At the turn of the 20th century, a father and son departed Transnistria, Romania, for Canada. Settling in northern Ontario in a town then known as “The German Settlement,” about 25 kilometers south of Kirkland Lake, the father had one goal in mind: earn enough money to bring his wife, two daughters, and youngest son over.
While the father succeeded in bringing the rest of his family to Canada, he nor his son would live to see them. They drowned in a canoeing accident, along with their cousin who came from the old country with him, while the others were en route to their new world.
This is where artist Meichen Waxer’s family’s place in the storied history of Jews in northern communities began. With bravery, courage, resiliency, and pain.
The wife who landed in Canada as a widow is Waxer’s paternal great-great-great-grandmother. Through the years the family moved between areas in Kirkland Lake, Cochran, and for a brief time Kensington Market. Waxer grew up in a multifaith household in Aurora with “a new age goddess” for a mother and a “Jewish psychologist” for a father. The characteristics of her Victorian-style home are recurring motifs in her work.
Over ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and the whir of coffee machines, Waxer—who also runs Arts Assembly, a research and community-focused arts organization based between Toronto and Vancouver—shared a slice of her family’s history with me because it is the force behind her new art project. Though still in early stages, the multi-disciplinary artist is creating a video montage of experiences that retrace her family’s steps in the north with pop culture interruptions. Funding from the Canada Council, provides Waxer the opportunity to take her research further and extend the story of Jews in the north beyond her ancestors. “It’s a reflection of all of their lives and all of their stories. And how connected we all can be to one another.”
Since 1949, “The German Settlement” has been known as Krugerdorf, but today all that is really left of the Jewish community is the cemetery—where Waxer’s relatives were the first to be buried.
When I went into my conversation with Waxer, I expected we’d mull over her familial history; how she plays with installation, video, and photography; her penchant for the ornamental and natural; and how her work sits with questions of taste, time, memory, and, of course, the Jewish experience. But I didn’t expect to come away with a new understanding of the north. An area that can be desolate yet rife with life.
What was your family’s relationship to the north growing up?
My dad has always been a bit cagey talking about his past. I knew he grew up north and when I wanted to go, he’d say, There’s nothing there, there’s nothing left. My bubbie passed away when I was 12, and it is one of the biggest tragedies in my life. She was part of my soul. I inherited years later, when my zaidie passed away, her diaries. I received them when I was 19 and it blew my mind open around my family’s history.
And how did living in Aurora influence your upbringing?
In my school there was one other Jewish kid but she was very capital “J” Jewish. I didn’t see any plurality or any variation, which I think, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s is maybe more typical than it would be today. Growing up now, I probably would have had a lot more of a Jewish community as a child and I didn’t really get that outside of my family until I was an adult.
We can see how far we’ve come, but there’s a norm of what it means to be Jewish that Jewish artists and writers are pushing–
At the time discussions of that nature weren’t happening to such a great extent.
Not at all. But in the town of Aurora, where basically everybody was white, my dad stuck out like a sore thumb because he’s darker skinned. You could tell he wasn’t Western European and that’s very much what Aurora looked like.
When my dad came to Toronto, he said he experienced a lot of antisemitism. Not only from antisemites but from this weird Jewish hierarchy because he was from the north. Even his dad’s mom was suspicious of my bubbie because she didn’t know if she was fully Jewish because there’s some Sephardi in our history.
As a kid, I felt I was in two panes of glass, neither here nor there. I was always aware that I was other. Also being a queer person who’s very femme means that I similarly feel that I walk between worlds. I always feel like I can be incognito. I’m hard to place because of who I am but at the same time, I know deeply who I am. It’s a weird friction.
I see that in your work, this juxtaposition between different worlds, different times, different generations. You also explore aesthetic taste; there’s a lot of Victorian imagery. How did your taste evolve and change over time?
The focus on traditional North American sensibility of taste is closely related to ideas of taming. Victorian architecture or Victorian ornamentation used flowers excessively. The florals were structured and formulated and the pattern was influenced by a lot of British colonies—colonialism and then trade from the East and also this idea of the imaginary of the East—versus actually having a reciprocal relationship with places east of England. The overuse of the motifs, the flowers, the taming, and the synthetic in my art is in many ways thinking about the taming of myself and the taming of my identity through this filter of North American aesthetics and taste.
Our Jewishness feeds into our life in surprising ways. I don’t know if you see your Jewishness in all of the work that you do, but the candles you make, for instance, there’s no Jewish imagery–
Except for the number of wicks. But that for me was a defiant way of inserting who I am.
Horus all aglow at The Plumb, in Toronto in 2022. Photograph courtesy of Meichen Waxer.
Do you find there is ever a separation between your Jewishness and your art?
Not really no. My art before my masters, probably, yes. It was likely there before but I wasn’t able to easily identify it. Much of my work at the time was about the taming of the ornament and thinking through the taming of identity and the ways in which systems make things white. I know there’s many views on where Jews stand in accordance to whiteness, but I think we all agree that the idea of whiteness, perpetuated by the Nazis, is a construct to kill Jews, in its original sense.
It’s complicated and ever evolving and changing.
Can you tell me more about your recent work, the mapping project Looking At Two Poems with FENTSTER.
That started the work I’m doing right now. At Arts Assembly we have this project, Common Ground, Uyuşjma Temeli, that was a curatorial exchange between a space in Istanbul. I was in Istanbul working with these two artists and I was telling Merve [one of the artists] all the old men in Istanbul look like my dad. And geographically, my family’s not that far, just across the Black Sea. She took me to go look there. And when we arrived, I was trying to see where my family left from, which were the ports of Odessa. I stood at the edge of the water and tried to be a witness to a journey. It’s an impossible task, this happened generations ago, but in my mind I was a witness to that history. And I was also giving myself permission to be a part of it.
[A few years later] I started to work on this project because I wanted to connect with other people. In order to understand and embody this history, I need to connect beyond my bubbie’s diaries. In my research, I discovered that the cemetery up north is still active and found this map to locate it. Using my bubbie’s golden thread, because she was a weaver, I embroidered a map. The image of myself where her bubbie left from [that was taken in Istanbul], is projected onto the map I created to find the cemetery where her zaide is buried.
You’re also constructing a memory and there’s a fictionalization that inherently could happen. Do you find there’s a struggle between what you’re creating and what is real or not real?
Completely. This work is sitting between the information I’ve been told and what I’ve found and a Jewish history as told to me by media. When I was a kid, the way that I understood my family in Eastern Europe was Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl. I love Yentl but they’re also stories rooted in the imaginary. Fiddler on the Roof exists in a made up place that many people can connect to but it’s not real.
Since early spring of last year, I’ve been mostly connecting with seniors who grew up north. Many of the folks’ parents owned stores and their position in the community was held together by being active in the migrant and Jewish community. Young Judaea and their northern chapter connected these dispersed communities together and dispelled this idea of isolation. Many of them have a much stronger sense of community, of resilience, and of knowing who they are because their families created spaces to ensure interconnection. It’s not only the kids that were active in Young Judea but their parents were too.
An arrow on a wooden post leads visitors to the “Hebrew Cemetery” in Krugerdorf. Photograph courtesy of Meichen Waxer.
Golden threads form Krugerdorf. Photograph courtesy of Meichen Waxer.
Shadow, sea, map. Photograph courtesy of Meichen Waxer.
It’s community building from within. I imagine there’s an ache there that wouldn’t be felt as strongly here.
When they were kids the community was vibrant and then it petered off. So there was isolation prior to and after. But they had a heyday of Jewish life. I’ve connected with Steve, the caretaker for the cemetery up north. His father, who passed away a few years ago, was the caretaker before and before him it was his grandfather.
A big thing I’ve learned from Steve was [the community’s] willingness to adapt. When the community was starting to thin out there was no longer a resident rabbi but they still had an active synagogue. They would ship one in from wherever for the High Holidays, and depending on the leaning of the rabbi, the curtain would come up or down in the middle. I don’t think in an urban setting there would be that flexibility to be malleable enough with tradition. That is more reflective of how I understand my Jewishness.
How has your relationship to Judaism evolved over time?
I have more permission to explore my Jewishness.
There’s a saying from a rabbi that goes something like, There’s as many types of Jews in this world as there are Jews alive, past, present, and future. It’s slightly different for every person.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. The photographs of the art, in the feature image, are courtesy of Meichen Waxer.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.