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These Jewish athletes have won medals at the Tokyo Olympics

jewishmedalists 1536x853Among the Jewish athletes to win medals in Tokyo are, left to right, Avishag Semberg (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty), Jessica Fox and Lilia Akhaimova. (Semberg photo: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty; Fox photo: Patrick Smith/Getty; Akhaimova photo: Jamie Squire/Getty)

By EMILY BURACK July 29, 2021 (JTA) — The Jewish highlights of the Tokyo Olympics kicked off with Jewish basketball superstar Sue Bird serving as one of Team USA’s two flag bearers at the opening ceremony, a huge honor.

The lasting accolades, though, are the medals that winning athletes take home. Dozens of Jewish athletes are competing in the Games this year, but the fierce competition means that only some will enter the record books as gold, silver or bronze medalists.
Here are the Jewish athletes who have clinched a medal, in chronological order. We’ll continue to update this list until the last day of competition, Aug. 8.
Avishag Semberg won bronze in taekwondo for Team Israel on day one of the competition.
Semberg, 19, was third in the women’s under-49 kg category, giving Israel its first medal of the Tokyo Olympics and its first ever in the sport.
“I said to myself, ‘I want this medal more than she does,’ and I did it … I have an Olympic medal at 19, it’s a dream come true,” Semberg said following her win.
Because of the pandemic, Semberg did not stay in Tokyo long afterward, and she was greeted at Ben Gurion Airport with a festive reception and big celebration.
Jessica Fox of Australia won bronze in women’s kayak slalom on day four of the competition. Two days later she took gold in women’s canoe slalom.
Fox, considered by many to be the greatest paddler of all time, was the only athlete to medal in both canoe slalom and kayak slalom. She finished a disappointing third in the kayak race, but rallied for the gold in the historic canoe event — it was the first time that women’s canoe slalom has been contested at the Olympics.
Fox had previously won two Olympic medals: silver in 2012 and bronze in 2016. Her mom, Jewish Olympian Myriam Jerusalmi, won bronze at the 1996 Olympics in kayak slalom. Jerusalmi now coaches her daughter.
Lilia Akhaimova won gold with Team Russia in the women’s team gymnastics competition on day four of the Games.
Akhaimova, who is competing in her first Olympics, earned the top score on vault during the women’s gymnastics team finals, helping propel the Russian Olympic Committee, aka Team Russia, to the gold medal.
Akhaimova will compete in the women’s individual vault competition later in the Games.

 

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The Israeli dentist who got to know people like Yahya Simwar and thousands of other Palestinian prisoners better than anyone

By BERNIE BELLAN I wanted to depart from the usual post-event analysis of what happened on Saturday, April 13 in which so many pundits have been engaging. After all, by the time this is read, Israel may have struck back against Iran, so to engage in speculation as to how Israel should respond to what Iran did that day will probably be largely outdated.
Instead, I want to write about an article that appeared on the Haaretz website on Sunday, April 14. Now, if you’re not familiar with Haaretz, I’ve been referring to that news source many times over the past couple of years – not because of its political orientation – which is decidedly leftist, but because it often contains the kind of analysis you’re just not going to see anywhere else.
The particular article that snagged my attention had this headline: ‘I Asked Sinwar, Is It Worth 10,000 Innocent Gazans Dying? He Said, Even 100,000 Is Worth It’
The person who gave that quote is someone by the name of Yuval Bitton. I doubt you’ve heard his name before. Bitton was head of something called the “Intelligence Division of the Israel Prison Service.”
The article consists of an interview Bitton recently gave, in which he recounts his career working within the Israeli prison service, where he had the opportunity to interact with some of the most dangerous terrorists Israel had taken prisoner over the past 30 years.
What was Bitton’s backround? you might wonder. He was a dentist!
But it turns out that, as a dentist, he was able to enlist the trust of even the most embittered enemies of Israel – not to confide anything that would be considered any sort of information relevant to security, but to talk more openly about their feelings. The reason, as Bitton explains in the interview, is that when he was examining someone’s teeth, his patients would let their guards down – not out of fear of Israeli intelligence, but our of fear what their fellow Palestinian prisoners might hear what they said.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview in which Bitton offers a fascinating insight as to how he was immediately able to tell whether a prisoner was Fatah or Hamas. The interviewer explains that “While preparing for this interview, I found an item from 2005 in which you (Bitton) explained the differences between the teeth of prisoners who are affiliated with Fatah and those who are members of Hamas.”
Bitton: “The teeth of Fatah inmates are in poor condition, whereas Hamas prisoners maintain hygiene and purity. Theirs is a religious way of life. Ascetic. With rigid discipline. They pray five times a day, don’t touch sweets, don’t smoke. There’s no such thing as smoking in Hamas. You see a 50-year-old prisoner who is entirely free of any signs of illness. No tooth decay. I’d say, ‘You’re Hamas? They would say, ‘Yes, how did you know?’ ‘By the teeth,’ I replied. A very basic insight.
“Everything has meaning – it’s the same with regard to their way of life, for example. At 9 P.M., there is a total lights-out in the prison’s Hamas wings; in the Fatah wings they watch television all night.”
Interviewer: “At that time you were an inquisitive dentist, with good diagnostic skills. How did you end up as an intelligence officer?”
Bitton: “There was an intelligence officer I knew who hung out a lot in the clinic, which is a supposedly safe place for prisoners. They feel free to talk there, because their organizations aren’t monitoring or eavesdropping on them. He saw that I was talking to them all the time, and I also talked with him about all kinds of insight that I had about them. He realized that I could be a platform for recruiting sources and suggested that I join the prisons service intelligence division.”
In time, Bitton moved up the ranks to the point where he actually became head of Israel Prison Intelligence. It was in that capacity, he explains, that he realized what a terrible mistake it would be to release (Hamas leader in Gaza) Yahyha Sinwar in what became the swap of 1,026 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit.
Bitton offers some fascinating insights into the differences between the mindsets of Fatah and Hamas. At one point he notes, referring to differences between Fatah and Hamas: “Fatah talked about the 1967 borders, about the occupation, about the Palestinian people. To me, the Hamas inmates would say, ‘There’s neither 1967 nor 1948. There are no borders and there is nothing to talk about. You are on Waqf land, Muslim sacred ground, and you have no place here.’ “
He goes on to describe the realization by members of Fatah that Hamas members would have no hesitation in killing them the same as they would kill any Israeli. That happened in 2007 when Hamas – which had been cooperating with Fatah in governing Gaza to that point, suddenly turned on Fatah members.
Bitton says: “We [Israelis] were taken by surprise by the horrific disaster of October 7. I’m certain that in Fatah they weren’t surprised. They’d already seen it happening – they’d already seen how people were thrown off the roof, without a drop of mercy. How they [Hamas] tied Fatah activists, still alive, to cars and dragged them through the streets until they died. From Hamas’ point of view, members of Fatah are not their brothers. So what if they are Muslims too? They are an obstacle on the road to achieving the goal: a sharia state.”
He continues. Members of Fatah warned him: “Hamas will do to you what they did to us. You’re cultivating Hamas, injecting money into Gaza, humiliating Fatah, but in the end they will do to you what they did to us.”
And, in one particularly blood-curdling story, Bitton describes Sinwar’s absolute barbarism:
“There was a high-ranking Hamasnik in prison whom Sinwar suspected of collaboration. When he got out, they hanged that person in the city square and brought his 9-year-old son to watch. Is there anything crueler than that?”

I tell these stories here not to remind that Israelis live in a “very tough neighbourhood,” which is the phrase we’ve so often heard used to describe how very dangerous it is for a non-Muslim country to exist surrounded by Muslim countries – which we all learned many years ago, but to point out the importance of getting inside the minds of your enemies.
Has Israel miscalculated time and time again when it comes to misperceiving the intent of its enemies? Yes. We now know how badly Israeli intelligence misinterpreted clear signals that Egypt was going to launch an attack across the Suez Canal in 1973, and it didn’t take long to understand that, once again, Israeli intelligence and especially Netanyahu totally missed clear signals of what Hamas was planning on October 7.
And now, we’re hearing that, once again, Israeli strategists never thought Iran would react the way it did when Israel decided to bomb Iran’s consulate in Damascus.
I’ll end this particular article by referring to the incredible contribution that the U.S. – aided by other countries, including Britain, France, and especially Jordan, made in coming to Israel’s aid on April 13.
Reports are still filtering in about the weaponry that was used to prevent anything but the smallest number of Iranian missiles from reaching their targets in Israel. The Americans deployed new counter missile systems that had never been used in real-time situations previously – enabling them to launch counter weapons high into space to intercept Iranian missiles.
Without the aid of those other countries Israel would have suffered much worse on April 13. Yet, what I am afraid we will see is an even further insistence on the part of Netanyahu and the right wing fanatics who support him to thumb their noses at their American allies and entrench themselves even further in the ongoing series of mistakes they’ve made since October 7.
And our major Jewish organizations, including CIJA, B’nai Brith, and our Jewish Federation will say nary a word in criticism. As Yuval Bitton explains so well in that Haaretz interview, if it’s anything Ithe Israeli government and the Israeli security apparatus is very good at, it’s totally misinterpreting opportunities how to properly engage with your enemies.

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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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