Thursday, 4 April 2019

My Annual Letter

Dearest Molly,

Last year, a few months after your "birthday", I wrote you a letter. I am embarrassed to say that it took me almost two months after you made your entrance into this world to collect my thoughts. Chalk it up to emotional upheaval on my part. I simply couldn't give a proper voice to everything magnificent about your arrival. But, write to you I did and that first missive has led me to this one on this your first birthday.

Meeting you has been one of the purest and greatest joys of my life. I thank the Divine Spirit every single day for the gifts you have brought into my orbit. I don't want to place a hefty burden onto your tiny shoulders but seeing the world through your eyes and imagining the future that you will live in, has brought my life into clear focus. It is easy at my age to live selfishly and insularly. We budding alterkakkers sometimes tend to look at forecasts and predictions as mere inconveniences. We pretend that since we will play little to no part in the world that you will surely inherit, the decisions we make today on your behalf have little consequence. Of course, that is a fallacy but the environment we find ourselves in on this your first birthday is riddled with such short-sightedness. I am trying desperately to move beyond such nonsense with you squarely in my thoughts. It is my hope that one of my longterm gifts to you will be one of engagement, involvement, taking up the cause of the underdog, the downtrodden, and care for the planet.

Today, however, I want to give you something far more basic. I want to give you the gift of memory. I want you to be reminded of the joys of your first year. I know that those reminiscences will be shaped entirely by other people's stories, so I wanted you to have some of mine.

I was mesmerized by the attention you paid to our first songs together. When I sang those early melodies to you, the very same my father sang to me, you were completely engaged. You could hardly keep your eyes open, yet you knew instinctively to follow my voice. Maybe, someday you and I can sing Stewball or House at Pooh Corner together just like I did with your dad and mine.

I love the way that you love Gus. Even when he hasn't always been entirely sure about what to make of you, you have been relentless in your pursuit of his affection and his playtime. I hope that you and Gus have many more years together so that you can remember what an exceptional friend he is and how having such a great dog as your introduction to pets has been truly magical. Gus is teaching you about fun, patience, unconditional love, gentility, and sometimes (when you deem it to be so)...sharing. Gus is finally finding his footing with you and he is thrilled with the extra meals you are sending his way. Gus is your first best friend.

I adore that you have a bit of a dramatic flair. I know that your parents will roll their eyes when they read this but there is something incredibly creative about the way you express yourself. Yes, there will come a time when some self-control will need to be exercised and you will soon learn the limits of your expressive outbursts, but I hope that when those lessons are learned you will still know how to advocate for yourself with passion and with strength.

I will forever be moved by the memory of your great-grandfather getting down on the floor in his eighty-first year, to play with you. Your exuberance has been contagious and having great-grandparents around to share in your growth and experiences have been nothing short of magnificent.  The generational nature of your arrival has not been lost on me at all.

I love watching your Zaidy light up in your presence. There is so much that is serious in his world but with you, he is in total fun mode. It doesn't matter what he is doing or thinking about. Whenever he sees you, you become the entirety of his world. There is nothing too much, too complicated, too expensive, or too involved for him when it comes to you.

Every milestone, every new "trick", every photo, every new experience, every family gathering this year has served as a reminder that I am in this for you. I want to see the world through your eyes and to understand what the planet will be like for you when you are my age and beyond. It is not inconceivable that you could live to see the next century and that informs my thoughts and decisions all the time. Sometimes, I find myself looking ahead and wondering what you will be like in five, ten, fifteen years but then I pull back and remind myself to live in the here and now and to enjoy watching the mystery of you unfold in real time. It is an extraordinary and magnificent journey and I will joyously breathe it all in every single day I am afforded.

I love you with all my being, dear Molly.

Happy Birthday. Let's meet here again one year from today. I'm sure that year two will provide much fodder.



Friday, 8 March 2019

International Women's Day is Not a Meme

If one more person wishes me a Happy International Women's Day I might just have to banshee the hell out them.

This isn't Mother's Day you dumbasses. 

Today is a day that should be used to highlight, recognize, and advance the voices of female empowerment that came before and those who are currently making their marks. It should also be used as a platform to understand that while women have made tremendous advances in the one-hundred and nine years since the first International Women's Day, the work ahead is still daunting and necessary.

But can we please stop with the commercialization and the trivial bullshit? 

Instead, I would like to tell you about a few of the women who have made a deep impact on my life, who through their strength, tenacity, and fortitude, taught me, encouraged me, and eased my path.

There were my two grandmothers, coincidentally both named Esther, who like their biblical namesake, forged paths of independence at a time when it wasn't always easy to do so. My dad's Esther came as a married immigrant to a Canada that wasn't always hospitable to Jews. She learned English by listening and singing along with the radio and she fiercely fought for her children and grandchildren to become proud Canadians without ever losing their Jewish identities. My mom's Esther raised four children, often on a wing and a prayer, and was part of the workforce at a time when women working outside of the home was frowned upon. Her working was a necessity and not a luxury. Widowed in her fifties, she continued to support herself through full-time work because that's just what needed to be done.

There is my mom, who despite undiagnosed dyslexia, worked her ass off to realize her dream of becoming a nurse. Professional programs were subjected to "Jewish quotas" at the time of her entry into nursing and my mom was one of just three Jews admitted to her class at Women's College Hospital. Her perseverance to achieve her dream is a gold standard that I point to every single day.

There is Rabbi Sally Priesand who was the first woman ordained a rabbi in North America. Rabbi Priesand opened up the bimah to younger women like me who longed for roles in clerical leadership. She made the impossible possible.

There is Cantor Barbara Ostfeld who, as the first woman ordained a cantor in North America, allowed for women's voices to be heard in the synagogue. She changed the tune and tenor of Jewish music.

Meeting both of these trailblazers and having the opportunity to both study with and perform with them was truly a highpoint in my career in Jewish leadership.

Debbie Friedman (z''l) forever altered the way Jews sing and pray and she did it in a way that was accessible and inviting without ever sacrificing core Jewish beliefs. And...she did it with a guitar. Debbie's work gave me permission to be myself.

These are all women who are worthy of accolades on this International Women's Day. Women who were following their passions, their hearts, their souls, and their truths. These are women to whom I point with pride, am proud to call teachers, and will one day share their stories with my granddaughter, hopefully on an International Women's Day.

Let's remember the real reasons we observe today. It is so much more than a meme or a bumper sticker.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Two Canadian Jews in Search of Landsmen

Jewish brethren, I have a question for you.

When travelling, how many of you roll the country you are visiting around in your mind and ask, “Could I live here if forced to leave my home?”

It isn’t as far-fetched a notion as many might seem to think. Our ancestors have been exiled from places and regions just as or even more enlightened than those in which we now reside. Most of our grandparents or great-grandparents came from countries that either wouldn’t provide religious, economic, and social equality for them or tried to ethnically cleanse them out of existence. So, I ask again. If forced to leave your home, where could you see yourself living?

Israel? Perhaps, but the constant war-footing and the lack of equality for progressive Jews and in many places, women, makes the country somewhat suspect for me.

Nope. I found my haven today and it is happily situated on the South American Atlantic. I absolutely could see myself living and thriving in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Now, I should explain that I knew very little about this country before we arrived. Most of what I recall about Uruguay and Jews came from newsreels about Israeli partition or the movie Exodus. Uruguay was the first Latin American country to vote for a free and independent Israel and they were the country that put the partition plan over the top during that historic UN vote. They were also the first Latin American country to open an embassy in the state and to welcome the Israeli ambassador to its capital. The Zionist roots here run deep but their Jewish history is long and proud.

We took a private tour today of Jewish Montevideo. I found a wonderful guide on Trip Advisor who has been lovingly ferrying Jewish tourists around the city for years. Fanny Margolis is a former teacher and a very involved member of the Jewish community here. She was thrilled to give us the history of the Jews in this area. The first Jewish settlers were refugees from the expulsions of both Spain and Portugal. These Sephardic Jews made their way to the territories of the Americas to find peace and prosperity. Uruguay has fluctuated for generations between the kingdoms of both with the Portuguese of Brazil battling for territorial rights with the Spaniards of Argentina. The Uruguyans finally achieved their independence in 1830 and the next wave of Jewish immigration took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jews escaping the pogroms and degradation of Eastern Europe found their way to these shores mostly due to quotas in immigration in North America. In Uruguay, they found a country that values secularism, (there is a strict separation between church and state) public education, state-administered health care, and a fully democratic governance. With the exception of a dozen or so dark years in the 1970s and early 80s when the country was run by a dictatorship, Uruguay has been faithful to these principles throughout its history. It’s a great place for Jews to thrive.

The last wave of Jewish immigration came after the Holocaust. Many German and Hungarian Jews tried to make their way here before the war but were rebuffed by treaties. After the war, more than three-thousand Jewish refugees came to Montevideo to try and pick up the pieces. At its height, there were 50,000 Jews living in the city and surrounding areas. There are still remnants of the Jewish shops, (it felt like wandering through Kensington Market or along Spadina Avenue in Toronto) old synagogues of both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, a communal centre that runs day schools and childcare, as well one of the most beautiful Holocaust memorials I have ever seen outside of Yad Vashem. This is a place that is very proud of its Jewish heritage and at how easily Jews have integrated and assimilated into Uruguayan society.

The Jewish population is dwindling here. Fanny estimates that no more than 10,000-15,000 still live in the country. The Zionist foundations have taken many through Aliyah to Israel and many of the younger generations have scattered across the globe. They are facing many of the same problems that are the Jews of North America. Assimilation, inter-marriage, or simply a move away from religious practices is plaguing this community but there is still a dedicated group who are involved and trying to maintain Jewish customs and heritage.

Montevideo is also one of the most architecturally distinct cities we have visited. The diverse range of art deco and colonial styles reflects on its multi-cultural history. It is a city brimming with culture, nightlife, museums, and theatres. They love their city squares and parks and are extraordinarily proud of the greenery and green space. It is also really hot here in the summer (It is 40℃ today. I hate writing that knowing that my dear ones at home are suffering from snow and cold. Today has been the hottest day of our trip.) and very moderate in the winter, just perfect for a Jew who hates the Canadian winters.

So, I ask again Members of the Tribe. Where could you live if forced to flee your home?

Check out Montevideo, Uruguay. A Jewish haven in South America.

The Sephardic Centre

Part of the Holocaust Memorial

Old Jewish signage in the Old City

Sunday, 27 January 2019

I Love a Good Immigrant Story

I really like immigrant stories. There is something very compelling about the narratives told by those leaving their homelands and venturing out into the world unknown. Sometimes those tales are harrowing and sometimes they are heroic. In my mind, it takes great courage to pull up stakes and to start over but it really boggles my brain to think that people journeyed to places that were so foreign to them that even climate or industry was beyond their ken.

We have seen that time and again on this trip. There are the pockets of German peoples that still populate parts of Chile and here in the Argentinian Patagonia, there is a deep Welsh tradition. These immigrants from Wales came without knowing anything about agriculture, language, or climate. They were mostly miners from the southern part of the UK who decided that a better life was waiting for them here in this rocky and often desolate area. They weren’t fleeing persecution but rather saw advancement awaiting them in a place so different from the one in which they were raised. I think that that takes tremendous gumption and fortitude and it should serve as a reminder that all of us either are or come from a place of immigration. We should never get so far ahead of ourselves that we pretend others don’t deserve the right to the same opportunities that were afforded our grandparents.

The annual migration of the Magellanic penguins is kind of like these Welsh immigrants. Every year, they return in the spring to the shores of Punta Tomba and dig out their rookeries in order to breed. Thousands of them come back to this area to lay their eggs and tend their young. It was a sight to behold as we trekked through the barrenness of this area, only to finally come to the beaches and see these birds swimming, waddling, playing, and feeding. They were oblivious to all of us bipeds as they blissfully went about their business. We northerners are conditioned to think of penguins as cold-weather birds but these beauties were frolicking around in the surf or just hanging in their sand caves in 25℃ weather. These waddlers are a resilient lot who come here every year just to lay their two eggs. Both parents tend the chicks but often can’t move back and forth between ocean and nest fast enough to keep both babies alive. They are sometimes faced with Sophie’s Choice as to which baby earns the prize. We saw several dead chicks outside of the rookeries and it literally broke my heart. Those who do manage to make it, are now getting close to moulting their baby feathers as they begin to learn self-survival. By April, these birds will leave for sea, only to begin the migration process all over again in August.

These Magellanic penguins have gumption and fortitude. They do what they do because it is in the best interest of their species. They travel thousands of kilometres each and every year to this place because it offers them the best chances of survival and opportunity. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to commune with them for a few hours today.

I really do love a great immigrant story.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Today Was All About Penguins. Indeed.

The Husband has a nasty habit of saying that this trip is all about Dawn seeing penguins.

I beg to differ. 

This trip is somewhat about Dawn seeing penguins.


It’s a lot about Dawn seeing penguins.

We tried several times in Australia and New Zealand but the penguin gods weren’t smiling down on us during that trip. I was only slightly devastated to learn that in order to take a trip across the Magellan Strait to view the breeding grounds of the Magellanic penguins, I would have to suffer five hours on a small boat designed as a device of torture for anybody who suffers from chronic motion sickness or vertigo. That was definitely out of my range. (As it turned out, that was the port that was closed during this trip so all of those people felt the angry wrath of the penguin gods that day.)

But today…today was the day. This day was many years in the making, hoping, wishing, praying, and just flat out begging for. 

And it wasn’t really all that easy to do. We had to leave our tendered ship in the bay just off of the coast of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. As an aside…I am going to require a history lesson from both my British and Argentinian friends as to why this little piece of rock is so very important to both sides. There are still signs up all over the islands warning Argentinians to respect the sovereignty of the place and to renounce their claim to the land. We were told that up until a few years ago, Argentinians weren’t allowed to even visit the island but that has now been relaxed. I was also stunned to learn that the minefields that were laid down by the Argentinians during the 1982 conflict are just now starting to be removed. The Islanders, or Kelpers as they call themselves, merely fenced them off until help arrived in the form of Zimbabwe explosive experts just two years ago.

But old grudges aside, today was all about penguins. After the tender docked in Port Stanley, we boarded a small van that shepherded us to Bluff’s Cove about thirty minutes away. From there we met our 4x4 driver Ron, a fifth-generation kelper, who traversed the very uneven fields to the cove.

We were mesmerized at first glance. Hundreds of Gentoo penguins were there in the rookeries nesting with the newly hatched chicks. Unfazed by the human gazes, the birds were very happy to preen, call out, and nestle with their families. At times it felt as though they were posing just for us. In the middle of the Gentoo colony was a small group of King or Emperor penguins. (Think March of the Penguins.) These tall and majestic creatures were having a ball with us idiots and we were able to witness them sitting on eggs and passing off the eggs to their mates. The Husband and I stood in the blustering winds for over an hour just snapping photos and getting right down on the ground with these beautiful creatures.

This area is one of the last on earth that has been left untouched by human invaders. The birds are happy to frolic back and forth between their rookeries to the shores of the Atlantic and don’t care one whit about the prying camera lenses or a few bipods. The locals have taken great care to ensure the penguins' safety and well-being and are extraordinarily protective of their winged neighbours. It is truly a symbiotic relationship that has developed here.

The Kelpers are a lovely bunch. They are excited to greet the tourists and sell them all that they can but they are just as excited to talk about their home. Ron told us that he wouldn’t live anywhere else and as long as this place is under a British flag, he will remain.

We have one other opportunity to view penguins in Puerto Madryn in a couple of days but I am not sure how anything can top the feeling of pure exhilaration of today. Today was most definitely ALL ABOUT PENGUINS.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Following in the Footsteps of Darwin

I apologize for keeping you all hanging. The last few days have had their ups and downs…literally. As a sufferer of motion sickness, I come very preparedly for these occasional battles with the beast but it must be said that the beast hasn’t yet encountered some of the swells and winds off the southern tips of Chile’s Pacific coast. I won’t bore you all with the details but suffice it to say that missing a few meals is not a diet plan I would recommend when on holiday.

It wasn’t just me, though. The Husband certainly took his share of my medication and there were more than just a few “Do Not Disturb” signs on cabin doors for many hours. One of the waiters we encountered told us that the rocking and rolling was enough for him to miss his afternoon nap. The poor baby. But the weather was enough to cancel our port at Punta Arenas. The tenders couldn’t get across the water and then the authorities closed the port off to all vessels. It meant that our hike in Patagonia fell off of the proverbial cliff but it also meant that we were treated to some stunning scenery through the fjords and a few extra glaciers that would have been normally traversed by night. A rainbow in every cloud.

We finally got to put our feet on terra firma again today in the coastal town of Ushuaia on the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. A former penal colony, Ushuaia is tucked into a cove just adjacent to the Beagle Channel; named as a tribute to the HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin around the tip of South America. Any place that reveres Darwin is okay in my books even if the climate hovers in the subpolar environs. So what do two people who are tired of sea life do when they finally get off a ship? Why they take a nature tour of the Beagle Channel, of course.

Cold, windy, on more water with waves, and truly magnificent. We were thrilled to see thousands of emperor cormorants (they look a bit like penguins) back for the mating season as were the rock cormorants and the black-headed Argentinian seagulls. The small rock islands in the cove a few kilometres out from Ushuaia are their homes at this time of year. The South American sea lion is also home for the mating season and we were able to get up close and personal with many of these majestic and very noisy creatures. Our final stop on our little mini cruise took us to Les Éclaireurs lighthouse. While it isn’t technically the “lighthouse at the end of the world”, it is pretty close. The one at the bottom of the island, about three-hundred kilometres south, has that distinction but this one is still pretty stunning.

I know that I have said things like this before but I am enthralled by animals and other wildlife doing what they are supposed to do in the places in which they are supposed to do it. I haven’t shopped one bit on this trip and that’s mostly because I cannot avert my eyes from the next splendour around each turn. We humans have yet to figure out how best to share this planet and the more I travel the more certain I am at how badly we have fucked it up. We cannot ever pretend again to take anything in our natural world for granted and it is up to us to find solutions to protect what is still here for us to marvel at. I am not blind to the macro solutions that are necessary to achieve by governments and industry but I am also not willing to tolerate the bullshit any longer from climate deniers in charge. I’ve seen a great deal in the past two weeks and with a week to go I hope to see more. My eyes are wide open. Are Yours?

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Chile's Natural Wonders

The more places I visit in the world and the more I get to view the natural wonders available in each country, the sadder and angrier I become at how badly we are abusing a planet that was bequeathed to our care. How can we as a species still pretend that the earth is not being slowly poisoned due to our greed, our incompetence, our apathy, or our blind ambivalence? It stuns me to think that anybody who is privileged enough to have seen some of nature’s miracles up close and personal could still not be on the right side of this issue. I felt all of that and more today when we toured the Lake Region in the south of Chile.

After tendering in Puerto Montt, we immediately headed over to Esmeralda Lake to take in its unbelievably clear turquoise waters and to view its three surrounding active volcanoes, Osorno, Tronador, and Puntiagudo. The Osorno is particularly stunning with its glacial peak rising over 8,700ft into the sky. Often called the Fujiyama of South America, it is one of the best known active volcanoes in the Chilean Andes. Even though it hasn’t blown since the mid-1850s, Osorno is still considered active and Charles Darwin wrote about watching an eruption while on one of his expeditions. The glacier at the peak is eroding and melting by leaps and bounds and our guide told us that experts are very concerned about the future of the lake and the adjoining Petrohue River and waterfalls. The bright blue waters and falls are home to quite a bit of local wildlife but their habitats are being invaded by encroaching human homes and there is a deep concern for the pristine ecosystems. As we hiked through the park, I wondered if any of this would be the same in twenty years.

The small lakeside town of Puerto Montt is charming and lovely in the summer. Families might take in a day at the beach or simply stroll into some of the many cafes or shops. We decided to just take in some more breathtaking views of the volcanoes. It is a vista that I won’t soon forget.

A few notes.

*My Spanish isn’t really all that bad. (My high school Spanish teacher Sra. Lee would have been proud) But this story is one for the books. I told our guide in ENGLISH that we were vegetarian and that the salmon they were serving for lunch would be better off on somebody else’s plate. I then told our waitress “Somos vegetarianos. Por favor, no pescado.” (Google it!) The head waiter then proceeded to bring us each a huge plate of mashed potatoes. Ok. Can’t really fault him but then…he apologized for the fish and instead brought us a plate of….CHICKEN. Chicken is the new veggie meal here in Chile. I have been a vegetarian for decades and have never once thought to substitute chicken. We couldn’t stop laughing. I guess something was lost in translation because he came back to inquire. We explained again and he apologized profusely and brought us a veggie pasta. We really didn’t care but it is one for the vegetarian handbook.

*We cannot complain at all about the weather. When we left the ship this morning it looked to be cloudy and socked in. By the time we came to the lake, it was sunny and stunning.