The Jewish Nomad: How hosting a podcast helped Ilana Zackon find her voice

The magic of making modern media involves a blanket and a dog.

As a child, I was constantly getting into trouble at school… for talking too much.

But then, I’ve always been a talkative, quirky gal with a big personality.

I was the one who liked to raise my hand and contribute to what we were learning, just as much as I liked to whisper (albeit loudly) to my best friends in class.

The teacher would routinely call me out (in front of everyone!), followed by a harsh threat: if I kept talking in class, I’d be separated from my beloved friends. 

(Once, in Grade 2, my teacher moved my desk to the dark corner near the pencil sharpener, away from any sign of life. It was the worst.)

In light of all these punishments, I clearly learned from my mistakes and shut my trap, right? Wrong. The pattern continued, much to the dismay of my teachers, for the rest of my elementary school years.

(I still got good grades in school—to set the record straight.)

When I entered theatre school at John Abbott College, post-Jewish education, I finally had a full-time outlet for my abundance of extroverted energy! I was among my people.

After graduating in 2013, I lived in New York City for a year—and went through a major depression. (It was unrelated to said talking.)

But once back to Montreal, I was figuring out how to be myself again.

My therapist at the time told me to “fake it till you make it” and pretend I was OK. (This is terrible advice, FYI.)

So, I tried to act like the way I had remembered myself: loud and chatty. But underneath, I felt like a shell of a person who was trying to find her way back to reality.

Unfortunately, as a result of this real-life acting sham, I lacked a lot of self-awareness while trying to “act normal.”

I was called out often, personally and professionally, for “taking up too much space.” For being “too loud” and “interrupting too much” and “talking too often.”

What happened, as a result, is that I started turning inwards.

I swallowed my thoughts and became a quiet, reserved person who didn’t share. This didn’t help me fully heal from the depression, as you can imagine.

Five years ago, when I moved to Vancouver,  I wanted to rebalance my system and have a fresh start.

I took part in a yoga teacher training, which helped calm my anxious thoughts and learn more body-mind awareness. I learned how to be a better listener, something which I knew I also wanted to keep up for my acting practice.

Slowly, I built myself back together again and my true personality emerged. (With some added awareness so I could appease the masses who thought I was too much.)

When I‘d go home to visit my extended family, I suddenly noticed how loud and (what’s the word?) interrupty everyone was (I say this with love) compared to the chill West Coast yogis I knew back in Van.

I started to wonder: is this a Jewish thing?

Coincidentally, I ended up making many friends in Vancouver who were also Jewish, and found I could be my full self around them, without any censoring or suppressing. But, in other settings, I watched my behaviour like a hawk, always afraid of slipping up. I got to thinking about this a lot.

***

And then, amidst the pandemic doldrums of last winter, Montreal rabbi Avi Finegold invited me to co-host a podcast called, of all things, Bonjour Chai.

Talking as a character on stage is one thing. But suddenly I was asked to bring my opinions to a public audience. My opinions? Do I even HAVE opinions?

Sure, I revived my quirky side again, but it was rare to bring myself into my work. When I’m on stage or behind the mic, I’m a character, with the opinions of whoever I’m portraying. Sharing my thoughts felt scary. I’d also grown up in a household where we rarely talked about politics. (Now, on Bonjour Chai, we discuss them all the time.)

At first, I was afraid of taking up too much space on the show. I acted like the polite listener I spent a decade training myself to be.

But the feedback I received was that they wanted more. “Don’t be afraid to interrupt! Speak more! Bring yourself to the table!”

Wait, what? 

After years of trying to correct this alleged problem, I was asked to do the exact opposite. How ironic.

I really owe it to this show for encouraging me to find my voice. And let me tell you—it feels great. It turns out I have opinions after all.

***

On the most recent Bonjour Chai, we talked to former University of Toronto Scarborough student Tyler Samuels about a recent BDS scandal involving kosher food on campus, as well discuss the controversial CBC News list of “Words and phrases you may want to think twice about using.” 

Plus, we shmoozed about our oily feelings on latkes vs. sufganiyot. It’s that kind of show.

The episode also features a bonus ending: a reading of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by yours truly—with my co-host David Sklar as the voice of the latke. Check it out and subscribe for weekly discussions on all things Canadian and Jewish.

(Fear not, even if the holiday is over now, the intel about Hanukkah will come in handy for next December.)

The art worth watching this week

Calgary’s Paperny Family JCC is currently hosting a week of virtual events for their annual Literary Festival. 

Curated by local writer and editor Danyael Halprin, it features a mix of pre-recorded interviews with Israeli writers, live-streamed discussions—and an in-person event with teenage author Maddison Tory.

Kres Mersky, an American actress with some legendary 1970s and ’80s screen credits, will also be participating with a Q&A concerning her one-woman play about Albert Einstein.

Speaking of throwbacks, there’s also an in-person writing workshop called Kibitz and Type where you can be reminded of the “click-clack sound of typing out your prose on a typewriter.” (Or maybe feel it for the first time.)

The festival runs until Dec. 11. For more info and to register, visit the Paperny Family JCC website.

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