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Eclectic Nathan Zassman always on lookout for new challenges, new fields to conquer

Nathan Zassman

By MYRON LOVE Aviva Natural Health Solutions on St. James Street is not your typical health food store just as Aviva’s founder, Nathan Zassman, is not your typical entrepreneur.

“What is unique about Aviva is that we take a holistic approach to achieving optimum health through a healthy lifestyle,” Zassman says. “I do a tremendous amount of research in a constant quest for finding solutions to people’s health problems. Many of our products were discovered from research I’ve done working to resolve my own health issues.”

As an example, he cites a brand of footwear from Switzerland, kybun, which was recommended after he tore up some knee ligaments four years ago. Doctors told him he would have to have both knees replaced. He tried the shoes – which claim to repair cartilage and, after ten days, he was walking without pain, after having had to use a walker.

“A physiotherapist who shops here was amazed,” Zassman says. “As a result of my own experience, I can advise people about how properly designed footwear can eliminate knee, hip and back pain.”

At Aviva, Zassman focuses on promoting healthy eating (through food products, healthy food preparation, and dietary supplements) and liquids (as in water filtration systems). A healthy living space requires clean air, for which he recommends air purifiers and humidifiers that can improve any environment. He promotes the importance of getting a good night’s sleep (with organic latex mattresses and coverings that facilitate healing while reducing the time it takes to fall asleep), sitting on active health-promoting chairs, and wearing therapeutic footwear.

One of Aviva’s air purifier brands – Blueair – from Sweden – was recently featured on CBC’s Marketplace – which tremendously boosted Aviva’s sales of the products.“We sold more than 300 units in just two weeks after the Marketplace feature,” he reports, and Aviva continues to sell them in large numbers.“We sell our products worldwide, through our website”

Aviva’s eclectic mix of products closely mirrors Zassman’s own lifetime of careers and pursuits. The lifestyle guru began life in Beverly, Massachusetts, which is about 20 miles northeast of Boston. In high school and beyond, he studied trombone and voice at both the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and, later, at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He was performing regular concerts in Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra when he was only 19 years of age.

In Chicago he performed in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony, and was a member and soloist with the North Side Symphony of Chicago. Nathan’s first experience as an entrepreneur also occurred in Chicago, when he founded The Zassman Brassmen, a brass quintet that performed educational concerts in schools, as well as formal concert performances.

In 1974, after six of years of study in Chicago with the famous brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs, Zassman won the audition for second trombone in the Winnipeg Symphony. In addition to his role as a trombonist with the WSO, he joined the faculty of the University of Manitoba, teaching the brass instruments, conducting brass ensembles, and teaching “Brass Techniques” at the Faculty of Education, outlining the basics of all the brass instruments to music education students.

But Zassman has never been defined by just one category. Concurrent with his career in music, he trained as a professional photographer at the Winona School of Professional Photography in Indiana, earning 20 diplomas and Certificates of Merit in a wide range of photographic disciplines. “I became interested in photography while in Chicago,” he recalls, “and spent my summers studying at the best schools and with famous photographers, to refine and improve my craft. I approached photography the same way I did music, seeking out the finest photographers who shared their unique techniques, either privately, or through classes.”

While in Chicago, Zassman developed an interest in Eastern philosophy, studying yoga and astrology at the College of Occult Studies in Chicago. In Winnipeg, he later founded Celestial Interface, producing astrological birth charts for those interested in learning how astrology can improve their lives. He was also appointed CBC Official Photographer, appearing on about a dozen radio and TV spots with CBC Radio and Television, preparing and discussing astrological birth charts on political candidates running for local and national elections.

Zassman founded a photography business specializing in architectural, portrait and commercial photography, creating magazine covers and illustrations for local and national magazines. He also became the Winnipeg Symphony’s official photographer, doing portraits of all the musicians for the symphony programs, as well as taking the annual photo of the orchestra. For many years he taught photography at a school he founded in Winnipeg while the symphony was in session from September to May, and taught professional photographic techniques at the Winona School of Professional Photography, the University of Saskatchewan Department of Art, and the Saskatchewan School of the Arts during the summer months. Zassman also founded The Heliograph Gallery, the first gallery that specialized in photography in Winnipeg.

Now, one would think that teaching photography, performing with the Winnipeg symphony and teaching at the University of Manitoba School of Music would be more than enough to keep someone busy, but Nathan Zassman is a cut above average. He further added businessman to his resumé when he got into computer sales on the ground floor in 1982.

“I had always been interested in cooking and nutrition,” he recalls. “In the early 1980s, I was hired by a local book publisher to write a cookbook with an original idea. I was planning to write the book on my IBM typewriter, but a friend recommended I use a word processor, as he told me that no one used a typewriter anymore for writing.”

One of Nathan’s photography students worked for a local company, Westsun Media. They were selling the Kaypro, which had been rated the best value brand of computer that could be used as a word processor. Nathan purchased a Kaypro with two floppy disk drives for $4000, and couldn’t believe the freedom it provided, allowing him to edit his work, and even check his spelling.

Zassman was so enthused with his computer that he encouraged all his friends to buy one as well. “I was sending so many customers to Westsun to buy a Kaypro computer that I asked the owner, Marc Raymond, if he would allow me trade mine in for a new model with a built in hard drive, which was revolutionary at the time for a portable computer. Marc acknowledged that all his sales were thanks to Nathan and offered him the job as sales manager for the computer division of Westsun. After a short time, Nathan decided he should start his own business and left Westsun.

Thus, in 1982, the musician became a businessman with the founding of Aries Microsystems. “Our business grew rapidly,” Zassman recalls. “By 1986, Aries ranked as the fastest-growing business in Manitoba.” But in 1988 he found that the added responsibilities of running a computer business were interfering with his musical career, so he decided to sell Aries to one of his employees. However, Zassman retained his passion for computers and after his three year non-competition clause from the sale of Aries came to an end, in 1991 he started a second computer company – Opus Computer Solutions.

Zassman retired from the WSO in 1995 to devote himself full time to his new company. “In 1997, I bought the former Winestock’s Wholesale building at 52 Adelaide in the Exchange District and moved my computer business into the downtown marketplace area,” he recalls. “In 2001, I decided to set up a gym on the third level for my computer technicians. I wanted to encourage my technicians to include exercise in their lifestyle. I did my research and bought the best fitness equipment available.”

After a short time, he decided to also sell the fitness lines he purchased for the Opus gym, and Aviva Natural Health Solutions was born.

Zassman then went to the United States, studying Nutritional Therapy in Medical Practice with Jonathan Wright, M.D., and Alan Gaby, M.D., and obtaining certificates in 2003 and 2007. By 2005, Aviva was bringing in enough revenue to stand on its own, so Zassman sold Opus Computer Solutions in 2007 to focus entirely on his new venture.

“I seem to change careers every 20 years or so,” he says.

He moved Aviva to its current location, at 1224 St. James Street, in 2010. And, while still very active in the operations of Aviva, true to form Zassman continues to grow and explore other fields. A bass/baritone, he’s returned to singing and was studying with Mel Braun at the University of Manitoba, as well as singing in two choirs – until Covid forced a pause. On top of all that, a few years ago, began taking acting classes with the Prairie Theatre Exchange. He became a member of Shoestring Players, and has appeared in three plays so far.

He continues to indulge his passion for healthy cooking and baking bread. While running Opus, he became well known for offering his customers and staff free loaves of bread, made from freshly ground organic grain, and is still doing so at Aviva. These days though, he concentrates on sourdough bread. He offers his starter to anyone interested in baking sourdough bread, for free.

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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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