Moss Rock Review - Prairie Kaddish

Reviewed by: Karen Chester

Last month I met with Fairfield poet Isa Milman. This was a particular delight for me because since the first time I heard Milman perform a poem I have never tired of listening to the musicality of her voice and the richness of what I might even dare to call her lyrics.

Milman is excited to announce the launch of her most recent book, Prairie Kaddish, on September 14th. This will be an event that celebrates not only a book of poems but also a vibrant artistic community at Congregation Emanu-El. There will be live music including performances by Karel Roessingh, Josie & Greg Davidson, and the Jewish Community Choir. She described for me the line-up of artists contributing to the afternoon and I can say that I am truly looking forward to the experience.

More than any other thing I look forward to Isa Milman's reading of her poems. She has an affinity for detail and an urge to record important and often yet unspoken histories, particularly of the Jewish people. Perhaps this is why it surprised and even dismayed her to discover a component of Jewish history in Canada about which she was uttlerly unaware: Jewish farm colonies in the Prairies. 

Milman was born in Germany, grew up in Boston and in 1975 arrived in Canada to live in Montreal. Five years ago while attending a writing retreat at Sage Hill just outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, Milman was told about a place called the Lipton Hebrew Cemetery. She went and there discovered a Jewish cemetery, derelict and impoverished. Atop the burial plots were structures she had never seen at any other Jewish cemetery: grave houses (Curious? Well then, you'll have to buy her book!)

We talked for a while longer. I heard Milman say something that struck me as profound. She said, "All of Jewish history is a long, long story." I think this is true. And I think this is arguably true of most well preserved cultures but Jewish communities the world over have borne so much in the way of discrimination and hatred that I think their story has special significance for us all. Here is an excerpt from one new poem:

A thing of beauty cut from ash

the straightest branch, a long arm

sturdy hand of steel joined to wood

fingers urved from an open palm

a thing of beauty I tell you


One more thing I want to share with you, and which Milman also wrote (the entire thing can be found on Coteau Books' website): "I was born into a family that lost almost everything. Our inheritance was a few photographs, an ancient tradition, and memory. My mother kept our family history and tradition alive - and though she passed this on through stories, teachings and songs, she didn't write it down. From a very early age, I felt that it was my mission to do so. How else to acknowledge my parents' and grandparents' lives? It's hard to explain how precious and deep is this impulse to insist that existence matters."

The word "Kaddish" can be translated to mean a Jewish prayer for of mourning and commemoration. This book is a Kaddish for prairie communities that now exist only in the memories of the very old or through remembrances such as these, the poems in Prairie Kaddish.

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