Reviewed by Marilyn Herbert
When you’re on to a good thing, it is wise to keep going. Liz Pearl has not only done that, but she has maintained the richness in this third volume of Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women. With each book and each personal story, I find myself ever more deeply engrossed in the common themes of identity and relationships.
Many of the stories in Volume I inspired readers from the inside out as they dealt with individual development. In the second book, the stories came more predominantly from the perspective of the generations of women who were confident in their identity and were ready to pass their knowledge along to their daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and friends. In the current collection of stories, many of the tales focus on the connections of women to the outer fabric of their culture and/or religion. An interesting feature of this gathering of thoughts by Canadian Jewish women is that some were born outside of Canada, yet the “Canadian” part of their Jewish identity is clear in every narrative.
Having spent several years in the United States, Natalie Fingerhut returned to Toronto, completed a Masters degree in history at U of T, and married a nice Canadian Jewish boy, Rob Winters. Her story outlines the life links and lessons given to her by three of the rabbis in her Holy Blossom Temple community. Fingerhut lost her father when she was 12 years old and Rabbis Garten, Plaut, and Moscowitz stepped into the shoes of role model and advocate. They were not fazed by her independence, her feistiness, or her inclination towards rebellion. They demonstrated patience and affection and slowly, but firmly, directed her along a positive life path. Fingerhut successfully dealt with the overshadowing loss of her father with the help of these fatherly stand-ins. She learned that no one needs to stand alone; one only needs to accept help when it is given. That is the strength of the Jewish community at large.
Born to Iraqi-Jewish parents in India, Diana Mingail grew up in Calcutta and came to Canada in 1956. War touched her family even in India where, for Mingail, the immediate situation to worry about were the Japanese bombs falling on their neighborhood. In contrast, it was through her father’s tears that she learned about the world’s mistreatment of Jews. He cried in front of her on two occasions: once when he learned about the devastation of European Jewry; the second, and more personal time, was when Iraqi mobs were attacking, maiming, and killing Jews, destroying their properties and businesses in the process. Mingail learned that pain and sorrow can accompany joy and happiness; that it is okay to cry. She also learned that being Jewish connects you to a wider, even global, community with many shared links.
Rachel Adelman was born in Toronto, but her life journey played itself out in Israel and the United States. Using the braiding of a challah as a metaphor for her own and her family’s life, she speaks about the intertwining of family, stories, and food. She quotes from the Torah, saying that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) There is much implied wisdom in this passage and in Adelman’s story. Our experiences, our emotions, our knowledge all come together to form a new being: the self. Although Adelman’s story, “Not by Bread Alone,” opens this volume of Living Legacies, Adelman (and Pearl) offer last words by which we live and act.
But words and deeds can also stab and wound, as Elaine Blackstien, a native of St. Catharines, Ontario discovered at the tender age of four, when one of her cousins told his mother in a loud stage whisper that Elaine was “stupid and ugly.” While children are often direct in what they think, they are rarely aware of the impact of their words because they often test their environment. For Elaine, the shock of her cousin’s words reverberated for decades. What haunted her was not even remembered by this cousin. As Elaine says, “the pain has faded over the years, but when I think of that day, the memory still hurts.” Nothing ever truly disappears; it may only change direction.
Born Jewish, Robin Stone changed direction and married a non-Jewish man with whom she has two children. She grew up in a secular family and so Robin did not especially connect with her Jewishness until her oldest child was enrolled in a Jewish nursery school, located inside a synagogue. When Robin was 19, she had an unfortunate experience with a Jewish man who had hired her to write a “holiday” poem for his store. Claiming kinship because they were both Jewish, he tried to cheat Robin out of payment. For Robin, it marked the immersion into a world of distrust.
The effect of that incident coloured Robin’s interactions with other Jews with whom she worked, but the pull of a mutual background later affected her in the opposite way. A kindly Jewish store owner named Moshe counteracted her feeling of “imposter syndrome” by simply and honestly responding to her as a Jew and a human being. Her initially conflicted emotions changed to encompass the boundaries of her Jewish Bathurst Street neighbourhood. She has now grown confident of all segments of her persona, even the Jewish part.
Speaking to the pull and power of a community environment, award-winning writer Robin McGrath talks about being the only Jew in Goose Bay, Labrador. She begins her story recounting a conversation with a rabbi who once told her that a good Jew would never live so far away from other Jews as to prevent the gathering of an informal “havurah” or even a minyan. McGrath grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the small Jewish community always found a place to accommodate Jewish men or women who found themselves in Goose Bay or other isolated parts of Labrador and the Maritimes over the Jewish holidays.
What McGrath has done with her solitary Jewish experience in Goose Bay is create a Jewish world for herself in the midst of a community that has other long-standing traditions. She sees how her Innu neighbours derive strength from their inner spiritual and moral values, their historical concepts and skills, and their sense of family and independence. They are fighting to retain their uniqueness against all odds. As McGrath hints, this is what Jews have also done for millennia, and so she relies on herself to continue being a Jew, by lighting Shabbat candles, making a Pesach Seder table, baking hamentashen and reading Megillat Esther at Purim.
Legacies continues to exemplify the commonality of being a woman—both Canadian and Jewish—in a wide spectrum of ways.
To order Living Legacies: Volume III, visit Liz Pearl’s website.