A Breakaway Republic—rule by “dreams, insights, mythologies”

August 15 | 2022

In summer 2013, almost a decade ago, when George Clooney finished it with Stacey Keibler and Edward Snowden announced himself as the leaker of NSA documents, I travelled to Lithuania. I didn’t know at the time that the Baltic country—and the Suwalki Gap in particular—would become a focal point in a once-unimaginable conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The motivation for my travel, to explore my extensive family past in Lithuania, was entirely personal. 

Throughout my weeks in Lithuania, I was to become engrossed in many facets of the country beyond my preconceived itinerary. Among the most memorable was my random encounter with the fanciful “Republic of Užupis” conceived by artists within a neighbourhood of Vilnius and, not least, its extraordinary Constitution. Drafted in 1998, the Constitution remains prescient nearly 25 years later. It expresses the accumulated wisdom of a community governed not only by customary law, but also by “inspirational examples, dreams, insights, mythologies.” 

The first article, “Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone,” anticipated the legal personhood of the Muteshekau Shipu (or Magpie River) in Québec, granted in 2021 and accompanied by nine rights. Article 35, “No one has the right to make another person guilty,” remains a useful precept in our era of polarization and widespread recriminations. Ditto for Article 4, “Everyone has the right to make mistakes.”

Not a few of the articles appeal for their playfulness: for instance, Article 8, “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown,” or Article 10, “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.” One of my favourite articles, number 27, strikes me as at once simple, ambiguous, and profound: “Everyone shall remember their name.”

Handmade Ceramic Buttons circa 1930

June 4 | 2022

A duckling, a bunny, a lady bug—tiny emblems of summer. Although near antiques, this trio of buttons, possibly from a child’s garment, haven’t lost their relevance. They’re a reminder of the beauty and vulnerability of small lives that intersect with our own. As handmade objects, they bear the touch and affection of their makers, each button revealing of a modest act of imagination. The cluster of buttons belongs to the collection described in my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective, and I treasure them for how they illuminate the past while enhancing my present.

Malca Cossman Kirsch in Immigrant Story

May 4 | 2022

When Sholom Wargon, creator of Immigrant Story, approached me about contributing a family narrative, I was delighted. 

Immigrant Story is a laudable effort to give voice to every manner of immigrant who made the journey to Canada during the twentieth century, regardless of origin, achievements, or notoriety. All of the stories appear on the website <https://www.immigrantstory.ca>, whereas a smaller selection will be featured in an exhibition opening on June 2nd at Bathurst Clark Resource Library in Thornhill, Ontario.  

My own contribution, “The Malca Cossman Kirsch Story,” is now live and will be included in the forthcoming exhibition. I was especially pleased to be able to highlight the story of my paternal grandmother, who, for much of her life—and like so many women of her era—was both overlooked and underestimated. Malca makes a few brief appearances in my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective. Here, however, is her story told more fully and to the extent that I know it:



Man—a springtime coming-of-age story 

April 8 | 2022

“At first Man drank milk from the bottle. … He shared cat food and dog food of all varieties—canned, cubed, or kibbled. … Like any infant, his lips were often dark with sand and dirt.” 

            Man was an orphaned black-tailed fawn befriended by the writer Irving Petite. The fawn’s adventures are related in The Audubon Book of True Nature Stories, with illustrations by Walter F. Ferguson. It’s one among a number of books in my collection of illustrated animal tales from the 1950s through ’70s pairing quality storytelling with superlative visuals. Unlike so much writing about animals, these books are for adults. My favourite titles include Cats in Cahoots by Doreen Tovey, The Year of the Badger by Molly Burkett, and The Wildlife Stories of Faith McNulty.

            In this troubled spring of 2022, I’m finding solace and humour especially in those animal stories celebrating young life. Man, we’re told, developed an appetite for whole flowers, including violets and hothouse chrysanthemums grown out of season. On occasion, he even ate the covers of paperback books—Keats and Shelley, the College Standard Dictionary, plus the Journals of Lewis and Clark!

My great-grandfather from Ukraine

March 16 | 2022

My mother never told me anything about her maternal grandfather, except that in old age he toppled from a balcony—a suspected suicide. Only after my mother’s death did I begin to wonder where my great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant to Montreal, had come from. 

I asked Howard, my mother’s first cousin and an octogenarian. Howard couldn’t readily answer my question. After a pause, he said, “Ukraine, I think.” 

            “Where in Ukraine”? I persisted. 

            “Kyiv, I think.” 

            A favourite among my inherited possessions is a gold heart-shaped locket my grandmother wore from early childhood, her own locket matching exactly her older sister’s. The lockets’ origins are unknown to me. The necklaces might have been fashioned in Ukraine, where every child in that family, except my grandmother, was born, or equally they might have been acquired later, in Montreal. 

            I’ll never be certain how the locket and the tumble from the balcony fit together, if at all, and whether my great-grandfather launched himself from the balcony because of all he’d lost, an inability to remember, or quite the opposite, because he remembered too much. 

            As I hold my grandmother’s locket in my hand, its lightness evincing its hollow centre, I regret that it is perhaps my only tangible connection to Ukraine. Within two generations, my family had surrendered Kyiv both as a place and in memory. 

For the refugees now fleeing Ukraine, I fervently wish a finer prospect—that, unlike my own ancestors, they aren’t denied the satisfaction of return.  

Vintage Après Skate 

February 1 | 2022

Here’s how to do winter . . . My father (upper right & grinning) with friends and most likely a girlfriend (not my mother). I’m guessing 1940s based on the Katharine Hepburn hairdo and ski/skating attire. Happy times for this quartet. Like so many Quebeckers, my father was in his element on the ice and played a mean defence when the hockey puck slid his way. He also skied cross country in an era before chair lifts or even rope tows. In my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective, I tell how my father, the youngest of three brothers, even skied to school.  

Committed to Memory

January 11 | 2022

As we grapple with this latest wave of Covid, I console myself with the thought that one day, with luck, our experiences will be behind us, committed instead to memory. What will we or won’t we remember? For those intrigued by the subject of memory and its representation in the arts, I suggest the new English translation of In Memory of Memory by the Russian author Maria Stepanova. It’s a big book, both in depth and breadth—perfect for adding lustre to the darkest days of the year. 

The Smallest Objective at Canada’s oldest subscription library

December 6 | 2021

I was privileged recently to introduce my memoir to a virtual audience at Atwater Library in Montreal. The oldest subscription library in Canada, Atwater Library originated in the first Mechanics’ Institute in British North America (1828). The purpose of the institute was to educate workers in Montreal’s many industries. By 1920, the institute had moved to its current location at Atwater and Tupper streets, where it became known in 1962 as the Atwater Library. This building by Hutchison, Wood, and Miller (shown here) celebrated its centenary in 2020, upholding the mandate of the original institute—access to books for everyone.  

The Smallest Objective wins a Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature!

November 24 | 2021

I’m absolutely thrilled to share the news that last night my memoir, The Smallest Objective, won a 2021 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature (history category).

Sincere thanks to the Lillian & Norman Glowinsky Foundation, Koffler Centre of the Arts, and jurors Zelda Abramson, Nathan Adler, and Naomi K. Lewis.


Please join me—Vine Awards Panel “Memoir & Motherhood”

November 12 | 2021

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to chat about motherhood with other Vine Awards finalists in what promises to be a lively hour moderated by jury member Zelda Abramson. My mother, Rene Kirsch, is a central character in my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective, nominated in the History category. Pictured below are me and my mother in her first years as a parent. 

Please join me on November 18 at 7 p.m. for this free panel discussion (registration required):