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A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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Features

New website for Israelis interested in moving to Canada

By BERNIE BELLAN A new website, titled “Orvrim to Canada” (https://www.ovrimtocanada.com/ovrim-en) has been receiving hundreds of thousands of visits, according to Michal Harel, operator of the website.
In an email sent to jewishpostandnews.ca Michal explained the reasons for her having started the website:
“In response to the October 7th events, a group of friends and I, all Israeli-Canadian immigrants, came together to launch a new website supporting Israelis relocating to Canada. “Our website, https://www.ovrimtocanada.com/, offers a comprehensive platform featuring:

  • Step-by-step guides for starting the immigration process
  • Settlement support and guidance
  • Community connections and networking opportunities
  • Business relocation assistance and expert advice
  • Personal blog sharing immigrants’ experiences and insights

“With over 200,000 visitors and media coverage from prominent Israeli TV channels and newspapers, our website has already made a significant impact in many lives.”
A quick look at the website shows that it contains a wealth of information, almost all in Hebrew, but with an English version that gives an overview of what the website is all about.
The English version also contains a link to a Jerusalem Post story, published this past February, titled “Tired of war? Canada grants multi-year visas to Israelis” (https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-787914#google_vignette) That story not only explains the requirements involved for anyone interested in moving to Canada from Israel, it gives a detailed breakdown of the costs one should expect to encounter.

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Features

Reflections on 2 Winnipeg synagogues: While one is being radically transformed, one is just trying to stave off closure

Shaarey Zedek (top)/ House of Ashkenazie (bottom)

By BERNIE BELLAN My reports on this website about wo different Winnipeg synagogues and how they’re both attempting to change with the times might serve as a reminder to readers how much of a vital role synagogues used to play in the lives of Winnipeg Jews.
In December 2021 I wrote about a proposal to repurpose the Ashkenazie synagogue into a synagogue/museum. Writing that story got me to thinking about the history of Winnipeg synagogues in general, so I also wrote an article in which I listed all the synagogues that ever existed north of the CPR tracks.
There were 34 of them! (You can read both stories in our Dec. 8, 2021 issue. Simply enter the words Dec. 8, 2021 in our “search archive” searchbox.)

Now, while various synagogues either completely folded or merged with other synagogues over the years, there can be no doubt that it was the synagogue that played the central role in the lives of most Jewish Winnipeggers for years in this city.
I don’t think I have to tell you that the situation is completely different these days. There are very few synagogues left in Winnipeg and what few synagogues we do have are clamouring for members.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about that, given that churches, as well, have seen a huge decrease in popularity in recent years. (Mosques, on the other hand, are showing robust growth – in Winnipeg, as well as other areas in Canada.)

We’ve recently seen the relocation of the Etz Chayim congregation to new south end quarters and, while the assessment of most members with whom I’ve talked is that it’s a very nice building, it doesn’t quite have the feel of a synagogue.
As for the Shaarey Zedek, it’s a huge unknown whether the renovation project that is slated to be completed in August (according to congregation president Neil Duboff, but perhaps a little bit later, as there are always unforeseen delays in an undertaking as massive as the complete overhaul of Winnipeg’s largest synagogue entails), will lead to a rush of new members joining the Shaarey Zedek congregation. Or, to be more realistic: Will it lead to many of those who have abandoned the Shaarey Zedek, especially since Covid, rejoining?

The demographics of Winnipeg’s Jewish community don’t portend a large increase in synagogue membership going forward. Our community isn’t growing and, by and large, new arrivals to Winnipeg’s Jewish community haven’t shown much interest in becoming synagogue members. (I do note that the Etz Chayim has been somewhat successful in attracting new immigrant families, but the numbers are relatively small as a proportion of our overall Jewish community.)
As I note in my article about the Shaarey Zedek, one would expect that there will be an initial flurry of interest in seeing what the renovated synagogue is like – and with a gorgeous new event centre it is likely to become the go-to venue once again for life cycle events, such as weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs, at least for the first year. Many of those celebrations have been occurring outside of a synagogue setting, however, and it’s hard to see how, other than the Shaarey Zedek becoming the “in” venue for a period of time, that initial rush of event bookings that are likely to occur there will continue in the long run. There is just too much interest in trying to make a life cycle event unique that will work against any one venue becoming the favoured destination for more than a short period of time, especially as people compete with one another for inventiveness.

But, what of the rather interesting proposal I’ve also written about in my article on the home page here, about the proposal to turn the Ashkenazie synagogue into a combination synagogue/museum?
In theory, it’s a great idea – but realistically, how many people are going to be willing to head down to a part of town that is, to put it euphemistically, not as safe as one might like? I’ve generally shied away from dwelling on how scary whole parts of Winnipeg are now in which to venture forth. I’ll leave it for the Winnipeg Free Press to scare the bejesus out of most of us with its daily reports of break-ins, stabbings, assaults – and all too frequent murders, in this lovely city. I don’t need to add to your fear – unless you’re like many readers who have informed me they simply stopped taking the Free Press – and shy away completely from established media sources. (I’m always curious which news sources those readers now rely upon? I hope that it’s not simply the internet because, for all its faults, the Free Press is still by far the best news source in this town.)

I recall going on a Jane’s Walk a few years back, led by Zach Fleisher, that was made up of visits to some north end hallmarks that once played – and in some cases, still do play vital roles within our Jewish community.
It began at the site of the old CPR train station, which is where so many of our ancestors first arrived when they came to Winnipeg. We then proceeded to Joe Zuken Park in Point Douglas (which has no particular significance for the Jewish community other than it is located in an area that was once teeming with new Jewish arrivals), then on to the Chesed Shel Emes, Gunn’s Bakery, the Ashkenazie synagogue, and finally the former Talmud Torah on Charles Street.

Ashkenazie interior


Ever since then I’ve wanted to revisit that particular walk. At each point along the way we learned so much about our community’s history. And, as someone who hadn’t often been back to the Ashkenazie since my childhood, I marvelled at how beautiful it still was. It was because of that visit to the Ashkenzie, where the late Saul Spitz gave us such an interesting description of the synagogue’s history, that I would love to see Dr. Yosel Minuk’s imaginative proposal for redeveloping that grand old building at least be given the opportunity to move beyond total dismissal by the powers that be. All that it would take is a few former members of the Ashkenazie who may have moved elsewhere (or perhaps their children or grandchildren), and who might have the means to help in the synagogue’s redevelopment brought to life for that proposal to have a chance of succeeding.

And isn’t that how so many projects within our Jewish community have attained their goals? Perhaps the most vivid example in recent memory was BB Camp’s capital campaign, which succeeded in raising over $6 million five and a half years ago – largely as a result of BB Camp alumni from all over North America contributing to the cause.
While the Ashkenazie might have relatively very few former members left around the world, I know that when former Winnipeggers return to Winnipeg for a visit, very often they check out their former haunts in the North End. There is still a huge sentimental attachment to the North End on the part of so many ex-Winnipeggers (which they have often passed on to their children and grandchildren). Perhaps if they were to realize how perilous the situation is for the Ashkenazie they might step up to help preserve that grand old edifice. After all – they’ve lost Kelekis Restaurant and the North End Sals. What other shrines do they have left to visit on the way to check out the homes where they (or their parents) grew up?

One final note – and this has to do with Israel’s war in Gaza – a recent article in Haaretz delves into Netanyahu’s long, complicated, and “symbiotic” relationship with Hamas, according to the author of a new book about that relationship. (In one of the most surprising aspects of that article, it says that Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s arch enemy and the one man almost every Israeli would like to see dead, sent a note to Netanyahu in 2022 “that read ‘calculated risk’ – in Hebrew.” By the way, the author of the book doesn’t pretend to understand what exactly Sinwar meant by that cryptic note.)
One other part of that article, however, does more to explain how so many Israelis who might have considered themselves leftists or centrists prior to October 7 have now swung so far in the opposite direction to the point perhaps that we in the diaspora might now fully appreciate how hell bent so many Israelis are on wiping out Hamas.
The author of the book referred to in the Haaretz article is someone by the name of Adam Raz. According to information given about him at the beginning of the article, Raz is determinedly leftist in his political viewpoint – and so, apparently, was his mother – until October 7.
Here’s how Raz describes an encounter he had with his mother the day of October 7: “The day of the horrific events of October 7,Israeli political historian and author Adam Raz had a big fight with his mother. A longtime leftist and devoted Meretz voter, she surprised him with her harsh reaction. ‘She said: “They should pour gasoline all over Gaza and blow it up,” ‘ recounts Raz, whose work deals with political theory, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the nuclear arms race. ‘I realized that I needed to delve into the psyche that made even left-wing Israelis think this way.’
I wonder, more than seven months after the October 7 massacre, how many Israelis still hold that attitude? I ask that, not because I think I know the answer, but because I honestly don’t – yet it’s never really explored in all the analyses of what’s happening in Israel, is it? And it is crucial to understanding why so many Israelis say “to hell with the rest of the world. If we have to, we’ll go it alone.”

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Features

Women’s Endowment Fund celebrates 50 years of giving

Women who spoke at the Jewish Foundation Women's Endowment evening (Read the names of all the speakers in the article.)

By MYRON LOVE For the past 30 years, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba’s Women’s Endowment Fund (WEF) has been giving back to the community.  It has been the tradition of the foundation over these last many years to host an annual fundraising luncheon in the spring.
This year, however, in a departure from past practice – and in celebration of this most significant anniversary –  the foundation – instead of a lunch, decided to give back to the givers by hosting a social evening for the founders, long time supporters, former and current  committee members of the Women’s Endowment Fund.
On Thursday, May 9, about 100 women gathered at the Pavillion at Assiniboine Park for a short program of speeches and an evening of shmoozing and reminiscing over a light meal and refreshments.

Speakers at the Jewish Foundation Womern’s Endowment evening
front row (l-r): Katie Hall Hursh – Board Member, Health Sciences Centre Foundation, Lt. Governor Anita Neville, Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud – CEO, Siloam Mission
back row (l-r): Dr. Sharon Goszer-Tritt – JFM Board Member, Chair of the Women’s Endowment Fund Grants Committee, Chloë McComb – JFM Board Member, Former Chair of the Women’s Endowment Fund Grants Committee, Women’s Endowment Fund Builder (2013), Karyn Lazareck – Former JFM Board Member, Women’s Endowment Fund Founder (1994) and Builder (2013), Leah Leibl – Emcee, Women’s Endowment Fund Grants Committee Member, Becky Chisick – Executive Director, Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre


The formal part of the evening began with congratulations and comments from Lieutenant-Governor, Anita Neville, a long time Jewish Foundation supporter, who commented on the impact of the WEF on women and girls across Canada. 
“The power of giving is so important,” she said.  ‘The Women’s Endowment Fund brings together women in our Jewish community with a  shared passion for giving back.  Congratulations to all of you who continue to contribute to our community.”
Karyn Lazareck was among the founding members of the Women’s Endowment Fund.   “As we mark the 30th anniversary, I am reminded of the incredible journey that we have embarked upon,” she said.
“Back in1994, when we first conceived of the Women’s Endowment Fund,  we were driven by a desire to make a difference,” she recalled.  “We were inspired by the words of former Winnipegger Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor of Lilith Magazine, who challenged us to confront the historical lack of collective support among women for women’s causes. We set out to reshape the philanthropic landscape in Manitoba.”
Lazareck described “a diverse group of volunteers, from various organizations, united by a common goal to develop a space where women could make their own philanthropic choices.
“With the support of the Jewish Foundation,” she continued, “we paved a pathway to independence, establishing a women’s endowment fund driven entirely by women for women.”
The first challenge, she recalled, was raising the initial $5,000.  The initial requirement for the 50 founding members was $100 donation.
“We exceeded our target,” she recounted. “We were able to launch our endowment with $21,000 from 148 women.
“It took time for the concept of building an endowment to gain traction, but we persisted, buoyed by the unwavering support of the foundation and our growing community of women.”   
As to the state of the fund today, Dr. Sharon Goszer-Tritt, the Chair of the Women’s Endowment Fund grants committee, reported that the fund currently stands at over $2.2 million  “That $1,000 in grants that we were able to distribute in our first year has now reached more than  $101,000 a year,” she noted. “Our new goal is to grow the fund to $3 million and, from what we have seen already, I feel optimistic that we will do so.”
In illustrating the range of organizations – both in the Jewish and general communities, that the fund contributes to, Goszer-Tritt introduced  representatives of three of those recipient organizations to speak about the impact the WEF donations have had on their operations.  Among the three were: The Jewish Post’s new publisher, Becky Chisick, in her concurrent  role as executive director of the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre;  Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud,  Siloam Mission’s Chief Executive Officer; and Katie Hall Hursh,  a member of the board of directors of the Health Sciences Centre Foundation.
Hursh spoke at some length spoke about the HSC’s  new laparoscopic surgery  capabilitiy – partially funded by a grant from the Women’s Endowment Fund – which allows for much more rapid recovery from surgeries such as treatment for endometriosis, which effects the uterus – causing pain and making it more difficult for a woman to get pregnant. The laparoscopic equipment is one benefit of the HSCF current campaign to acquire new technology and state-of-the-art equipment to use in emergency gynecological surgeries at the Women’s Hospital.
Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud spoke of the work of Siloam Mission in building social housing. She also thanked the Women’s Endowment Fund for a grant to Siloam to buy new women’s undergarments and feminine hygiene products.
Becky Chisick related that the Gwen Secter Centre received a grant from the fund to pay for CPR and First Aid courses designed especially for older women.
She also spoke about the positive impact of Gwen Secter programming on seniors in our community.
Representing the younger generation of Women’s Endowment fund committee members was Chloe McComb, daughter-in-law of founder Karyn Lazareck.  McComb, who is also now also a member of the Jewish Foundation’s Board of Directors, spoke about how inspiring she has found it to be a part of the community of female philanthropists – and of being a witness to the “remarkable growth and impact” of the Women’s Endowment Fund.  
McComb noted that, from her perspective as a member of the grants committee, she has seen firsthand the persistent need for funding. “One common challenge that we have come across has been the need for funding for ongoing initiatives,” she said.  “In particular, small non-profits with very specific needs were not able to apply for funding because the WEF, like many other granting agencies, only provide one-time funding.
“I am happy tonight to share that we have changed our granting criteria to ensure that support remains available for those who need it. By allowing organizations to apply for grants for ongoing programs, we ensure that organizations in Manitoba supporting women and girls always have a place to go.”
The final word went to Karyn Lazareck.
“The Women’s Endowment Fund,” she observed,” symbolizes a shift in mindset, a departure from the status quo.  And, as we look to the future, let us remember that the fund is inclusive of all women.  While it may have been initiated by a group of Jewish women, its scope knows no bounds.  It is a place for all women who seek to give back to their community and uplift the lives of women and children.
“Our Fund is a testament to the power of collective action and a beacon of hope for future generations of women in Manitoba.”

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