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obituary

Ellen Jaffe immigrated to Canada after stints in California and London, England, eventually taking her place as an outstanding Ontario poet and psychotherapist.Wendy Schneider

Ellen Jaffe’s powerful anti-war poem Vietnam, August 11, 1966, a meditation on the semantics of victory and tragedy in war, concludes with the lines: “ask a leg if it is civilian/ an arm if it is the enemy/ an eye if it is ours.”

She was inspired to write it when she was an undergraduate and editor of a campus newspaper at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. A newscast had started her thinking about not only the horror but also the language of war and politics, and the effects language can have.

The poem was published in Minority of One magazine in 1966 and appeared more recently in Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, a 2008 anthology.

Ms. Jaffe immigrated to Canada after stints in California and London, England, eventually taking her place as an outstanding Ontario poet and psychotherapist. She combined her two passions in her most popular book, Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal, as well as publishing her poetry widely. She died on March 16, a day after her 77th birthday.

”The words Ellen wrote in objecting to the war in Vietnam are just as relevant today, in speaking about the war on Ukraine.”

Poet Heidi Greco

Ellen Sue Jaffe was born in New York on March 15, 1945, and grew up in a liberal Jewish household, with parents she identified politically as “Adlai Stevenson Democrats.”

Her father was a cardiologist who testified before Senator Joe McCarthy, when others doctors wouldn’t, that a certain patient was too ill to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“Her whole family had strong moral convictions,” Phyllis Knight, a former classmate, recalled.

Ms. Jaffe arrived at college knowing that she wanted to write, but not yet thinking of herself as a writer, she told Wellesley Magazine’s Bibliofiles column. Politics seemed more important at the time. “As editor of the Wellesley News,” she said, “I promoted … awareness with articles about U.S. politics, the Vietnam War, and related subjects. This writing sharpened my style and increased my knowledge. I also heard writers like Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, and Eudora Welty "

After matriculating, Ms. Jaffe earned a master’s degree in education from New York University before moving to California for several years. There, she helped with anti-draft counselling in the evenings after working all day in clinics and schools – until she was sexually assaulted in one school. “By 1971, I had had it with the States,” she told this reporter in a 2014 interview.

“Wellesley had a travelling fellowship and I proposed a project that took me to England,” she said. In London, she studied with renowned child psychologist D.W. Winnicott from 1972 to 1979. She also met and married Allan Bitz, a London School of Economics student from Canada – which is where the couple decided to move when they completed their respective degrees. By then, Ellen was pregnant, and she said, “I wanted my son to be born in Canada.”

During Ms. Jaffe’s final days, the Ontario Poetry Society announced it will create a biannual award in her honour, the Ellen S. Jaffe Humanist Award for Poetry, with $500 for the first prize winner and five runners-up receiving $100 each.Courtesy of the Family

They settled in Woodstock, Ont., her husband’s hometown. After their son, Joe Bitz, was born in 1980, Ms. Jaffe worked part-time as a psychotherapist, and obtained provincial grants to teach writing workshops in local schools. She taught the same workshops at the Six Nations and Moose Factory reserves, where, Ms. Jaffe said, she felt honoured to work and learn.

For 20 years, from the early 1980s through 2000, she lived in Woodstock. She became a Canadian citizen in 1993, and published poems in several anthologies as well as three books of her own poetry in the 1990s. She lived the next 20 years in Hamilton, where she published seven more books, from 2001 to 2019, winning three Hamilton Arts Council (now Arts Hamilton) Awards.

During Ms. Jaffe’s final days, the Ontario Poetry Society announced it will create a biannual award in her honour, the Ellen S. Jaffe Humanist Award for Poetry, with $500 for the first prize winner and five runners-up receiving $100 each.

Ms. Jaffe shared her March 15 birthday with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, poet Heidi Greco notes. “I think of the two of them together now,” she wrote, “two short-of-stature women joined by their Jewishness, their intelligence and their compassion.

”The words Ellen wrote in objecting to the war in Vietnam are just as relevant today, in speaking about the war on Ukraine.”

Ms. Greco is one of many other poets Ms. Jaffe found who were eager to read her poems, and share theirs with her, through organizations such as the League of Poets, The Writers’ Union of Canada, Voices (Israel Group of Poets in English) and CANSCAIP, for authors of children’s books. And every poem of Ms. Jaffe’s, every class or workshop she taught, came with a gentle psychotherapist’s touch.

“For me,” Ms. Jaffe told Wellesley Magazine, “part of a writer’s job is to experience uncertainties and difficulties – personal and in the wider world – and then find words and images to write about them with empathy and precision.”

On the psychotherapy page of her website, Ms. Jaffe wrote of a four-year-old boy who couldn’t talk about the “monsters” in his life until the monsters were gone.

“This is the essence of therapy,” she wrote. “We cannot undo the monsters and traumas of the past or present, but we can make them bearable to think and talk about, help you find better ways to overcome them, and take away their power over your mind and heart.”

Ms. Jaffe treated her final illness the same way, sharing her hopes and concerns on a public blog as she slogged her way through treatments for rapidly metastasizing tumours on her liver and elsewhere. On Feb. 10, she wrote that her heart had already chosen against more chemotherapy.

“I want to live peacefully,” she wrote, “enjoy time with the people I love, being in nature (especially in spring and summer), and use palliative care to help manage symptoms like fatigue.”

Her son, Joe, said he thinks she will be remembered “as a person who was not only passionate about and successful in her own writing, but who took pure joy in helping others explore and express their own creativity.”

He continued his hope that posterity will recognize her as someone who “embraced her writing and those around her with such a depth of love that it made a woman five feet tall feel like an absolute giant.”

Ms. Jaffe leaves her partner, Roger Gilbert; her son, Mr. Bitz; three stepchildren, Vance Gilbert, Teri Gilbert, Simon Gilbert-Johnson; two grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

To the end, Ms. Jaffe lived by a belief she articulated at Wellesley, in a Chapel Talk she gave in 1968: “Art can never be merely technique, but must somehow embody and translate a sense of life, of what it means to be alive.”


Vietnam, August 11, 1966
by Ellen S. Jaffe

11 people die, 187 are wounded

it is a tragedy

because

they are civilian

11 people die, 187 are wounded

it is a victory

because

they are the enemy

11 people die, 187 are wounded

it is an atrocity

because

they are ours

skin off the labels

taste the darkness beneath

ask a leg if it is civilian

an arm if it is the enemy

an eye if it is ours