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At age 83, Joan Druxman has come full circle in her career

By BERNIE BELLAN The February 21, 2001 issue of The Jewish Post & News had an article titled “It’s a Comedy Night!”
That article went on to describe an upcoming event in which State of Israel Bonds would be honouring Rabbi Alan Green. Among the comedians to be appearing at the event was to be “Joan Druxman-Jones.”
Now, 22 years later, State of Israel Bonds doesn’t have an office in Winnipeg, Rabbi Green doesn’t live here any more (although he will be returning this weekend as the Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi in Residence during Shavuot) and, as for Joan Druxman-Jones, well, she is back in Winnipeg – after having left in 1990 – and after having had a tumultuous series of career changes throughout her life –and, after having dropped the Jones in her name and gone back to Joan Druxman.

Joan Druxman was the guest speaker at this year’s kickoff Remis Forum luncheon on Thursday, May 11, at the Gwen Secter Centre.
I had never met Joan prior to that Thursday, although advertisements for her well-known women’s clothing store, “Joan’s Boutique”, were a regular feature in our paper for years. Once she took the podium at the Gwen Secter Centre it was easy to see how Joan had been a successful model for years. She still maintains a shapely figure and, even at 83, Joan is quite an attractive woman. (Is it okay to say that, I wonder? Who knows what’s permissible nowadays to write about a woman – or a man, for that matter, when it comes to physical appearance?)
But, more than anything, what struck me in listening to Joan tell her life story was her ease in speaking, her quick wit, and her self-effacing sense of humour.
As Simone Cohen Scott noted in an email sent out to Remis Forum attendees (and, by the way, anyone can attend a Remis luncheon. Just let the Gwen Secter Centre know you’re coming by the Tuesday of that week’s luncheon. Call 204-339-1701.), I took “voluminous notes” while Joan spoke.
So, here’s my account of the story Joan told: Born in Winnipeg, Joan (whose maiden name was Zelcovich, she said), grew up in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and moved back with her family to Winnipeg when she was 15.
Joan explained why her father decided to move to Winnipeg. He had owned a successful hotel in Estevan, but many of the patrons of that hotel were rough-hewn oil workers from the area around Estevan. “My father wasn’t about to let those oil workers anywhere near his two teenage daughters,” Joan said. (She had a younger sister at the time they moved here.)
But, the summer before the Zelcoviches moved to Winnipeg, they spent part of that summer at Clear Lake.
There were a lot of Jewish girls at Clear Lake, Joan noted, but they snubbed here because of the way she dressed. “They thought I was a hick,” she said.
That fall though, when Joan began attending Kelvin High School, and she was introduced by the teacher to the other students, the other girls couldn’t wait to be her friend, Joan said. This time she was dressed to the nines, she noted – something that has been very important to her ever since, she also observed.
As she noted toward the end of her talk, “I firmly dress the way you want to be treated.”

But from where did get Joan derive her impeccable fashion sense?
“My mother subscribed to the New York Times Magazine. It was the Vogue of the day,” she said.
Sure enough, when she was only 16, Joan got her first job working at the Mirror Room in the Hudson Bay store while she was attending high school.
After attending Kelvin for a couple of years Joan decided to attend the University of Manitoba. (In those days, she explained, you could take Grade 11 at the university.)
As things turned out, however, and as Joan observed, university was not for her.
“I hated it like you can’t imagine,” she said. “When I got 17 in Biology I knew university was not for me.”

So, Joan decided to enroll in the Angus School of Commerce (which was owned by Janice Filmon’s father at the time) where she obtained her diploma in typing and shorthand. “I was a wiz on the Dictaphone,” she noted.
But, she had to find a job after graduating. “I saw an ad for a company called Gunn Garment, which was owned by Harry Silverberg and Dave Kaufman, and which was managed by Max Duboff.”
“I became Max’s secretary and house model,” Joan said. “That’s how I became a model.”
It was during her time at Gunn Garment that Joan was introduced to the man who was to become her husband, Winnipeg Blue Bomber George Druxman.
“Marilyn Trepel called me up and told me someone had seen me at a wedding. Would I like to meet him? He’s one of the Blue Bombers,” Marilyn said to Joan.

As a Bomber wife, Joan was asked to appear on a local television show along with other Bomber wives where they would each be asked to cook a favourite dish.
“I made blintzes,” Joan noted.
As luck would have it, “two guys from Manitoba Sugar saw me and asked me to do a regular cooking show on TV.”
It was while appearing on her own cooking show that an editor of the Winnipeg Tribune asked Joan whether she would like to become food editor of that paper, and shortly thereafter, the fashion editor as well.

The next step in Joan’s career came when she was asked whether she would like to become the fashion coordinator for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Regina, also the manager of the Fashion Room in the Bay.
But, as Joan recalled, “at the time the Bay fashions were all centrally coordinated. I hated them all. I decided to go out on my own.”
Thus began the longest segment of Joan’s varied career: as owner of Joan’s Boutique.
It was no simple matter, however, for a woman to strike out on her own in a business at that time, which was in 1976
Having been divorced from George Druxman (who died in 1999), Joan was mother of three boys at the time: Trevor, Greg, and Adam. Two of the boys were married by then.)
“I wanted to set up in an old house,” she recalled.
“I went to see a bank manager who said to me: ‘I’ll have you know fashion retailing is the riskiest business there is.”
Not one to be discouraged, however, a former classmate of Joan’s from Kelvin, Brian Aronovitch, told her there was a house at 34 Carlton owned by lawyer Ken Houston – who wanted to rent out part of the house.
At the same time Joan was introduced to another bank manager who was supportive of her dream of opening her own boutique.
“I opened Joan’s in 1977,” she observed. “Business just took off. It was bursting at the seams.”
Ever on the eye for another opportunity, it was while out for a walk in the neighbourhood of the Carlton store that Joan said she saw a rooming house for sale at 22 Edmonton.
“It was a tax sale,” Joan noted. And so, in 1979, Joan Druxman opened Joan’s Boutique at her new location on Edmonton, where she was to remain for the next 13 years.
“I gutted it and had clothing and accessories on the first and second floors,” she said, “with a hairdresser on the third floor.”

Ever restless, however, Joan decided to move to Vancouver in 1990.
“I saw things there that weren’t happening in Winnipeg,” she observed, including a very large Japanese population.
Joan opened her first store in Vancouver at the corner of 12th and Granville, but soon she came across a better opportunity at Berard and Granville. She approached a former friend from Winnipeg, Karen Simkin, who had also moved to Vancouver and who had opened a little gift shop.
“I invited Karen to move to that new location with me,” Joan said.
Karen’s husband, Garry Simkin, was fully supportive, and so the two women opened a store that was a combination clothing and gift ware store.
As mentioned though, Joan had taken note of how many Japanese tourists there were in Vancouver. Accordingly, as she explained, “I went to Simon Fraser University and learned how to read and write Japanese” so that she would better ingratiate herself with Japanese customers.
Things were going along well until their landlord told Joan and Karen that he was going to be raising the rent to $250,000 a year. (And remember, this was the 1990s. One can well imagine how exorbitant that amount would have been back then.)

So – another career switch for Joan was in the offing: “I decided I’d like to be an actress,” she observed. At the same time she started doing stand-up comedy (as noted at the beginning of this article.)
Ever eager for new challenges, however, Joan decided to apply for a green card and move to Los Angeles –where she began studying acting while working for Nordstrom’s.
“I also got my California real estate license,” she added.
But this was all before Obamacare, Joan noted. “Medical insurance was costing me $1500 a month.”
Joan decided to move back to Winnipeg where, once again, she opened “a little store.”
In 2020, however, with the onset of the Covid pandemic, Joan found she “couldn’t get stuff from Europe” and, as a result, she had to close her store.
“So, I walked into the cosmetics department of the Bay (Polo Park store) and said, ‘I want to see the Chanel manager.’ “
As luck would have it, that manager happened to need someone at the Chanel perfume counter and Joan was hired on the spot.
Which brings us full circle to where Joan started when she only 16 – working again at the Bay.
“Here I am at the Bay working five days a week – and loving it,” she said. “Without a bank manager, without a landlord, and without the tax man.”

But, as Joan observed, she still dresses to the nines – even though now she takes the bus to work. (It stops right in front of her apartment and drops her off right at work, so why not?)
As she noted though, you can imagine the looks she gets from other passengers who see an immaculately dressed woman getting on their bus every day.
One time, Joan said, her regular bus driver asked her: “Are you a celebrity?”
Joan told him she wasn’t, but one day that bus driver happened to be shopping at the Bay with his wife when he spotted Joan at the Chanel counter and said to his wife: “I know her. She rides my bus.”
That’s Joan Druxman for you – more twists and turns than a Gerry Posner story. Some day she ought to write a book. Hey, there’s an idea for her next career move!
Post script: We were informed that the day after Joan Druxman spoke at the Gwen Secter Centre she was involved in a terrible accident when she was coming out of work at the Bay.. It seems that Joan was caught in the midst of a situation where some young boys had been fleeing the store after having stolen some jeans. One of them ran into Joan, knocking her to the ground – which broke her hip. At last report she had undergone hip replacement surgery and had been released from the hospital.

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Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.
In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

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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