Archive by category "Odds and Ends"

When the Fatwa Generated a Storm: The Freedom and Integrity of the Pen

When the Fatwa Generated a Storm:

The Freedom and Integrity of the Pen

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


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It was December, 1992  — a quarter of a century ago — when my sister arrived, to visit me in Toronto. Wheelchair bound for many years, she travelled rarely. Thrilled that she was coming, I had planned various activities I knew she would enjoy, among them PEN Canada’s annual gala, a fund-raiser at which some of PEN’s literary celebrities (like Margaret Atwood) would perform [1]. The event was to held at the downtown Pantages Theatre in Toronto, where I reserved two seats, one of them wheelchair accessible for my sister, with great sightlines. But the night of the gala, it started to snow hard, quite hard, and so I packed my sister into the car, folded her wheelchair into the trunk, and left much earlier than I would have done normally in order to get there on time.

Canadian born, my sister and I were used to winter. My family were all skiers. I know how to drive in snow. But this night was a doozer! Despite the weather, though, when we finally got to the theatre, it was packed full of hardy souls, just as we expected. First of all, the tickets were too expensive not to come, once you had one, and secondly, none of the assembled literati, including me, were going to miss the PEN Gala. It was not exactly the Canadian version of the Oscars, but it was close.

My sister’s handicap placard wasn’t valid in Canada, but the police – oh my goodness, there seemed to be a lot of them! – kindly let me park right in front of the theatre long enough to unpack the wheelchair and push my sister, a rather hefty bundle, through the snow into the theatre. We found our seats, and then I left to park my car. By this time, the snow was heavy but still “walkable,” and I was exuberant at finding a parking space in a lot a couple of blocks away, or so it seemed to me. I quickly parked the car and briskly walked back to the theatre, sinking into my seat just a couple of minutes before the curtains parted for the show.

Nevertheless, I still had time to observe that the theatre’s interior seemed to be lined with quite a few Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, although they rarely ride horses anymore) in full ceremonial dress. These are the federal police in Canada. Interspersed among them were others in civilian dress, probably detectives, scrutinizing the crowd. And then I had no more time to think. The show had started!

It was a lot of fun, especially for people with a literary bent. My sister loved it. But then, just as the audience was starting to applaud for what we thought was the final curtain, a male figure strode onto the stage, surrounded by a semi-circle of Mounties.

The First Miracle

When the center figure of the semi-circle on the stage was introduced as Salman Rushdie, author of the satirical novel, “The Satanic Verses,” the audience gasped. We all knew that a “fatwa” calling for Rushdie’s assassination had been issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, four years earlier in 1989. Why? For satirizing the prophet Mohammed and his wife, Aisha, in “The Satanic Verses.” The Ayatollah considered it blasphemous. Salman Rushdie was therefore condemned to death, and anyone who murdered him would be well rewarded with a milliondollar bounty.

But Salman Rushdie was British-Indian, born in India, educated at Cambridge, and a British citizen. For the Ayatollah to issue a death warrant for a British subject was a great affront, not only to Britain, but to what was then called the free world – in other words, the West – whose shocked reaction was ineffective. Although Iran had thrown down the gauntlet, the Western countries seemed not to know what to do beyond diplomatic protests. Meanwhile there were public burnings of Rushdie’s books in countries with Muslim majorities.

As a result, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government for several years. The PEN event in Canada three years after the fatwa was issued was the first time any organization had the courage to invite him to give a public reading. It took a great deal of courage and organization, and the invitation was conducted in complete secrecy. Only the top executive leaders of PEN knew Rushdie was coming.

Onstage, an immensely grateful Rushdie described what it was like to live in hiding, fleeing with his wife, and – with the help of the British government – to sleep in a different house every night, and always with the fear of being killed in his sleep. It was such a memorable event that in 2012, PEN Canada held a 20th Anniversary celebration of this occasion [2].

When Rushdie read to us excerpts from his new manuscript, “Midnight’s Children,” which he was still writing while in hiding, it was a moment that this 1992 audience would never forget. It was such a memorable event, accompanied by tumultuous applause, that in 2012, PEN Canada held a 20th Anniversary celebration of this occasion [3].

After the reading, my sister’s face was flushed with excitement and appreciation. When Rushdie had first appeared on the stage, the audience had almost collapsed in, as one writer put it, “collective disbelief.” It seemed like a miracle. For my sister and myself, it was to be only the first miraculous event of the evening.

The Second Miracle

The second miracle didn’t feel like a miracle at first. It felt more like a disaster. After I parked my sister in the theatre lobby in front of a large glass window looking out at the street, I said, “I’m going to get the car now. I won’t be long. I’m just parked a couple of blocks away.”

But when I stepped outside, the driving snow had turned into a veritable blizzard, and the direction I was walking was heading right into it. The snow had already built up halfway to my knees. So I crouched down low, lifting one foot up from the thick snow and planting it down further ahead in more thick snow, and then the same thing with the other foot. Methodically I advanced toward the parking lot a couple of blocks away. On the South East corner of the street, right? That’s what I had noted when I originally parked there just two and a half hours earlier.

When I finally plodded through the snow to the parking lot on the corner, it was still full of cars. Only they all looked the same. Completely covered with snow. And guess what color my car was? You guessed it! White. Never buy a white car in Canada. I tried to determine the approximate place in which I had parked my car – and brushed away the snow from the license plates in that general area. Brush, brush! Not my car. Brush, brush! Not my car. After a lot of brush, brushing and many wrong license plates, I determined that 1) my car was not in that parking lot, no way, and 2) that I had better get back to the theatre lobby before they closed, and my sister was out in the street.

Plod, plod, plod, plod. “I’ll never make it to the theatre.” I was shivering. Just at that moment, I spotted an ambulance, a police ambulance, parked at the side of the road and just starting up the engine. “Wait, wait,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Wait for me.”

The ambulance driver did. I managed to reach his window and begged him to 1) help me pick up my invalid sister and 2) help me find my lost car. “Well, it’s against the regulations” he hemmed and hawed, but as he watched my tears freeze on my face, he said, “Okay. Get in. I’ll help you.”

So we got my sister, to the worried manager’s relief, and the three of us lifted the wheelchair, and my sister in it, into the ambulance. Thank God. My sister could not conceal her amazement. Where had this ambulance come from? I realized it had been parked on the street as a precaution in case there were any problems associated with the Rushdie reading. Well, now we were the problem, my sister and I.

“Show me this parking lot,” the ambulance driver said kindly.

“The South East corner, two blocks down.” So he drove me there, and I told him about my earlier brush, brush routine. He understood. “A white car,” he groaned. His ambulance was white too. White and blue.

“You know,” he said, “there’s actually another parking lot on the South East corner, but it’s one block over to the right. Do you think you could have parked there?”

A light went on in my head. Could it be?

So he drove us to the next lot, and after a lot of brush, brush on my part, the letters and numbers of my totally snow-covered license were revealed. My car! My white car!

We thanked him a million times as he transferred my sister to my car, helped me fold up the wheelchair and pack it in the trunk, and waited until I cleared the snow off my windows, the front and rear lights, and my tailpipe, revved up the car, and backed out. Ready to go.

“Drive slowly,” he said. And with a wave of his hand, the officer and his ambulance were gone.

My sister and I were giddy with relief. We laughed and laughed and giggled and giggled. We couldn’t stop. “No one will believe me,” my sister chortled. She was known to embellish a tale or two. And then there was a third miracle.

The third miracle was that by keeping my eyes focused on the red tail lights of the cars directly in front of me, I managed to see my way through the blizzard. When we got home, we were still laughing.

So that’s how it happened. Three miraculous events in one night. And all of them were generated by the courageous leadership of Canadian writers who respected the integrity and freedom of the pen. Even in a snowstorm.

* * * *


[1] PEN was originally an acronym for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, and you had to be invited to belong. Today this international organization includes Playwrights and diverse other writers as well.

[2] Graham Gibson, then President of PEN Canada, and the husband of Margaret Atwood, and several others like John Ralston Saul are to be commended for inviting Rushdie and for the complex organization and security arrangements that followed.

[3] “On December 7, 1992, PEN Canada held a benefit for Salman Rushdie at which then Ontario premier Bob Rae became the first head of government to welcome Rushdie in a public forum anywhere in the world…. Rushdie later described the evening as one ‘he would never forget’” (PEN newsletter).



©️Corinne Copnick, 2017. All rights reserved.


Looking for Positives…


Looking for Positives…


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


If there is anything positive to emerge from the current, gut-wrenching television coverage of Nazi flags and slogans, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes, torch parades with uncovered faces, and violence in the streets of America, perhaps it is this: that our millennial generation will begin to understand how manipulated hatred — grounded in fear, racism, and bigotry — can spread like a cancer through an unsuspecting population. Maybe they will understand why there must be a State of Israel.

Fortunately, there are gentler ways to teach about the Holocaust and its ramifications, as “Schindler’s List “and many other fine films have demonstrated – so that hopefully it will never happen again. Learning about the history of that time from the lips of those who experienced it is irreplaceable, of course, but there are fewer survivors now every year.

One such survivor – in that he escaped Germany on the cusp of the Holocaust – was the esteemed, late Rabbi Gunther Plaut. More than four decades after World War II, I met him in Toronto, Canada, where he had been the longtime rabbi, soon to become Rabbi Emeritus, of the highly regarded Holy Blossom Temple.* During the 15 years I lived in that city, I was a member there. I consider myself blessed to have attended Rabbi Plaut’s Torah Study classes each week..

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It was the late 1980s, and I was deeply honored when he asked me to direct a reading of his one-act play about the Holocaust. Although he had written it long ago, he had kept it to himself for many years. Now he wanted to open his experience as a young man in Nazi Germany to his congregation.

The play was called “The Train.” It portrayed the painful, dislocated feelings of a new Doctor of Laws graduate from the University of Berlin in 1934, forced to leave his native Germany after the restrictive Nuremberg Laws (first introduced on September 15, 1935 but not enforced until after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) prevented him from practicing law. Even worse, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.**

The young lawyer represented in the play was, of course, our esteemed rabbi, Gunther Plaut. The conflicted feelings expressed were his own as he left family, friends, his now denied means of making a living, and the country he once loved for America. Luckier than most, he had gained sponsorship to rabbinic studies in the U.S. There he would study Jewish law.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Rabbi Gunther Plaut would be among the army chaplains who participated in liberating the concentration camps, the death camps, in Europe. It was an experience he would never forget. And he would go on to become a great rabbi, one of the pioneers of the Reform movement in Canada and regarded internationally as a highly erudite author. His landmark book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, is still widely used today.

When we mounted Rabbi Plaut’s play, he was truly thrilled to be cast as the Narrator (he had thrown out a few hints that he’d like to do it!), whose commentary was a hallmark of the play. Thespian members of the congregation filled the other roles, and one of the congregational members was a talented harpist who played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When the soft cadences of her harp accompanied his narrations, shivers went up and down my spine. The play was extremely moving for the audience. For Rabbi Plaut, I think it was cathartic to have the feelings of his younger self, buried for so many years, enacted on the stage – and shared with the receptive, loving members of his congregation. The audience – the auditorium was packed — watched the performance with tears in their eyes and gave it a standing ovation when it ended.

When he retired, the Law Society of Ontario awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, a thoughtful and sensitive replacement for the degree he was forbidden to use as a young man in Nazi Germany.***


The Holy Blossoms refer to the tender young shoots, the students who study Torah.


** Prior to the passing of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, The Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which passed on April 7, 1933, excluded non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service. The Nuremberg Laws two years later codified the racial theories and ideology of the Nazi party. The first two laws passed in 1935 were the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Jews (defined racially rather than religiously) were stripped of their citizenship, and the new laws had a devastating economic impact on the Jewish community as well.


*** The following is a narration from the dramatized The March of Times radio series about the Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938:


NARRATOR: “Tonight, hour after hour, by short-wave wireless through the ether and along the cables undersea, the news piles up from the capitals of Europe…world-shaking, momentous news that sends Britain’s grave Prime Minister flying to Adolph Hitler and President Roosevelt hurrying back to Washington…the grim, portentous news that Sudeten Germans are in armed revolt, and behind every dispatch the mounting fear that the field-gray German regiments, mobilized and ready, may march into Czechoslovakia. All this week, day after day, and every hour of each day, the news poured in…and tomorrow and all next week, news will come from London, from Paris, from Prague, from Berlin. And as the headlines record each flying fact and rumor, United States citizens watch and wait and try to understand” (“The March of Time: Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938,” Generic Radio Workshop Script Library (




A Fable For Our Times

A Fable For Our Times

“How do you know that your blood is redder than his, perhaps his blood is redder than yours?”

(Rava in Sanhedrin 74a, Talmud)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

I didn’t know yet that the Talmud teaches each and every life has value. I learned it by example when I was eleven years old from an animal, from my pet cat, Buttons. She was a beautiful Persian cat with piercing green eyes and fur so glossy and black it seemed to have purple highlights. Naturally she attracted the attention of some of the neighborhood Toms, and soon we noticed that Buttons seemed heavier around her middle.

Then one evening as I was taking a bath, I heard sounds behind the tile bathroom walls, faint sounds. Mice? No, they seemed to be mewing sounds…behind the wall. Wrapping my towel around me, I rushed to the cupboard just outside our bathroom. Sure enough, the cover to the opening of the wide pipe that ran behind the bathroom wall had been chewed off. I put my ear to the pipe and listened. Yes, those sounds were alive, and, oh, the heated air was warm in there.

With eleven-year-old valor, I reached my hand in as far as I could and touched…wet fur. That is how I lifted out, first one, then two little kittens. But I could still hear a faint mewing. Stretching my arm to the limit, I reached in once more and lifted out a third kitten. Jubilant, I carried them all downstairs to our warm kitchen and settled them comfortably in a basket lined with soft towels. My little sister instantly named them Spic, Span, and Rainbow. Spic was white, Span was black, and Rainbow was multi-colored.

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I thought Buttons would be so pleased to see her kittens safe and sound in the basket. But she was not pleased. No, she was frantic as she touched each of them on the nose and paused. And then again, she counted noses. Then she rushed up the stairs to the bathroom closet and squeezed into the warm pipe. She soon emerged with one kitten (Blondie, we called her because she was a strawberry-blonde), and then with another (Tawny, the color of café au lait). She carried them down one by one to the kitchen basket, and when all five of them were settled, she counted their noses with her own nose. ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE. And then again to make sure. That’s how she took her own census. I didn’t know that cats could count, but they do if it concerns their own children. Finally, she settled contentedly into the basket with her furry kittens – like the biblical Joseph’s coat, a magnificent blend of many colors.

That’s how I learned from one of God’s small creatures – a black cat with diverse children, each of whom she loved — that every life counts. As the Torah teaches, and poets have always known, each star, each grain of sand, each human life matters. Everywhere.

And for the precious gift of our lives, we owe it to God and to ourselves to make every minute, every hour count. To use it well for ourselves in the time that we have – something we especially appreciate as we grow older — and to use it well for the rest of the lives that have been created, for humanity and for all of God’s creatures.



By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


All my grandchildren are teenagers now, learning to make their own near-adult decisions. One is already away at college; another is thoughtfully filling out her college applications; a third is entering high school. Time for choices.

When I moved into my own teenage zone so many years ago, my mother explained that I was old enough to learn how to make decisions on my own. “You make two columns,” she explained in her high-pitched, school-marm’s voice (in her salad days, my mother had been a school teacher with 58 immigrant children in her fifth grade classroom. In those old depression days, jobs were scarce for new graduates without experience, so my spunky mother took a job in a rural school where she taught eight grades in one room. After that, she was able to get a position in an overcrowded city school. So she certainly felt qualified to teach her budding daughter how to make an important decision).

Pros and Cons – Balance and Evaluation Concept

“You head one column with the word ‘PRO,’” she continued. “That’s the column for all the reasons you should something.” I dutifully wrote “PRO” at the top of the first column.

“And then you put ‘CON’ at the top of the second column. That’s where you put all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something.” Respectfully acceding to her instructions, I wrote “CON” at the top of the designated column.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

“You think,” she replied. “You think and think.”

Immediately I started thinking, but I wasn’t sure what I was thinking about.

“Now,” she instructed, “you start writing down all the reasons why you want to do something.”

“What is it I want to do?” I asked.

“Think of something,” she replied. “Something important.”

“Okay,” I replied. I want to play hooky from school and just laze around. For a week. I’m tired of studying.”

“Hmmm,” she said. “Now put all the reasons why that would be a good idea in the PRO column.”

So I did. Only one reason to a line. That was the rule. It was a good thing I had ruled paper. I ended up with 25 PRO reasons.

“Next,” she said. “It’s time for the CONS. Write down all the reasons why you shouldn’t play hooky in the second column.”

I was having a hard time filling up the CON column with as many reasons as the PRO column, but my mother threw in a dozen or so suggestions because you should try to have a reasonably equal number. What you have to do then is balance them. She didn’t mean balance them on a scale. It was more the way a juggler juggles balls. Only you have to juggle them in your mind. Until you make a decision.

I had a sneaking suspicion the CON column made a lot more sense. But I got tired of juggling and chose the PRO column anyway.

That’s how I learned to make a decision. You balance the PROS and the CONS.

So, from then on, every time I had to make a decision, my mother would say, “Why don’t you PRO/CON it?”

This is a tough one,” I complained. “I have to write an essay for school. About capital punishment.”

“Capital punishment?” she gasped. “You mean, when the judge decides a murderer should be executed?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Whether they should do it or not.”

“Oh,” she offered sympathetically. “I’ll help you.”

So together we wrote out lots of PROS and even more CONS, but at the end, even though my mother juggled and juggled in her mind, she couldn’t decide which column carried more weight.

I have to choose,” I exclaimed. The essay is due tomorrow.” She threw up her hands in despair. So, all by myself, I chose the PROS.

“That’s impressive,” she said, relieved that she didn’t have to make a choice. “I think you made a good decision.”

But ten minutes after I laid my head on my pillow, she shook me by the shoulder. “Wake up,” she cried. “I think you made a mistake. Big mistake. Maybe you should have chosen the CONS.

So I got up, and being a dutiful daughter, I listened to my mother who, after all, had more life experience than me. I changed the decision to CON.” And went back to bed.

Then, about three o’clock in the morning, I felt something nudging me. Little nudge. Bigger nudge. It was my mother. “I can’t sleep,” she whispered. “I’ve been thinking about it all night. It should be PRO.”

“Oh no,” I cried. “I’ll change it in the morning.”

“Noooo,” she protested. “You might change your mind in the morning.”

I smiled at my mother. “I’m learning to make a decision,” I said firmly. “MY decision. I’m going to sleep on it!” And I did.

In the morning, I was sure that I had made the right choice. I won’t tell you what it was. It’s my secret. I will tell you that, after that, whenever I had to make a decision, I always made two column, just as my mother had taught me, and I filled them with PROS and CONS. But I did all the juggling in my mind myself.

And what I decided when I was a teenager – and I have lived a long time since then, and it is still true – what I decided is this: Whichever column you choose, there are consequences, even when it is not a life or death situation. If you choose to go one way, there will be consequences, and if you choose to go another way, there will be consequences. But you can’t keep juggling and juggling and be a grown-up, and, once you choose, you can’t have juggler’s remorse, even if you were a school teacher in your salad days. You have to choose.

The Brave — and Smart — Little Penguins


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


Who would have thought that politically correct terminology would extend to the little penguins of Phillip Island, Victoria province, just a couple of hours driving time from the city of Melbourne? In Australia, where my daughter and I were spending a few precious tourist days, these little penguins were formerly called “fairy penguins” because of their small size. The smallest species of penguin (Eudyptula minor), about 13 inches in height and 17 inches in length, they can be found on the coastlines of Southern Australia and New Zealand. Phillip Island is said to be home to about 33,000 breeding adults, its one remaining penguin colony.

To me, a “fairy” conjures up the delicate creatures with gossamer wings that populated my story books when I was a child. Or the cartoon fairies in Walt Disney movies. But, owing to sensitivity to the LGBTQ movement, in recent years the “fairy” penguins are referenced in public documents as “little penguins.” Their Maori name is korora.


In any case, they are much, much smaller than the Emperor penguins of the Antarctic, whose lifestyles were captured in “The March of the Penguins,” an awe-inspiring 2005 documentary that caught the popular imagination. The Emperor Penguins sported black and white feathers, but these little penguins in Australia are blue and white – blue-feathered, to camouflage them from land-predators by blending into the deep blue sea where they spend 80 percent of their time foraging for food for their babies; and white-bellied to protect them from predators swimming below them in the sea. They are the only penguins in the world with blue and white outer feathers, which they keep waterproof by preening (and adding a drop of oil onto every feather from a special gland above the tail). Their feathers adapt into flippers for swimming.

Realizing how unique these penguins are, Penguin Island officials provide a way for interested tourists to watch the nightly parade of little penguins emerging from the sea – a ritual that occurs only at sunset and always at sunset, every day. Visitors must order tickets in advance that allow them to sit on benches set not too close to the sea in order not to scare the penguins but still close enough to see them well. As visitors, my daughter and I had to arrive and be seated early for the same reason.

Oh, it is so cold and windy out there on the beach. The sea is freezing cold too. The penguins like it that way. My daughter and I huddled up close to one another in jackets and hats and blankets, but the sea mist and the wind cut right through. Our fingers and toes froze. Only a few hours earlier we had been in warm and welcoming Melbourne. But we had come too far to retreat to the bus.

It was well worth it though, the experience of a true natural marvel as we watched the little penguins become partly visible, almost separating themselves from the waves one at a time, looking around to see if other penguins had arrived yet, and then ducking back into the sea to wait for the safety of additional penguin company before they braved the land.

There was reason to be fearful. Predators in the form of large land birds – sometimes there are feral dogs or cats as well — were already circling the shore in anticipation of the penguins’ sunset arrival. So the little penguins waited. There would be safety in numbers. You couldn’t help but marvel at the wonders of God’s world as more and more penguins appeared in ones and twos and threes. Finally there were enough to get into formation.

Instinctively they formed a little, single-file army, one brave penguin leading. One after another, they marched, following the penguin ahead in a straight line, no penguin diverging, and, once back in the grasses that lined the shore, they hurried directly to their individual burrows (little Australian penguins live in burrows). The land birds did not have the temerity to attack such a formidable-appearing force, even if individually each penguin was only a little over a foot tall.

How did the little penguins know where to go once they crossed the beach to the grasses that lined the shore? They were directed by the cries of their babies. To our human ears, all of them seemed to be crying out to their mothers together in one huge cacophony of wails. But just as a human mother somehow recognizes the cry of her own baby, so the penguins could identify the sound of their own. And they went straight to where their male partners were still guarding the babies. It was a moment not to be missed.

How do you tell the girls from the boys? The males have a little extra hook on their beaks. They are the ones that guard the babies in their burrows while the females are in the sea for long days, gorging themselves on seafood so that they will able to feed their babies. It’s an interesting feeding mechanism, kind of like an internal blender with a spout. They simply regurgitate the food from their beaks into their baby penguins’ hungry mouths. Economical and efficient. The wails on Phillip Island ceased.

Little penguins don’t necessarily mate for life; it depends on the breeding success of the couples in producing eggs. (Divorce rates may run up to 50 percent.) Normally, the females lay two eggs (about the size of chicken eggs), with an incubation period of 35 days. Yes, both parents take turns in incubating their eggs. Then the little ones head out to sea when they are between 7 to 11 weeks old. And they know what to do! As if they were touched by a fairy wand!