On my last visit to Nelson, B.C., a breathtakingly beautiful town nestled amidst the Selkirk mountains of southeastern British Columbia and just north of the Washington state border, I discovered a small Jewish community that is represented by a social and cultural group called The Kootenay Jewish Community Association.
Later, during an extended stay in the Kootenay region and Nelson (which is rated as one of North America’s top small arts towns and was the setting for the Hollywood motion picture “Roxanne”) I discovered a resident Kabbalist, a klezmer band and an eclectic assortment of Jews who came to the region from all across the United States and Canada.
Joseph-Mark Cohen is a Canadian-born Kabbalist (a person interested in Jewish mysticism) who is founder of the Tree of Life Mystery School. He is the author of an epic poem, “Aleph 2160,” the Kabbalistic healing workbook The Book of Gates and a forthcoming work entitled Shamanic Kabbalah. In addition, Cohen, who has visited Israel on numerous occasions, has created a new system of Gematria (Jewish numerology), is a professional astrologer and has led guided tours to sacred sites in locations across the world, most recently to Egypt.
Cohen, who grew up in Niagara Falls, “fell in love with Nelson” in the early 1970s and feels that the land supports the type of work that he does. He believes that the area is an ideal place for ongoing retreats and planned a 12-day Tree of Life summer school for the end of this month. He expected his workshop to attract therapists, healers, homeopaths and other people who are working in the healing arts, along with artists. Kabbalah “helps anyone who really wants to work with it and open up creative doorways and creative possibilities in their life,” Cohen said.
Even though Cohen is a Kabbalist, he considers himself to be a bit of an anthropologist and “takes quite an interest in native traditions and different healing traditions and connects them with his Kabbalistic training.” Kabbalah is an “essence teaching,” he notes, and therefore “I am interested in the essence teachings that are the mystical source that underly all traditions including Shamans, Taoism and Sufism and traditions that have a universal quality.” He feels there are parallels between some of those traditions and Kabbalah. In fact, he believes that the Kabbalah “connects everything in the universe to everything else in the universe.” In the past, Cohen has been invited to Washington state to give presentations at new-age conferences and at the new-age expo and he has done private work on Orcas Island. The Web site for the Tree House Kabbalah School is www.treeoflifeschool.com.
Aside from discovering a Kabbalist in the Kootenays, I stumbled upon an authentic Kootenay klezmer band called The Klezmaniacs.
Led by ex-Californian David Feldman, a native of Berkeley, The Klezmaniacs performed their first (and only) gig in front of an enthusiastic audience of more than 100 people this past summer at the B.C. Festival of the Arts. Feldman (whose father is Jewish) and clarinetist Bobbi Neufeld (a British Jew who is a professional composer for the BBC) are the only two Jewish members of The Klezmaniacs. Feldman recruited Neufeld for the group because he felt that he is a great clarinet player and because he felt that his Jewish ancestry would lend an authentic flavor to the music they were playing. Feldman met violinist Anna Richardson and guitarist Greg Sheppard at a benefit. Greg and Anna, who also perform as a duo, are from England and had no previous experience playing klezmer music but, according to Feldman, Anna “was captivated by the music.” Unfortunately, Greg and Anna’s visas expired, which forced them to return to England. Feldman hopes that they will return to Nelson so that they can “continue to expose people to Jewish culture in Nelson.”
Another creative Jewish ex-Californian that I met in Nelson is photographer Fred Rosenberg, from Redondo Beach, Calif. He was motivated to move to Canada in the 1960s because of the Vietnam war, though he wasn’t actually drafted. He eventually made his way to Nelson because of a romantic involvement and because he also “fell in love with Nelson.”
In the past, Rosenberg, who likes to photograph “states of being,” has had photographic exhibits in a variety of places, including Vancouver, California and Austrailia. His most recent exhibit was displayed at the Dancing Bear Inn (which was recently named the best rural hostel in Canada) as part of Nelson’s annual summer Art Walk exhibit. The exhibit focused primarily on people as opposed to places and attempted to capture “the inner sense of self.”
Regarding his involvement in Jewish life in Nelson, Rosenberg, who considers himself a secular Jew (as do a majority of Jews in the Kootenays), notes that “I’m hanging on the fringes of the Jewish community in the Kootenays.” In the 1980s, when the KJCA (The Kootenay Jewish Community Association) was formed, he was actively involved because he felt a “kinship with other Jews” and enjoyed the camaraderie.” In addition, he notes that his former wife, Lily Rosenberg, was active with the KJCA at that time.
I was able to experience Jewish life in the Kootenays for myself by attending several of their monthly Shabbat dinners. For the first dinner, we greeted Shabbat in a home overlooking Elephant Mountain, and for the second we welcomed Shabbat on the pristine shores of Kootenay Lake, surrounded by forest and mountains.
At the Shabbat dinners that I attended, I met an eclectic mix of Jews from all across North America (as well as an Israeli). The dinners were hosted respectively by Helen Pengelly and Lisa Bramson. I also met Jeff Shecter, a Montreal Jew who is president of the KJCA.
The KJCA itself is a small social/cultural group that meets on a monthly basis for Shabbat potluck dinners and holidays like Passover (this years’ Passover seder attracted more than 60 people). Almost all of the KJCA’s members are intermarried (with only two exceptions, and for the most part, it is a secular organization that provides its members with the opportunity to meet, socialize and share a Jewish cultural experience together. Recently, there have been some new additions to the Kootenay Jewish community both from Canada and the U.S. and even from Israel.
Whatever the future holds for the KJCA and the Kootenay Jewish community, one thing is for certain: The Kootenays will continue to have one of the most eclectic and colorful Jewish communities in North America.