Reflections 2: Arc of a Project

Facilitator Experience: What’s in a Name?

If I had to describe my experience being a part of this project with one word, that word would be the nêhiyawêwin, or, Cree, one: wahkohtowin. This is the word for how we nêhiyawak (Cree people) conceptualize relationships and roughly translates to “the act of being related,” or “the process of relating.”

There were many moments during this project where I felt as if I was able to weave two separate parts of my identity together for the first time. These moments of relationship-weaving presented themselves in different ways. Most obviously, they came about in the sessions I helped facilitate, such as the one on the similarities between ghettos and reservations. But more unexpectedly, in the small, unscripted exchanges I had with the project organizers—conversations in which I learned a lot about Judaism, history, and my family.

The stories shared in these exchanges by members of the Jewish community in Edmonton filled vast gaps in knowledge for me. They answered many questions I didn’t realize I had and brought me closer to my great-great-grandparents, who always felt so far away.

I’d like to share just one experience I had on this journey to illustrate how impactful the From Survival to Thrival project was for me.

Before diving in, I think a little context would go a long way. My background is nêhiyawak from the Lesser Slave Lake area through my Dad’s side and Jewish through my mom’s—primarily from Łódź, Russia, and France. I’ve been lucky enough to develop a strong sense of connection to my sakāwithiniwak (Woodland Cree) roots and cultural heritage with the help of my Dad and supportive community. On the flip side, though I was aware of my Jewish ancestry, it had always been something just out of my reach. I think this is because, sadly, like many, our family’s history and practice of Judaism was irrevocably interrupted by the Holocaust. As a result, I’ve always been left wanting to learn more about my family on that side. 

Besides a handful of family stories, the most I knew of that side of my family was the names of my four great grandparents: David, Lilly, Arthur, and Anja. I learned these names and a little about the people behind them while visiting my grandparents in New York, where they’ve lived for decades. One time, on a drive with my grandpa, when I visited a few years ago, I decided to dig a little deeper.

“Grandpa, who was your Grandma?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Esther.”

Before long, I was smiling too—happy to have a connection to my great-great-grandmother through her name. Reflecting on the conversation was a little bittersweet, though. I imagined what she looked like in a black and white photo as someone who my grandpa loved and someone I never had the honour of meeting in this life.

Fast forward to one of the From Survival to Thrival planning sessions where I was spoiled not only with a variety of Jewish food but also history. I was handed a small, triangular pastry called a hamantash (which was delicious, by the way) before one of our meetings, and, as I was eating it, one member of the team asked whether I knew about where the food came from.

I shook my head (my mouth was full), “no.”

Then, almost as if they planned it, everyone at the table launched into an explanation of how hamantashen represent the ears of a villain in the Purim story; the story of a thwarted genocide of the Jewish people a long time ago. To finish the explanation, one of the organizers offhandedly mentioned that it was “…thanks to Esther that our people were saved. She’s very special to us.” That was a lightbulb moment for me.

My great-great-grandmother was named Esther because she was a source of hope and strength for her parents, just like Queen Esther was for her people in the 5th century BC. All of a sudden, that black and white photo of Esther transformed into colour as I got a sense of who she might have been as a person.

It’s thanks to this project, in large part, that my awareness of my Jewish ancestry and family transformed into relatedness; into wahkohtowin. 

Wrapping up from Survival to Thrival – Elaine S.

What Have I Learned:  

I have met Survivors from both communities. 

I have observed the pride that both communities have in their Heritage. 

My knowledge of the history and customs of the indigenous community has broadened considerably. In some instances factual knowledge has replaced  generalized data gathered from previous visits to museums and parks.  

I have learnt first-hand of history regarding the land and reservations and the effect of the residential schools on the community.  

have developed great empathy for the survivors of the residential schools and their pain;  pain inflicted and experienced at that time and future pain going through generations.  Survivors were robbed of the essential human experiences of love and family life resulting for many in an inability to nurture and love their own children  

I have learned how strongly members of the  indigenous community are fighting to maintain their customs and way of life whilst, for some of them, adapting to living in urban communities.   

The Second World War  broke out when I was a year oldAlthough my father went away to the army,  I was raised in a very loving extended family.  Our town was not a bombing target so in my early years I was sheltered from the direct effects of the war.  I also was never aware of anti-Semitism .  I was never hungry even though there was rationingIncredibly anti-Semitism is more of a fact in my life today than it was in the war time years. 

I believe that on the surface my community has learned to thrive. But we are haunted by the past and we are always aware that we are never very far away from hate and it’s negative impacts.  We know that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise and we are fearful for the future of our children. 

My advice is love, tolerance and active community involvement in the care of others. It really does take a world to raise a child.  – Elaine S.