Thursday, June 09, 2016

Canadian Jewish News writes about Yiddish for Pirates

I'm delighted by this review in the Canadian Jewish News. Apparently they believe I must have been paying attention during all those interminable cheder (Hebrew school) lessons. But, really, it is quite moving to have such a review in such a place.

I was thinking tonight about how they would say that the American composer Charles Ives wrote the music that his father would have written, that his music came out of a love and concern for the kinds of things that he saw mattered to his father, filtered (I think) through a kind of nostalgia and affection.

I would say that some significant part of my novel comes from my perception of what mattered to my maternal grandparents.  My grandfather's interest in Jewish learning, in the mystery and value of books, language and knowledge for itself, and a kind of intellectual Yiddishkeit which made me consider that each corner and crook of the world is filled with story, with knowledge, with thought, with words, and with an opinion. He also had an interest in bon mots (frequently his own) and Jewish jokes (frequently his own.) There was a sense that through knowledge the world was larger and had roots.

He was also was a polyglot. (Man, he was hard to clean up after -- ask my grandmother.) He was not a religious man, but was fascinated by religious texts and knew Hebrew, Afrikaans, English, Yiddish, French, Russian, some German, and bits of other languages. I remember arriving one night late and seeing him have about five different bibles open in front of him, comparing the texts. My grandfather and I would go to the local library once a week when I was between ten and thirteen. I remember reading about madrigals and haiku while he read the Israeli newspapers in English and Hebrew.

A characteristic memory of my grandmother. She would be sitting in her green chair or lying on her bed with a book (library-wrapped by her in plastic)—mostly frequently a contemporary or classic literary novel—reading with a dictionary beside her. She was a fastidious reader, always careful to check on unfamiliar words or usages. She also told stories, mostly during those times when my grandfather wasn't there to interrupt or eclipse her. Those quieter times between things. There wasn't the sense of having an audience (in both meanings of the word) that there was with my grandfather or of tagging along on a particular project or enthusiasm that he'd being seized with. She'd talk while baking or while I helped her walk from a chair to the dinner table (which, as her arthritis took told of her bones, could take enough time for a story or anecdote.)

When they moved to Canada, I remember one of the first things they did in their new house was to knock down the wall between two room so that they could install "their library,"—their large book collection with its dark wood shelves and Persian rugs. Each book was carefully catalogued by my grandmother and I would look through the various dictionaries, encylopedias (Jewish, historical and philosophical), the older editions, the collections of many or all the books by a single author gathered together on the shelf (I imagined where my books would go, in their place on the "B" shelf) and the bookcases of Hebrew and Yiddish books, obscure to me, but their unintelligible whispering and humming was a mysterious and affective ghost for me.

All of my grandparents were migrants, immigrants, wandering a varied diaspora of Jews, living in a diaspora of memory. They moved from Lithuania and the Ukraine where they were born to South Africa, where my parents were born, and eventually to Canada, where I was born. In my novel, the boy who eventually becomes a pirate captain, Moishe, is born in Lithuania, travels to Spain and then eventually finds himself in the Caribbean. There is this sense of travelling, of following story, of following the horizon. Following the horizon looking for home, looking for possibility. Often Jews feel like they are a diaspora of themselves, living in the past and in the future, but with a complicated feeling about the present. And so, they live in language, a place that is there and not there. Its palpable sensory reality is present, is here, but yet always refers to something else. A sign of relief, of regret, of hope, expectation, of witness.

I remember when my first son was born, my grandfather spoke to me about how he had known his grandfather and now he had met his great-grandson. That's six generations, he said. And he was in the middle of the past and the future.

But here I am at 3 a.m. in the Calgary airport writing to the sound of the cleaners' vacuums as I nod off with exhaustion. I, too, am between one place and the other. Between being awake and asleep. Between Hamilton, Ontario and Victoria, B.C. Between one flight and the next. Between sense and reverie. Beginning and ending. Guess I'd better find a comfy and quiet bank of airport chairs to steal a quick shloff before it is time for my flight in a few hours, before it is time for me, too, to fly off toward the horizon.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Welcome to Hamilton: a fundraiser for Syrian refugess

Last night, I was really happy to get to perform at the Welcome to Hamilton event raising money for arts programs for Syrian refugees staged by Supercrawl and hosted by Ralph Benmergui. There were 800 people at Hamilton’s New Vision church (a really beautiful setting) and a brilliant array of fantastic bands and performers. including The National, Hayden, Terra Lightfoot, Max Kerman from The Arkells, Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. All the performances were knockouts and it was a complete love-in for the audience. A lovely positive vibe.

I was one of four writers who read at the event. John Terpstra, Steven Brunt, and Sally Cooper also read. I was really so grateful to be invited and so glad that writers were included.  And apparently, over $50,000 were raised. So it was a good thing, yes? 

Of course. But much as it was great, I was concerned that the audience was almost entirely white. Except for Mother Tareka, a local performer of Syrian-descent, the performers were white (and almost entirely male.) I feel that it would have been important to include a greater range of backgrounds, to “decolonize” the event. I would have liked some more people of colour and some indigenous people represented in the performing line-up which might have then attracted a greater range of people in the audience. I know that the opportunity to present The National came up and so a show was built around them and their audience—and both were fantastic. The audience was incredibly warm, attentive, and appreciative of everyone—we writers as well as the phenomenal performers and host Ralph Benmergui. 

I was concerned that the event had a bit of a white liberal middle class “saviourist” feel to it. Us, privileged white people helping these poor Syrians. A one-way street. Ralph Benmergui did make the point, which I greatly appreciated, that Syria is an extremely old culture, vibrant and rich in culture. However, I would have like a greater sense of this being a relation among cultural equals (even if not equal in terms of ecomomic and physical safety—refugees are, after all, coming here because the situation is better in Canada at the moment.) Perhaps some Syrian writers. Or a refugee or immigrant (sure, I’m an immigrant, but I’m thinking one who arrived with less implicit privilege) or a representative from a Syrian organization in Hamilton/Ontario/Canada. Some people to speak to the experience of being a non-white person in Canada. The audience was so welcoming, I think they'd have been open to hearing about this kind of experience, to learning about things outside their experience.

I do love that the money was being raised for music, arts and recreation for refugee youth, acknowledging that refugees need access to the full range of things that we all need, which means not only socks and tins of beans.

I was thinking about reading from my new novel, Yiddish for Pirates, but then I realized that perhaps a book about Jews on boats might not be the most appropriate thing in this context, so I sat down to write something. The organizers had asked for something affirming, open-hearted, something perhaps about Hamilton. I thought about the idea that the refugees (as immigrants and refugees always have) bring something valuable to our community. Their experiences, culture, whatever they are as humans and the potential they and their children bring to this new place. It isn’t a one way street. They get a new place to live, but that means that we do, too.

My poem deliberately plays with the idea of appropriating voice. If it works as I hope, it is ambiguous who exactly is the “we” that is speaking. It changes. And that is part of the point. Sometime it is the voice of the refugee, something it is the voice of the current Hamiltonian.  I hope that it succeeds. I was very concerned not to take on the voice of the refugee. 

Oh, and also, old bad jokes. 

Poem for Welcome to Hamilton.

we have counted each day
we have counted each night
we have counted footsteps

we have counted each river
each ocean
each boat and plane 

we have counted the old
we have counted the new
each minute and mile 
we have counted our friends and family

we have counted the words 
the shouts, the songs, the old jokes
we have counted the air

we have flown for days, we say
your arms must be tired, they say
yes, we say, and before we left
we couldn’t play the violin

and now? they ask
we still can’t play the violin
but we are here

we have counted each breakfast
each lunch
each pair of pants

we have counted each bed
each school
each job and each penny
each new word to say

we have counted each road
each airport
each train

each shoe and each video game
each bike 
and each plate

each brother
each father and son

each mother 
each grandmother and lover

each grandfather
each husband and wife

we have counted each city
each town
and each road

we have counted each suitcase
each one left behind
each departure and each road

we have counted each border 
each new country
each new promise, each old regret

we have counted each of these months
imagining each other

travelling by travelling
or travelling by not travelling
each greeting 
each journey’s end

and we have counted each arrival
each of us 
welcome to the city 
now each other’s home


On my way walking home from the benefit, cutting through the McNab Street transit block, I ran into three young people who I had taught as part of the ArtForms arts education for street-involved youth. Mostly recently, I'd seen them at  creative writing workshops at Notre Dame House, a shelter for homeless youth. One of the youth—I'd first met him before he had begun transitioning—had been at the show (he worked with the church), the other had set up in front to sell his artwork—paintings and buttons. Yeah. Three young toughs at large in the street in Hamilton. What did they want to talk about. Art and poetry. Yeah. Arts education. Part of a complete breakfast. Always.