Another New Year

This year the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah, falls on September 21(sunset on September 20), coinciding with the Autumn Equinox. I had intended to write something on July 1, Canada’s 150th (official) birthday — but summer drifted away from me, and also I had mixed feelings about the 150th, as the Indigenous peoples have been in Canada so many more thousands of years longer than that. This past July was the 38th year since my immigration to Canada, and I continue to be glad and grateful for being here, to a country that has been warm and welcoming to me, as a person, a mother, a writer, and a Jew — and which has a sense of community (our Health Care system is a prime example), regard for the environment (trying to do better), and is working, now, at dealing with the racist and colonial elements in our past: the Residential schools, 60s scoop, and continuing poor treatment of Indigenous peoples; the Komagata-Maru incident (1914), the rejection of the ship St. Louis, with refugees from Germany (1939), and similar incidents with immigrants, before the open-hearted welcome of the Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s and the current welcoming of Syrian refugees.

The Komagata Maru incident, you ask? This happened in Vancouver in 1914, when a Japanese ship with 376 Sikh would-be immigrants was detained for two months in the harbour and ultimately sent back to India, after the people on board suffered from hunger, thirst, and denial of their rights to enter this country because of government policies to “keep Canada white” and fear of “the other.” (one of the campaign slogans for Trump’s election was, “put the white back in White House. It takes a long time for racist ideas to change.) No matter who the “other” is, we need to recognize their humanity, and take away the false labels.

The Komagata Maru Incident is is also the title of a play by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock, now on stage at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, in a beautifully-staged production, bringing our history to life for a wider, modern audience. The play, which has one character on this ship singing in the Punjabi language, taught me about this incident and also includes references to Indigenous culture. And it made me think of the St. Louis a generation later — another instance in which people needing help were sent back to a dangerous “homeland”, under the kind of “none is too many” thinking which ultimately hurts and destroys a country.

Emil Fackenheim, the noted Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, and Holocaust scholar, who was Rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, 1943-48 (after he came to Canada as a refugee, fleeing Nazism), gave a radio address soon after the war, in which he urged people not to “quieten their consciences” because of the false but loud demands of power and influence (and greed), and to accept and take in refugees because of their human needs and problem, not because of what they can (or cannot) do for the richer, more powerful country they seek to enter.

I am writing this on a sunny, warm day in south-west Ontario. Golden leaves are on the trees and falling to the ground, purple and yellow wildflowers are blooming on the side of the road. In the midst of this, I am aware and mindful of all the devastation and destruction and suffering nature has caused in the past few weeks in “other” places — hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and throughout the Caribbean, earthquakes in Mexico, fires in British Columbia, and western U.S. And the devastation of wars and hostilities around the world. On this Rosh Hashanah morning, I wish my relatives, friends, and all the world a sweet, happy, healthy, peaceful, and loving New Year. There is a Jewish concept, “Tikkun Olam,” saving the world — and also the realization that we cannot do everything, but we can at least do something rather than nothing, in our own life, our own family, our own community. If each of us does what we can, in our own way, we help create the changes we want to see in the world. Shalom!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy New Year

Here we are, on the second day of 2017, which like the first has dawned bright and sunny, at least in the Hamilton/Toronto area, and despite the bad news in other parts of the world. Let’s keep focused on Leonard Cohen’s lines, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in./ That’s how the light gets in.” Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Holidays and New Year

Good news — my website, which was hacked earlier this year by unknown assailants, has now been fixed, updated, and given more security features by the excellent web-designer, Mark Bednarowski, who specializes in Word Press. You can contact him here
Thanks to my yoga friends Evelyn and Steve for recommending him.

While I am working on a new blog post to commemorate the holiday season and usher in the new year, I am offering the poem below. Written a while ago, it still feels true. We welcome the light, in a time when there is too much darkness in the world.
In addition, I have quite a few surplus copies of my book Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal as it is now in that no-woman’s land between publishers. I am making a holiday offer of $5.00 for this book, which usually sells for $16.95 plus HST. It contains thoughts about writing on a variety of subjects, including trauma and recovery, as well as specific writing exercises. If you are interested, please use the CONTACT form on the contact page of this website.
And there is a new feature on the “Readings and Events” page — a story you can read at leisure.
I will be offering more texts and audio-recordings on this page in the future.

Enjoy your holiday season — or find the peace you need.


In this season
of the White Witch
Persephone underground
and frozen tears
the face of the moon
Remember the light
like roses in the arctic
a miracle

Ellen S. Jaffe
published in Water Children (Mini Mocho Press, Hamilton, 2002).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fifty Shades of Green

Green Abun- Dance

June again. Spring has sprung (despite its late arrival this year) and is rapidly springing into summer.   After the bleak greys and whites (yes, there probably are fifty words for snow) and long hours of darkness of an Ontario winter, what strikes me most about Spring is its abundance of colour —  sunny yellow daffodils and forsythia,  deep red tulips,flowering trees in all their delicate pinks, crimsons, light and dark purples. Above all, the many, many shades of green. Fifty shades of green to play on the title of a famous best-seller.  And there is a deeper connection here.  Gardens, meadows, and woodlands are the life-force of nature, Mother Nature’s erotica and birthing-room. Birds and bees and blossoming.   Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Words and Images

Hi everyone —

A cold week in January in Hamilton — and over much of the east coast.

Please check out the beautiful and haunting images created for my poem “Water Children” by Steven McCabe, on his site,   This poem was published in 2002 in my book Water Children, and it is one of those poems where I knew there were images behind the words; Steve has now caught the watery, ghostly-yet-alive spirit of the poem in his artwork.  I have just begun to fathom the submerged images Steve saw in my words.

Also on his site are several other “poemimages” by this talented visual artist, who is also a poet in his own right (write).

Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | 1 Comment

Reflections on Newtown, Connecticut


Like everyone who has heard this news, I am shocked (yet again), horrified, and deeply saddened by the murders of 20 children, 6 teachers, and the shooter’s mother — as well as his own suicide.  One wonders if he felt any remorse, or if this was just another aspect of the carnage, over-powering rage, and desperation.  We can empathize with everyone who lost a family member — especially the parents who lost their children in this random and cruel way — without even being there to comfort and hold the children as they died, but it is almost impossible to really imagine what that would be like.  I was touched by President Obama’s compassion, and by his determination to do “something” about these mass shootings, even if laws and safeguards cannot do “everything.”  We cannot keep our children entirely safe, as he said, but we can take necessary and sensible steps to keep them SAFER.  Better gun control. As someone said on CBC radio today, “I hope the people who love their guns love their children more.”  And better mental-health systems to diagnose and treat complex situations before they boil over.  (The young man clearly did not have a simple diagnosis of “this” or “that.” And we know that most people with mental-health issues are treatable, and do not become violent in this way).   The school itself seems to have been better prepared than many schools to face an emergency, with lock-down drills in place and teachers aware of what to do — but, sadly, this could not completely prevent the tragedy.  I am moved by the way the people in the community are supporting each other in their grief.
Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Places — part two

st johns 2012 034

Pond outside St.John’s

Last month I wrote from Newfoundland and Labrador, and now I am in Vancouver, at the other end of the country.  Returning from St. John’s, my plane was delayed by fog and then by Hurricane Sandy — and now I am delayed by snow in Calgary (I am actually writing this on the floor of the Calgary airport, en route from Vancouver to Hamilton; I will probably arrive home around 4:00 a.m. instead of the projected midnight).   Still, despite logistical and weather problems, travelling has shown me yet again how vast this country is — and yet how beautiful, wherever you go, and how connected we all are, despite our different locations.  I loved flying into St. John’s, seeing the fingers of rock jutting into the sea — and then the flat fields, like a monochrome Mondrian painting, as we descended toward Calgary on my outward journey, last Saturday.  Vancouver actually had sunny weather for several days, and my friends and I walked in Lighthouse Park in West Van, seeing the old-growth forest (trees 500 and even 800 years old, cedar and fir) and rocks that are millions of years old — unlike the much younger rocks around most of the city.  The place was green, growing, filled with spirit and power. And yet, a sign told us how many species — plant and animals — were disappearing from this habitat in the past 30 years.  A few days later, I attended a lecture by Tzeporah Berman on her book This Crazy Time,  at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival, and was heartsick to hear how so many old-growth trees and forests were clear-cut to make toilet paper, telephone books, and Victoria’s Secret catalogues!! There has to be a better way to treat the earth.  Now, Tzeporah told us, her attention has moved from logging to climate change, as global warming is affecting the pine-beetle’s life cycle: the winters are warmer, the beetles do not die in the cold, and so they continue to attack and destroy trees.  Individuals can do our part in recycling and cutting down our energy use — but we ALSO need to join together to influence our government (on all levels, starting with the Federal government) to first acknowledge that climate change is real and is happening “at the speed of darkness”, and then to use the technology already available (as other governments around the world are doing) to fight these changes on a large scale, and improve life on earth into the next generations.

Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Place in writing and in life: geography, memory, story

Several weeks ago I gave  a talk to the Lit Chat group in Hamilton on the role of place in writing – in memory and in story. This included imaginary and mythical places – the land of fairy tales, “once upon a time,”  “a galaxy far, far, away,”  Tolkien’s Shire and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts  It also included real places we can find on a map and journey to, in our minds or in so-called real life, public places about which we can agree on some features, but for which we each can have our own story.  I was especially interested in places whose names alone tell a story and highlight a traumatic experience of many people and various places—Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Roben Island, Birmingham (Alabama), Gettsyburg, Flanders Fields, Hiroshima, to name a few.  Even though, for example, the Holocaust and the Nax And I also talked about personal, private places that tell individual stories, often remembered from childhood: the Bird Sanctuary one of my friends remembers from the Baltimore of his childhood –  not an official bird sanctuary but a wooded area behind a church where he and his friends would climb trees, see birds, and have adventures involving pirates and buried treasure.  I had my birch tree with 4 trunks behind the playground fence in Central Park, providing a lap where I could sit, look up at the leaves and sky, and be both alone and part of the nature around me.  I don’t think I had a special name for it, but it was a special place.

This summer and fall, I have been travelling more than usual, so I have actually been to several places, both new to me and familiar, and this has led me to think even more about place and its role in our stories. Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | 2 Comments

The Value of Poetry

Late summer and early fall….a good time for taking stock and new beginnings.  August 31 is also the anniversary (yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of my mother’s death in 2009, so a special time for reflection.  Earlier this week, I told a good friend that this was the “anniversary week” for my mother and I was feeling fragile.  Almost immediately, he texted me a link to this website:

which turned out to be an article, with examples, about “mathexpressive poetry” by Bob Grumman.  I won’t try to paraphrase the article here — you need to read it — but, in essence, this is poetry depicting mathematical processes like long division and multiplication to show the relationships between words and images, not numbers.  It is partly a visual poetry, but depends on the evocative and symbolic meanings of words and the resonances between them.   The article was a challenging and fascinating read, but what stood out for me was that, as I finished it, I felt a tremendous sense of joy and release.

Why did this happen? I wondered.  How could reading an article about a new kind of poetry make me feel this way?

At one point, the author remarks that “I felt no work not an attempt at friendship with those encountering it was poetry…”  In other words, a poem is an act of friendship, an encounter. I think there are actually several encounters reverberating in a poem: the writer’s encounter with the experience (inner and outer) that inspired the poem, the writer finding the right language with which to make the poem, and the reader’s encounter with the words on the page — which connect to his or her own experience.    When I looked up “friend” in my trusty etymological dictionary, I found that it is related to the word “free,” which in its Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and even Sanskrit roots also means “peace” and “love.” Joy Harjo, Native American poet, has said: “Ultimately, a poem has an electrical force field, which is love.” (Note that she uses a scientific concept as a metaphor to express her thought.) Her statement seems akin to Grumman’s remark about friendship.  And it connects, I think, to a poem written by a woman in a Toronto residence for street people, which contains this line:  “It’s not possible to love art without love.”  She adds that “it (love) wouldn’t not know that we want it.”

All of this is “telling a truth, but telling it slant” — in Emily Dickinson’s words, quoted by Grumman.  At this moment, reading an article about a new kind of poetry– which uses the elegant, beautiful processes of math, such as long division, to show how words, ideas, and images connect — touched a place deep within me: that place where making art = making love = making friends = play and delight.   Grumman talked about everything from “a thunderstorm’s tearing up the day” (reminding me of a poem I wrote to my friend Malca Litovitz, in which I mentioned her poem about rain breaking open the day) to ships and friendship.

Knowing that I write poetry, my friend might well have sent me this link any day of the year.  But he sent it on this particular day, to cheer me up, an act of friendship.  I think he knew, intuitively, that it would have that effect — even though I wasn’t sure, at first, why I should read this article called “summerthings.”  After reading it, I was struck, yet again, by how rich the life of the imagination is, and how art and emotion are so intricately and intimately interwoven, in an equation that shows us the value (in every sense of the word) of poetry.    And I think my mother would understand this, too. Thanks/Gracias/Namaste

Posted in poetry, Reflections | 4 Comments

working family stories and treasures

gr-grandmother's home
Mary Axelrod lived here

Concurrent with the Jewish Literary Festival is an ongoing project called WFST, about the working lives of the Jewish community in Hamilton.  The project is taking place in various locations around Hamilton. There will a final exhibit of many of the artworks and stories produced during the project at the YouMe Gallery, 330 James St. North, in October 2012.  Watch this space for more details. Mary Axelrod, Ellen’s great-grandmother, lived in this house on Rivington St. in NYC as a young girl, after immigrating from Russia.  Many Jewish immigrants to Hamilton lived in similar surroundings on James St. North and vicintiy.


Posted in poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment