The Jewish Nomad: Moving through the feelings of Montreal

The Decarie Expressway as snapped by Ilana Zackon.

Last week, I took the train home to Montreal—not to eat turkey or pretend to feel patriotic, but for my grandmother’s unveiling.

I was exceptionally lucky to have been raised with all four grandparents, and to top it off, two great-grandparents who passed away when I was a toddler and a teenager. I was 22 when my dad’s father died in 2015. Everyone else was still around, before pandemic times.

Over the years, however, both of my grandmothers became very sick.

My paternal grandmother (the one we called Grandma) developed dementia, and my maternal one (Bubby) battled Alzheimer’s for over 13 years. 

On one of my last trips before the pandemic, I remember visiting Bubby. I’d move her hands like we were dancing (she was wheelchair-ridden), while singing songs to her from favourite musical, Fiddler on the Roof

Although she could no longer speak, her eyes would light up when she saw me and it seemed like she recognized who I was beneath the fog. 

In the winter of 2020, Grandma tested positive for COVID. 

I was scared, fearing the worst and hoping for the best.

Miraculously, she recovered.

But a deep-seated fear had emerged. If, G-d forbid, any of my relatives were to pass away, I may never have the chance to say goodbye. 

The pandemic was keeping us a whole country apart.

A week or two later, I was lying in bed half-awake, when my phone rang.

Bubby had been rushed to the hospital. 

“It could be two hours, or two days,” my mom told me, trying to keep calm. 

My biggest fear had been realized.

My heart raced, as I frantically threw clothes in an overnight bag and booked it to the airport.

Within two hours of receiving the call, I was on the plane.

I’d recently inherited some of Bubby’s jewelry and made sure to wear her ring on the plane. I kept rubbing the smooth surface of the large smoky quartz stone, trying to connect with her, praying she’d make it. 

When we landed, I turned off Airplane Mode and condolence texts flooded my phone. 

She was already gone.

The funeral was very small (only immediate relatives), which felt heartbreaking considering the incredible life she led as an activist and community builder.

We weren’t able to have any guests, but we sat shiva as a family.

After seven days of catering and reminiscing, that sacred time abruptly came to a stop and my sadness began to bubble back up.

The house was quiet.

I decided to go for a long walk—a pilgrimage, so to speak, to the house my grandparents lived in when I was a child. 

As I walked along, I passed by the synagogue we attended with them, the park we played in near their house, all the while listening to Fiddler, Jewish music and the Barry Sisters—an homage to her Yiddishkeit. I let myself cry and cry, releasing everything in me. 

Next thing I knew, it was time to head back to Vancouver.

For the first time ever, the thought of returning to my peaceful beach life felt painful. I didn’t want to go.

But, life somehow went on and I settled back in, despite my emotions feeling more raw than usual.

A few months later, I got a call from my dad: Grandma passed away.

Suddenly, I had no grandmothers left. 

Dad insisted that I stay in Vancouver this time. And so I attended the funeral over Zoom.

I remember sitting on my couch, at home in my pajamas, taking in the surreal experience of a virtual burial.

Paperman’s, the Jewish funeral home in Montreal, did an incredible job. I almost felt like I was there.

But when the Zoom ended, I was very much alone.

No shiva, no in person family support, no catered meals. Just silence and regular life continuing on around me.

We organized some family video calls and I made sure to call my dad on each of the seven days, but it was a very isolating and difficult time.

Throughout all of this sorrow, I have come to recognize the gift Judaism has given us with the ritual of sitting shiva. It provides us with a container for our grief, a space to be together and meditate on the loss, as a family unit.

Without it, moving through the feelings is much harder. And for that I’m very grateful.

I’ll tell you one thing, though—as I head back to Toronto, I can feel my nervous system finally beginning to relax—knowing that I’m now just a train ride away.

The art worth watching this week

The Miles Nadal JCC’s “Virtual Gallery @ the J” has a powerful exhibit this month: They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds. The online show features portraits of Holocaust and residential school survivors, painted by Saskatoon-based artist Carol Wylie.

“The intent is that these portraits will give viewers a chance to encounter a survivor they may never meet and feel echoes of their individual strength and courage. The eighteen portraits reference ‘chai’ or ‘life’; with life comes hope,” says Wylie in her artist statement.

With survivors dying out, Holocaust education is more important now than ever. After a month of getting to know my family’s only living survivor, I felt especially connected to the artwork and the people it depicted.

The show runs until Oct. 31.

What we’re saying on Bonjour Chai

For the first time ever, since launching the Bonjour Chai podcast in March, Avi Finegold and I recorded an episode in person!

From an office at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, we virtually interviewed Toronto developer Zev Mandelbaum about the rising cost of real estate.

This topic really hits home (all puns intended).

Finding affordable residences, whether short-term or long-term, is a genuine crisis for my generation. Most millennials are not privy to the white-picket fence-model—Mandelbaum’s preferred term for it—as our parents were.

If my white-collared (and gold-collared) friends are scared—as a self-employed artist, I should be terrified.

Due to the crazy rent prices, even finding a temporary place to stay in Toronto has been a whole ordeal. There seems to be too many people here and not enough affordable options. I’ll be bouncing around different boroughs of Toronto for a while, it seems. (And truly living up to the brand of the Jewish Nomad.)

Mandelbaum suggested that the key to affording to stay in Toronto long-term is to downsize one’s expectations and live near “a centralized park.”

I’ll take the greenery, but I’m not sold on the rest of the picture. 

In which case, it seems like my options are to either strike it big as an actor, marry rich… or move to Hamilton.

(I’m just kidding—sort of.)

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai

READ last week’s introduction to The Jewish Nomad