Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nina Simone Documentary, a Kickstarter Campaign

Filmaker, Jeff Lieberman
My brother Jeff and I not only look alike, we both have an interest in the arts. While I write books, Jeff makes films. His first film, Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, was about a group of Igbo people in rural Nigeria who believe they are Jews. Through the internet they have learned about Jewish rituals and customs, learned Hebrew and built synagogues and communities. The film raises interesting questions about who is a Jew and who gets to define Judaism. The film has played at film festivals around the world and been well received by the press.

Now Jeff is working on a new project, a documentary about the life of singer Nina Simone. Nina Simone took to the piano to demand racial and gender equality over 50 years ago - a cry for freedom equally resonant today. I've watched an early draft of the film and I was spellbound with the power of Nina's singing and her lyrics. And her own life, from classical piano student in rural North Carolina, to jazz and style icon in the US and Europe, is a fascinating story.

Jeff has financed the film entirely on his own so far, but he needs funds to pay for the rights to the music, videos and pictures, funds that will ultimately go back to the artist who created them. He has a campaign on Kickstarter than you can check out and maybe you'll be inspired enough to donate. Click here for the link to Jeff's Kickstarter campaign.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Write For Rights

This week at school I wrote letters with some of my students for Amnesty International Write For Rights Day. Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights. On December 10th each year people around the world write letters in support of people imprisoned for human rights violations.

My students and I chose to write on behalf of Raif Badawi who is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for his blog criticizing religious figures. He has been sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine of a million riyals, about $290,000 CDN. He is also banned from travelling for ten years after his release, which means it could be many years before he sees his wife and children who live in Montreal.

Raif Badawai, imprisoned blogger
My students were very moved by the video Amnesty put together of Badawi's son, who wishes he could see his father. One of my students has a dad who has been away with the Canadian Military, so she knows what it feels like to be seperated from a parent, but of course her dad is coming back soon.

So after a donut snack, we sat down to write letters, in this case, to the King of Saudi Arabia. My students were a little freaked out to be writing to a King! We also wrote cards for Badawi's family in Montreal. For most of my students it was their first introduction to human rights abuses around the world. I was happy that this introduction wasn't only misery, but some successes too, as we read about several people Amnesty has helped free.

For Write for Rights, Amnesty puts together a package of several cases. My goal before Christmas is to write letters for as many as I can. I value my freedom and the freedom I have to write what I believe in both my books and my blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Jewish Mama Sings the Tfellin Blues

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I think about starting a second blog called Jewish Mama. It would chronicle my efforts to raise Jewish children as a single Jewish parent in a small city with a small Jewish community. I envision writing about the time my son laughed out loud the first time he heard the creation story at Hebrew school. He turned to the Hebrew school teacher and asked in his little five year old voice, “Haven’t you heard about science and evolution?” My Jewish Mama blog would also include an entry about the time the rabbi explained to my sons that our Torah was from a congregation in Europe that no longer exists because of the Holocaust. I cringe each time the H word is said aloud in my sons' hearing and wonder how I’ll explain something I’m still grappling with myself.

I could also write a few posts on my anxiety about teaching my boys about yet another holiday detailing Jewish oppression. Yet mostly I’ve discovered the things I struggle with, my kids take in stride. Violence in the Torah? They love it. A story where Jews are trying to be killed again? To them, Jews are Superheroes.
I really don't have time to start another whole blog, so today instead of a blog about books or reading, "Jewish Mama" will be guest blogging. So here’s my current Jewish anxiety. And no surprise, it’s all about gender.

Last night I tried on my brother’s tfellin. These are small ritual objects, phylacteries in English, that have a scroll in them containing one of the central prayers in Judaism, the shema. The prayer proclaims God’s oneness, and then goes on to say that you should teach this to your children and mark it on your doorposts, and keep it close to your head and your heart. The tfellin are two small boxes that attach with long black leather straps. One goes around your head, with the box on your forehead. The other one attaches to your upper arm, close to your heart, and then you wrap the strap around your arm and hand forming the letters Shin, Dalet and Yod, one of God’s names.

I tried on my brother’s tfellin because I wanted to teach the kids at Hebrew school about them since we’re learning the shema. My brother has tfellin because we were both part of a Hebrew school program called Tallis and Tfellin when we were twelve. Students and parents met for prayers and the boys got a tallis (a prayer shawl) and tfellin when they became bar mitzvahed. The girls didn’t. And I didn’t care about this. In fact, I never thought about it until I was faced with wrapping my brother’s tfellin around my arm, alone on a Thursday night, praying my (non-Jewish) husband didn’t come home early since it would be a lot to explain.

I suppose there’s a lot of things I could feel badly about being a Jewish woman, but mostly I’ve been spared the exclusion Judaism can impinge on women. I grew up in a synagogue with mixed seating. Other women (including my mother) fought for women to lead prayers in my childhood shul. I had a bat mitzvah where I said the same prayers as the boys. Yet wearing tfellin felt different. I felt like an invader, like I was doing something reserved for men. And then, as I struggled with the leather straps, I felt badly, like I had purposely been excluded from a covenant with God.

If you google images of tfellin, you come up with some interesting pictures. On there are pictures of Santa wearing tfellin, and Batman, and a rabbi in a flooded street after Hurricane Sandy teaching a young man how to wrap tfellin. There's a beautiful picture of a group of Holocaust survivors in their 80’s, all men, wearing tfellin in a synagogue. Behind them, their wives peer through a tiny window looking on. They're the only women in the blog post photographs, and guess what, they aren’t wearing tfellin.

My husband didn’t come home to find me wrapped in leather with little boxes attached to my head and arm. He found me flat on our bed, deep in thought. He (unhelpfully) tried to remind me of all the other ways orthodox Judaism excludes women, but that’s never been my experience. If there’s something I don’t like in Judaism, I change it. If I find a prayer or word exclusionary or offensive, I leave it out. If there’s a ritual I think is outdated, then I dump it. I tell my friends I practice “Make-Your-Own-Judaism.”        

I’m trying to flip my tfellin experience around, to get over the feeling of exclusion and to make myself part of the Jewish story. For example, none of my Hebrew school students will have ever seen or heard of tfellin. Next Saturday morning I will be the first person, a woman, to show them how to wear them. That’s got to count for something. And then, if you search online for pictures of women wearing tfellin, there’s a raft of pictures, many of them of women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Best of all, there’s a picture of Rosie the Riveteer wearing tfellin. Something about the look in her eye tells me she’s part of the story, that she won’t be excluded.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Reading Obsession


I have a secret reading obsession:  I’m reading about the British Raj. I’m a little embarrassed to admit my fascination with British colonialism, but rest assured, I’m highly suspect of the white men who assumed they were inherently better at running a country than its native people. Still, I’m hooked on the details of the British in around India. I want to learn about the 19th century, and travel writing and Kipling, and the history of the East Indian Company. I want to know about the Mutiny of 1857. (Did you know this wasn’t spurred on by nationalism, but by a rumor that Hindu sepoys were given cow grease for their rifles?) I’m fascinated by life at stations in places like Barrackpore in Bengal, and of the train rides to summer in Shimla. I want to know about the servants and the clubs and what was eaten, and what one packed for a life in India, and how one found a spouse. I can’t help keeping a list of words of the era that fascinate me: ayah, bungalow, cantonment, maidan, mahout, punkahs, purdah, sahib, sepoy, subaltern, zennana. (I also can’t help my urge to alphabetize these words.) 


My fascination with the Raj mainly centers on women’s lives. I want to know what those Victorian ladies did all day when they weren’t at the club, and how they ran their households, what they read, and what they packed for life in India. One of my favourite books on the topic is Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj. I’m also a fan of Elizabeth Buettner’s Imperial Families and Anne de Courcy's The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj.  


Currently I’m reading Enid Saunders Candlin’s  A Travelllor’s Tale. Although not set in the Victorian era, Candlin provides a wealth of information on India. Candlin found herself on the sub-continent after the fall of Hong Kong during World War Two. Her husband was a weapon’s inspector first near Calcutta and then later near Bombay. Part of the book is devoted to some of the exotic trips they took to Sikkhim and Darjeeling and the caves of Abernath. Even more interesting to me are the details of her domestic servants and their various houses and settings, against the backdrop of the war. I’ve been taking detailed notes on the houses she lived in as well as the numerous rail journeys she took. The trains don’t sound that different from when I visited in 1998.


Next on my reading list, I’m continuing my interest in the Victorian period with a few books on travelling. What’s on my book shelf?  Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Travellers by Dea Birkett and Victorian Scientific Travellers by Peter Raby.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Secret Pleasure

For two years my best friend Robbie moved back to Canada from Israel. Although we didn’t see each other as much as we hoped, it made me happy that she was only a few hours away in Toronto, in the same time zone. She’s back in Israel now, but last week she sent me an email entitled "Secret Pleasure" with a picture that made me very happy. It was of the inside of her daughter’s dollhouse, similar to Robbie's doll house we used to play with when we were little. Her daughter redoes the layout daily and sometimes Robbie gets to play too. Here is the studio apartment her daughter created in her dollhouse attic. 

I didn’t have a beautiful doll house like Robbie’s when I was growing up. I had something my Zeydi had built that was interesting and amazing, but somehow rough and clunky and was decorated in very bright 70’s wallpaper, dark oranges and bright pinks. My friend’s dollhouse was white and elegant and unlike my odd collection of mis-matched furniture, she had Lundby, a Swedish dollhouse company, furniture.

 I think dollhouses for us were not about acting out domestic dramas, as they were about interior decorating, and to a certain extent, materialism. I would count my allowance, trying to weigh a purchase of tiny candlesticks against a larger, more useful item, like a bathroom sink.  When I was in grade 6 or 7 I won my own Lundby dollhouse in a draw at our local toystore. It was an even nicer dollhouse than Robbie’s, but it was too late. I was interested in the house for maybe a month, and then I was too old to play, or even decorate. 
That dollhouse is in my parents’ storage. I got it out once for my boys, but they were disinterested. And that’s fine. Maybe my niece will like it one day when she’s a little older.  I’m hoping she’ll let me rearrange the furniture to my heart’s content.

I have in the back of my mind a character for a story I want to write, about a girl with a doll house. She’ll be too old for doll houses, maybe even twelve, but everyday she’ll rearrange the furniture depending on how she’s feeling. It may be a way for her to communicate with her mother, a way to show her wishes and dreams, maybe a way to remember the way her family used to be.

If you really love dollhouses, check out Queen Mary's dollhouse in Windsor Castle. Built between 1921 and 1924 by British architect Edward Luytens, it’s a replica of an aristocratic home, complete with electric lights, running water and most importantly, a fully stocked library.  

Queen Mary's Dollhouse Library

The Dining Room of Queen Mary's Dollhouse

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dangerous Acts at the Kingston Writers Festival

This week I am at the Kingston Writer’s Festival, interviewing three Young Adult authors for a panel entitled Dangerous Acts: every act has a consequence. The festival was correct to label the panel dangerous. In each of the three novels the characters take on courageous acts, some borne out of necessity and others out of misguided or adolescent angst. I’m looking forward to a stimulating and engaging conversations with three amazing authors: Deborah Ellis, Maggie Devries and Nancy Lee. There are things I want to ask each of them about their books, their writing and about the dangerous lives of girls and women. 

Deborah Ellis is an internationally-acclaimed, award-winning author, feminist and peace activist. Her many books explore themes of social justice and courage, such as her Breadwinner series, which details the lives of Afghan girls and women. She has also written numerous nonfiction books of interviews with Iraqi, Israeli and Palestinian children. More recently she has written interviews with Indigenous children throughout the US and Canada.

Ellis’ most recent book is Moon at Nine, the story of a teenage girl, Farrin, who falls in love with another girl during the 1980’s in Tehran. The Shaw has been overthrown and the country is run by a deeply religious government, where revolutionary guards monitor every aspect of life.  When Farrin meets Sadira, a new girl at her school their friendship quickly becomes a romance. It is against the law to be gay in Iran and the punishment is death.

This novel had me griped all the way through especially since it was based on real life events.

Nancy Lee says she is not the kind of writers who worries about keeping her characters safe. This is true. Instead she sends her characters out into the wilds to see how they fare.  

Lee’s first book, the collection of short stories, Dead Girls, was a darkly carnal collection that dealt with the complexities and sadness of desire. It was named a best book of 2002 by The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and others.

Nancy Lee’s latest book, The Age, tells the story of Gerry Cross, a teenage misft, who is estranged from her father, at odds with her mother and adrift in the teenagehood of 1984.  Gerry’s anxiety about the threat of nuclear annihilation leads her to be involved with a group of activists planning to detonate a bomb at a downtown peace rally.

Lee is a master writer, and her descriptions had me immersed in the eighties. 

Maggie de Vries is the author of ten award-winning books for children and teens, and the memoir for adults Missing Sarah: A memoir of loss. This book is about de Vries’ adopted sister Sarah who disappeared from the streets of downtown Vancouver and whose DNA was found on serial killer Robert Picton’s farm. We do not know the names of almost any of the sex-workers who were victims of Picton, but in this memoir, de Vries introduces us to her charismatic sister Sarah, giving her a voice, and a name. Missing Sarah was a Governor General’s award nominee and won the Vancouver book Award, among others. 

In her new YA novel, Rabbit Ears, de Vries imagines an alternative fate for her sister Sarah. Devries says, “I wanted to tell a story about a girl that went through what my sister went through, but survived.” Told from the point of view of two sisters, Beth and Kaya, the two girls struggle as Kaya begins hanging out in the notoriously dangerous streets of Vancouver’s East Side, and turns to prostitution and drug use.

I read Rabbit Ears with fear and trepidation, but despite its strong subject matter, de Vries writes so beautifully that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ethan Hawke

Last week my stars aligned when Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Ethan Hawke on Q. For those of you not in Canada, or not in the CBC loop, Q is an arts and entertainment show on CBC radio weekday mornings. My day is not complete unless I get in my car to drive to work and listen to Jian’s Letter of The Day. Sometimes I’m late, I miss the introduction, and then spend my drive trying to figure out who Jian is talking to.

So Ethan Hawke, I’m a little worried that if I ever meet him, which I know is unlikely, I’ll only be able to giggle and gawk.  I’m usually not much of a Hollywood fan, but I love the Before Sunset trilogy. I’m just a bit younger than Hawke and I saw the first film Before Sunrise when I was travelling in Eastern Europe in my twenties in 1995. Two young people, Jessie and Celine, meet on a train and decide to spend the day together in Vienna. There they wander, talk and fall in love. It’s very romantic.

I had almost forgotten about Jesse and Celine when Before Sunset came out in 2004. It was such a treat to see those characters a few years older and more mature. It was of course also thrilling to think they were still interested in each other. In the film, Jesse has written a book about the day he spent with Celine years before. Celine comes to his reading, this time in Paris, and they spend the day talking  and walking in Paris.

Before Midnight, the third and most recent film, was  again an unanticipated surprise.  Set in Greece, Jesse and Celine are now married with twins and living in Paris, but their lives are not smooth. Jesse has a son from his first marriage he would like to spend more time with in the US which Celine sees as a threat.

Richard Linklater’s films are such a treat because of how he shows mature adult relationships, along with all their messiness on film. Jessie and Celine grapple with difficult ex-wives, growing children, job angst as well as marital pains. Despite the fact that Celine is extremely crazy in this movie, “the Mayor of Crazy Town” as Jesse calls her, I couldn’t help feeling how refreshing it was to see a woman in her forties struggle with work, motherhood, and marriage. Hollywood take note, this is real life for women, and it makes excellent film.

Hawke said something similar on Q yesterday. He said, “I’m so hungry to see a real woman on stage, someone who works and has relationships and is a good parent and a bad parent.” He was talking about Patricia Arquette’s character in Boyhood, Linklater’s other amazing film that came out this year. Shot over twelve years, it chronicles the life of a boy, Mason from six years old to his first day of college. Boyhood is not a plot-driven movie, nor does it have a soaring climax. It’s episodic, the way life is, yet it still tells a story of one boy’s life. Hawke says Linklater told him it was the chance to use time as clay to build a character. I love that line.

For as much as Mason changes through the stages of childhood, I was more interested in the development of the parents. Ethan Hawke’s father character changes from a kind of dopey carefree, mostly absent parent, to a person who has attained some gravitas. Similarly, Arquette’s character, whose has a tougher love life finds herself more at a loss as she faces life alone when her children leave for college. I found myself thinking about this film the way I think about people I know for days after I saw the film.

In case Hawke hasn’t done enough this year, he also has two other films: a documentary on Seymour Bernstein called Seymour, an Introduction. Bernstein is a piano prodigy turned music teacher who decided to stop playing at age fifty because of ongoing problems with nerves and self-doubt, something Hawke says he also struggles with.

Hawke also stars in Good Kill, about a former fighter pilot who flies unmanned drones from Nevada. Hawke’s character grapples with the moral implications of killing people in such an emotionless way.

I can’t wait to see both films.    

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dance Memories


Today in the mail a whole box of my next book, Off Pointe arrived. It was a little box because this is a little book, for a slightly younger reader. Off Pointe is part of Orca’s performing arts series, a line of books for 11-14 years olds who are interested in art, music, dance and drama. My book is about a dancer named Meg, a fourteen year old girl who loves ballet. She dances all the time, and when she isn’t dancing she’s thinking and dreaming about ballet. Meg is devastated when her summer ballet program is cancelled and her ballet teacher suggests she attend dance camp to work on her lack of stage presence and to connect more with her audience. 

While I never attended dance camp, I did go to a Jewish camp in the Okanagan valley of British Columbia for many summers, and I did do a lot of dancing there. I used the beautiful setting of Lake Kalamalka for Meg’s camp and it was fun for me to think back to those sun-drenched hills and the lake, both of which are so different from the city of Vancouver where I grew up, and from Kingston, ON where I now live now. Writing the book also made me think about the many years I spent dancing as a child, both at my local community centre, and then as a teenager with a group called Body Electric. (I don’t currently have any plans to write another dance book, but if I did, it would have to be called Body Electric.)

Lake Kalamalka

Recently my mother was given an old photograph of the Body Electric Dancers. I was surprised I could remember so many of the girls I danced with. This was partly because many our names were very similar (Leanne, Dianne, Reanne, Rachel, Rachelle, Michelle etc). Sometimes I have a reoccurring nightmare that I’m with the Body Electric dancers and we are in the wings of the stage about to go. I’m wearing the right costume, but I haven’t attended the rehearsals and I don’t know the dance at all. I don’t remember having those anxieties as a dancer. I only remember the thrill of performing and the many happy hours spent rehearsing.

For many years I danced with another girl I knew, Debra Karby. She was in my childhood classes and then we danced together in high school. We weren’t really friends by the time we were teenagers, still we took the bus together in grade eight and nine because we were going to the same place, and our parents took turns picking us up. We used to eat french fries at Church’s Chicken before class which was disgusting, but we didn’t know better. I also went to camp with Debra and our parents were friends. We were part of the same community. When we were older I would sometimes run into her when I visited Vancouver and I was always happy to see her, to hear what she was doing. When my first son was a toddler she had a toddler too, and once we had a playdate my mother organized.

Debra passed away two years ago from liver cancer, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday. Off Pointe is dedicated in Debra’s memory because when I think of dancing, I think of her.
Debra Karby

Monday, August 25, 2014

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

It’s not often that I see a movie if I’ve read the book. I prefer the visuals in my own head and I’m usually disappointed if the story has been changed. It’s even more unlikely that I see a movie and then want to read the book, but that’s what happened this summer when I saw the movie Tracks. I saw the trailer for the film at the beginning of the summer and was thrilled to find it playing in Vancouver.

Robyn Davidson on the cover of National Geographic

Tracks is the story of Robyn Davidson’s solo trek across the Australian desert in 1977 by camel. Davis walked for nine months over 1,700 miles through the Australian outback to the Indian Ocean with her dog and four camels: Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath. I wanted to see the film because of the amazing cinematography and I wasn’t disappointed, but I was also taken with the story of how Davidson was able to organize her trip. She had never worked with animals or undertaken any major treks before moving to Alice Springs to learn about camels. She had no money, and it was only when National Geographic offered to sponsor her that her trip became a reality.  Davidson wrote an article about her experience for the magazine.

Actress Mia Wasikowska as Davidson in the film Tracks

 After seeing the movie, I wanted to read the book. While the movie plays up parts of the film that make for good drama, such as the threats of wild camels and invasive tourists, and the relationship between photographer Rick Smolan and Davidson, the parts I loved most in the book were about Davidson’s desire to be alone in the desert. She wanted to walk through the desert by herself, and yet most of the time she was incredibly lonely. I’ve been thinking a lot about this anachronism: how to be alone without being lonely. Conversely, I also think a lot about how to be surrounded by people and still be alone, which is closer to my reality.

At the time of Davidson’s trek the media made a big deal that she was a woman alone doing the journey. Sure that’s remarkable, but the best part of Davidson’s story to me is that she went on a long journey without a defined purpose, other than to experience a place. Thinking about Davidson in the desert makes me want to go on a long walk, somewhere with open vistas. That’s unlikely in my wooded part of Ontario, but sometimes when I’m out alone in my canoe, I get that open feeling of space, and it’s like nothing else.