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Monday, May 04, 2020

Guest Post: The Smallest Objective

"Books in the Time of Coronavirus" Series


The Book of Life (TBOL): Sharon, please introduce yourself.

Hello, I’m Sharon Kirsch from Toronto, author of The Smallest Objective. My publisher is New Star Books in Vancouver, Canada, but the story itself takes place mostly in Montreal, home to one of Canada’s largest Jewish communities, and where I was born and raised. After delays linked to the pandemic, the e-book of The Smallest Objective has just been made available, and the print edition has been confirmed for a May 28th release. The Toronto and Montreal launches, both originally planned for May, have had to be postponed indefinitely. 

TBOL: What is The Smallest Objective about?

The Smallest Objective is a book of narrative non-fiction for adults—a hybrid of memoir and biography. At the heart of the story is my mother’s loss of memory and inevitable departure from the family home, leading me, her only child, to recover and discover objects and people little or never known to me. The title The Smallest Objective refers to the smallest lens in my grandfather’s microscope—the lens that allows for the highest degree of magnification. It alludes to how the book is a close-up look at forgotten objects and lost family, and can also be understood in a second way—as the humblest goal or aspiration.

My book introduces several personalities representing three generations of the diaspora of Lithuanian Jews. By means of these personal histories, the reader becomes acquainted with Montreal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the great waves of migration from Eastern Europe; through the Roaring Twenties to the Depression Era, a time of burgeoning anti-Semitism; and then in the postwar era, after 1945, when the large numbers of Holocaust survivors moving to Montreal reinvigorated the use of Yiddish, making the city a world center for Yiddish cultural life. By 1951, the Jewish population of Montreal ranked as the largest in the British Commonwealth outside of London, England.

Very briefly, here are the three central personalities:

Simon Kirsch, my paternal grandfather, was born in Vilkomir, Lithuania, in the late 19th century, immigrating with his family to Montreal in 1890 as a child of six. He distinguished himself academically from an early age, becoming one of the first Jewish students to earn a PhD at McGill University and one of its first Jewish faculty members, then joining for a time the U.S. Forest Service in Wisconsin as a tree expert in the same era that the ecologist Aldo Leopold was employed there. Simon also played a key role in the start-up of numerous Jewish welfare services and organizations in Montreal and the Laurentian Mountains. He left behind something more and rather special, which is revealed in the final chapter of the book.

In contrast, my great-uncle Jockey was considered the black sheep of his family. He went by the assumed name Jockey Fleming but in 1898 was born Moses Rutenberg to immigrant parents from The Pale of Settlement. Jockey was frequently described as a Runyonesque character—akin to the Broadway conmen, minor thieves, and marginal eccentrics brought to renown by the New York writer Damon Runyon. My great-uncle’s so-called “office” was the corner of Peel and St. Catherine streets in Downtown Montreal; his business was as a stand-up comic, a ticket tout for sports events, a holder of bets, and a purveyor of information in sealed envelopes. A fixture of mid-century Montreal, he counted among his admirers the hockey legend Henri Richard and the vaudeville performer Eddie Cantor.

Finally, I invite you to meet Carol Rutenberg, a young person of great promise, the child of first-generation Canadian parents. Carol, my maternal aunt, was born in 1938 and came of age in the 1950s, a period of increasing good fortune for the Jewish community in Montreal. A horsewoman and water-skier, she graduated at the top of her class in physiotherapy at McGill University, where at the time Jews were required to have better grades than others to gain admission. Daring and ambitious, Carol took full advantage of the expanding possibilities for women in the lead-up to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Tragically, she was not able to fulfill her promise, and her story serves as a reminder of the fragility of life at a moment when this is top of mind for all of us. 

TBOL: What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book as my mother was losing her memory, and the creative process became a way of coping with and trying to assimilate that loss. The physical circumstances that directly led to The Smallest Objective were the emptying of my family home to prepare it for sale and, specifically, the search for a rumored buried treasure. After some excavations with a team of archeologists— and that’s where the comedy comes in—I went on to discover by myself all kinds of objects in the house, including my grandfather’s Jug Handle microscope and lantern slides, and the last harvest of my father’s runner bean seeds. Ultimately, then, the impetus for the book was twofold: a sequence of loss and recovery.

The writing of the book also was nourished by my rediscovery of the city where I was born and raised but which I hadn’t inhabited for several decades. In researching and writing The Smallest Objective, I felt I became once again a full-time resident of Montreal, albeit in my imagination. 

TBOL: Tell us about what would have happened at your promotional events if they had not been cancelled?

For my two book launches, I was planning a photo display of the main personalities in The Smallest Objective: my parents, my mother’s sister, Carol, my paternal grandfather, Simon, and my maternal great-uncle Jockey. For the moment, a few of these faces can be seen on my website, and I plan to share more. Of course I was looking forward, also, to offering friends and family a glass of wine as we joined together in celebration. 

TBOL: Where can readers find you?

You can find me online at my website, sharonkirsch.com. I also have a page on The Writers Union of Canada website: https://www.writersunion.ca/member/sharon-kirsch

The print book can be purchased at The Book of Life's affiliate link HERE. The e-book is available from the publisher HERE.

TBOL: Would you like to share a Tikkun Olam suggestion for healing the world?

I’d like to offer the following suggestion for a Tikkun Olam action. For those readers who are fortunate enough during the pandemic to have both health and stability, please consider taking just a few minutes to think about other species, whether the familiar cats and dogs in animal shelters, the vulnerable wild animals born into this pandemic spring, the migratory birds so susceptible to injury. I myself have volunteered for decades with a feral cat group. If you have the time and ability to volunteer safely or the capacity to donate to organizations supporting animals during the pandemic, please consider doing so. This a sector where there are never enough funds or pairs of hands to go around even in the best of times.

In closing, I’d like to wish every single one of you well in navigating this pandemic and beyond. Stay safe, and find strength and inspiration in good books. Many thanks, Heidi, for bringing us all together. 


1 comment:

Molly Peacock said...

Thank you so much, Sharon, for writing this fascinating and poignant book!