Setting the Stage

I had never written anything longer than a book report for school when I created a one-act play at summer camp. It was my team’s entry for the drama competition in Camp Kadimah’s annual Olympic games, known as Maccabia. The year was 1967, and I was fourteen. I suspected that my team captains, two counsellors not much older than I was, felt sorry for the motherless waif with the bad haircut. Poor Robin, I imagined them saying to one another. She’s had such a rough time. Let her write our team play. Normally, I couldn’t tolerate being singled out and would run a mile to avoid anyone’s pity. I just wanted to fit in, without a spotlight shining on me—even a kind and compassionate one. But for some compelling reason, I needed to write this play.

I was really having a run of bad luck. Eighteen months earlier, my mother had died during a lengthy surgery to repair a brain aneurysm that had come out of nowhere, like they always do. I was so distracted with grief when I returned to school, I tripped in my gym class, badly injuring my foot. In front of the whole school, the principal, Mr. Wall, carried me out to his car before driving me home. What I remember most, besides the humiliating spectacle of crying in front of my classmates, was that he reeked of cigarettes. I found the smell oddly comforting. My mother had smoked a lot. It was as if she were hovering nearby. My bereaved father, meanwhile, had just returned to his dental office after getting up from the family’s shiva, our week of mourning. When the school called him, he cancelled all his patients and came racing home. Exhausted and shaken, he took me for an X-ray.

Broken. My foot and my family.

For six long weeks, I was a lonely figure eating lunch in my classroom without anyone to keep me company, a heavy plaster cast on my foot and crutches close at hand. It was an age when children went home for their midday meal, but there was no one to pick me up. Teachers walking by the classroom would poke their heads in to say hello, to ask me if I needed anything, and to say how sorry they had been to hear about my mom. Their discomfort in speaking about her death was obvious. And who could blame them for looking away? I was small for my age and looked a lot younger than twelve. All anyone could see was a very sad and lonely little girl. I allowed my self-pity to give me permission to snoop around my classmates’ desks and found notes exchanged by my two best friends.

“Can you believe all the attention she’s getting?” one friend wrote to the other.

“I know! And don’t you think she’s feeling awfully sorry for herself?” the other friend asked.

You bet I was. No one at my elementary school had ever had their mother die before. Or broken their foot. All in the space of just one week. Poor Robin.

• • •

Pop culture remembers 1967 as the Summer of Love. It was also the year of the Six-Day War in the Middle East. The shocking, rapid-fire Israeli victory over the armies of the Arab world was all anyone could talk about at my summer camp, especially since the camp was run by a Zionist youth organization. On that topic, I had a story worthy of dramatization, inspired by the experience of my cousin David from Toronto. He was living on a kibbutz in Israel when the war broke out. Along with many other young men from the Jewish diaspora, David felt the urge to help out in the fight. But the idea of volunteering had prompted much intellectual and cultural soul-searching from the pulpits of synagogues and in the mainstream press on questions of national allegiance and identity.

Summer Camp

On the makeshift stage in the camp rec hall, where a year earlier I had played the daughter who marries a goy in Fiddler on the Roof, a young man pondered whether or not to go to Israel to fight. “Am I a Jewish Canadian? Or a Canadian Jew?” he (played by me) wondered. Who am I? Where do I belong? These were questions top of mind for a girl whose connection with the woman who gave her life had been severed without warning.

Writing and acting in that play released emotions that had been strangling me. I was able to breathe again for the first time in months. Our play won the drama competition but that was beside the point. After we took our bows, my camp friends surrounded me with hugs that were not just for my performance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon a way to connect to my grief that would guide me for the rest of my life.

This is a touching story about a young, vulnerable girl who experienced unimaginable grief; a wife who saw her struggles reflected in others and did something about it; and a philanthropist who set out to repair the world. Thank you, Robin, for sharing yourself so freely, for giving us all permission to cope by any means necessary, and for continuing to make the world a better place. And of course, thank you, Auntie Goldie.
—Julia Staub-French, executive director, Family Services of the North Shore, North Vancouver, BC