HomeLocalLocal NewsIn tribute to the late Roz Usiskin

In tribute to the late Roz Usiskin

By HARRIET ZAIDMAN  The Jewish community lost a valuable member when Roz Usiskin died on November 2nd at the age of 94. Roz spent her life working to make the world a better place through her activism for progressive causes, her research, writing, teaching and mentoring. Some of those contributions are highlighted here. 

Much of Roz’s work developed through her involvement in UJPO (United Jewish People’s Order), which she joined as a teen in 1945. Dora Rosenbaum also joined UJPO that year, and the two developed a lifelong friendship. In conversation, she shared that Roz was always concerned about imbuing the positive values of Yiddishkeit in the younger generations. As the director of the children’s program at Camp Husavick, Roz created the programming.  “Each week-end our youth division would invite different ethnic youth groups out to the camp to build friendships between them,” she said. “Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and, in particular, Nigerian university students. Roz played a leading role in that activity.” 

Mark Etkin remembered how Roz’s support helped establish the secular humanist group, the Sholem Aleichem Community. “We got a phone call from Roz.  She told us that members of the United Jewish People’s Order were very interested in supporting our initiative.  She attended our initial meeting, along with Dora Rosenbaum and Abe Arnold.  Together they offered to be “advisors” to our young group. They offered start up money, to host meetings and provide food. Over those first few years they were instrumental in helping us to set up a Jewish Sunday School, to solidify our organization, and to plan Jewish holiday celebrations, in which they took on very significant roles.  Roz also suggested a name, one with personal and historical significance for her and for UJPO, as there had been an earlier secular Jewish day school in Winnipeg with the same name.  Within a short period, the Sholem Alechiem Community was up and running.”

Roz loved to discuss and debate, applying critical thinking to the many UJPO forums she helped organize about topical issues. She had an unequivocal sense of fairness and held to her principles – those same values that her forebears fought for – opposing all forms of anti-semitism, all forms of oppression and exploitation. Politically, that translated into advancing human rights for all – which meant that as a Jew she could not be blind to the needs of the Palestinian people for recognition and nationhood. Roz was a principal organizer of a UJPO tour of the Palestinian Territories, where participants saw for themselves the human rights abuses and injustices meted out to the Palestinian people. Mark Etkin said that following the tour, there was much discussion about the need for a Canadian Peace Organization that would champion the Palestinian cause from within Canada. Roz encouraged discussions that became the basis, finally, for the development of Independent Jewish Voices – Canada. 

Roz’s interest in the radical Jewish left stemmed from her upbringing in a family of activists and writers. For her Honour’s thesis she wrote: “The Winnipeg Jewish Community: its Radical Elements, 1905-1918. and a few years later for her Masters, wrote Winnipeg Jewish Radical Community, both which became the basis for two books. Ester Reiter, who is now Professor Emerita in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University says Roz’s writings “remain unparalleled for anyone exploring the riches of Winnipeg’s history.” Her writings formed part of a hallmark symposium on the Jewish left, of which UJPO was one sponsor, organized in the early 2000s.

Roz, along with labour leaders and others formed the Joe Zuken Memorial Association to honour the late city councillor’s commitment to the broader social good, funding programs such as Rossbrook House.  “As a trade union leader, I valued Roz as an ally and a mentor,”  Paul Moist, National President Emeritus of CUPE, said. “Most importantly, I valued her clarity of thought, her progressive values and her friendship.”

“UJPO was the  backbone of Outlook magazine,” said Carl Rosenberg, who edited the independent, secular periodical from 1998 – 2016. “Roz was Outlook’s Winnipeg Associate Editor from the late nineties until she stepped down in the early aughts. She played a valuable role whenever we consulted on editorials, articles and many other aspects of the running of the magazine. Roz’s comments and criticisms were always cogent and constructive. Her approach was gentle and supportive, but also no-nonsense and well thought-out.” Not surprisingly, Roz wrote many articles and reviews for Outlook. “She exemplified a progressive and secular humanist vision of society. She believed in the full potential of the human condition.”

UJPO members were active in the anti-nuclear movement from the 1950s on, despite surveillance and intimidation by the RCMP. Every Mother’s Day, Roz was among the women who stood in a silent 24-hour vigil at Portage and Main to protest nuclear proliferation. That movement merged with the anti-Vietnam War movement, and Roz marched under the UJPO banner with like-minded protesters.  “Roz was my friend almost since I first stepped foot in Winnipeg in 1968 and joined Voice of Women in the struggle against the war in Vietnam,” Reiter said. 

On a personal level, Roz’s warmth and friendliness are legendary. Jeanette Block, another member of the UJPO community, a co-choir and Yiddish Reading Circle member with Roz wrote, “My dear friend Roz has left us, but memories of her will stay with us. She was unique. A matriarch, a progressive feminist, a (Yiddish) translator, a leader who had many followers. Why? She was like a magnet. People were drawn to her because she cared about them. She fed them, not only with food but with ideas for making the world a better place. She left us, but memories of Roz will stay with us.”

“Roz was an amazing woman. I loved being in her company,” Ellen Karlinsky, Acting Chair of UJPO Winnipeg said. “She was so clear headed and intelligent and always got to the heart of the matter. She also got to our hearts, with her warmth and hospitality. She took an interest in people and made us all feel valued. This is how she encouraged each of us, one by one, to join UJPO, to get on the Board, to reach out to others, to make a difference and to also do more….always do more.”

With all that she undertook, Roz was still able to put her family first. Her late husband Larry, her siblings, her sons and daughters-in-law, her grandchildren and great grandchildren brought her great joy. Our condolences go out to her family, whose loss is profound.

Many people sent their sympathies, wishing Roz peace, But Roz never rested.  We can hear her asking, “What’s next? We have to start planning!” At the time of her death, she had just secured a grant for UJPO Winnipeg to produce a video about the radical left, she was part of the UJPO play-reading group, the Committee for Yiddish and several other initiatives. 

Over the next few months, UJPO Winnipeg will plan a suitable way to honour her legacy. Our goodbye to her will be to continue the work to make the world a better place. Max Wallace of Toronto said it best: “Rest in power, Roz.” 

We love you.

Harriet Zaidman met Roz when they sang together in the North End Jewish Folk Choir. She joined UJPO at Roz’s nudging and is now secretary. In 2019, Roz acted as a Yiddish consultant when Harriet wrote “City on Strike,” a novel set in the Winnipeg General Strike. She will always be grateful for Roz’s example and friendship. 

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