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When I see a great card in a stationary store, I buy multiple copies so that I can share the humour (the great cards are usually the funniest) with lots of people. One of my favourites (I still have a few tucked away) says “Happy Jewish Day” on the front and when you open it the message says “Really, who can keep track?” It’s funny because it’s true; there are a lot of Jewish holidays and, in the fall, it can be very hard to keep track.
But of all the holidays we mark and celebrate during the year, I find Hanukkah the hardest one to connect with beyond the surface rituals. My kids love it but I’m always a bit indifferent to their euphoria. The irony that the holiday that most emphasizes the importance of not assimilating falls at roughly the same time of year as the holiday with the greatest assimilationist push is a dynamic that colours how I, as a convert to Judaism, experience Hanukkah. When you’ve left the jingle bells and whistles of Christmas behind in favour of matzah and shofars, I think it’s inevitable that your experience of Hanukkah, in particular, is a bit complex.
We’re taught that once a person converts to Judaism, their status is no different than someone who was born Jewish. I’m Jewish, full-stop. The Jew-by-choice label isn’t supposed to matter. Hanukkah is one time of year when, even after 15 years, it does matter. I don’t think of Passover in relationship to Easter but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop thinking of Hanukkah as the anti-Xmas.
The ubiquity of Christmas makes me cranky; the barrage of tinsel and Santa and carols and lights and parties and trees and advertising and that darn elf on his infernal shelf starts in early November and doesn’t let up until January. While I smile sweetly as the holly and the ivy encroach on my office cubicle, what I really want to do is hide for a couple of months. My friends who were born Jewish, on the other hand, are much more blasé about the whole thing. They go to friends’ Christmas parties, hum Frosty the Snowman and go dashing through the snow completely angst-free. It’s not their circus but they can still enjoy the monkeys.
Christmas-mania doesn’t irritate me because I miss celebrating the holiday. It’s actually quite freeing not to have to engage with all the consumerism. On the contrary, Christmas is like a bad ex-boyfriend who I keep running into every day in spite of my efforts to avoid him. I just want to buy my groceries; leave me alone, already! That’s what makes Hanukkah hard; I struggle to connect spiritually to it when I’m always experiencing it through the veil of my inability to escape Christmas.
I like to tell my children (particularly when they’re lamenting our lack of a swimming pool, or some other such trial of an over-privileged childhood) that we live in a safe neighbourhood, in a safe city, in one of the safest countries in the world. To live here is to have won the only lottery that really matters. Given this good fortune, is it fair to ask for another miracle? What chutzpah! If it isn’t too much to ask, however, what I’d really like this Hanukkah is to be able to find my own connection to the holiday, a connection that has nothing to do with that other holiday-that-shall-not-be-named. The miracle I’m hoping for is small, but mighty, kind of like the Maccabees, themselves. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
In July 1944, as the SS liquidated the Kovno (Kaunas) Ghetto in central Lithuania, 16-year old Elly Gotz hid with his mother, Sonja, a surgical nurse, his father, Julius, a bookkeeper, and several other family members in the corner of a basement.
His mother had prepared injections of potassium chloride and was prepared to kill her son, herself, and everyone else rather than be murdered like thousands of Kovno’s Jews. The Gotz family avoided detection for three days, until Nazi soldiers entered the building where they were hiding, peered down into the dark basement, and ordered them out.
But fate intervened that day, and Elly and his family stayed alive.
The story of how that fateful moment came about, and the tragic events that preceded and followed it, are told in Elly Gotz’s poignant and remarkable Flights of Spirit (published by the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program and Second Story Press). The foundation is to be commended for its support of this significant program, especially given the ever-dwindling number of survivors still able to relate the stories of their lives.
Gotz was born in March 1928 in Kovno and came to Toronto in 1964 via Norway and Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe). His wartime story stands out not only because he was a teenager when the Nazis marched into Soviet-controlled Kovno in July 1941, but more significantly because his survival owed much to the skills he acquired in the ghetto as a locksmith and metal worker.
In the larger perspective, Gotz, though he did not know it at the time, was an unwitting participant in the Nazi conflict between the “productionists” – those Nazi leaders who saw some value in using (and feeding) slave labour – and the “attritionists,” who were prepared to let the Jews work, starve and die — what has been aptly labelled “destruction through labour.”
Ultimately, the “attritionists” won this morbid debate, but did not completely achieve their objective. Jews relegated to slave labour, and in particular Jews, like Gotz, who had skills the Nazis valued, managed against the odds to survive.
Gotz’s designation as a “valuable Jew” by no means meant he was treated humanely, but as his memoir makes clear, his intelligence, resourcefulness and courage — along with a dose of teenage guile — kept him alive. In the summer of 1942, about a year after approximately the 30,000 Jews of Kovno had been forcibly segregated in a ghetto — the population numbers were soon reduced through deportations and mass slaughters in “actions” periodically carried out by the Nazis — Dr. Elchanan Elkes, the creative and compassionate head of the Kovno Jewish Council of Elders, the Aeltestenrat (also referred to as Judenrat) obtained Nazi consent to set up a ghetto vocational school for youngsters aged 12 to 15 years of age. Gotz, who liked mathematics and science as a student, was a prime candidate and he learned the intricacies of becoming a locksmith.
One day, there was an exhibition of the workshops’ achievements inspected by Nazi officers. “I was proud that one officer pointed to my shiny, handmade padlock, but then very unhappy when he said he wanted it and took it away,” writes Gotz. “To add insult to injury, I had to make him a second key!” However, he adds, “as I look back, I must give credit to those dedicated and inspired teachers. Life in the ghetto was miserable, and the school was a place of respite.”
Later, he and his father were transported to a sub-camp of Dachau (and were separated from his mother), where Gotz smartly declared that he was a mechanic. He was assigned to a machine shop and immediately performed well enough for the Nazi “Meister” (master) to sneak him more food.
On April 29, 1945, Gotz and his father, who was by then close to death, were liberated from the main camp at Dachau by American soldiers. Miraculously, they soon discovered that Gotz’s mother had also survived as had her brothers and other family members. Desperately wanting to get out of Germany, they found refuge first briefly in Norway and then in Rhodesia where Gotz’s uncle, Samuel Gotz lived. They remained in Africa from late 1947 until they immigrated to Toronto.
During the late 1940s, the Jews Gotz met in Rhodesia, like Jews in Canada and the United States, had little interest in hearing the harrowing stories of the war. He did not talk about what he had endured for 25 years. But in Toronto, he was actively involved in what is now the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, and has delivered hundreds of presentations about his experiences to students.
A letter he wrote from Germany to his uncle and aunt in Rhodesia in October 1945, when he was 17 years old, captures the spirit that runs through his memoir: “I really do not know where to start my letter, after an interruption of almost five years. There is so much to tell and so little space! … One needed so much luck, mazel. The life of each one of us hung on a hair; death was not in our hands but in front of our eyes, so one must become a fatalist and believe in blind luck.”
Exiled to Sweden during World War II, Sachs was largely obscure in her adopted country. There she wrote lyrical and haunting poems touching on the Holocaust, her fears about the budding state of Israel and what the Jewish Women’s Archive called “the possibility of atrocities committed by humankind and the beauty of humanity.”
Reporting on the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 12, 1966, JTA noted that “Miss Sachs was called up first and, with absolute composure, bowed to the king as she received her award. In a brief, gracious speech, she recalled that she was a refugee from Nazi Germany — without mentioning either Hitler or Nazism — and that the ceremony coincided in date with her 75th birthday. Then came Mr. Agnon.”
I was standing in a small art exhibit in Toledo, Spain, in a tiny room adjacent to the city’s famous former synagogue, eavesdropping on an argument between a tourist and a priest. The tourist, evidently a Jewish man in his 40s, seemed distrustful of the blandly impressionist paintings and banners surrounding him, which espoused vague messages of interfaith love and co-operation.
“This is fine looking ahead,” he said. “But we all know what happened in history.” He proceeded to argue that the notorious expulsion of Spain’s Jews, in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, was a “whitewash” of actual events.
“We all know really what happened,” he asserted.
The priest – who, despite speaking good English, insisted he had trouble communicating – acknowledged that many Jews converted, or were tortured or expelled. But he then swiftly moved onto another track, explaining a confusing alternative etymology of Sephardic names like Toledano (“Toledo again, no!”) and pushing a positive outlook. His guest was not buying it.
While the tourist was not Spanish, he’d fit in well in Spain. Jewish Spaniards number in the tens of thousands and most Spaniards have never met a Jew, yet the country harbours relatively common, albeit casual, anti-Semitism. When an Israeli basketball team beat Madrid back in 2014, for example, local Jewish community leaders demanded police investigate 18,000 Spanish tweets pushing for another Holocaust. I even saw evidence of this with my own eyes. While riding the subway in Barcelona days after leaving Toledo, I saw scribbled words on a train door: “Israel,” followed by “racists,” “Nazis” and Catalan words I did not understand, but could glean by the context.
Security at Spanish-Jewish institutions, therefore, is intense. After I emailed several people at Madrid’s biggest synagogue, which doubles as a Jewish history museum (ironically nearest to a subway station called Iglesia, which means “church”), I did not hear back. I later learned online that foreign visitors have reported unfriendly and suspicious local congregants at the synagogue, and mentioned that they needed to bring their passports and endure interrogations about their faith, just to attend services.
My wife and I tried visiting in person, just in case my emails got lost somewhere. We walked up to the large golden doors adorned with Stars of David, rang the doorbell multiple times, waved at the security camera and tried explaining through a buzzer (in Spanish) that I was a journalist. No answer. Maybe there was no one inside; maybe they didn’t believe us.
Instead, we walked to the Centro Sefarad Israel, an open-door community centre near Madrid’s magnificent royal palace. The centre hosts rotating art exhibits, concerts and video screenings. The guard there was predictably curt – “What are you doing here?” he immediately asked, before we even dropped our bags on the security scanner and walked through the metal detector. Luckily, the art curation was more welcoming. During our time in Madrid, they were showing and discussing Amazon’s excellent and very Jewish series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and held a free concert of Spanish Sephardic music.
The main gallery at the Centro Sefard-Israel. (Michael Fraiman photo)
We missed the shows, but we did catch their two ongoing art exhibits. One was from a Moroccan painter, Bettina Caro, whose sentimental impressionism impressed neither me nor my wife.
The other exhibit was produced by two Japanese artists who found aesthetic commonalities between their native script and Hebrew. The duo splattered large canvases with abstract amalgams of both alphabets, like linguistically curious Jackson Pollocks. Even while squinting, I couldn’t see the Hebrew, but it was undeniably refreshing to gaze at for a while, especially after Caro’s dreamscapes.
Spain is rich with ancient Jewish history and remains a standout destination for Jewish tourists. In Toledo, one can visit what some believe to be Europe’s oldest synagogue; in downtown Malaga, a statue of Solomon ibn Gabirol, an influential 11th-century Andalusian philosopher, stands proudly beside the city’s centuries-old Roman amphitheatre. There are synagogues and vibrant Jewish communities in Barcelona, Seville, Avila, Caceres and Cordoba. All these cities are worth visiting.
Madrid, however, is a little different. When it comes to listing Spain’s famous Jewish tourism sites, Madrid doesn’t rank. Its Jewish community lives pretty far north of the city centre. There’s no old Jewish quarter. Traces of the city’s Jewish past have vanished into history.
Maybe that’s why the city’s few remaining Jews, a few thousand or so, are hesitant to interact with tourists. There just isn’t much to see there yet. First, they have to rebuild.
Anti-Semitic fliers were found in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighbourhood where 11 worshippers were killed in an attack on a synagogue building.
The fliers also were dropped in other surrounding neighbourhoods, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday.
“The Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police are aware of and are investigating the dissemination of anti-Semitic pamphlets in Pittsburgh neighbourhoods, including Squirrel Hill. Such hate-filled material will not be tolerated in Pittsburgh — not by residents, City officials nor Law Enforcement,” the Public Safety department said in a tweet.
“Pittsburgh is and will remain stronger than hate,” the tweet concluded.
The Police and Public Safety department “are taking this matter very seriously and will follow every investigative avenue.”
The pamphlets signed by the Loyal White Knights of the KKK provide information about the Ku Klux Klan and encourage people to join the neo-Nazi organization. Copies were posted on social media.
This Hanukkah, as so many Jews seem so confused about who we are and how to inspire our young to appreciate our traditions, let’s learn from one of my favourite modern Maccabees: Max Nordau.
Nordau didn’t look like a Maccabee, with his puffy white beard and huge white walrus moustache that screamed late-19th-century dandy. And writing and doctoring in Hungary and France, from 1849 to 1923, weren’t very Maccabean activities. Moreover, his greatest essay sent Jews straight to a Greek institution that the Maccabees hated: the gym. But therein lies Nordau’s true Maccabean greatness.
One doesn’t become a modern Maccabee by dressing like they did 2,200 years ago, or waving around spears and swords. Nordau demonstrated his Maccabean spirit in two critical ways. First, with his friend Theodor Herzl, he co-founded the World Zionist Organization and championed Jewish nationalism – meaning Zionism.
Understanding, as too many forget today, that nationalism is a neutral tool, potentially constructive or destructive, Nordau wrote in 1902 that, “The principle of nationality has awakened a sense of their own identity in all the peoples; it has taught them to regard their unique qualities as values and has given them a passionate desire for independence.”
Swept up in those romantic nationalist movements by which we organize our modern world politically, he wrote that anyone who believes the Jews are “a people must necessarily become Zionist, as only the return to their own country can save the Jewish nation, which is everywhere hated, persecuted and oppressed, from physical and intellectual destruction.” Having that vision – which ultimately launched the Jewish state – was impressively bold back then.
In his best essay – Muskeljudentum (Jewry of Muscle), which was published in 1903 – Nordau tried healing one of the greatest ailments that Jewish statelessness caused: the ghetto Jew’s weakness and cowardice. “For too long, all too long, we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh,” he wrote.
Appreciate the writing, and the vision: “In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in a crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners.” This passage parallels Chaim Nahman Bialik’s poem from the time, The City of Slaughter, which mocks the snivelling Jews who cowered instead of confronting the evil pogromists in Kishinev, Russia.
Energized by liberal Jewish nationalism, Nordau said that, “Now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again.” Repudiating the Maccabean disgust with certain Hellenistic practices, Nordau captured the Maccabees’ martial spirit, national pride and fight for light, writing: “For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character.”
These were the keys to the Zionist revolution. By toughening the Jewish body, by being able to defend ourselves when necessary, we would resurrect the Jewish soul. Similarly, in establishing a Jewish state, we would reclaim the Jewish national spirit. That’s why, this Hanukkah, and those to come, we must echo Nordau’s closing plea: “May the gymnastic club flourish and thrive and become an example to be imitated in all the centres of Jewish life!”
Our challenge today is guaranteeing that gyms straighten our character, without becoming another stage for self-indulgence and self-worship. Let’s learn from Nordau to not just buff our muscles, but stretch our spirits, in the true Zionist and updated Maccabean tradition.
Sonshine and Broccoli’s target audience are 2-to-10-year-old children, an age where kids begin to learn to communicate and build relationships.
The duo incorporates messages such as “kindness is contagious” or “spread a little love” in their songs in hopes these principles will be adopted into the children’s daily lives.
“It’s simplifying things for kids so they can really understand it,” said Brock Burford, the Broccoli of Sonshine and Broccoli. “It just comes down to a small gesture of giving your friend a hug or just a smile.”
The two got together in 2004, after Sonshine’s aunt told her she should start teaching her own Mom & Tot music classes.
“[My aunt] said to me, why don’t you do this?” Sonshine said, who remembers her aunt attending Mom & Tot music classes with her three adopted children. “I called [Burford] and I was like, can you help me? He said yeah, and we got together.”
Since then, the two best friends have been songwriting, recording albums, touring across the country, and performing as Sonshine and Broccoli.
In 2005, they wrote and recorded their first album, Sonshine and Broccoli Jam, which they remember writing in subway stations and Starbucks cafes.
“It was very grassroots but people loved it. It was very simple,” said Sonshine.
Throughout their career, they say they have been lucky to experience a steady incline of success.
“It’s just so cool to see how much we’ve evolved and grown,” said Sonshine. “It’s just been an organic [incline]. I don’t really think there’s ever been a bump.”
The duo has worked hard to differentiate themselves from others in the children’s music industry. With this new album in particular, they wanted to ensure the music was enjoyable for both the parents and the children, and they did so by writing and recording their songs in a variety of genres.
“We’re making music that parents can enjoy along with the kids,” said Burford.
He explained that while their lyrics and messages are aimed at their younger audience, the variety and modernity of the music genres is something the parents can also enjoy. “I think that’s where we tend to shine.”
At the same time, they are looking to foster a unique relationship with their audience.
“We’re not dumbing down our music to kids, we’re not speaking down to them,” he added.
In addition to their albums, Sonshine and Broccoli have a fulfilling career performing around the country.
Most recently, they opened for Silento, who is famous for his Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae) song, at an NBA kids event, and recently performed 14 days straight at the Royal Ontario Museum, where they will be playing again during March break in 2019.
As the pair prepares to start their busy holiday season with shows, they are also filming a pilot television show, which they say, will be the next step/project in their careers.
“I do see us on TV as we are performers. That’s why we shine on stage because we know how to perform and sing. Especially Lisa,” said Burford.
And they don’t show any sign of stopping.
“It’s very rare for people who spend that much time together to still love each other. We have the best thing going and this is our job until forever,” said Sonshine. “Whatever feels right and comes our way, we are open and we’re just grateful. That’s the truth.”
It’s Cool to Be Kind is out now visit sonshineandbroccoli.com for more information.
I am on the other side of the world when news of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting breaks. I wake up in my jet-lag haze in Tokyo and look at my phone to check the time. There, in front of me, is the breaking news headline. I sit up and hug my knees. I can feel my heart racing. I feel so alone.
Tuesday morning, over breakfast with a dear friend in Kyoto, I watch the vigil. Despite the distance, despite the time difference, I feel the embrace of my community as I watch thousands of people gathered in Toronto’s Mel Lastman Square, huddled close for warmth. Twitter and Facebook tell me of the call for Jews everywhere to #ShowUpForShabbat, and I know what I need to do.
The Shabbat after Pittsburgh, I board a high-speed train to travel the 300 kilometres from Hiroshima to Kobe, home to one of the three synagogues in Japan, and the only one outside of Tokyo. I had exchanged emails with the rabbi at the Kansai Jewish Centre earlier in the week.
I need to find myself amidst the familiar sounds of davening – of Jewish prayer – to feel grounded after such tragedy.
The synagogue is in a historic international area at the base of the tallest mountain in the Kansai region, high above the Kobe harbour. At the Shabbat meal following a perfunctory Kabbalat Shabbat service, the conversation is a patchwork of Hebrew, French, Japanese and English. I spot an Australian couple who looked friendly, and we begin to chat.
“Where are you from?” They ask.
“I’m visiting from Toronto,” I answer.
They light up. “Toronto!? We lived there for a year a few years ago! Near Bathurst and Eglinton.”
Now it’s my turn to get excited. “That’s my neighbourhood! I work at Holy Blossom.”
“Holy Blossom? That’s where we used to go for Shabbat!”
And like that, there, in Kobe, 10,600 kilometres from home, a new friendship is made. As I rush out to catch my train back to Hiroshima, we exchange coordinates to add each other on Facebook, and make offers of hospitality should they find themselves in Toronto, or should I wind up in Melbourne.
As I sit on the train, I am lost in thought. Here I am, the farthest away from home that I have ever been at a time where I crave connection and familiarity, and I meet a couple who had made my community their home while they were far from their own. This, I muse, is nothing short of miraculous.
I find myself back in Kyoto, once the capital city of Japan. Kyoto is dotted with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that number in the thousands. My friend reminds me: this was the seat of power in Japan for centuries, and so every sect worth their salt built something here. Kyoto is full of tourists, and at each shrine or temple, you can find people making offerings to the gods, to the Buddha, or to the Boddhisatva. The sound of bells and the smell of incense is entrancing.
As I wander the winding alleys leading away from the temples in the Higashiyama area, I remember that Hanukkah is around the corner. I think of the part of the story that we often choose to focus on as its central theme. The Maccabees, a small but mighty and dedicated army, defy the odds to beat the Syrian army and return to liberate Jerusalem and rededicate the Temple. They find the Temple sacked. They fashion a new menorah and find just enough oil to light it for one day. Miraculously, of course, it burns for eight days, giving them enough time to procure more oil.
It is no accident that the story tells of eight days — eight is a significant number in Judaism, symbolizing completion.
I think of another Jewish moment that involves eight days: the brit milah ceremony, where a baby boy is brought into the covenant and receives his Hebrew name.
That this happen on the eighth day is so important that it even outweighs observance of the Sabbath. Welcoming this new baby into the Jewish community is one of the highest priorities of Jewish life.
I think of all of the ways that Judaism elevates the idea of community — the minyan, the 10 people needed to recite certain prayers of our liturgy; the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, where a young adult is called to the Torah for the first time in the presence of his or her community; the sheva brachot, where the community celebrates the newly married couple through the week following their wedding; the shivah, where the community gathers for a week to console the recently bereaved immediately following the burial of their loved one. At all of life’s moments, Judaism prescribes a communal response.
The French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida tells of the most basic kind of faith — faith in each other. Any address of another person, any conversation, he writes, “amounts to saying ‘Believe what I say as one believes in a miracle.’” When we speak to each other, when we cohabit the same spaces, we are making a leap of faith at each and every moment. This, for Derrida, is a basic of the human condition. An everyday miracle, as it were.
I return to the Maccabees. What did they achieve by rededicating the Temple? Nothing short of re-establishing a central focal point of Jewish life. We know that the oil burned for eight nights, and we celebrate the miracle. But in telling only of this example of divine intervention, we gloss over the other miracle of this story. The Maccabees restored the central hub of Jewish life — the place where people gathered. Perhaps they knew that it was in a hub like the Temple, lit by holy light, that another miracle would happen — the miracle of community and connection.
And here, on the other side of the world, I at once understand. After Pittsburgh, it is community that buoys me. This is the real miracle — the miracle of community. A miracle at once extraordinary and totally ordinary.
George Stern never celebrated his bar mitzvah. The Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, a month before his 13th birthday on April 21. Now, over 70 years later, playwright Alicia DesMarteau is doing her best to make up for Stern’s loss.
DesMarteau is co-ordinating a staged reading of her new play, My Lost Bar Mitzvah, which is about Stern’s life from 1941 to 1948, beginning when he was 10 and ending when he was 17. The reading takes place at Beth Torah Congregation in Toronto on Dec. 12. Stern died last year, but his remaining family is appreciative of DesMarteau’s efforts to memorialize their patriarch.
DesMarteau based My Lost Bar Mitzvah on Stern’s memoir, Vanished Boyhood, nine hours of interviews with him, as well as research from “dozens, if not hundreds, of books,” she said.
George Stern, circa 2004.
The play begins with Stern showing up to his bar mitzvah class 70 years late. This fictional bar mitzvah class anchors the structure of the play, which weaves together Stern’s memories of his childhood with his preparation for his bar mitzvah, eventually ending with a bar mitzvah rehearsal.
“There was sort of this empty space that was this ache that was still there from all those years ago, the sort of missing piece of his identity.… It dawned on me that it wasn’t just George who had lost his bar mitzvah, it was this entire generation that came of age during the Holocaust that lost that moment,” said DesMarteau. “It asks the question: is it possible to restore in some sense that moment that was lost?”
Stern grew up in Ujpest, a suburb of the Hungarian capital of Budapest. When the Nazis invaded, Stern’s father acquired Christian identity papers for him and sent him to hide on a vineyard owned by a Christian farmer. Stern returned to Budapest on Oct. 15, 1944, under the assumption that Hungary was poised to surrender to the Allied forces. In actuality, that was the day that the fascist Arrow Cross Party staged a coup and took power.
Stern displayed some moments of defiance while living in Nazi-occupied Hungary. As a 13-year-old boy in the ghetto, he refused to wear the yellow star. Also at 13, he became an air raid commander for a building he was hiding in during the siege of Budapest, meaning it was his job to direct the civilians in the building. At one point, Arrow Cross soldiers came to him asking if he knew of any Jews in the building. Stern replied something along the lines of, “No, brother, but if you want, I will go and I will look for them with you.”
“The presence of mind for a 13-year-old, it’s extraordinary,” said DesMarteau.
Stern was able to survive the war and became part of the first legal aliyah from Hungary to Israel in 1948. He fought in the War of Independence, ran a successful business in Brazil and eventually settled in Canada.
“There is definitely kind of a sense of trepidation, just that weight of responsibility to being faithful to who he was, being faithful to his story, being faithful to his spirit, as well,” said DesMarteau. “There was this defiance that characterized him, there was this joy that characterized him … and that was something I wanted to bring out in this play. So the play is structured as a dramatic comedy. It’s not structured as a tragedy.”
She also related a story about watching him dance with the Torah as an 83-year-old man during Simchat Torah, which helped her realized that Stern’s “sparkle, that zest for life, was still evident.”
Paul Stern, George Stern’s son, is moved by DesMarteau’s adaptation of his father’s life.
“I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s kind of surreal and she’s very talented. She had a special relationship with my father, she knew him personally, and this is a great honour,” he said. “My father would have been very happy that she is doing it.”
With more than nine million Facebook fans, Nuseir Yassin is one of the world’s biggest travel vloggers. Starting on April 9, 2016, he’s made one unfailingly optimistic, often minute-long video every day on the Facebook page Nas Daily. (He recently announced he’s going to stop at 1,000.) An Arab Israeli from Arraba, Yassin’s cheery videos about Palestinian–Israeli coexistence have invited criticism that he’s whitewashing serious issues – claims that have followed him beyond the Middle East to countries as far as Singapore, where his gushing incited a national backlash from local artists scoffing at his naivete.
The CJN caught Yassin while he was tackling a three-hour drive from Fogo Island to St. John’s, N.L., for his 913th episode.
How do you find your stories?
I rarely plan my itinerary – I really just land the first day, do a meet-up and people suggest interesting things to do. In Toronto, I had 200 – 300 people who came, and these are the people I spend 30 minutes talking to, asking them, “What is interesting in Canada? What is cool?” I start getting the story then snatching what I find interesting, then I chase them. At the meet-up, someone said, “You should make a video about the library.” And I said, “Why is the library interesting?” And they said, “I went to a sushi-making class at the library.” And I was like, “What? A sushi-making class?” And that’s when I was sold.
How do you organize these meet-ups?
It’s really changing as Nas Daily grows. In some countries, it used to be 10 people would show up. Now it’s sometimes 1,000 people. It depends on the country. Most of the time it’s just me talking for, I dunno, 80 per cent of the time, and me asking people questions and them answering. And if anyone has questions about Nas Daily, I try and answer them. I started after 300 days of making videos.
Was there a moment when you realized, “Woah, this is getting big”?
Yeah. I think in Singapore I started realizing that, which was only a month ago. Unfortunately, a lot of Nas Daily is numbers, so even if something gets 10 million views, for me it’s just a number – there are very few times when you start to notice the effect of your videos on countries. That happened in Singapore, that happened in Armenia and Malta. And those are the times you realize, “This is bigger than I ever thought it would be.” It’s a lot more responsibility, and a lot more stress.
What kind of things have you learned during this process?
What I’ve learned the most is that it’s really all about how you frame things. You may be presented with the most boring thing in the world – a water fountain in Armenia – and if you frame it in a way that gets people interested, that’s real power. This is what I try to focus my videos on. Today, for example, I had a really hard time trying to frame lakes. Canada has the most lakes in the world. How the hell do you make that interesting?
Why do you think you’ve been successful?
I don’t know if I’m successful. It’s only been 900 days – it’s too early to tell. Any day now, Facebook could change its algorithm and voila, I’m nothing, back to zero. So the question is, why do I think Nas Daily has reached nine million followers? I think it’s because I never try to divide. It’s easy to make a divisive video: “Oh, immigrants are terrible,” or, “Oh, Republicans are terrible.” It’s easy to divide us. It’s the natural state of mind, I think.
But the other reason is I work like a donkey. I’m obsessed with this s–t. It’s the only thing I care about. And usually hard work does lead to success. Contrary to what we think about systemic disadvantages, when it comes to social media, those systemic disadvantages disappear. I don’t have to be good looking, I don’t have to be tall. I just have to make a good video and people will see it. No one can stop the Facebook algorithms – not white privilege, not sexism, nothing.
What made you decide to end things after 1,000 episodes?
Making daily videos is something that has helped me a lot, but I don’t recom-mend to anybody to make daily videos. Daily videos can kill you. It can be very challenging emotionally, mentally and physically. You have no room for family or health. You can’t get sick. I needed to look at myself and say: “Okay, you now have a 10-million person audience. What do you do? How can this grow bigger? How can you reach 100 million people?”
So once it’s not Nas Daily, what’s it gonna be?
Nas Whenever-I-Feel-Like-It. (Laughs) No, it’ll always be Nas Daily. It’s just gonna become Nas Daily Company. I’m looking for 1,000 other people who are like Nas Daily, to bring them on the Facebook platform and help them grow. That’s my goal. I’m on the lookout for creators to see who’s good.
Why work with other people?
It’s all about reach. People like us need to dominate the Facebook newsfeed. I don’t think a super-extremist should dominate online discussions, because they’re very loud, and most of the common-sense people are very quiet. So getting 100 more Nas Dailies, spreading this message we all agree on, is important just to make the social discussion a little more elevated and with a purpose, rather than just a bunch of extremists, left-wing or right-wing, just fighting each other. That should not be what social media is about.
You want to drown out the hate from the Internet.
To some extent. When you make a video about Israel and Palestine that doesn’t call for the destruction of Israel, and doesn’t call for the abolishment of Palestine – that video gets 100,000 likes. The haters will see that video and they can comment all they want, but when you see 100,000 people have supported this video, it just shows that sane people are the majority and extremists are the vocal minority.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity