Dec. 14, 2001

Tamara Podemski bridges the worlds of Canadian Jews and Aboriginals

by Gil Zohar

Tamara Podemski

When it comes to the victimization Olympics, if Jews have won the gold medal then North American Indians surely deserve the silver. And Tamara Podemski, 24, could proudly wear both. Her father Saul was born in Kfar Saba, Israel while her mother Joanna (née Anaquod) - a member of Canada's Saulteaux-Ojibway people - was born in Regina, Saskatchewan and raised in Vancouver. They met in Toronto, where her father' s family settled in 1958, and raised three children in two cultures.

Last October the Toronto actress, singer and songwriter and the band Spirit Nation released a CD primarily in the Saulteaux-Ojibway language called Winter Moons. The New Age-esque recording contains the autobiographical song "All My Relations" with the Hebrew lyrics "Col avotai m'dorot kodmim, ani chosevet aleihem" - All my forefathers in the generations before me, I think of them.

It also contains the song Ododaymiwan (Animal Clans) about the tribe's clan system by which the entire Ojibway nation is divided into seven clans.

"It's not very popular mainstream music," Podemski acknowledges. "It's heavily based in the World Music genre."

For Los Angeles-based w and distributor BMG, the CD has been a modest success. Huge hits in the world music scene are a rare commodity.

"I'm very pleased with the album," Podemski notes. She personally has sold 300 CDs at concerts in Toronto nightclubs, the atrium of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) Toronto headquarters, and the Toronto Pow-Wow.held at the SkyDome stadium in November.

If not a great commercial success, the CD has been a personal triumph.

"There is something tremendously empowering about letting the world know that you are proud of who you are," says Podemski, whose exotic good looks reflect her mixed Ashkenazi-Indian ancestry. "To honour yourself and your history is a beautiful thing."

But not necessarily an easy path.

Podemski, who converted to Judaism when she was 13 together with her older sister Jennifer and younger sibling Sarah, lights Shabbat candles and makes matzah ball soup Friday nights just like her grandmother taught her. She has been to Israel six times, and because of "ha-matzav" (the security situation) has put off plans to visit there again with her playwright and actor husband Darrell Dennis, a Shuswap Indian from the Adams Lake reservation in the British Columbia interior. The two married June 10, 2022 at a conservation park in Ontario. While spiritual and connected to nature, the wedding ceremony wasn't Jewish. A justice of the peace officiated.

The Shuswap, like the Ojibway, are among the scores of aboriginal peoples who have faced the onslaught of European settlers over the last five centuries. The genocide of Newfoundland's native Beothuck people - the last of whom died in 1829, was the most egregious example of that destructive cultural encounter. Canada's current policy benignly recognizes the principal of native sovereignty and equality with the country's founding English and French cultures. For example, a 1997 agreement between the Nisga nation and the province of British Columbia stipulates that the tribe's names and background historical information for geographical features be recorded in the official Names Database, and that Nisga names replace English names on maps on their territory.

Still Canada's Indians face an unremitting tragedy manifested in discrimination, substance abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Tellingly Podemski has never visited the impoverished Saulteaux-Ojibway reserve in Muscowpetung, Sask. where she has cousins. Many Indians leave the reservations in search of economic opportunity. All her immediate Aboriginal family live comfortably in Vancouver and Kelowna, B.C.

"There are much, much worse [reservations] than that one. No one is starving there. We use the term 'devastated communities', and I wouldn't say it's one of them," explains Podemski.

"I think that there's a major misconception that people who don't live on a reserve aren't involved in their [Native] culture," she explains a touch defensively. "We've been here for more than 10,000 years. We're nomadic."

The Saulteaux-Ojibway originally lived in southern Ontario before European settlers arrived precipitating an en masse migration to the Canadian Prairies. They are a branch of the Delaware people in the United States, who were also displaced westward by European colonization.

"There's a common thread between both of them [Jews and Indians]. They have very rich histories of oppression and survival. My saba [grandfather] Joseph Podemski was a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, Poland. He was in Bergen-Belsen. He and his brother were the only ones who survived. You're hearing the stories all the time. You realize how important it is to know where you come from. And know the only reason you're here is because of their struggles.

"On the other side, my mushum [grandfather] and kokum [grandmother] were both residential school survivors They were living in a time when it was forbidden to practice your culture The fact that their grandchildren can announce in public who we are and not be ashamed of it pays tribute to their struggles."

The residential school system, now abandoned, was a means of forced acculturation imposed by Ottawa's Department of Indian Affairs and the Catholic and Anglican churches in a misguided, racist effort to wipe out the vestiges of native culture and language and force their integration into English-speaking Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police forcibly removed children from their homes and sent them to dormitory schools far away.

Like Eleazar Ben Yehuda and his disciples who set out to revive Hebrew as a spoken language, today great efforts are being made to teach Indians their own languages. Of the 53 native languages left today, only three - Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut - have any hope for survival, Podemski says. Increasingly, young Native Canadians grow up speaking only English, learning at best a few words of their ancestral tongues.

"Other than those three, we consider all Aboriginal languages endangered."

Podemski is taking that cultural linguistic responsibility in earnest. The University of Toronto student is currently studying Ojibway in the Aboriginal Studies Program. The majority of first-year students are non-native but Ojibway predominate in the second year, she said. Podemski is also studying Modern Hebrew in the U of T's department of Middle Eastern Civilizations. Last year she took Biblical Hebrew.

Beyond her unusual heritage, Podemski has had a rich career as a performer. Well before her teens, she had already been involved with Raffi, a popular Toronto children's performer, and had done backup sessions with The Nylons, a Canadian pop group popular in the '80s whose biggest hit was "In The Jungle"

A poster child for multiculturalism, Podemski was part of a concert in honour of the release of Nelson Mandela held at the Queen's Park legislature building here.

By age 12, the singer had appeared on CBC TV's science show Wonderstruck.

Two years later in 1991 she was a featured solo vocalist in a musical rendering of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at a Toronto theatre. It was soon after in 1993 that Podemski was introduced to Canadian filmmaker Bruce MacDonald. He offered her a part in a video starring country singer Verne Chichoo, followed by a principal part in his feature film Dance Me Outside - based on Ottawa writer W.P. Kinsella novel of the same name about the murder of a young Native girl.

What followed was a blur of television and film work, including the CBC TV's after school teen hit series Ready or Not, and The Rez - both dramatic comedies.

But Podemski never strayed far from her first love - music and dance. Before she was 20, she auditioned with thousands of other hopefuls and was finally cast in the Toronto production of the Tony Award winning musical Rent - the story of a group of bohemians living in New York who face the scourges of contemporary life including AIDS and drug addiction. "It was a major social statement," Podemski says proudly.

After more than 250 shows, she was tagged to reprise her role in the Broadway production, where she was acclaimed by the New York Times for her role as "Maureen."

Completing the cycle, Podemski credits music composers Jimmy Waldo and Steven Rosen, both of Los Angeles. Later this year she plans to self produce a CD of her own songs "in whatever language inspires me."

Notwithstanding her second rank celebrity fame, Podemski finds the media is more interested in reporting about her exotic ancestry than her not inconsiderable talents.

"Half-breeds usually choose one over the other, from my experience. It's a simpler alternative than doing the balancing act. That is who I am. That is such an important part of me. One doesn't trump the other. But it makes for frequent identity crises."