Victoria Times-Colonist Review - Prairie Kaddish
A tribute to the dead from a lover of life
Reviewed by: Victoria Times-Colonist
On her way to the Sage Hill Writing Experience, Victoria poet Isa Milman was surprised to learn about the existence of a Jewish cemetery in Lipson, Saskatchewan. Milman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, visited the cemetery, and it became the impetus for five years of work culminating in Prairie Kaddish, a book that delves into the Jewish settlements on the Prairies and gives voice to those, as Milman says, 'who don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves.'
In Judaism, kaddish is a prayer of mourning -and through mourning, we remember the dead. Milman's own story is one of survival: She was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and her parents moved to Boston when she was an infant. She has spent more than 30 years in Canada, the last 12 in Victoria. She works as a program co-ordinator at the Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson's Centre, and her career in helping others is something she believes may result from the fact that she grew up in 'relative privilege' because her parents survived when so many others were murdered. Those who remain must pay attention to those who have gone before, to acknowledge their existence, she says Jews pay attention to their dead, as do many cultures, and so Milman wanted to learn more about Lipton cemetery, which has about 100 graves, many of them with small house-like structures over the plots.
With the help of the Canada Council and time off from her job, Milman researched the Jewish settlements through both archival work and interviewing people whose parents had come to the Prairies. Among the fascinating information Milman told me was that about one-third of the Jews in Eastern Europe left because of the pogroms from 1880-1914. There were six Jewish farm colonies, but many of the Jewish settlers got land and homesteaded separately like so many other immigrants to Canada.
The struggle of Jews to survive is a personal story for Milman, but she widens her lens on this piece of history to a meditation on death -and on life. And as a poet (her first book, Between the Doorposts, won the 2005 prize at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards), Milman experimented with structure and genre in Prairie Kaddish. She credits her mentor, Don McKay, with encouraging her to 'bend' genres, consequently, while the book is a long poem from the perspective of one of the settlers, it includes prose pieces of various kinds.
For example, Milman said she found in the Winnipeg Jewish Archives an information pamphlet in Yiddish (Milman's mother tongue) alerting immigrants to Canada about what life was like. The pamphlet is written in questions and answers, and Milman includes it along with her own answers. She says it was a thrilling experience 'to touch that language' and is extremely pleased that Coteau Books agreed to reproduce the Yiddish in Hebrew characters.
While talking with Milman, I was deeply moved by her passion for language and life. Her appreciation for the safety and freedom Canadians enjoy is palpable, and her positive attitude about remembering the dead in order to honour them is inspiring. Article by Candace Fertile.