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“The Real Zalman” – Life of the man who was undoubtedly the most controversial rabbi ever to live in Winnipeg examined in new book

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN On December 12, 2016 the Jewish Heritage Centre hosted an evening at the Asper Campus that was billed as “Rabbi Zalman Schachter and the Winnipeg origins of the Jewish Renewal Movement”.

I wrote about that meeting for this paper and my article about it can be found here: https://jewishpostandnews.ca/features/the-late-rabbi-zalman-schachters-time-in-winnipeg-recalled-at-lively-evening-hosted-by-jewish-heritage-centre/

During the course of that winter evening, various speakers, including his protegé, Rabbi Alan Green, spoke of the great impact Rabbi Schachter had on their lives. Yet, there was also a dissonant note, as several members in the audience were more disparaging in their recollections of Rabbi Schachter.

One theme that was raised throughout that evening, however, was the dearth of written information about Rabbi Schachter’s relatively lengthy stay in Winnipeg (from 1956-1975). I say “lengthy” because, after reading a just-published book about Rabbi Schachter, titled “The Real Zalman,” by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, looking at the timeline that Rabbi Dalfin produced about Rabbi Schachter’s life makes you realize just how peripatetic he was.

But it’s not all the moves in Rabbi Schachter’s life that make him such a fascinating figure. No, it was his combination of scholarship, charisma – and undoubtedly controversy, that arguably make him the most fascinating rabbi ever to have set foot in this city.

However Rabbi Dalfin hasn’t written a typical biography. Certainly there is a great deal of information about Rabbi Schachter’s life, given in chronological order through the first five chapters of the book. But the final – and lengthiest chapter, deals with an interview that Rabbi Schachter (who by then had added the name “Shalomi” to his surname) gave to Rabbi Dalfin in his Boulder, Colorado home, in 2010, four years before Rabbi Schachter’s death.

You don’t have to be at all conversant with Chasidic Judaism, of which Rabbi Schachter was a follower for most of his life, until he broke away from the Lubavitcher movement in 1968 to found what became the “Jewish Renewal Movement,” in order to find this book quite interesting.

Here’s what Prof. Jonathan Sarna, Professor of Jewish History at Brandeis University, has to say about “The Real Zalman”: “A valuable contribution to the biography and understanding of “Reb Zalman”: founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, disciple of Chabad-Lubavitch, and a controversial and pioneering rabbinic leader. Wonderful primary sources, including photographs, newspaper articles, and revealing interviews with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi makes this a volume that anyone interested in post-war-American Judaism will want to consult.”

Who is Rabbi Chaim Dalfin? After speaking with him several times, I was impressed by how little bias he showed in talking about Rabbi Schachter, either pro or con, and how engaging he was. According to information provided by Rabbi Dalfin, he “has authored over 90 books, is a Chasidic Historian and Ethnographer. He also lectures on psychology and Judaism based on his book, ‘Tanya on Mental Health.’ His books have been endorsed by academic scholars and professors. He lives with his family in New York.”

Rabbi Dalfin’s interest – and it comes through clearly in the book, was to delve into the complex character of an individual who was very hard to pin down, without passing judgment about him to any great extent. (Rabbi Dalfin does explain though why the Lubavitcher movement finally tired of Rabbi Schachter, offering a clear explanation how what Schachter did deviated so thoroughly from Lubavitcher teachings.)

Of all the many aspects of Rabbi Schachter’s life, certainly the most controversial ones have to do with what was not only his open drug use (certainly his experimentation with LSD, taken together with the leading advocate for LSD, Timothy Leary, still comes as a shock to many who don’t tend to think of rabbis advocating using LSD), also his several marriages (four altogether), made him an easy target for criticism.

But Rabbi Dalfin is quite open-minded when it comes to trying to understand what might have motivated Rabbi Schachter to chart such an atypical path for someone who, after all, had been raised devoutly orthodox within the Lubavitcher community. The book offers both criticisms, as voiced by others, of Rabbi Schachter’s often erratic behavior, yet it also offers explanations for those same behaviors.

Winnipeggers especially might find the excerpts that deal with Rabbi Schachter’s 19 year sojourn here especially interesting.

There are many anecdotes, as told to Rabbi Dalfin through the course of the numerous interviews he conducted with a very large number of people who had got to know Rabbi Schachter here. Here, for instance, is an anecdote as told to Rabbi Dalfin by Joe Wilder, who was referred to as “Yossele Wilder” by Rabbi Schachter:

“In 1956, Yossele Wilder was the president of the Hillel House in Winnipeg. He greeted Zalman when he arrived the first time to check out the Hillel House. (Ed. Note: Rabbi Schachter’s first position when he moved to Winnipeg was director of Hillel.)

“After spending a half hour showing Zalman everything in the building, he noticed Zalman wearing a ring. It seemed strange because Zalman looked like a Chassidic rabbi, with his full beard. Wilder knew that Chassidic rabbis did not wear rings, especially not in 1956, so he asked him about it, and Zalman told him it was a Masonic ring.

“Yossele asked Zalman whether he was a Mason, and Zalman said yes. Yossele was most shocked, because, as far as he knew, the tenets of Masonry contradicted Torah. However, he did not press the issue.”

And neither does Rabbi Dalfin in the book. What he does instead, for the most part, is offer what other people had to say about Rabbi Schachter, often quoting newspaper articles that were written about him over the years.

Rabbi Schachter was also a follower of the late, esteemed head of the Lubavitcher movement for many years, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Despite the controversy associated with Rabbi Schachter throughout his adult life – and even somewhat before he became an adult, it seems, Rabbi Schneerson seemed to adopt a very patient stance when it came to tolerating Rabbi Schachter’s often shocking behavior. But, as Rabbi Dalfin notes, it might have been a bit much for Rabbi Schachter to claim, as he did, that he had Rabbi Schneeron’s blessing to take LSD.

Given how animated that December 2016 evening was when the subject of Rabbi Schachter was put out for discussion among a Winnipeg audience, one would think that a reprise of that evening would be in order, but this time there would be a book that could serve as the basis for discussion. (As my 2016 article noted, the only available accounts of Rabbi Schachters’ time in Winnipeg – to that point, were oral interviews given by 28 Winnipeggers that now reside in a collection at the University of Colorado in Boulder.)

“The Real Zalman” does much to complete the missing gaps in what we have known about a fascinating figure.

The Real Zalman

Published by JEP

May 2023

180 pages

(including 163 footnotes, 65 pictures, articles, timeline, bibliography & appendices)

“The Real Zalman” can be ordered directly from Rabbi Dalfin on his website, www.rabbidalfin.com or emailing him at info@rabbidalfin.com. For speaking engagements in your community email him.

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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.

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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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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