Images and Words

By Judee Fong


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Sandwiched between precious family time and her work as part-time co-ordinator for the epilepsy program at the Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson’s Centre, Isa Milman reveals her creative talents as poet, writer and visual artist. Nationally recognized for her extraordinary books, *Between the Doorposts* and the recent *Prairie Kaddish*, Isa grew up in Boston amid stories of her mother’s family and the Holocaust.

“This is the strongest motivator in my writing as it shows we are survivors,” she says. “My father didn’t talk about this part of his life, so I know very little about his family. I wanted to tell the stories my mother told me that she wasn’t able to write down herself.” The result is *Between the Doorposts*, which received the Canadian Jewish Poetry Book Award in 2005.

Conscious of her roots, Isa searched for her own identity as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “It was very much in my mind that the book talks about my family history, but I needed to find my own place living in the present.”

A chance comment at a writers’ retreat in Regina resulted in a side trip to Saskatchewan’s historical Lipton Hebrew Cemetery. There, Isa found her connection to Jewish immigrants of long ago and discovered her own place in the order of things.

“I knew nothing about this bit of Canadian history where Jewish immigrants, in the 1880s, were encouraged to settle in the Wild West. I thought I had no connection to these Prairie families but, in a way, every Jewish family is connected. These people were escaping persecution in Europe. Everyone, not just the Jews, had someone who left Europe at some point and established themselves elsewhere.”

In Hebrew, “Kaddish” is the prayer for the dead. Isa believes that remembrance is sacred because without it, people would not exist. *Prairie Kaddish* is a book of history told in poetry and prose with Isa’s own family history woven in. It is a prayer of remembrance honouring the many forgotten Jewish immigrants.

*Prairie Kaddish* earned Isa her second Canadian Jewish Poetry Book Award. Media exposure in English and Yiddish newspapers across North America resulted in some fascinating stories. In one, Isa recalls a reviewer quoting a poem about a young boy called Mendele from *Prairie Kaddish*. “I received a phone call from a lady in New York who had read the review and told me, ‘I got such a goosebump because I think Mendele may be my uncle.’ She got this from the description I had written. She asked if the family name was ‘Silverman,’ and it was. We concluded it was her father’s brother.”

Isa participated in Wendy Morton’s Random Acts of Poetry. “People had this expectation poetry was boring and horrible, but when they heard a piece of spontaneous poetry, they were pleasantly surprised,” she says of the experience. “One of my best memories was going into a laundromat where there was a mom who had four washers going and three kids running around and I went up to her and said, ‘You know I would like to read you a poem.’ She’s up to her elbows in laundry and she says, ‘Okay, I can really use a poem right now.’ I read her my ‘Four Songs About Laundry’ and we’re both laughing and crying because we both know what we’re talking about. It was such a beautiful moment. That’s the beauty of poetry when it touches you in some way.”

Scattered about her comfortable home, Isa displays many of her colourful abstracts and evidence of her printmaking. She temporarily put aside her art to concentrate her efforts on *Prairie Kaddish*.

“I intend to get back to it because it’s another way to express myself,” she says. “It’s quite different from writing.”

In 2000, Isa met Susy Raxlen, a Victoria master printmaker. When Isa expressed her desire to learn the art, told her to collect an “ephemera” on her family trip to Israel.

“Ephemeras are bits of paper, scraps, things of little consequence and I found the perfect things for mine,” says Isa.

In Israel, daily notices, announcements and news were posted on neighbourhood kiosks for everyone to read. Isa’s ephemeras were old announcements and images peeled away from those kiosks. Working with Susy and using these bits of papers, Isa created a series of prints called Israel on Fire. One of these monoprints is on the cover of her first book, *Between the Doorposts*; others are in private collections.

“I was driven to write and driven to create images,” says Isa. “One of my goals is to find a way to marry my images with text. It’s very challenging because I don’t want my images to illustrate the text - I want to find that harmony to merge the text with the image.”

Isa describes her writing as vignettes, speculation over incidents and moments; small links that connect emotionally.

“You definitely want to leave the world in a better place than how you found it. If I can do it through my gift of words and images, that would be wonderful,” she says.

“One of the most fundamental Jewish teachings is called ‘tikkum olam,’ which means ‘healing the universe; healing the world.’ And that’s our mission in life, to repair and heal.”

 

OCTOBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND

 

*Between the Doorposts* is available from publisher Ekstasis Editions.

*Prairie Kaddish* is available from publisher Coteau Books, or from Bolen Books, Munro’s Books or Chapters.

 

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