Saturday, January 08, 2011

Finding Shalom - An Artistic Journey

My grandmother wanted to go to college, or so the story goes. I have never asked her myself. Of course, since women did not do that back then, she held her dreams inside and desired my mother to attend post-secondary education.

Which she did, but not the kind of which my grandma hoped. My mother trained as a legal secretary, in hopes of snagging a nice, rich, Jewish lawyer. She got my father instead. He was an elementary teacher in a ghetto school who was pursuing his doctoral studies in the evening.

For the first six years of their marriage, they lived in my mother’s parents’ duplex. Then, when he earned the right to put ‘Dr.’ in front of his name, my father found the position that moved him and my mom from their close community of Brooklyn, New York, to the wilds of Edmonton, Alberta.

‘Culture shock’ probably did not begin to describe the change. Being an Orthodox Jew, my father soon realized he was no longer in walking distance of the nearest synagogue. There were two kosher butchers, each purveying their own brand of inedible delights. My mother, who enjoyed television, was dismayed to discover only four channels at her disposal – one of them in French.

Moving back home after my father amassed enough of a C.V. to get a position at another university, preferably one in the East, was definitely a consideration. However, the digestive disturbances which plagued my mother en route to their new home turned out to be more than food poisoning or a touch of the flu. It was my older brother.

The 1960’s turned into the 1970’s, and a few years later I was born. The family was settled. My mother, forever doting and over-protective, was concerned about problems back home and decided it was best to stay put.

For a variety of complicated reasons, my brother and I never attended the local Jewish day school. I was the mystery of my elementary classes; the girl who always got to miss school to celebrate exotic holidays. The one who could never go out on Friday night; the one who had to turn down invitations to birthday parties because she could not eat the food being served. Still, I never resented who I was until the kids from the Talmud Torah, which only went up to grade six in those days, joined us in junior high and treated me as an outcast. On top of that, I was daily being stalked, verbally harassed, and beaten by a Lithuanian Jewish boy who came up to my shoulders.

Things were not much better with my non-Jewish classmates, even though it felt easier and more gratifying to use my experiences as a source of rebellion with my parents, who had done their best to raise my brother and I with their customs and traditions. I could no longer relate to the meanings that were behind all that we did as part of our heritage.

I turned to my few friends, my painting, my writing, my music. I wrote songs almost every day, and swirled colours of tempera on paper. My father gave me an old camera of his, and I started combing the neighbourhood, looking for subjects to photograph. The trees and the birds and the flowers became my best friends.

Eventually, junior high came to an end. A bad case of chicken pox made me miss my graduation. To this day, the group photo of the grade nine class of 1988 hangs on the wall in the school, without me. But I still have most of those photographs, those paintings and songs, and the scars from which my art flows.

No comments: