for one year only. Unless you were an out-of-towner, the second year you were expected to become a full-fledged member (with fees for a family at the time in the vicinity of $750, now closer to $2,000).

The predictable happened one late fall day (could it have been Halloween?). I was in the synagogue office to settle something-or-other pertaining to our first born's upcoming bar mitzvah. The shul's administrative director announced that she'd just received a $75 donation from my father. She looked at me, clearly expecting an explanation.

I wish I had told her to ask him herself. Instead, I said it might have had to do with his having attended the alternate service, held that year in the gymnasium at the Jewish People's and Peretz Schools. She replied to the effect that that was what she surmised, that he should have paid $200 for the privilege, and that anyway, as a Montrealer, he was required to join the synagogue if he wanted to come to future High Holiday services. And then, the gratuitous stiletto slipped between my ribs: "Next year, I am going to put him on a special list and tell [the two organizers] specifically that he is to be barred from services unless he joins the synagogue."

Now, I know I had, particularly in that period of my life, a sort of aura of perpetual victimhood, a quality that a personality like our then-administrative director's would find impossible to ignore. I cannot imagine her having dealt with most other shul members the way she dealt with me that day. I'm not saying it was my fault, but I'm sure there was something I should have done differently. But such was my precarious perch on my pride/embarrassment seesaw, that I miserably concluded my business with her, and went on my distinctly unmerry way.

And then I made what I still consider my colossal mistake:  I told my father all this. Maybe I should have paid the membership fees for him (which we could hardly have afforded at the time), or I should have called the Rabbi or a board member. I told my father that if it was a question of needing reduced fees, I was sure something could be arranged. But he had already gotten his back up about it, and anyway, simply didn't think even a $200 fee for three days of worship was justifiable.

And so, with a single spell of our own Dorshei Emet witch, a goodly portion of what I had been searching for most of my adult life went up in smoke.

My dad ended up at a Lubavitch-type congregation, where they didn't charge him anything. He took pictures at their purim parties, and at various other celebrations during the year. Their major fund-raising involved--at Rosh Hashanah services, no less--the auctioning of aliyot in the coming year for multiples of chai. My mom, as usual, stayed home.

In the years since then, I've spent too much time thinking about my father and my synagogue. I vacillate in my interpretation, sometimes convinced my father's stubborn refusal to pay to attend synagogue is the cause of all my grief. A number of times, I  considered leaving the congregation, especially when it came time to fund-raise for our new building, and not simply to follow a family tradition. I know there are some very wealthy people in our congregation, and an even larger number of the comfortably well-off. But I am convinced there isn't another religious community in Montreal, outside of ours, that would have the chutzpah, in attempting to raise funds for a building, to tell us that "we can do nothing --NOTHING--with only three and a half million dollars, that we absolutely have to raise $5 million," or the project would have to be scrapped.

I was also at a meeting where we were exhorted to simply take one less vacation each year, and donate the money thereby liberated to the building fund. Well, my family only took one vacation annually in those days, and only once in the nearly eighteen years since we'd had our first child, did it involve plane tickets!

I started this memoir in the hope of finally getting past these difficult feelings. And I recalled my Rabbi's Kol Nidre address to us a few years back, about wanting to acknowledge problems. He said he particularly wanted to know why those of us who left the congregation did so. My immediate family hasn't left, but I have at times felt estranged.

I know it's kind of a long story, but it is one I'm compelled to tell. The inordinate emphasis of money in the Jewish community is an ongoing problem for me--a disgrace, even--and I'm sure this perception is not mine alone.
           
Notes
1Our romance being a whole 'nother story, summarized as: we met at college; within a couple of years, we'd fallen in love, his mother died of metastatic breast cancer, I couldn't just leave him on his own--we were 20--and he didn't believe in "living in sin." So we married at the Reform Temple Emmanuel by Rabbi Bernard Bloomstone, z"l, the only local rabbi brave enough to marry a Jew and non-Jew. "Whither thou goest," as it were. My husband converted to Judaism six years later. Which sort of proves "if you build it, they will come."

2 The government of Quebec reorganized public schools along linguistic lines in the mid-1990s, requiring a constitutional amendment.




Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Before Suicide: Thoughts on David Gilmour's EXTRAORDINARY









David Gilmour has to be the clearest writer I've read in a long time. In fact, EXTRAORDINARY is so clear, it reads like a film script. And not just any film script.

It reads like the Canadian cousin of the films "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" (since writing this, I've seen the third installment, "Before Midnight," and it's marvelous). A man and woman sit around and talk all night--about their lives, who they are, what is important to each, filling in the gaps. Of course, in the original, the couple falls in love over the course of a 24 hour period after meeting, by chance, on a train; they don't know each other at all.




In Gilmour's version, the couple is anything but strangers: a half-brother and half-sister, separated by a 15 year age gap.


It reads as though Gilmour leapfrogged to the third act of the trilogy, cutting out beginning and middle, opting solely for end.

And instead of being thrown together haphazardly on a train, they are drawn together on this single evening by the sister's need for help in committing suicide. She's a paraplegic who's had enough of living a diminished life, a life she finds harder and harder to manage.

I'm wondering about the title, if it's Sally, the sister, who is supposed to be extraordinary? M, the narrator, certainly seems to find her so, but I guess we all feel that way about those we love, about those whose half-stories we know. Or maybe the circumstances are extraordinary...yes, that seems more like it. It’s funny: the cover illustration is of a glowing firefly, but a moth drawn to a flame might have been just as apt.

I did not want to like this book. In fact, I didn't want to like any of this author's work. If you’ve been wondering why the name David Gilmour rings a bell, it could be because he was a long-time CBC film critic. Or because he already won the Governor General’s Literary Award for A Perfect Night to go to China.

Or you could be like me, mainly acquainted with David Gilmour because of that arguably disastrous Hazlitt interview he gave recently. I say arguably disastrous because perhaps, after all, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

On principle, I wanted to dismiss this book. In fact, I wanted to ignore Gilmour’s work entirely. But, unlike Gilmour himself, I couldn't write him off without ever having read him. So I am working my way through his books. I won't buy them, though: he's not getting my measly toonies!



Did I enjoy Extraordinary? Yes. Not as much as the book I finished earlier in the day: Louise Erdrich’s The Roundhouse. I read that one for my book club; I’m also working on discovering more great women writers. For this, I may thank David Gilmour.

Was Extraordinary extraordinary? Well, it was good, not great. It filled an evening.

Will I remember it six months from now? Doubtful.

It was extremely clear, eminently readable. Is it such a great book that it deserved to be on the Giller long list? Well, not having read the others or the ones which were overlooked, I really can't say (very much want to read the Davidson and Coady ones).

I read it because my library made a copy available, because I was curious, and because I couldn't not like his writing because of some ideas he has with which I disagree.

I read it, in sum, to prove to myself that I am not as prejudiced as he is.

After months of fulmination and kerfuffle, David Gilmour is back teaching at the University of Toronto.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Canada's demographic shift: Concordia profs work to ensure healthier & happier longevity



By: Beverly Akerman

Canada is growing much greyer. In 2011, as baby boomers began crossing that 65-year-old threshold, the Census reported almost 15 per cent of us were seniors. By 2031, one quarter of Canadians will fit that bill. Centenarians are the country’s fastest growing age group.

This demographic shift has major social, medical and financial repercussions. For instance, within a generation, the number of Canadians with dementia will more than double, to 1.1 million people, and the cost of their care will rise from today’s $1.5 billion to a projected $153 billion.

How will society deal with these huge challenges? Concordia experts are looking at these issues from multiple angles.

Investing in planning

Patrik Marier
Patrik Marier, a professor in Concordia’s department of Political Science, is also scientific director of the Centre for research and expertise in social gerontology in Montreal.

As a professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science, Marier’s research focuses on the policy implications of our changing demo­graphics. These days, he’s analyzing the implications to pension, health care and labour policy, and working on a book about Canada’s preparations for aging populations.

“A large cohort of seniors have in­comes barely above the poverty line,” he says. “And a substantial number of baby boomers carry impressive amounts of debt into retirement.”

Gender defines another worrying pension issue, Marier adds: women tend to have more career interruptions than men and therefore are more than twice as likely to rely on the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Yet it’s a complex issue. Governments in Canada and elsewhere are certainly aware of the potential future crunch on pensions. Marier, the holder of a Canada Research Chair in Comparative Public Policy, feels we’re not necessarily headed toward a disaster. “We must take care not to frame the issue as a crisis, a tsunami,” he says. “Public authorities should act on the challenges, but need to understand that adjustments are already taking place. For example, the data show people are already retiring later.”
As our population ages, we are looking towards overwhelming numbers of people with dementia, yet are not prepared for this. We have an obligation to provide them the best possible quality of life. 
Charles DraiminCharles Draimin, professor and chair of the department of accountancy at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, notes that a segment of the Canadian population is no longer forced to retire.
Charles Draimin, professor and chair of the Department of Accountancy at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, concurs. “In the early ’80s, the Quebec government changed the laws on mandatory retirement, and Ontario followed suit about eight years ago,” he says. “As a result, people are no longer forced to retire except for spe­cific, highly physical occupations like police officer or fire fighter.”

The situation varies across jurisdic­tions, Marier points out. “In general, populations in the eastern provinces are older than western ones, and federal health care transfers don’t take into ac­count there are more older people per capita in Nova Scotia than in Alberta, for example.” This makes the current health care funding formula “unfair,” he says, and describes “huge ongoing de­bates” about the effect of aging on health care costs. “A higher number of older people will most likely increase health care expenditure, but upcoming seniors are also healthier than those in previous generations.”

Louis Bherer is scientific director of Concordia’s PERFORM Centre (see the sidebar) and also serves as researcher and lab director at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. He agrees that 60 is the new 40 — which delays retirement age. When he started in the field as a graduate stu­dent about 15 years back, Bherer recalls that 65 was considered the start of being considered old in neurosciences re­search. “Now 75 is the geriatric cut-off.”


Nonetheless, the concern for the pop­ulation’s retirement income remains real, as a significant portion of pension­ers have relatively small incomes and one quarter of the retired population lacks any pension savings outside the public plan. As well, public pensions in Canada were designed to replace only a fraction of the median wage of a working person. Draimin points out that when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck offered pensions to German work­ers over 65 in 1888, few people lived long enough to qualify. Yet with life ex­pectancy now nearly 86 years old, “the length of the modern retirement has effectively doubled. While still young enough to save for it, people should probably be finding out what they’d have to invest to approach 90 per cent of their pre-retirement income,” he advises.

Marier believes we need to prepare better. “People spend far more time buying a new car or fridge than on the financial decisions related to retire­ment,” he says. “People need to ask questions and they need to know what to ask. Don’t be shy.” He recommends The Naked Investor: Why Almost Everybody but You Gets Rich on Your RRSP (2007) by John Lawrence Reynolds as a resource.

Quality of life matters

Kim SawchukCommunication studies professor Kim Sawchuk helps fight the attitude by younger generations that older people don’t have a clue about digital technologies.
We live in the digital age. We also live in a time of digital ageism, an attitude that assumes younger people have a natural fluency with digital media their elders lack, and a major reason seniors are often left out of research on new digital technologies.

Kim Sawchuk, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies, is working to counter digital ageism. Sawchuk holds a Concordia University Research Chair in Mobile Media Studies, a Canadian first, and directs the Mobile Media Lab, which is dedicated to interdisciplinary research in “mobili­ties,” the movement of people, objects, capital and information, locally and across the world.
From earlier work with seniors and cell phones, Sawchuk understands that seniors are extremely heterogeneous: “There are differences, for example, between someone who is 60 and not yet retired, someone recently retired and those retired 20 years or more.”

She explains that culture, language and social and kinship networks are at least as significant as age on technol­ogy use and practice, and that limits on access can be related to incomes, or simply to the realization “we have too much stuff” to manage in our lives.

“We need to understand how people decide what they want and need. We need to value those as well, those who are sceptical: every new technology is not absolutely necessary,” Sawchuk says. The Mobile Media Lab provides digi­tal learning to seniors groups based on their requirements. “We ask seniors what they want to learn and do, and then we help them access that knowledge.”

Sawchuk describes a recent flash mob at Montreal’s Place Alexis Nihon orga­nized with Ressources ethnoculturelles contre l’abus envers les aînées and the Contactivity Centre in support of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15. “It was fantastic to see the reaction of these 50 seniors dressed in purple who participated, and then put up their intervention on YouTube. They were a force taking over the public space and putting their perspective on aging, using new media, into the virtual world.”

She has other ongoing projects with many seniors’ organizations. “At Concordia, we’re being encouraged to make what we know, and the studies we’ve done, relevant to the real world. And that’s a good thing.”

Taming regret

Carsten WroschThe research by psychology professor Carsten Wrosch has shown that when seniors are trained to write about their life in a positive light, rather than focusing on regrets, they feel better about themselves.
In a society that extols persistence as a goal-seeking behaviour, for an older person, knowing when to abandon a goal can be an equally valid path to well-being. For a young person seeking a lover or a job, persistence in the face of adversity makes sense.

Yet Carsten Wrosch, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology, says that for some of the intractable problems of older age, “Giving up, quitting or abandoning goals, or finding some other goal to focus on can be the most adaptive response.” Especially if the person’s circumstances can’t be altered.

Wrosch is director of the Personality, Aging and Health Lab, affiliated with the university’s interdisciplinary Centre for Research on Human Development, which unites top researchers and train­ees from six Quebec universities in the study of development over the human lifespan. A major research focus is the long-term study of aging. The Montreal Aging and Health Study has followed about 200 older adults for a decade. Last year, the study received a third Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant of close to $1 million.

Wrosch says research shows that re­grets — such as being unable to walk or no longer able to do the groceries — can lead to excessive rumination and even depression, and increase one’s vulnerability to disease. Wrosch has demonstrated these psychological states — and their alteration — are reflected in measurable health-relevant biological processes such as levels of cortisol (reflecting stress) and C-reactive protein (related to inflammation states). “What I’m really interested in is pre­venting this downward spiral through self-regulation, a life-management approach,” he says.

One such approach taken in his lab, pub­lished in the journal Psychology and Aging, experimented with directed writing: coach­ing seniors to write about their life regrets by “making social com­parisons, silver lining and positive reframing” — basically, making real­istic comparisons with others in the same situation, as opposed to lamenting the loss of an ideal state. Results show marked decreases in the intensity of regrets and improved outcomes, including better sleep.

“Our research is a pathway to helping older people deal with regrets over the intractable problems of aging,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to discover mecha­nisms that can contribute to helping older adults enjoy a happier and healthier life.”

Training your brain

Karen LiOne of the research projects conducted by Karen Li, a professor in Concordia’s department of psychology, found that playing computer games along with fitness training helped improve seniors’ condition.
One road to such a happier and healthier life is keeping our bodies — as well as our minds — in shape.

That’s one area being examined by Karen Li, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology. Li is in­terested in executive functioning, an umbrella term for those cognitive skills harnessing mental control, organization and self-regulation. She explains execu­tive functions are closely tied with areas of the brain that shrink more rapidly as we age.

Li and her team at the Laboratory for Adult Development and Cognitive Aging test older and younger adults as they use executive functions to multitask by com­bining cognitive and motor activities. “We measure how much a person sways while balancing on one foot and com­pare that with the increased fluctuations they might exhibit while simultane­ously listening to words or doing mental arithmetic.”

As cognitive tasks increase in diffi­culty, older adults show a greater drop in performance than younger adults. “That suggests that in older age, what used to be an automatic physical task — balancing — requires more attention and cognitive resources. Avoiding a loss of balance has practical implications for healthy, independent living,” she says.

So how to strengthen these cognitive functions? “A growing number of studies show that aerobic fit­ness training, even with a mod­est physical improvement, can lead to improved executive functioning,” she says. “Social engagement is also an important source of mental stimulation.”

Li’s work has also established that brain training with computer games can be a useful add-on to more conven­tional forms of physical therapy/fitness training. Together with Louis Bherer and other Concordia researchers at the PERFORM Centre, Li’s latest projects involve older adults with (and without) mild hearing impairment. In popula­tion studies of age-related conditions, hearing loss is associated with increased falling. Li hopes that brain-gym in com­bination with aerobic fitness training will better elucidate this link and, ulti­mately, be used to decrease falling.

She’s also keen on an ongoing proj­ect, funded through CIHR, involving the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Healthy young and older adults and older adults with hearing loss walk on a treadmill in a virtual reality simula­tion of crossing a six-lane street. As the subjects are challenged with listening tasks, their walking is measured using motion-capture technology. The goal is to simulate a real-life multitasking situation in a safe environment to un­derstand how hearing loss and mobility decline are linked.

Music to their ears

Laurel YoungMusic therapy assistant professor Laurel Young recently received awards from Wilfrid Laurier University and Temple University in Philadelphia for outstanding contributions to the field.

Laurel Young, an assistant profes­sor of music therapy in Concordia’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, may have one solution. Young is an ac­credited music therapist with clinical experience in geriatrics and dementia, palliative care and other areas of physi­cal and mental health.

Prior to her music therapy training, as a university student Young had the op­portunity to play music in the locked dementia units of a long-term care fa­cility. “I could also awaken those who were very withdrawn,” she says. “I knew I needed to understand more and that’s why I decided to pursue training as a music therapist.”

Young’s initial interest in research came out of an internship where she worked with dementia patients at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. While there, she investigated the use of music to stimulate object recogni­tion. It was clear that music stimulated memory and interpersonal connection. “The science is just starting to catch up with the anecdotal experiences that music therapists have been talking about for years,” she says.

She expanded her bio-psycho-so­cial health perspectives into the area of singing and health, yet her passion for working with seniors remained. “With almost all dementias, the music func­tions of the brain remain intact. Most individuals retain a sensitivity to music, and have the ability to participate in a wide variety of music experiences,” she says. “Research has also shown that both these attributes may be enhanced, even as other capacities deteriorate.”

Creative arts therapies won’t cure de­mentia, Young says, but by decreasing agitation, stimulating cognition and fa­cilitating meaningful interactions with others, they can significantly improve quality of life for many patients.

She describes a case where the hus­band was institutionalized and hadn’t spoken for many years. The wife usually visited daily, sharing in much of his care. Young would see this couple in a small music therapy group. Singing gentle songs on guitar and touching the man’s hands, she was often able to rouse him from his languor.

When Young discovered that the couple’s song was Let Me Call You Sweetheart, the results were revelatory. She would sing “Let me call you sweet­heart,” and the husband would finish the line with “I’m in love with you,” and then look at his wife. Here was a wom­an, Young explains, who for years didn’t know if her husband was aware of her presence or anything she did to help him. When the husband acknowledged his wife in that setting, it was moving and meaningful for them both.

“Music is a distinct domain of func­tioning in the brain that seems to serve a variety of purposes, but we are still discovering its full potential,” Young maintains. “My theory is that if the music functions of the brain are so important, shouldn’t we be trying to maintain these functions to the fullest possible extent?” She believes using creative arts therapies in this way is “not just fun and enjoyable, but clinically indicated.”

As our population ages, we are looking towards overwhelming numbers of people with dementia, yet are not physically, financially, or psychologically prepared for this, Young warns. We have an obligation to provide them the best possible quality of life.

In future, she hopes, “We may be able to understand how music works when other forms of communication have failed, to discover a way to capitalize on this in creative, functional, and mean­ingful ways. These people will be us — if we live long enough. How will you want to be treated?”

–Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer.

Adapted from the original, published here.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Some thoughts on The Goldfinch and Donna Tartt's writing


Vanity Fair has a July 2014 article summarizing the critics: "It's Tartt--But is it Art?"


Much of my reading time the past month has been devoted to the oeuvre of Donna Tartt. I was turned on to her work through my book club, which assigned the 2013 Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch (easily 200 pages too long, making me suspect Tartt never had a darling she was able to kill). I then turned to the other two of her tomes, and read them in sequence: The Secret History (1992), and The Little Friend (2002).

There is no doubt that Ms. Tart is a magnificent talent; as Laura Miller put it in her 2002 review of The Little Friend, Donna Tart definitely has "the hoodoo"...she creates great characters and dynamite atmosphere. BUT...while I read her thinking "Wow, this is a great writer," I finish the books without being able to call them great books. Ayelet Waldman put her finger on the problem with this book, in particular, and all three of Tartt's books, generally: "one day, in the middle of writing the book, she got up, went to work, and suddenly decided to just type the words, 'The End,' at the bottom of the page." The books just aren't satisfactory (The Little Friend being the least satisfactory of the three). The amount of time we invest just isn't rewarded with enough of an epiphany at the end.

And I say this as a reader who would LOVE to love her books, a reader desperate for a new literary immortal, a WOMAN immortal, especially. The main problem, as I see it, is that Ms. Tartt writes atmosphere, character, and dilemma, but she frustrates the reader, sometimes by just going on for unnecessary pages and chapters, but ultimately because she hasn't found themes that resonate deeply enough for me.

May she, one day soon, find her grasp equal to her reach. To make it into Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Harper Lee territory, she has to write about justice and injustice, plain and simple. A good long--and, especially, an overlong--story simply isn't enough.

I look forward to learning what you think about Donna Tartt's writing...

PS Coincidentally (?), the word "Goldfinch" appears on p. 365 of The Little Friend.

PPS Other reviewers have taken the name Harriet to refer to Harriet the Spy. Why not Harriet for Harry Potter, I'd like to know, especially given the nickname Boris gives Theo in The Goldfinch (Potter)?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

FREE sample of a great summer read...


Hi there

There are so many wonderful books by so many incredible writers. I know I can't keep track of them all. So, since I'm a Montreal writer with a great book you may not have heard of, a book that might be your perfect summer read, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about it, and offer you a free sample.

The FREE story is here: http://bit.ly/zXV1ne; “Pie” won Gemini Magazine’s first flash fiction contest. I hope you enjoy it; it’s a story that has deep resonance for me.

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN is an award winning collection of 14 short stories, most of them published in CanLit magazines (The Antigonish Review, carte blanche, Descant, Exile Quarterly, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, Windsor Review, etc. etc. etc.).

It won the David Adams Richards Prize from the Writers Federation of New Brunswick, the Mona Adilman Prize for fiction on Jewish themes (a JI Segal Award), and made the 2011 CBC-Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest Top 10.





The Paperback is $14.40 and the E-book is $5.08 $2.99

"Beverly Akerman’s collection of stories THE MEANING OF CHILDREN manages to capture with both wit and wisdom the effervescence, the indignities, the curiosity, and the fear that are part of a child’s eye view of the world. This book is teeming with wit and quality observation."
~ JI Segal Award Jury

"A keen, incisive vision into the hidden world of children as well as intimate knowledge of the secret spaces that exist between the everyday events of life. A work with a brilliant sense of story…Magical, and so refreshing for me to read. I absolutely loved it and I hope it goes on to do marvellous things. Yours is a luminous talent."
~JoAnne Soper-Cook, Author and Judge, the Writers Federation of New Brunswick's 2010 David Adams Richards Prize

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN was favourably reviewed by The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, The Rover, and The Western Star, among other places...here are a couple more comments (many more, including the incredible Readers' Choice comments, can be found here):

“This isn’t the invented childhood of imagination and wonderment…[here] children both corrupt and redeem: each other, family relationships and the female body.”
~Katie Hewitt, The Globe and Mail

“Akerman holds up our greatest fears, not to dwell on them, but to marvel at our commitment to life, especially to passing it on to others.”
~Anne Chudobiak, The Montreal Gazette

“A collection of 14 short stories which covers the range of experience from the point of view of children, mums, and also aging parents as well. It’s all there in this lovely little book, short stories about life in a family that might just resemble yours. A wonderful gift for mother’s day, perhaps more long lived than the usual cut flowers.”
~Anne Lagacé Dowson, CJAD Radio journalist (Interview: http://youtu.be/djOXwJasZes)

Anyway, that's my spiel. Hope I haven't bent your ear too much and that you have a wonderful summer. 

And thank you for supporting great books and their writers!

Best wishes,

Beverly Akerman

PS THE MEANING OF CHILDREN would love to make your college or university syllabus!