A dive into the newest Canadian Jewish non-fiction—from Moshe Safdie on architecture to Christopher Silver on music in North Africa

If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture by Moshe Safdie (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press)

As a child in my native Ottawa, I always admired the elegance of the National Gallery of Canada. A particularly striking feature is the long ramp with exposed glass through which natural light shines and where one can gaze at the landscape of our nation’s capital. This was my formal introduction to celebrated architect Moshe Safdie.

Many of us have been moved by Safdie’s iconic architectural creations. He has had a storied career, with high-profile projects across the globe, not least including Habitat 67, Marina Bay Sands, and Yad Vashem. In his long-anticipated autobiography, Safdie pulls back the curtain, offering personal, oftentimes moving details about his work and life, and providing meaningful insight into the function of architecture in society.

Safdie dives into his past, from his early years in British Mandate Palestine, and then the State of Israel, to his family’s immigration to Montreal. He meanwhile muses on the possible seeds of his love for architecture sowed in his youth, which blossomed and continued to grow through his years at McGill’s School of Architecture and beyond.

A fascinating inclusion throughout the book are some of his original designs, including many which never saw the light of day. One such design is his proposed plan for the Western Wall Plaza.

In many ways, Safdie’s book is a treatise on his own architectural philosophy, which he writes about with such passion one cannot help but be inspired by his vision. Those among us who have previously given little consideration to the importance of good building design will find themselves converted to his school of thought: a perspective motivated by careful thoughtfulness and empathy toward people and the natural landscape. It is no wonder that Safdie’s work has and continues to attract admiration and love.

Recording History: Jews, Muslims and Music Across Twentieth-Century North Africa by Christopher Silver (Stanford University Press)

In 2017, McGill’s Department of Jewish Studies hired historian Christopher Silver, whose research focuses on the Jews of North Africa. Though I was still an undergraduate student at McGill at the time, I did not take one of the courses. And after reading the professor’s recently released first book, I deeply regret this missed opportunity.

Recording History is a brilliant piece of scholarship. It brings to life in vivid detail the recorded musical landscape of the 20th century Maghreb, where many Jews figured as stars and icons, as well as important drivers in music production. As Silver traces this history, Jewish North African musicians come alive too, along with their deep and complex connections to their countries—as well as their oftentimes close relationships with their Muslim compatriots.

Among the many musical talents to whom readers are introduced, one has a very strong Canadian connection. Salomon Amzallag, better known by the stage name Samy Elmaghribi, was a celebrity in Morocco and beyond. He also served for many years as hazzan at Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and taught generations of bar mitzvah boys (my own father included). It will surely be exciting for Canadian Jewish readers with roots in North Africa and the Middle East to re-encounter the musical stars of their early years.

Unlike most scholarly works, whose readership appeal rests firmly within the bounds of the academy, Recording History is compelling and accessibly written, ensuring that this history will fall into the hands of a wide audience. Silver draws on a rich well of primary sources, many of which he himself stewards and makes available on his website Gharamophone, where he is actively working to preserve this musical past. (For readers looking for a heightened reading experience, Silver has put together a playlist to accompany the book’s first chapter.)

Silver’s contribution to the rapidly growing field of Sephardic Studies is a great achievement. I commend him for his active efforts to not only rescue this history from obscurity, but to bring it back to life and share it with the world.