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How a group of Toronto artists spearheaded a Yiddish version of O Canada

Tuesday evening was not just an ordinary night at the Zoomerplex in Toronto's Liberty Village. A choir of 60 people gathered at the multimedia facility and sang O Canada in Yiddish before an audience of 150 invited guests. Simon Spiro conducted the choir and pianist David Warrack was the sole instrumentalist. Spiro's wife, Aliza Spiro, coached the choir on how to get the phrases right.

The venue, a Toronto TV studio packed to capacity, was provided by television and radio guru Moses Znaimer – who took it all in from the control room, where he watched the performance on three big monitors.

"It started with a question about whether this had ever been done," says Hindy Nosek-Abelson, who did the Yiddish translation. "The idea passed through a chain of people, including [novelist] Margaret Atwood and [artist] Charles Pachter. Then I had dinner with Marilyn Lightstone [host of the late-night show Nocturne on the Znaimer-controlled radio station the New Classical FM, and Znaimer's long-time partner]. She said, 'I love it, and I'm going to tell Moses about it.' It's thanks to Moses and Marilyn that it happened."

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The atmosphere in the studio, both on-stage and off-stage, was electric and hugely enthusiastic.

According to Pachter, who was part of the choir (along with his partner, Keith Lem), he received an e-mail from Atwood six months ago.

"She asked me if I knew of anyone who could organize singing O Canada in Yiddish."

Atwood was following up on a request from Dan Bloom, a freelance writer living in Taiwan, who had received an e-mail from Craig S. Smith, a New York Times reporter, asking if he knew how many languages O Canada had been translated into.

Pachter immediately thought of Nosek-Abelson, who had worked with him on some charity events. He knew she was fluent in Yiddish.

"She really came through," Pachter says. "She did it with a lot of heart."

"I've done a lot of translations in my life, and I always choose them carefully," Nosek-Abelson told me after the performance. "There were so many wonderful Yiddish writers, but they have mostly been silenced by either the Holocaust or the decline in the use of Yiddish.

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"There are challenges that happen with every song or poetry translation," she says. "You want to get the words to fit the music like fingers in a glove."

So instead of "O Canada, we stand on guard for thee," she translated it as "O Canada, we stand by your side." Nosek-Abelson was born after the end of the war in the same displaced-persons camp where Znaimer and his family were then living. Her goal was to bring those Yiddish writers back into the spotlight by conveying their style and artistry.

"O Canada was very personal to me," she explains. After spending a few years in Paris, she and her family moved to Winnipeg in 1950. Her mother had family there who sponsored them.

"I kind of heard my father's voice and his praise of this country and his gratitude for being here," she says. "He felt the way so many Jewish immigrants did after centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. This was the first time in their life they didn't feel tentative. I grew up in a totally Yiddish-speaking household with tremendous gratitude for being in Canada. My parents never learned to speak English, but that didn't diminish the gratitude they had for being here."

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