By the Skin of our Teeth

By the Skin of our Teeth rather than the Skin of our Flesh
Tazria-Metzora: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

by

Howard Adelman

2. When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
3. And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

The skin of our flesh refers to the horrors we suffer from natural disasters, like the disease of leprosy, or man-made disasters, such as the war in Syria where the Assad regime (or Russia) yesterday bombed a children’s hospital, Al Quds, supported by Doctors Without Borders in Aleppo. Dozens of children, their visiting relatives and the hospital medical staff, including the only pediatrician left in that tragic city, Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, were killed. Yesterday evening on “As It Happens” on CBC, we listened to the most moving interview that I have ever heard Carol Off conduct on the program. Dr, Abdul Aziz, a surgeon who had just returned from abroad to help in the recovery program that the cease-fire was supposed to anticipate (he had helped found the hospital) bewailed the death of his close friend as well as other associates and medical staff in addition to the patients and family killed in the inhumane attack. ‘Where is the humanitarian intervention?” he seemed to cry out. “We lost one of the best hearts in this world. He always smiled. We asked him, ‘Please just take a rest.’ He said no. He’s now 36. He’s unmarried. He said, ‘How can I marry? I would be too busy for my family. I would not be able to work for those babies who are crying every day.” In the bombing, that brave and dedicated pediatrician was killed.

Where are we? Where indeed! Where is the Responsibility for Intervention? Donald Trump is not the first in the U.S. or the West to base foreign policy on America or One’s Own Country first. After George Bush made such a mess of the American intervention in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and after too few souls spoke out against the war including both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But whereas Donald Trump did so based on my country first, Obama did so out of realistic caution about the potential consequences of presuming to be the policeman of the world. Justin Trudeau too has retreated from a vigorous interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect.

But, in this partial or, as in Trump’s case, total retreat from our humanitarian responsibilities, in part because the Responsibility to Protect expressed both naïve idealism and a totally unrealistic appreciation of the difficulties of engaging in a humanitarian foreign policy, we allow tyrants to destroy innocent civilians at will.

It is a disgrace! What did Dr. Aziz’s pediatrician colleague do, what did the innocent children in that Aleppo hospital do, to deserve such a horrendous fate?
We have not retreated altogether. Some of us do our bit in helping the casualties, the refugees, who have escaped that horrid war. Last evening, we listened to a replay of an interview by Mary Hynes on CBC’s “Tapestry” with Rabbi Tina Greenberg who was herself a refugee from the USSR thirty years earlier. Her congregation, Darchei Noam in Toronto, led in good part by Naomi Alboim, was inspired by their own commitments and the significance of their rabbi’s own story to ‘pay it back.’ The congregation had just welcomed the Syrian family they had sponsored.

But many, indeed most, are not so lucky. On CBC’s “As It Happens,” we listened to an interview with another Aziz, not the Syrian surgeon, Dr. Abdul Aziz, but another Abdul Aziz, a Sudanese “refugee” who has been held for three years as a virtual prisoner inside a Manus Island detention camp financed (along with bribes to government officials) by the Australian government that has turned its back completely on the plight of refugees and transported Aziz and others like him from Christmas Island to Manus. Other refugee claimants had been sent to the tiny island country of Nauru. However, the Papua Supreme Court had ruled that detention in this case was illegal. Australia refused to take the refugees. The IMO offered to transport them back to the country from which they originally fled. Papua New Guinea will be left with most of them as they apply for refugee status. The detention camp will be closed, not so much because of the ruling of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, but because Australia declared victory, for the arrival of more irregular arrivals had successfully been deterred by the harsh Australian policy.

But I do not want to write about the afflictions of the flesh produced by man-made disasters, and certainly not those brought about by nature, but rather about the escape from such disasters by the “skin of our teeth” rather than at the cost of our flesh. Job 19:20 reads: “My bone cleaves to my skin, and I escaped by the skin of my teeth.” (my italics) But our teeth do not have skin. What is the real meaning of the expression? It stands in such strong opposition to the horrific depictions of
“the skin of our flesh.”

Thornton Wilder wrote a play that used that expression as its title. Starring such names as Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, Frederic March and Florence Eldridge, it won a Pulitzer Prize. Directed by the famous Elia Kazan, it was produced on Broadway in the year America entered WWII, and reproduced on the stage by many an amateur group ever since (the way I first saw it). The play is a satire of human folly and the inability of humans to escape one catastrophe after another. We never seem to learn.

In the drama, Henry Antrobus (originally called Cain) is the son of George. The hilarious musical begins with George (Adam) sending his wife Maggie, whom he refers to as Eve, a singing telegram, “Happy w’dding ann’vers’ry dear Eva.” Maggie (Eve) responds, “The earth’s getting so silly no wonder the sun turns cold.” And when the earth grows cold, when the human heart freezes up, we escape to the silly side of it all. For the tragic repetitive course of the cycle of human agony is just too hard to take. So instead of writing about and thinking about the horrors suffered by the skin of our flesh, we can read and write about the series of escapes we make by “the skin of our teeth.”

An old friend from the Operation Lifeline days in the eighties (he was a leader in the Operation Lifeline efforts in Vancouver dedicated to helping the Indochinese refugees), wrote and just published a hilarious account of the scrapes and narrow escapes he and his wife Sally experienced. They had retreated from the hurly burly of life in Vancouver. In Off the Grid (just nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award for Humour with the full title, Our Life Off the Grid: An Urban Couple Goes Feral), David describes one hilarious (and harrowing) story after another about his and Sally’s efforts to build a homestead from scratch with their own labour on the remote (and largely inhospitable) Read Island. So comedy as well as suffering can also take place on islands, even when the experiences seem to be horrific and the “heroes” of the story escape “by the skin of their teeth.”

I am not a comic writer. Horror, “the skin of our flesh,” tends to mesmerize me. But this trip has not been without its tragic-comic moments. Assuming we encounter no new ones, like Thornton Wilder’s play, our near-catastrophes also had three acts. It began when we left Vancouver Island by ferry. We departed from Nanaimo rather than the ferry from Sydney on the Saanich peninsula just north of Victoria. Our primary reason was that Nanaimo was far more accessible from Cowichan Bay than the long u-shaped trip we would have to make to catch the ferry in Sydney.

There should have been a second reason we realized after we completed the crossing. When you leave from Sydney, you land at the ugly port of Tsawwassen and then have to travel through the even uglier Vancouver suburbs of Delta and Surrey to get to the Trans-Canada Highway. When you leave from Nanaimo, the trip is ten minutes shorter and you arrive in Horseshoe Bay with direct access to the Trans-Canada Highway which ends its mainland continental crossing there. Even more importantly, you travel without a single traffic light through the beautifully exquisite North Vancouver. You thus begin your trip across Canada back home to Toronto inspired and invigorated by the beauty of British Columbia.

But it almost did not start that way. When we drive – or when I rest and sleep while my wife drives – it is much safer that way; I am responsible for navigating and making all the logistic arrangements. We arrived in plenty of time to get on the ferry. I am a very good planner if I say so myself. We parked the car tightly behind the car in front and went up on the elevator to the passenger deck to enjoy the views and the trip across to the mainland. When the announcement came over the loudspeaker to go to our cars to prepare to disembark, I suddenly recalled that I did not take note of the deck on which we had parked as we prepared to leave the passenger deck. And I wondered if there was more than one deck. Suddenly in the aisle, headed towards the stairs down to the car decks, appeared the three boys who boarded (or were they already on?) the elevator when we came up to the passenger deck.

In a panic, I asked them what deck we parked the car on. One replied with a bit of hesitation – I thought because he had been taken by surprise by my interruption, but he may just have been embarrassed by the stupidity of an elder who was so foolish as to not take note of the deck on which he had parked. “Deck Two,” he said in a sure voice. Relieved, we gathered our things and headed down to Deck Two.

What did we find? RVs. trucks. Even a bus. No cars. We ran to the other of the deck, though we were sure we had parked on that side. No luck. We raced up to Deck Three. There were lots of cars as they began to drive off. We clicked our key uselessly. There were no lights flashing that we could see. We asked a worker on the ship whom we finally found and asked where our car could be. I remember striped poles that we parked next to on the deck where we stopped. The deckhand said with bemusement, “Deck Four.” We raced up another deck looking for our car. To our relief, there sat our car – alone, well not quite alone since there was a frustrated driver sitting in a car behind ours. With huge embarrassment as my nightmarish imaginings dissipated about cars boarding the ferry to go the other way trapped us, and with my “tail between my legs,” too ashamed to look the other driver in the eye, we drove off the ferry and escaped “by the skin of our teeth.”

If it had not been the only escape! When we arrived in Osoyoos and, after we had looked at the map outside the Information Centre (it was already past the time when they were open), we opted to drive the 12 or so km up to The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery where they had both accommodation and a very well-reviewed restaurant. When we arrived and finally found the clerk in the restaurant rather than at the desk. She apologized and said that they were all full. This was late April, the off-off season for wineries. And they were full! So we asked if she knew of another spot nearby. She kindly phoned over to another guest house of a winery nearby and, seemingly luckily, they had one room from a no-show. So we went back to the car to drive over.

My wife had been wearing sun glasses. She looked for her regular glasses as sun glasses were no longer appropriate as the sun was going down. I searched the floor of the passenger side. We could not find them. She searched her side of the car, through all her purses. No glasses. They were an expensive pair and her only non-sun long distance glasses. We thought she might have left them when we were looking over the menu. We went back to the restaurant. No glasses. We phoned the other winery to cancel our tentative booking. We hypothesized two possibilities. She had put them on her lap and the glasses had fallen to the ground when she got out to look at the map at the Information Centre. The other time was about 75 km back when we had stopped to fill the car with gas and she had left the car to take advantage of the washroom.

We drove back to Osoyoos. We returned to the Information Centre and drove up to the map. There was scruffy man there with a dog. We looked all around. No glasses. We asked the man. He had not seen anything. Resigned, we decided we would have to drive back the 75 km. But I have an intelligent wife. She asked for my gas receipt. We got the name of the place where we had stopped for gas and she looked up the telephone number on her phone and called the gas station. The clerk was asked to check the washroom under the suspicion that they had been set down and inadvertently forgotten. The clerk kindly agreed to check and even more kindly came back on the phone and, with even greater compassion, expressed her regret that the glasses had not been found.

She was thanked and we hung up in despair. But with N’s usual persistence, she phoned back. Would the clerk mind going out to look around the gas pumps and check if the glasses had fallen to the ground. She was very obliging. She went out to search. She returned after a few minutes and even more regretfully and with even more empathy in her voice expressed her deep sorrow that the glasses had not been found.

In despair, we began to search in the car again. There at my feet, behind my briefcase where I has presumably already looked several times and so thoroughly earlier, there were the glasses. They had slipped down from the centre console. N was too relieved to bother pointing out my repeated practice of often never being able to see something that was right in front of my eyes. My problem is that I spend my life with my eyes peering inward at my thoughts. And I often miss the world as it passes by. But this time we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

The third experience yesterday and the day before was far more harrowing. On this trip we had not made reservations in advance at hotels or motels because we were not sure how much time we would spend on byways and tasting wines and exploring the environment. On Tuesday, we had stayed over at Regina rather than Moose Jaw and were proud we had covered such a distance. Wednesday morning, we headed for Winnipeg with hopes of getting all the way to Kenora. Proud of ourselves, we got two hours past Winnipeg to Kenora. I had a list of hotels prioritized in accordance with our set order of concerns. We arrived at the first, only to be told that the motel was full. We tried a second on the list. At the third attempt, we were told every single space in Kenora was taken. There was not a single room available in the whole city. No one could explain why, at the end of April, all motel rooms would be full. We were advised to drive on to Dryden.

We arrived in Dryden and again went to the first hotel on our preference list. Full! Not only full, but the clerk told us in deep sorrow that she had to turn away drivers with little children. She offered to let us stay in the lounge where there was plenty of coffee and drinks. It was after ten in the evening. The clerk explained that 700 workers were booked into hotels and motels and B&Bs from Kenora to Ignace as the mill was being refitted within a two week shut down. There was no chance of finding a room. We would have to go on to Thunder Bay about 4-5 hours away.

Again, with my tail between my legs, I returned to the car with the terrible news and the explanation for why there were no rooms. N asked if we should fill up the gas tank. It was down one-eighth. I assured her that it would be unnecessary as in that long distance we would be sure to find at least one gas station open. With stoical reserve, my wife set out to drive through to half – more than half the night – to Thunder Bay. By Ignace, we began to really worry. We had not seen a single gas station open. We saw two police cars parked side by side at a gas station. We asked if there was any way could use our credit card to get gas from a closed gas station. They said no, but told us there was a gas station 1.5 kilometers further. It was the only gas station open until we reached Thunder Bay and we did not have enough gas to reach Thunder Bay.

To our enormous relief, the gas station was indeed open as promised. The French-Canadian proprietor even agreed to see if she could phone around and find a room. She was unsuccessful;. We filled up and drove on, following an excellent driver who minimized the trying experience of driving in the dark on a two-lane highway with trucks with very bright lights approaching the other way. She kept her eyes on the rear red lights and followed.

At one point, the driver in front turned into a rare but darkened motel parking lot. There was no flashing sign stating, “No Vacancy.” However, it was obvious that there was no one around and the number of cars parked indicated that that the motel was full. It was about 1:30 in the morning. It turned out that the driver was heading back to southern Ontario as well. He had picked his daughter up in Victoria and was driving her home to Hanover. He too had left Saskatchewan that very morning. We resumed driving and followed him all the way to Thunder Bay right into the lot of a Best Western.

He went through the door and I followed. It was 4:00 a.m. No vacancies. There was likely no vacancy in the whole of Thunder Bay. The miner’s meeting was in town. So was a sports event and a large First Nations meeting. And the Premier of our province was in town. This pessimistic information was reaffirmed at the second motel. At the third where we both stopped, the lady behind the desk said that she had one room left (a no-show), but our lead driver could not have it because he needed a room that would take the ten pound dog of his daughter. The room remaining was a no-pet room. I was offered the remaining room.

I said that he had priority and suggested that he leave the dog in the car. He replied that his daughter would rather sleep in the car than let her pet sleep there alone. He was resigned to just driving all the way to Sault Ste Marie, another seven hours. I asked the desk clerk whether an exception could be made. Kindly, she decided to make an exception. Not only that, but she had found a business room which she could offer to me at the lower rate where we could stay. There was no other choice in any case. At 4:30 in the morning we literally crawled into bed.
Sometimes departures can be tragic. At other times, tragically comic. In a second act, we are sometimes Eyeless in Gaza. At other times we just misplace glasses and cannot see what is in front of our eyes. In the third act, there can be no room in a motel, or, really tragically, no space where we can feel and be secure in the whole world.

By the skin of our teeth! But far better than by the skin of our flesh. We are leaving Sault Ste. Marie and will be home before shabat.

Passage from British Columbia to Regina

Passage from British Columbia to Regina, Saskatchewan

by

Howard Adelman.

Last evening, we arrived in Regina in time to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who was in town for a meeting dealing with First Nations issues. Of course, we did not meet him. We did not have time. We had to rush to our motel room to turn on CNN and watch the results pour in on Super Tuesday in the U.S.

It was too late. All the results were in. Hillary Clinton had swept all but the smallest state, Rhode Island, and most by significant margins. Donald Trump swept all five of the Republican primaries and by even more significant margins over two rivals. They had finally presumably ganged up against him. But not really! They each agreed – or their campaign chairs did – not to campaign any further in certain states – remarkably in precisely those states where their rival and presumptive partner was pouring in all his efforts. However, neither would instruct their supporters to vote for their rival/partner in the other in the states in which they had agreed to cease campaigning.

Too little, too late! The commentators were generally correct. Donald Trump is virtually unstoppable, even though the Republican candidate would be chosen by the delegates at the convention. Even if it was a brokered convention and Trump fell a bit short of the requisite majority of delegates, even in the worst case scenario for him, Trump would have by far the largest plurality of delegates. It would be political suicide for the Republican Party to stop him. And the delegates selected know that.

For the first time in my life, I agreed with Donald Trump. He became the presumptive Republican candidate yesterday evening as he claimed. So Donald Trump was free to go back to being totally un-presidential. Hillary Clinton was a felon. In any case, she only appealed to women. And she appealed to fewer of them than he did. And he would do more for women than she would. He would make America great again. He would protect them from illegal migrants. He would protect them from a nuclear holocaust. He could do business with strong and respected leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. (It was not clear that he knew the name of the latter or could pronounce it.) Hillary would be easier to beat than any of the thirteen rivals in the Republican Party that he had defeated over the last six months. She would only get 5% of the vote if she were a male.

The usual gross hyperbole! The usual insults spread generously about! The usual plethora of libelous depictions of others! The usual admiration for strength! The real question now is whether Bernie Sanders would urge his supporters to back
Hillary and whether he would settle for a Democratic Party platform that would have to veer in the direction of his campaign. By the time we get back to Toronto by the end of the week, we might have some idea. In any case, we will bring with us the warmth of Vancouver Island.

With us, but not ahead of us. For after we traveled along Highway 3, The Crowsnest Highway through Crowsnest Pass, the fields of southern Alberta for some distance were covered with snow. We had crossed the continental divide between British Columbia and Alberta. Yesterday, I quickly described our trip after we left the Fraser Valley along the beginning of the western end of the Crowsnest Highway from Osoyoos to Cranbrook through a series of ascents descents through the Anarchist Mountains into and through the Kooteneys beginning around Grand Forks on the U.S./Canada border then past the lake named after Nancy Greene and south again at Salmo before we passed through the Kooteney Pass. Though the Kooteney Pass was spectacular, it did not prepare us for the deep valleys and the phenomenal snow-capped mountains of the Rockies proper that rose out of the ground like great mammoths. The northern passage through Lake Louise, though also spectacular, was totally gentle in comparison. But this time, we were descending quickly eastward through Fernie and Sparwood to the Alberta foothills and then the western plain.

In those foothills, we passed a startling site that neither of us had heard of ever before. It was the Frank Slide between Pincher and Fort McLeod that must have been cataclysmic at the time. The whole side of a mountain had been sheared off; the rubble of huge boulders – and I mean huge, the size of small buildings – was strewn across both sides of the highway. We learned that in 1905, the side of Turtle Mountain was severed off and, in a little over a minute, buried the new coal mining town of Frank. 90 were killed. Frank disappeared only to be memorialized by the rubble of this spectacular event. It must have destroyed a whole section of the highway and the Canadian Pacific rail line at the time. If we had been prepared, we would have stopped to visit the museum or commemorative centre that would have told us much more about this tremendous slide and its history, but we simply drove past in awe.

Since the area is also an archeological wonder and, from reading Jack London and Pierre Berton, I knew a tiny bit about the area. But I wished we had driven a bit north of Salma to Kokanee Glacier National Park, the place that became famous when Justin Trudeau’s youngest brother, Michel, was swept by an avalanche into the lake and drowned in 1998. I did know much more about the geology of the Continental Divide that forms the boundary between British Columbia and Alberta and that runs from the mountain peaks of Alaska to Chile.

The region is of importance historically as well as geologically, of course, but the attraction is mostly the spectacular geography. Twenty years before he was assassinated by Serbian nationalists to trigger WWI, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was a visitor to Arrow Lake just north of where we had driven. William Randolph Hearst, and his father thirty years earlier, had also visited the region. But there are serious disappointments as well as the inspiration from the spectacular scenery. As you descend through the mountains, Trail B.C. with its smokestack industries appears as an apparition and scar across the landscape. Trail has the largest non-ferrous smelters in the world. Industrialization had significant costs as well as benefits.
History, as I said, may be influenced by geology because of the natural beauty left behind. But the region attracts entertainers as well as important political figures.

In a memorable concert in 1988, Johnny Cash – whom we listened to on the radio yesterday – performed alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson. In 1991, the B.C. government tried to replicate that high note by sponsoring Joan Baez, Sarah McLachlan and even Bob Hope as performers in the region. But as famous as these performers were, they never rivaled the excitement of the 1988 concert.
Towns become famous for the strangest reasons. The day before, we passed through Fruitvale and Salmo, the region to which Japanese Canadians were forcefully and disgracefully relocated during WWII. David Suzuki grew up in the region. So did Nancy Greene mentioned above, our most famous female athlete of the twentieth century and Olympic champion skier who came from the region. Naming senators like her to follow in her footsteps in the Senate may be the way to save that institution.

Yesterday I wrote about tectonic plates. The Rockies and other ranges west were the result of the Pacific Plate rubbing against the North American plate as mountain ranges were thrust up in the process, perhaps as little as 75 million years ago. Much more recently, 10,000 to 15,000 year ago, the glaciers in the region started to retreat leaving behind the alluvial soil that formed the Okanagan Valley and the other valleys we traversed. But the juncture is still unstable and volcanic eruptions, tremendous rock slides and avalanches characterize the region. So, although the region is spectacularly beautiful, it is also very dangerous. Many of us remember 1980 when the State of Washington’s Mount St. Helen’s snow-capped dome blew off and altered the weather of the whole of our Earth for at least a year.

How tame it is then to descend to the western planes and traverse Alberta and Saskatchewan through Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Moose Jaw. Snow not only still covered many of the fields in southern Alberta, but small piles of dirty snow were scattered alongside the TransCanada Highway as we drove to Moose Jaw. Unlike our trip west through Canada in the Fall of 2014, the fields were mostly brown though plowing had begun, especially in the huge farms that align the highway. In parts, farm houses are few and far between. As one approaches Regina from the west, farm equipment dealer after dealer, with yards full of all types of new equipment, astride the highway on both sides.

My biggest disappointment was the sky. In September of 2014, the vast blue of the skies was truly breathtaking for a Toronto boy. But this time, the skies were totally overcast with rolls of clouds lined up in u-shaped row after row as if preparing for a tremendous military battle. However, when we passed Reed Lake and Chaplin Lake on the way to Moose Jaw, the most delightful scene was of birds, small ducklings already well past the infant stage, Canadian geese in ones and twos waltzed beside the highway, but looked forlorn as if they had lost contact with the V formations they used to fly north. Perhaps they had wintered in the West this past year and never flew south. There were herons, larger hawks than we had seen in British Columbia. I did not spot the white Cormorants that my driver did.

Shallow lakes form part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and there are signs alongside of the road indicating the importance of this region to the migratory patterns of the birds which fly, some from South America, to their breeding grounds in the north. We were disappointed not to see large flocks, but we probably were traveling through too early in the season.

I said that I would write about our visits to the wineries, but I will not do so today. We want to be on our way early this morning to try to reach Ontario.
But I will get to it.

Passover Through Canada 2016

Passover through Canada 2016

by

Howard Adelman

There is a saying, “He had a face that only a mother could love.” But what if he (or she) had a face that even a mother could not love? A face that only God could love? This is how the visionary, Ezekiel, saw Israel after the hand of God had passed over the houses of Israel’s infants and the tribes escaped, but Israel felt abandoned, as a loathsome child, naked and bare, scratched and torn, living in a pit without a drop of mother’s milk or even water to quench his thirst for life. “And as for your birth on the day you were born, your navel was not cut, neither were you washed with water for cleansing, nor were you salted, nor swaddled at all…and you were cast on the open field in the loathsomeness of your body on the day you were born.” (Ezekiel 16:4-5) God commanded that, “In your blood live.” (16:7)

But what if God was not there? Would the result be, “In your blood, die.”? Would the pesach lamb be replaced by non-kosher pigs feeding off swill? Instead of a living community based on a covenantal bond, living in hope and aspiration, living in dedication to the future, where people live in order to make the lives of their progeny better than their own, what would God find when He sent His repo men to collect the souls? When there would be no innocent children to be redeemed? When, instead of cutting off the foreskin as a symbol of the covenant between father and son, between God and his children, instead of finding a doorway marked on one upper corner with the blood of the lamb and the other with the blood of the brit milah, God’s messengers found, instead of a foreskin cut off, an individual cut off, instead of lambs of peace sacrificed on the altar, only murdered pigs to be sold in order to purchase the pornography of the illusion of a beautiful life?

Instead, if God sends his messengers to this part of the earth called Canada, they would find a people blessed, a bountiful land with prosperous people, a wondrous land with beautiful people. So on this Passover we set out in two-days-time to pass through rather than over this great land to return to Toronto via byways, but mostly, via the Trans-Canada highway. This is how we will remember Passover this year. You usually receive my commentary on the weekly portion of the Torah as an amateur each Friday. This week will be different. This day will be unlike every other Friday of the year. Today I attach the commentary of a professional, of my daughter, Rachel, and you can compare it in profundity to my own scratchy efforts that you already received.

We must live, not only to spare from Death the First Born, but to save for life everyone born, even those with a face that even a mother might not be prone to love. Always better a loved child than an abandoned one.
For my Jewish friends all over, have a happy seder. For my non-Jewish friends all over, say a blessing for what you have, especially if you do not bear the scars of abandonment in your flesh.

Passover and Through British Columbia

Passover and Through British Columbia

by

Howard Adelman

Two days ago, we left Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island after a wonderful month’s stay. We pretended we were Israelis and observing seven days of Passover with only one seder. The pretense was valuable in another way because of the radical difference in a Canadian versus an Israeli geographic sensibility. I often say that there is more fresh water to be viewed from our cottage window on Georgian Bay than in all of Israel. But in British Columbia, at least in the part we traveled through yesterday, the fresh water is found in rushing streams over rocks and quiet but very deep lakes. It takes 2 hours to cross the narrow waist of Israel from the Dead Sea to Tel Aviv. It takes two days to cross the bottom just of British Columbia – about ten times the amount of time as in Israel, and that is for just one of ten provinces.

This morning we head for Medicine Hat, Alberta, and hope we are not being too ambitious. We are about to go through the final pass through the Rocky Mountains, a generic name for what is actually five different mountain belts. The specific Rocky Mountains, along with the Mackenzie and Franklin Mountains, constitute the Foreland Belt. Going westward, there is the Omineca Belt, including the Purcell Mountains that we passed through yesterday between the Rocky Mountain Trench to the east and the Kootenay Lake to the West. Further west again are the Intermontane Belt and the West Coast Mountains. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands belong to the fifth, the Insular Belt of mountains off the West Coast. The Rockies are literally only the most eastern belt of mountains in British Columbia. Yesterday, we traversed the Strawberry Pass and the Kootenay Pass and this morning we will go through Crowsnest Pass traveling through the actual Rocky Mountain Range to finally reach the Albertan border.

Yesterday, in the latter part of the afternoon, Strawberry Pass allowed us to travel from Grand Forks on the B.C. border with the United States, about three-quarters of the way between the Pacific Ocean and the Alberta border, to Trail, Salmo and Creston, B.C. through the Selkirk Mountain Range. We probably should have stayed over in Creston, but we pushed on through the Kootenay Pass at over 5,000 feet between Creston and Cranbrook where we eventually stayed overnight. It was a long drive since we only set out from Osoyoos at 2:00 p.m. (We were visiting wineries all morning in the lower Okanagan Valley, but more on that tomorrow.) However, it was well worth it just to see the sunset on the Selkirk Mountains with the higher snow-peaked Rockies looming behind as we managed to arrive in Cranbrook just at the end of twilight.

Yesterday afternoon’s travels were the most exciting part of our trip thus far, visually that is. I should probably save the description until the end of this blog to end on the highest note. But I am just too excited to share the experience. In any one hour (under the poetic assumption that we were seeing Canada with Israeli eyes), we probably saw more fresh water and certainly more trees than in all of Israel. In the just over 200 km. from Grand Forks to Creston, we passed creek after creek, each wider than the Jordan River, and full of rushing water racing over the stones. Sometimes they flowed east and sometimes west and sometimes they flowed upwards as the rush of water behind pushed the frothing water in front up over a hump before we encountered another stream flowing down the mountains as we went from valley to valley during the final melt of the snow on the mountains.

We often saw deer beside the road which were mostly placid and seemingly unafraid of the trucks and cars – perhaps because there were so few on the road. At one point I noted that we had been on the road for twenty minutes and had not seen another vehicle, but I was quickly corrected. There was a small truck behind us evidently which passed us very soon after when the highway widened to offer a passing lane.

The road trip yesterday culminated when, in a light rain at the end of the day, a rainbow curved up ever so slightly, only arching at the top literally in front of us on the road. As we approached this red, orange, yellow and then green and then even blue rainbow, the colours became clearer, brighter and more distinct. The contrast with the gray misty mountains in the background and the snow-capped peaks even further back with the golden crown of the final sun of the day on the crown of the most proximate mountain, was magical. The various shades of green in the fading light of the day of the different species of tree reflecting different degrees of light needed a landscape painter to capture the view. Or a great photographer like my driver. However, tired from the long day, she mistakenly deleted the day of exceptional pictures when she went to transfer and save them.

We never knew whether we were looking at Grey Mountain or Crowe Mountain, Mount Plewman or Mount Neptune, though we identified the Rossland Range as we passed that town. Sometimes the valleys between the mountains were narrow and deep and sometimes broad with alluvial plateaus and even farms. As we moved west after Creston, we entered horse and cattle country. And we were never allowed to ignore the clouds.

The colours shifted from silver grey to dark and light grey, and then even to mauve. Sometimes the clouds were streaked and at other times billowy. And when the sun was setting, it illuminated a pure patch of white cloud sitting like a puff ball on top of the place just where a very black cloud seemed to clash with purple-grey one. At one point yesterday, we saw a pure white cloud that looked like a large rectangular puffy box just sitting in the middle of the sky.

In addition to Strawberry Pass and Kootenay Pass, there was even a Blueberry Pass – at least on the map, for I never did see a sign on the road indicating when we passed through it. I did see the name of Bonanza Pass, but could not tell when we entered it and when we came out. In one trip, it is just too difficult to comprehend such a varied terrain and I should have studied much more geology before the trip.

But back to the sky and the most startling picture of all. Just near the end of yesterday’s drive as we were coming through the mountains and the sun had already set behind the mountains to our west, there was still plenty of light. We were passing a lake. Beside the dark mountain rising up from the lake on the other, western side, a blaze of red appeared, not so much over it as beside the mountain, and between it and the dull, fuzzy, even misty, grey mountain further back. The sense of mystery, the sense of wonder, was awesome. Truly awesome! – the very opposite in meaning to the oft repeated term, especially among young people. When I order halibut and chips in a restaurant in the Okanagan Valley, the waitress says, “Awesome!” Even when I order a diet coke – yes I have resumed drinking the stuff contrary to my vows to quit – she said “Awesome!

I have to tell you about yesterday morning in the Southern Okanagan Valley between Oliver and Osoyoos. A waitress saying “Awesome!” was the worst of our experiences. For, what else do travelers do on a sunny, beautiful morning, but visit wineries? We had a choice of 36 just in the very southern Okanagan alone. Given the controls of the Liquor Board of Ontario, when we go into an LCBO store we may, if we are lucky, have a choice of perhaps 4 wines from B.C.. It is a provincial disgrace. Any one winery in the Okanagan offers more choices, and there are a great wineries over many parts of B.C., including on Vancouver Island. In the Cowichan Valley alone, there seemed to be over thirty wineries and we enjoyed delicious, even exquisite meals at both the Unsworth and the Zanatta Wineries – and, of course, bought some wine.

But the Cowichan Valley, as delightful as it was, did not compare to the Okanagan with one winery after another. Of the 36 within 12 km between Osoyoos and Oliver (there are probably over 300 in the whole valley), we visited the following wineries: Road 13, Hester Creek, Tinhorn Creek, Fairview Cellars and Burrowing Owl, five out of the six we had chosen. It was already two p.m., so we passed on visiting the Young & Wyse Collection near the border with the U.S., partly because it was getting late and we had a long drive ahead, and partly because this winery was evidently started by a so-called black sheep of the family that ran Burrowing Owl and we thought we might run into similar varieties – a premise which was probably wrong, but served as a useful excuse to cut our excursions to wineries short.

First, you have to comprehend the beauty of the Okanagan Valley, with each segment of this valley stretching northward for over a hundred kilometers to beautiful Kelowna and Vernon and even beyond to Salmon Arm where one of my readers – or, at least receivers of my blog (I must not be presumptive), lives. We restricted this visit to the very southernmost part and vowed to return with friends for a week just to explore the whole valley and the many varieties of offerings. We were just a week too soon when the real opening of the winery season begins next weekend with music events, special dinners. For me, the fall would be best when all the fruit stands are open in the late summer and early Fall. For the South Okanagan offers not only barrels of wine, but baskets of wonderful fruit. And though I love wineries (more than wine since I drink very little and very seldom), I really love fruit. However, in the spring there are the wondrous display of blossoms – apple, peach, pear, apricot, plum and, of course, those I consider the most beautiful of all, cherry blossoms.

The green of the landscape as the vines have begun to show their foliage and the grass grows rich belies the fact that the area is really a desert fed and made fruitful through irrigation. The summer days are very long and very hot (it can reach thirty-five or even forty degrees), but the nights are cool. Further, the soil on the east side of the road as one heads north is sandy, whereas on the western slope you find alluvial soil. Given the different levels up the mountains on each side, the different degree of sunshine – the western slopes are covered in shadows later in the day – the different varietals, the vast array of differences in taste just due to nature within very short distances is remarkable, When one puts on top of that the various tastes and talents of the different vintners, you get the picture.

But the real story is historical and beneath the soil. The Okanagan Valley is steeped in geological time. I need not go back through the Mesozoic (dinosaurs) and certainly not the Paleozoic era, but only the Cenozoic Era of mammals. I need only pay attention to the latest epoch and period of the post Glacial Age of the last fifteen thousand years. But to understand what took place on a deeper level, it is important to comprehend plate tectonics which came into prominence when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto and John Tuzo-Wilson was there and built on the science of cohorts and predecessors.

(The German geologist Alfred Lothar Wegener was among them and he published his seminal book, The Origins of Continents and Ocean at the beginning of WWI and introduced what was then only a theory – that of continental drift when he noted how the pattern of the eastern coast of North and South America matched up with the western contours of Africa and Europe. He put forth the theory of a vast ancient super-continent of Panges or Pangea – I can’t remember – that broke apart and the two parts drifted apart to leave the Atlantic Ocean. The theory was proven beyond any reasonable doubt by the identity of fossils found on each side as well as the matching rock formations. It took years for his theory to be accepted, perhaps because he was German and Germany was an enemy in WWI.)

By the time I was a graduate student, his theories and that of Tuzo-Wilson established plate tectonics as the governing theory explaining the behaviour of the crust of the earth and especially the plates, floating on a hot mantle below, and, floating above, the relatively thin crust. I digress, not only to show off and share my knowledge, but because it is critical to understanding the rise of the five belts of mountains in British Columbia and the creation of the Okanagan Valley.

As the great glaciers cut through and then retreated through the mountain belts, some formed by magnum rising up through the plate that extends westward to the San Andreas Fault and far eastward. As the glaciers retreated, the non-glacial deposits of sand and gravel, in the streams and valleys as well as peat were supplemented by till from the glaciers as they melted leaving behind clay, sand, pebbles, rocks and boulders, and the inner and sub-glacial deposits of the same mixture of materials resulting in eskers (deposits from holes or tunnels within the ice) and kames, the material in the fans, deltas and channels formed by the retreating glaciers leaving behind kettles, or deep depressions and holes – the kettle lakes of the Okanagan Valley.

But it is the third type of glacial deposit, the sediment within a glacial lake left behind as the shores of the lake retreated that is the most important for the richness of the soil in the Okanagan Valley. And the subsequent taste of its wines. But more on that, hopefully tomorrow. I have to get on my way if we are to get to Medicine Hat.

Gay Talese and Voyeurism

Gay Talese and Voyeurism

by

Howard Adelman

An article in the 11th April issue of The New Yorker entitled, “The Voyeur’s Motel” about an American motel owner who years ago deliberately bought a small motel so he could spy on the sex lives of his guests. The article is an extract from Gay Talese’s forthcoming book with the same title and it will almost certainly be a best seller. My surprise on seeing the article was the realization that Gay Talese was not only still alive, but still active as a writer, though, if I read the current cultural news I should have known that given the recent gefluffle over what he said about women journalists. Of the three or four so-called founders of the New Journalism, although Tom Wolfe was the most famous and Jimmy Breslin the most infamous, Gay Talese was the one who I liked best ever since Cathy Breslin introduced me to his writings when I worked on The Varsity as a student.

The reasons were obvious. I then considered myself a playwright and Gay Talese had a great ear. He was able to bring to life a character even if he never interviewed them directly. Further, you not only could hear the character talk; you could hear him think. I say “him” because I believe Gay seemed almost always to write about men and belonged to an old school as an Italian from the Jersey shore, even though it was his mother’s great skills as a listener in her women’s wear store that Gay Talese absorbed from the period in which he helped her as a kid. But he also took from his father, a men’s tailor for the mafia among others, not only his love of wearing bespoke suits, but an attention to detail and quality. And when he applied both skills, he listened carefully to how his subjects spoke about themselves as well as the revelations in what they did not say in the silences and pauses and hesitations.

But most of all, he introduced the writer preoccupied with verity into journalism, a field then traditionally of amateurs for whom writing the exciting story rather than the truth had been the norm. (Read Ben Hecht.) That required surrendering the omniscience of the author and including within one’s writing self-impressions and reflections so that the writer was part of the story. I try in my own writing to bring that lesson learned from the New Journalism, though I have never developed Talese’s ear nor his patience. What writer would wait almost four decades before putting in print such a “sensational” story as a motel owner who spied on his “guests” for years and kept a diary and records of his observations? In the days of the Panama Papers, Edward Snowden and Wiki-leaks, it is very difficult to call Talese’s revelations about an inconsequential motel owner as sensational. But then Talese was the writer least concerned about notoriety and fame even when writing about Joe DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra. For him, the story of an ordinary guy could be enormously revealing about the human soul, and Talese’s concern in selection was whether the interviewee could and would be a partner in such revelations.

The irony was that his attention to detail incorporated the devices of fiction – providing a back story and context while doing, as I did with my first play, cutting out the traditional first act which was used to introduce the characters and the story line, a practice which was becoming standard. (I always claimed that the reason I did so was because, when I hitch-hiked down to New York to see plays, I never saw a first act because I snuck into the theatres during the first intermission.) The truth was that plunging into the story from the opening scene, whether in a novel, a play or a film, had become the new norm; Gay Talese was one of the pioneers. But Talese had one practice that both his mother and father introduced him to, keeping detailed notes and very orderly files on his clients and subjects. Gay Talese was the Charles Darwin of the New Journalism, except he included as much about his own responses as about the “client.” He was really a cultural anthropologist rather than a biologist. I suspect this was a main interest in his voyeur subject who had similar habits.

Most of all, Gay Talese was the writer as a voyeur of the commons and the commonplace to help understand the larger world and the historical changes underway. So it should be no surprise that near the end of his life as a writer that he would choose to write about voyeurism, for voyeurism was an essential prerequisite to being the kind of writer he was and remains. In this story of the motel owner, he is a voyeur of a voyeur. And we, the audience, the readers, are voyeurs of a voyeur examining the life of a voyeur so we learn a great deal about voyeurism. But not just any voyeur! But a voyeur who recollected and reflected on his voyeurism and kept notes as meticulous as Gay Talese himself did. The outstanding feature of Gay Talese as a voyeur is looking at the other in order to see into his own soul.

It also explains why I personally am not a good fundamental voyeur of the everyday. I lack the curiosity about detail requisite to becoming a proper voyeur as distinct from one interested only in thrills. I am sure when his book is reviewed that reviewers will repeat his titillating stories that interest me the least. Neither do the parts of the tale concerned with his subject’s clever techniques and detailed preparations grab me. I am not a lover of the detective story. Of interest to me is not that Guy Talese used shirt cardboards on which to write his brief notes, but the fact that Gay Talese as an Italian always felt himself to be an outsider, and an outsider in search of recognition, that led to his talent and writing style. But what most intrigued me were the ethical and legal quandaries with which Talese wrestled as he gathered and recorded his observations and reflections.

In my analysis, we have four levels:

1.      The perspective of the voyeur and what he or she sees;

2.      The recollections and reflections of the voyeur looking at himself;

3.      The voyeur of the voyeur;

4.      The recollections and reflections of the voyeur of the voyeur who would not only record what he heard and his impressions, but his own reflections about the moral quandary into which he, Gay Talese, had been cast in hearing what had been said, particularly when he was told about a murder that had been seen.

“I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the Voyeur’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator…” “I was the Voyeur’s pen pal, his confessor, perhaps, or an adjunct to a secret life he chose not to keep completely secret. Several times over the years, it occurred to me that I would be wise to discontinue our correspondence.”

Then there is myself, the voyeur writing, recollecting and reflecting about the voyeur of the voyeur, and then you, my readers, who look on, and hopefully recollect and reflect on what I am writing. So there is an infinite regression in voyeurism that makes the subject of Gay Talese’s article so interesting, for he is very much self-conscious of that reality. But why in his own mind and in that of Talese and in my own is voyeurism so fascinating? I insist that it is not for the vicarious pleasure of the voyeur looking at adults engaged in sex. But perhaps I protest too much. Perhaps my delight in reading Gay Talese is that it allows me to distance myself from the immediate – something Gay Talese refused to do when on a rare occasion he wrote about women, this time women in massage parlours, and insisted that he experience the performance literally first hand.

Gerald Foos, the subject of Gay Talese’s article, was perhaps even more honest than Talese, and certainly myself, for he admitted openly that he enjoyed and got a great deal of pleasure in watching others engage in sex. Further, he, very much like Talese, and vey unlike myself, was “very curious about everything and everyone I see.” I, by contrast, have a very narrow range of interests and they are not primarily driven by curiosity so much as concern. I, to the best of my recollection, have never been preoccupied with invisibility (as Foos was), though, like many adolescents, I too dreamt of dying and observing how the attendees at my funeral reacted to my death. Though I shared with both Foos and Talese what Foos called the advantage in youth of “unsupervised freedom,” and the resulting precocious freedom, perhaps I never followed in the footsteps of Foos because I never had the “rear window” experience of watching a young aunt cavort in her bedroom nude when I was a pubescent adolescent. Perhaps that is why I am more concerned with throwing things out than collecting them, for collecting was a preoccupation of both Foos and Talese, though Talese focused almost exclusively on his own observations and reflections rather than on sports cards or other paraphernalia.

As Talese wrote about Foos, “he always associated his collecting with his boyhood attraction to his aunt. He wrote, ‘The youth will confuse sexuality and the art of accumulating objects. . .  There was a direct association from his aunt being nude and his collecting.’” Talese was not only interested in the genesis of Foos’ obsessions, but with their development as well as the evolving character of his own observations. “The entries become increasingly portentous, and Foos starts to invest the omniscient Voyeur character with godlike qualities. He appears to be losing his grip on reality. But only once, while posted in the attic, did he actually speak through a vent to a person below… [The “guest” never clued into the source of the words he heard.] The journal entry ends with an existential rumination: “Foos is sinking deeper into isolation and despair. The more I read, the more convinced I became that Foos’s stilted metaphysics were his way of attempting to elevate his disturbing pastime into something of value.”

Conclusion: “I am still unable to determine what function I serve. . .  Apparently, I’m delegated the responsibility of this heavy burden to be placed upon myself—never being able to tell anyone! . . . The depression builds, but I will continue onward with my research. I’ve pondered on occasion that perhaps I don’t exist, only represent a product of the subjects’ dreams. No one would believe my accomplishments as a voyeur anyway, therefore, the dreamlike manifestation would explain my reality. Finally, I will be able to satisfy my constant yearning and uncontrollable desire to peer into other people’s lives. My voyeuristic urges will now be placed into effect on a plane higher than anyone else has contemplated.”

Even if only for self-justification, there are “higher’ levels of purpose as well as perspective on the drives and reflections on the self. There is the utility of the practice. For Gerald Foos, there are lessons to be learned from the observations, though Foos himself never shared what he observed and concluded with his clients. But he wanted to do so, to tell men, for one, to be patient in their sexual practices, to be as much or even more concerned with pleasure one gives to one’s partner as for oneself. The indifference of many if not most men to their partner’s needs and desires is perhaps what most distressed this voyeur in all his observations. This was his reflection following his first engagement in voyeurism. “Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education. This is a very undistinguished beginning for my observation laboratory. . .”

When he saw so many men piss into the sink and most men partially miss the toilet when they stood up to urinate, he even thought he could advise the makers of bathroom fixtures on the manufacture of a domestic urinal.

Further, though the primary concern was voyeurism, the observing of another person as totally other when there is seemingly no relationship, the underlying theme is partnership, partnership between the voyeur and his unknowing objects as well as the partnership between a journalist and his or her interviewee and the potential for complicity. That partnership almost becomes a betrayal when Talese joins Foos in his attic observational post and, refusing to forego his insistence on being dressed-up in public, inadvertently allows his tie to slip through the slats in the vent, thus revealing his and Foos’ presence to the resident below in the motel room. Needless to say, they were not caught.

Then there was Foos’ concern with science, with generalization, with access to material that Masters and Johnson never had in their pioneering scientific study of sex begun when I was an undergraduate. “As the years passed, he (Foos) became more preoccupied with receiving recognition for what he viewed as his pioneering research. By necessity, he existed in the shadows, running his laboratory for the study of human behaviour. He considered his work to be superior to that of the sexologists at the Kinsey Institute and the Masters and Johnson clinic. Much of the research at such places was obtained from volunteers. Because his subjects didn’t know they were being watched, they yielded more accurate and, to his mind, more valuable information.”

Finally, there is the concern with norms and values. As a result of his spying and what he sees when he spies, Foos develops into a misanthrope.

Conclusion: Thousands of unhappy, discontented people are moving to Colorado in order to fulfill that deep yearning in their soul, hoping to improve their way of life, and arrive here without any money and discover only despair. . .  Society has taught us to lie, steal, and cheat, and deception is the paramount prerequisite in man’s makeup. . .  As my observation of people approaches the fifth year, I am beginning to become pessimistic as to the direction our society is heading, and feel myself becoming more depressed as I determine the futility of it all.

And then again:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit. . .  All their aggressions somehow are immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched. Women especially have a difficult time adjusting to both the new surroundings and their husbands. Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions. . . You can never really determine during their appearances in public that their private life is full of hell and unhappiness. . .  This is the “plight of the human corpus,” and I’m sure provides the answer that if the misery of mankind were revealed all together spontaneously, mass genocide might correspondently follow.

Another of the normative results was that Foos became anti-war since many of his “guests” were military personnel from the nearby base and he observed the effect of war on their personal lives.

Then there is the revelation, the great surprise – at least a hinted one. Was Foos not really just or even primarily a voyeur, but a writer of fiction? Talese never says this explicitly, but it is suggested when Talese discovers that Foos only bought his motel three years after he ostensibly recorded his first observations in his journal. And what about the murder Foos claimed to have seen? Talese could discover no record in the Denver Colorado police department or the coroner’s office of any such murder. Most importantly, is voyeurism less about objectivity than about the subjective imagination? For Talese noted that voyeurism is perhaps more about anticipating what one is going to observe than the actual observations.

There are also the conclusions about voyeurism more generally. The observations are not supported by any type of objective systematic or statistical data, though Foos did count and classify his observations of positions and male versus female orgasms. Mostly, he offers just impressions, not replicable observations. And there are no controls, no placebos. But the observations are a preoccupation with the nature of the world at present and the almost omniscient prevalence of surveillance. I very recently became aware of this when I sent some reviews in of the motels and restaurants to Trip Advisor and then was asked by email to review two motels at which I had stayed but had not written about. They knew motels in which I had rented a room even though I had told Trip Advisor nothing about those motels.

So you can consider this a review of a motel owner and a writer about him rather than the motel itself, a motel at which I never stayed, a motel which no longer exists because it has since been torn down to make way for a new development. But that is part of the character of this story. It belongs to a time which precedes modern internet, video and audio surveillance. “This conversation is being recorded to help us improve our service.” The story is a tale of nostalgia, a throwback to a time when vices were relatively innocent.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

by

Howard Adelman

Forgive me for jumping out of my series on the Iran nuclear issue. But the issue of the niqab on which the results of the Canadian election may turn, is too important, precisely because it is so unimportant. For non-Canadian readers let me provide the context.

The niqab is the veil worn by a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada. Zunera Ishaq became the unsought for central player when the Stephen Harper refused to admit her into Canadian citizenship unless she removed her veil or niqab in the public ceremonial swearing of allegiance. Zunera’s niqab has a very wide slit; the forehead and upper cheekbones can be seen. Many of us have seen Saudi women at airports where the slit is extremely narrow and some where even the eyes are covered by a netting as in wearing a burka.

The political issue arose over whether, when a person applies to become a Canadian citizen, they will be permitted to wear the veil in the public part of the ceremony. Of course, this is not how the issue was raised as part of electoral politics. The situation was made out as if it is about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens and whether a person who hid her identity in public could swear an oath of allegiance. Or, at least, this is how our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his partners in the Conservative Party in Canada framed the issue.

The following are the facts:

  1. Two women in Canada since 2011 have refused to take off their niqabs in the public ceremony, not in private, as a condition of becoming citizens.
  2. There is no law in Canada prohibiting the wearing of a niqab at the public ceremony where the citizenship oath is taken.
  3. The government of Canada issued regulations banning the wearing of face veils when taking the oath of citizenship in the public ceremony.
  4. Zunera Ishaq, clearly no wilting rose, took the Government of Canada to court over the issue.
  5. She won her court case and, just recently, in the Federal Court of Appeal, won again.
  6. The courts have ruled that the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Zunera Ishaq from being forced to remove her veil during the public part of the ceremony and that she should be given the right to wear the veil in the public ceremony, become a citizen and be allowed to vote in the forthcoming election on 19 October.
  7. The latest ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal was on 18 September.
  8. The Government of Canada even lost the subsequent court case asking for a stay in allowing Zunera Ishaq her rights.
  9. Last Friday she exercised her rights, became a citizen and can vote in the elections on 19 October or in the advance poll.
  10. This is but one of a long series of cases where the current Government of Canada has sought through regulations to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the government has been thwarted at every turn by the Canadian courts.
  11. Note that, before participating in the public ceremony where the oath is taken, any applicant for citizenship must go through a number of steps to prove the applicant’s identity.
  12. Those steps include, in the name of the principle of political accommodation, that Zunera Ishaq remove her veil in private before a female official to establish her identity.
  13. The public ceremony is part of the ceremonial part of the occasion, one that if you ever attend is very moving for almost all participants.
  14.  The Conservatives, as part of the election campaign, promised to “rectify” the matter by introducing legislation within 100 days of taking office that will require those applying for citizenship to take off face coverings during the formal ceremony confirming citizenship.
  15. They promise to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution and even though the party, if it wins the largest plurality of seats, will only be a minority government.
  16. The Conservative Party has also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  17. Further, Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, stated that the niqab issue was part of the Conservative “agenda” as a well-established principle of the party, and that the party has simply benefited from a “coincidence.”
  18. It appears that this may even be part of a future plan to allow a Conservative minority government to be defeated on such an issue and call an election to get a majority vote for the Conservative Party.
  19. The real issue is that Stephen Harper is the one really wearing a metaphorical niqab behind which he has been hiding to distract Canadians from really examining closely his mismanagement of the economy, his destruction of the “civil” dimension of the Canadian civil service and the myriad of other issues on which he has a deplorable record.
  20. In Canada, and in Quebec particularly the issue of wearing religiously identifying garments, particularly by civil servants serving the public, has become a contentious issue.
  21. In France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf, let alone a niqab. The Quebec Marois government which introduced the Charter on Quebec values and laws against the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols or garments introduced laws banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations; this was in the French tradition of religious secularism, laicité.
  22. The opposition parties came out strongly against the Government position based, not on whether they liked or disliked women wearing the niqab, but on the basis of human rights and upholding Canadian law and the constitution.
  23. One possible result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, where the party has most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, has fallen precipitously; polls initially indicated that much of that shift favoured the Conservatives given the politics of fear and blanketing the airwaves with pictures of ominous happenings as a woman dawns a veil. More recent polls suggest a more significant shift to the Liberals. Since Justin Trudeau holds the same position on the niqab issue – namely that it is being used as a distraction and wearing it anywhere is a human right as interpreted by Canadian courts,
  24. The biggest irony of all is that a very feisty Zunera Ishaq donned the veil, not in the name of tradition, but in the name of her rights as a private person, in the name of the secular religion of Canada and against the advice and even pleas of family members.

One cannot but admire how Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party has handled the issue as a matter of principle in spite of the political backlash against his and his party’s views. However, while praising his principles, one can also be disappointed in the way he handled the spin on the issue. He based his objections on two foundations – first on the rights of these Muslim women and the rule of law in Canada. Second, he attacked Harper for using such a politically miniscule issue to arouse ethnic and religious fears in Canada and a degree of hostility to Muslims that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired, but his ability at political counter-attack, at counter-spin, may not be. In any case, he may have lost support in Quebec for a myriad of other reasons.

Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary and perhaps the most popular politician in Canada, offered a very spirited attack on the Conservative position. He did so, not because he is a member of any other political party to the best of my knowledge. He was just absolutely appalled by the position of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Harper’s leading cabinet minister. Nenshi made the following points;

  1. He personally does not like the niqab and wishes people would not wear it.
  2. The wearing of the niqab may not be, for the women who wear it, a symbol of oppression and of masculine misogyny.
  3. The government’s position is contradictory for, in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government would adopt the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate in an election than what two women in the last four years have chosen to wear at a public ceremony in which the oath of citizenship is sworn together with a larger group of applicants.
  5. Those issues include the disappearance of large numbers of aboriginal women, an issue on which the Government of Canada refuses to set up a Commission of Inquiry.

In spite of Nenshi’s intervention, and that of many others, including very articulate Muslim women who would never wear a niqab, polls initially indicated that a majority of Canadians, not just in Quebec, supported the Conservative Party position. Léger Marketing found 82 per cent were in support of the policy nationally, and 93 per cent in favour in Quebec.

I am not a political spin doctor. But I would have advised a slightly different approach than that of either Tom Mulcair or Naheed Neshi or Justin Trudeau for that matter. First, as Nenshi did, I would have indicated that I do not particularly like women wearing a niqab  – but because I enjoy seeing the beauty in a woman’s face. Secondly, even though tattooing has grown in popularity, I have a very much stronger distaste for people who adorn themselves with tattoos and have been an oppressive father who banned my children, while supported by me, from ever getting a tattoo. Nevertheless, I would never think of passing a law or regulation banning this form of ostentatious personal identification by a civil servant, a student or an individual seeking to become a citizen.

But a tattoo does not hide a person’s identity. In fact, it establishes it more clearly – ask the number of criminals who have been caught because they were identified by the specific tattoo they wore. True enough, but the criterion espoused by Harper was his personal distaste for the behaviour of women wearing a niqab, since objective evidence and fact establish unequivocally that it is not an identity issue. I once had a woman who wore a niqab to my class and never had any difficulty whatsoever in identifying her, in fact even less difficulty than identifying most of my students – I was very bad at that very important skill.

The basic point is that my personal distaste, whatever it is and however much anyone agrees or disagrees with it, should not be the basis for making Canadian law or regulations. Further, it is not only I who say so. The Courts of Canada have ruled on this issue over and over again. My position on tattoos may be very appealing, especially to a number of older people who are appalled at the increasing propensity of young people to wear tattoos. But when it comes to public space and civil discourse, it is none of my business.

Mulcair and Nenshi attacked Stephen Harper for introducing such a trivial issue in an election because it was being used as a wedge issue for those who feared the influx of Muslims into Canada. That may be the case, but a vast majority of Canadians support Harper’s position and I do not believe they are anti-Muslim. They are against the practice of women wearing niqabs. The political issue, as opposed to constitutional one, is to focus the debate, not on their personal taste, but on principles, the laws of Canada and the rights of women. But one can best, I believe, shift the focus of debate only once establishing an identity with those Canadians who are opposed to women wearing a niqab.

The courts can decide what is lawful and not lawful with respect to dictates of the government re requirements of dress or tattoos. My personal distaste is irrelevant. Rights are. Respect for differences is critical. What is most relevant is Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s effort on tramping on what I believe are prime Canadian values – tolerance, respect, not just acceptance, of others – and recognition that I should never make my personal tastes, whether for vanilla ice cream, diet colas or niqabs, a basis for making public policy.

Why did Harper adopt this position? He certainly used it to sew fear and division, but the incident really fell into his lap. It had long been Conservative public policy. Therefore, it is doubtful whether the debate over the wearing of niqabs at public rituals when swearing an Oath to the Queen was intended as a wedge issue, though it was certainly played up for that use.

The explanation however lies deeper. Stephen Harper is a classical small “l” liberal when it comes to the separation of religion from the public political sphere and from civil society. His prime enemy is not socialism or the nanny state, though these are lined up for extinction. His main enemy is the secular liberal religion of human rights. He is a traditional Conservative or classical liberal who believe that religious affiliation, beliefs and commitments belong to the private sphere. Harper is not a member of the secular religion of rights or humanitarianism. He deeply and sincerely believes in Machiavellianism as the guide to practice in the public sphere. Faith is a private matter. The public believes, especially Quebecers, that religion must be excluded from public life. Harper adds to that belief a conviction that the public realm is the sphere governed by power, not by faith, by manipulation rather than tolerance and inclusion. Harper practices the politics of exclusion and works hard to divide the public polity to gain enough support, even if it is minority support, to defeat those who have faith in the liberal secular religion of rights.

The public sphere and especially political elections offer the arena where these secular religious wars are fought. Hopefully, Harper will lose this battle.

Why the Tories are winning the Jewish vote

Why the Tories are winning the Jewish vote

by

Howard Adelman

According to exit polls, a plurality of Canadian Jews – 52% – voted Conservative in the 2011 federal election. Will Jewish Canadians continue to support Harper in the 2015 elections in even increased numbers, even when polls indicate that his national support has been hovering around 30%?

In post-Word War Two Canada, Jews were very divided in their political loyalties. Gradually, voting patterns coalesced mostly behind the Liberals. Joe Clark’s stumbling initiative to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem in 1979 and Brian Mulroney’s strong support for Israel never affected voting patterns significantly.

In October 2000, cracks in the Jewish community’s traditional support for the Liberals appeared after Canada voted for UN Human Right Council Resolution 1322, which condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force” against the Palestinians. This was but one of ten resolutions that Canada supported critical of Israel. Irwin Cotler openly chastised members of his own government.

If Liberal stands left the door ajar for losing Jewish votes, politicians on the right began to push it wide open. Stockwell Day, as head of the Canadian Alliance Party, began to make inroads among Jewish voters. Stephen Harper continued the trend. Just before the Alliance and Conservative parties merged in 2004, Harper gave a speech to Civitas, an organization dedicated to promoting individualism and social order; Harper emphasized family, crime, self-defence and a principled stand in foreign policy to attract support from ethnic groups and religious denominations. He has been unstinting in his appeal to Jews and in his support of Israel.

Ahead of the 2006 federal election, the Harper government adopted a number of very prominent positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that favoured the Israeli government. Canada became the first Western country to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. Harper unequivocally defended Israel’s reprisals in Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, even though Israel’s massive 34-day attack killed more than a thousand Lebanese and displaced a million more. Canada evacuated 50,000 of its citizens in Lebanon at the time. When eight members of a Montreal Canadian-Lebanese family were among the casualties, Harper defended Israeli military actions as “measured.”

After that, prominent Jewish Liberals began to join the Conservatives, including Robert Lantos, Heather Reisman, Gerald Schwartz, and other Jewish Liberal plutocrats. While Michael Ignatieff, then leader of the Liberal Party, accused Israel of war crimes, under Harper, Canada was the first country to withdraw from Durban II in January of 2008. At the beginning of 2009, Harper’s government was the lone dissenter on the UN Human Rights Committee’s criticisms of Israel. As a result, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the Security Council.

In June of this year, I had dinner with Irwin Cotler. He had originally been elected in Mount Royal with 92% of the vote. In the 2011 election, he told me that a majority of Jews in the riding voted for his Tory opponent. He only managed to be re-elected with overwhelming support from the non-Jewish community. He was not running again. If he had chosen to do so, he predicted he would have been defeated. However, he strongly believed that the Liberal candidate, Anthony Housefather, would win. Current polls seem to support that belief.

In 2015, Mount Royal is awash in Robert Libman-Stephen Harper signs. Libman may possibly be on the verge of overturning 75 years of support for the Liberal Party in that riding but that now seems unlikely since Anthony Housefather is such a popular candidate running for the Liberals. .Jews in Canada live in a country much more dedicated to hyphenated integration than melting pot assimilation. Seventy-four percent of Jewish Canadians have visited Israel — twice the ratio of Americans. For most Jews in Canada, Israel is the wedge issue, far more important than it is for Jews in the U.S. The strong and sincere rhetorical support for Israel by Stephen Harper, even when there are no deliverables, has resulted in a tectonic shift in Jewish Canadian voting patterns likely to increase in 2015 even as much of the rest of the Canadian population is moving in the opposite direction.

Are Canadian Jews Lemmings?

by

Howard Adelman

Though most responses to my last screed against Harper were positive, one of my favourite readers replied simply, “I am not a lemming!”

Below, is my answer.

You are not small. You are not thick-tailed and you certainly are not a rodent. There is, however, the possibility that you are a lemming who joins a movement unthinkingly, but that choice would not result in a headlong rush to destruction without a proper consideration of the consequences.  There is also the possibility that you may claim the choice is a result of careful thought and deliberation. Again, as a further alternative, you may believe that your conclusion results, not because of ignoring the evidence or from faulty logic, but from using a different moral scale.

The Jewish shift to Harper may have had some rationale before he achieved a majority because of the performances and commitment of the opposition with respect to Israel. When combined with the absence of sufficient evidence of the consequences when Harper led a minority government, his tremendous rhetorical support for Israel may have so tipped the moral scales of evaluation, especially when the world generally appeared to have isolated Israel. But after the last four years?

As I see it, there are actually six logical possibilities to account for the continuing shift in Jewish support for Harper even after the evidence for forsaking any other alternative to Harper is taken into consideration.

Process of Decision Positive Consequences Negative Consequences
Careful thought Not a rush to destruction

A

A headlong rush to destruction

D

Moral imbalance Not a rush to destruction

B

A headlong rush to destruction

E

Unthinking Not a rush to destruction

C

A headlong rush to destruction

F

Support for Harper may be a result of deliberative thought in the belief that, whatever the evidence urging non-support, the consequences will not be destruction and those consequences are not as bad as the consequences of supporting any alternative, especially when the matter of Israel is given disproportionate weight. This is alternative A above. Alternative D is an empty category because careful thought and a headlong rush to destruction are incompatible.

A second and third possibility: a different scale is being used to weigh various alternatives. In this option, enormous weight is given to support for Israel. (Options B&E) On this issue, there is a real debate over whether unstinting support for the current government in Israel contributes or subtracts from the possibility of Israel’s destruction. My own view is that it contributes to the possibility of that destruction, but the weighting is difficult and inconclusive at this time. However, the host of measures leading to the diminishing of Canadian future prospects is so overwhelming. On any reasonable moral scale, it is very difficult to see how Harper’s unqualified support for Israel, especially when there are absolutely no deliverables, could possibly outweigh the array of other negative considerations.

The fourth and fifth possibilities are that the choice could be unthinking, but the path may or may not lead to destruction. Here there is a point. The path may lead to further diminution of Canada’s future; characterizing the outcome as destruction may be hyperbolic. Even though using the reference to lemmings suggests a mass parade over a cliff ending in drowning, blind and unthinking following a Pied Piper may not have that catastrophic result. But the individual is still a lemming in either case.

So let us take the two alternatives of utilizing a different moral scale that gives a disproportionate weight to the effects on Israel. Set aside my argument that, in spite of and, possibly, because of Harper’s cheerleading for Israel, this has been bad not good for Israel. If that disproportionate weighting is so great that virtually all consequences for Canada are diminished, does that not risk a backlash against Jews in Canada for making Israel so important that most Canadian Jews are willing to risk Canada’s future? Does it not risk the possibility that an alternative government to Harper’s conservatives will diminish its support for Israel in response to that Jewish voting pattern?

The only other alternative is the possibility that the Jewish vote has shifted so significantly towards Harper because it is the result of deliberative thought, in spite of the myriad of Harper’s bad policies and practices, just because, rhetorically, he is the most passionate defender of Israel. I prefer to be generous and think it is the result of unthinking, both because I know that all my Jewish friends who are voting Tory are, to a person, very intelligent and considerate human beings, and, secondly, as I have argued, any reasoned consideration of the evidence and logic could not result in a vote for the Harper government. So my only conclusion must be that their behaviour is unthinking because I refuse to insult the intelligence of my closest friends. Better unthinking than stupid thinking I say. Otherwise, if you support Harper because you have thought the matter through, then I have to attribute that support to an inability to reason adequately, to bad reasoning, rather than any lack of thought altogether.

Hence, my conclusion that many of my closest friends may be behaving like lemmings.