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Some of the most important years in my life were spent as a Topper in AZA

Toppers jacket edited 1
Gerry Posner/62-year-old Toppers jacket
belonging to Dr. Irv Tessler

Editor’s introduction: Elsewhere on this website we have a story about Elliot Rodin. During the course of one of our conversations Elliot remarked that his years spent in AZA were among the most important in his life. Elliot suggested that the subject of AZA would be one that Gerry Posner would be well suited to tackle.

 

So, I decided to contact our nostalgia expert and, although he semeed a little uncertain why we would want him to write about AZA, I wrote to him that he was the perfect choice to go back to a time that would certainly raise memories for many of our readers. And, ever the sport that he is, Gerry agreed. I also asked Gerry whether he might have any pictures from his own AZA years, but he said that he didn’t.
Being the resourceful newshound that he is though, Gerry was able to come up with the picture that you see on this page. Okay Gerry – now how about taking on BBG next?

By GERRY POSNER
The pandemic has given me (and I suggest way more people than me) time to reflect and ruminate about matters of importance and less so. To me, the past is important and I have spent some time recalling events of my past and indeed of those of my era. I hearken back to the days of BBYO and our teenage times.
Let’s step back to 1958. My life and I suspect the lives of many of my contemporaries were occupied pretty much by school, sports, and BBYO. Some, of course, were involved in USY (United Synagogue Youth), others had extra curricular activities, school related or not. There were a few, not many, who had jobs he or who went to during the week or weekend either regularly or not, but for the most part our lives were what might be considered very simple and narrow by today’s standards. My life was ruled by AZA, the male section of BBYO. In those days, there were five viable chapters: Winnipeg 38s (the 38th chapter in the organization), Toppers, Eskimos (and no one thought of changing the name then) Omegas and Slotins. As I recall there were about the same number of BBG (the female version for B’nai Brith Brith Girls) chapters. They were: Delilahs, Chalutzot, Gabriels, Bat Sheva, Israelis, and Rachels. (I apologize if I’ve missed any others.)
For many of the readers who recall those times in their lives, it was, shall I say, a much simpler time. My life revolved around BBYO. In fact, I was so immersed in it and I made so many phone calls for the chapter, that the names of each of the 41 members in the chapter are ingrained in my memory alphabetically.

I am not sure if the fact that I recall these names even now – over 60 years later is a plus or a minus. But here are the 1958-59 members of Toppers AZA in case you could not sleep last night wondering just who these guys were: Bob Akman, Larry Booke, Lloyd Cohen, Sam Corman, Joe Diner, Bruce Druxerman, Brian Fleishman, Sheldon Gilman, Martyn Glassman, Bert Knazen, Martin Knelman, Jack Lazareck, Larry Leonoff, Roger Lyons, Ted Lyons, Brian Malinsky, David Matas, Alan Moss, Butch Nepon, Michael Nozick, Eric Ostfield, Harvin Pitch, Arnold Popeski, Gerry Posner, David Rich, Elliot Rodin, Arthur Ross, Ken Rubin, Laurie Rubin, Ron Rubin, David Secter, Bob Segal, Paul Shuster, Lyle Silverman, Gary Smith, Ken Steiman, Neil Stitz, Errol Tapper, Irv Tessler, David Winestock and David Wolch. Sad to say that five of them – Corman, Fleishman, Knazen, Moss and Nepon have passed on. Still, I would suggest if you could ask the remaining 36, you would receive a uniform opinion about that time in their lives – and it would be warm and favourable. Why is that and what was it about that period that made it so that many of us would wish this kind of life style for our grandkids?
To be sure, we did not have iPhones, iPads or computers. We had television, but only one station. What we really had was time with friends and the ability to roam reasonably free. We took the bus or biked anywhere we had to go. Our parents did not worry about us and we could be outdoors until the streetlights came on. We had what I would call a sense of freedom that is absent today with so much structured activity. We did chat on the phone a great deal, but then that telephone line was shared by everybody in the family and so we had limits imposed on us. We bonded with friends; AZA and BBG were an integral part of that bonding process. I recall that in AZA we had the five-fold objectives of the organization, including religious, community service, fund-raising, social and athletic. The key was to try to be involved at some point in the year in all of these aspects of the organization.
In that respect, I recall well on the weekend of October 24-26 of 1958, we had the Toppers Convention weekend where we tried to complete all five folds of AZA within the three days. We began with a religious service at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Friday night, where we participated in the service. Then, on Saturday in the AM, we had a Fund Raising activity (not exactly kosher on the Shabbat and a more than a slight contradiction of the night before at shul) where we sold doughnuts door to door. In fact, one member, Elliot Rodin, sold 512 doughnuts that day (although there were suggestions he recruited his brother and friends to do the heavy selling).
On Saturday night we had a party at the home of Bob Akman, who lived at 614 Waterloo Street. (Would that I could remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.) I know we all were supposed to invite dates and I recall whom I took to the party and would identify her but fear that if I did so, she might be asked about it and she would have to admit she has no memory of me or that night. On Sunday in the AM, we had a community service programme, followed by a football game in the afternoon against another AZA chapter. All that in one weekend. We were busy with friends and out of our parents’ hair in useful activities. We were not looking down at a device all day. You know the rest of this story.

Toppers was good for me and not just me. We all benefited from that more innocent time where we were learning about ourselves, the opposite sex and the world around us. But we had the benefit of deep and lasting friendships which occurred as a result of the time and place we were in and at then. Many of those deep friendships formed at that time last to this day. I say sadly that it is hard for me to project that kind of relationship for my grandchildren – so occupied are they on their phones, computers and with themselves. Perhaps you see it differently, but I always say I was privileged to have grown up where and when I did, and Toppers 921 AZA was a central part of that experience.

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Features

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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Features

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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Features

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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