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Calgary scientist Bonnie Kaplan publishes new book stressing the importance of nutrition on mental health

“The Better Brain”
co-author Bonnie Kaplan

By IRENA KARSHENBAUM What people have known for centuries – that good nutrition is positively correlated to good mental health has, in the last 60 years, been largely abandoned as a precept within Western society. Instead, it’s become standard belief that mental illness can only be helped through prescription medication.

As a result, something as basic as good nutrition is not only overlooked as being key to mental health, it’s regarded as somewhat controversial.
Scientist, medical researcher, and Calgarian, Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan has dedicated her career to researching, writing and talking about the importance of micronutrients in mental health. Now, while being semi-retired, she has written a book titled “The Better Brain”, along with her former student, Dr. Julia J. Rucklidge. The book is an achievement in itself and a sort of vindication for Kaplan, who says that her career was derailed in its early years because of her ideas, and who witnessed young scientists leaving the field because they were unable to obtain funding for their research work.

Born in Canton, Ohio, and educated at the University of Chicago and Brandeis University, with postdoctoral training and faculty research in neurophysiology at Yale University, Kaplan moved to Calgary with her husband, Richard, in 1979. 
She explains that she spent most of her career in research and supervising students, and did not do a lot of regular classroom teaching. As she was going into retirement in 2016, Kaplan was considering what she would do next.
“I came up with two things,” she says. “I wanted to raise funds for my two charitable funds to help fund research by my junior colleagues on treating mental health with micronutrients in studies in Canada, US and New


Zealand.” (To date, Kaplan says, she has raised almost $900,000 for her charitable funds, one of which is held with the Calgary Foundation.)
“My second focus was knowledge translation to the public” she says. “This is why I decided to write this book.”

Written for the general reader, “The Better Brain” found a home with a major US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in New York. Through stories and references to studies Kaplan argues that a diet of real, nutritious — not ultra-processed — food is the foundation for one’s mental health. 

Mental illness has been growing exponentially. Researchers Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller in a book called “The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present” (published in 2001 by Rutgers University Press), suggested that mental disorders occurred at a rate of three in 10,000 between 1750 and 1960. The World Health Organization currently estimates the rate at over 2,000 in 10,000.
“The Better Brain” does acknowledge that the roots of mental disorders — listed as anxiety disorders, depression, mood disorders, personality disorders like narcissism, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, and medication-induced movement disorders — are varied and complex, but Kaplan and Rucklidge ask the reader to consider diet as a primary cause for mental disorders. Eating nutritious, whole foods that are rich with micronutrients – in other words, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, is what your brain needs to function optimally, they argue

Kaplan and Rucklidge write that the brain hungers for a variety of micronutrients; there are about 30 of them, ranging from Vitamins B and D, calcium, zinc, magnesium, iodine, and others. However, promoting the notion that mental health is linked to diet is still seen as controversial, Kaplan admits.
As well, advancing that notion had proven to be a barrier to her receiving research funding, with granting agencies telling her that if she would only confine her studies to a single micronutrient, then funding could be available.
Kaplan and Rucklidge argue, however, that when it comes to the brain there is no “magic bullet” and that the brain is not akin to, for example, a disease such as scurvy, which can be cured with a single vitamin: Vitamin C. The brain needs a broad spectrum of micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, like Omega-3. These micronutrients are found in real unprocessed foods, such as fruits and vegetables of all colours of the rainbow, plain yogurt, fish, chicken, meat, and nuts. The best source of good food can be found in a Mediterranean diet, the authors write. In contrast, a Western diet consisting of ultra-processed food is full of macronutrients like proteins, carbs, saturated fats and sodium, but lacks micronutrients, for which the brain hungers.

“The Better Brain” contains an entire chapter of helpful tips on how to shop for healthy food (which is actually cheaper than ultra-processed food, Kaplan and Rucklidge maintain) and recipes for healthy breakfasts, soups, salads, main courses and even desserts. Another chapter delves into what not to eat which, not surprisingly, includes suchg things as pop, sugar and ultra-processed food. The book says: “It’s not just the presence of healthy food but also the absence of unhealthy food that contributes to a good outcome.” 
Kaplan and Rucklidge suggest that it is best to get your essential nutrients from whole foods, but if mental health issues persist, you ought to consider adding nutritional supplements. An entire chapter is dedicated to this topic.
The book says: “All the minerals and vitamins are needed for your enzymes to allow for proper brain function. Some people have inherited ‘sluggish pathways’ because their enzymes are not efficient, resulting in the need to flood their brains with even more micronutrients than usual.”
In plain English, the scientists are saying that many people with mental illnesses have brains that have been starved of essential micronutrients or their particular biochemical makeup is preventing them from absorbing the micronutrients efficiently and in such instances they need large doses of micronutrients that can only be obtained through taking supplements. These supplements are not store-bought brands that contain doses too small to make a difference, but are from supplement companies, which they list in the book. Kaplan and Rucklidge consistently state they do not have financial ties to any supplement companies.
It must be noted that the authors also make clear that they are not advising individuals to go off their meds: “It is absolutely crucial that you do not stop taking meds for your psychiatric condition. We suggest you discuss options with your prescribing physician first.”

Kaplan is seeing a complete turnaround from the opposition she experienced in her early career to the poin twhere she now receives numerous speaking invitations in Alberta and across Canada. “I am doing a webinar in Alberta that has over 1,000 registrations,” she says, “something very unusual for the organizers of the webinar. “Previously the interest for this topic was largely in Western Europe and the US.”

Co-author Julia J. Rucklidge is currently at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Together the two women – after selling the idea to their publisher, wrote the book in just four months. Now, aided by modern technology, they are currently busy doing podcasts and interviews all over the world.
Kaplan says the book is receiving a lot of good feedback from people who have read it. “The medical system is a longer road. It would be advantageous in mental health clinics to teach a class on nutrition and Mediterranean-style cooking.”

She notes that she and her husband rarely eat out. “We cook from scratch and eat a Mediterranean-style diet. Before the pandemic, we were eating out only as a social thing to meet with friends.” 
Kaplan stresses the importance of learning to cook, but also to follow the 80/20 rule. “If you’re eating a healthy diet 80 percent of the time, don’t beat yourself up if you’re eating a cookie that is not so healthy.”

“The Better Brain”
By Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD
and Julia J. Rucklidge, PhD
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Released April, 2021

Irena Karshenbaum writes in Calgary. 
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.


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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.

Red Door Painting by Orit Shimoni

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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