Author Archives

Jordan Michael Smith

I’ve Done a Lot of Forgetting

Getty / Illustration by Homestead

Jordan Michael Smith | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,744 words)

If someone spits bigotry at you while you’re a kid, you’re unlikely to forget it. You’ll remember it not because it’s traumatic, though it can be. You’ll remember it not even because it’s degrading and excruciating, though it is certainly those things, too. No, you’ll remember it because it instills in you an understanding that people are capable of motiveless evil. That humans can be moved to hate because they are hateful. You aren’t given a reason for why people hate you, because they don’t need a reason. You’re you, through no fault of your own, even if you want desperately to be anyone else. And that’s enough.

I am a Canadian. I was born in Markham, which is a small city about 30 kilometers northeast of Toronto. That distance meant a great deal. Markham was a large town of middle- and working-class families when my newlywed parents moved there, in the late 1970s, with a population that hovered around 60,000. It was pretty mixed demographically, I recall, though containing a white majority. My older sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school, except for one other family who arrived after we did and seemed not to attract much ire; I imagined it was because they were beautiful and popular (we were neither).

We were one of the minority of Canadian Jewish families living outside Toronto or Montreal. More than 71% of all Canadian Jews reside in these two cities, according to Allan Levine’s serviceable but unexceptional new book on the history of Jewish Canada, Seeking the Fabled City. Levine describes a familiar story of an immigrant group gradually gaining acceptance (and some power) in a once-largely white Christian country. For the first half of the 20th century, Jews in Canada were arguably detested to a greater degree than in America. By the 21st century, Canadian Jews felt as safe as Jews anywhere felt safe. Levine quotes a Toronto rabbi as saying, “Living in Toronto, my children don’t know that Jews are a minority.” Read more…

A Trip to Tolstoy Farm

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Jordan Michael Smith | Longreads | September 2018 | 29 minutes (7,903 words)

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”

— Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

* * *

Huw Williams is not a hermit. Not exactly. For one thing, he answers a telephone while I’m visiting him. The phone connects to a jack somewhere, although I don’t understand how it can function properly; it seems impossible that a cabin so rudimentary and run-down could support something as technologically advanced as a telephone.

The floors are covered with broken power tools, a machete, unmarked VHS tapes, decades-old newspapers and knocked-over litter boxes once filled by the three cats prowling around. Stenches of urine and filth are masked only by the rot on the stove, where the remains of long-ago meals are eating through the pans they were prepared in. And the cabin is so cold that when anyone speaks, breath becomes vapor.

Dried-out orange peels hang from the ceiling. “It’s a way of breaking up the straight lines,” the 76-year-old Williams tells me cryptically. “I’m averse to being inside a box, with all straight lines.” A radio plays environmental talk radio here in Edwall, a tiny community about 35 miles by car from Spokane, Washington. The radio is part of an ’80s-style dual cassette player, but the trays where the cassettes should go are broken off.

When I came upon Williams’ cabin on a wet afternoon last September, I assumed it was empty. My GPS couldn’t locate it, and neighbors were unsure if it was inhabited. Rusted-out trucks and cars surround the house, which is up on a slight hill atop a dirt road that bisects another dirt road that runs off a few other dirt roads.

But for all his isolation, Williams is not hiding. He grew up on this land, which his parents ran as a cattle and wheat farm. He moved back here in the 1970s after his first wife ran off with their friend and took the kids. He also lived here with his second wife, until she too left him for another man. Anybody could find him, if anybody cared to. Maybe that’s the hardest part.

Williams has prostate cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, melanomas, multiple sclerosis, and he thinks he might be bipolar. He speaks slowly and softly, as if he might run out of breath at any second. He looks the Unabomber part, with his long beard and ragged clothing. But then, he was idiosyncratic even when he used to get out more. He hitchhiked across the country to protest nuclear war, got arrested a time or two, and, after going through a brief celibate period, was a swinger who had sex with his wife’s boyfriend’s mother. Most spectacularly, in 1963 he founded a 240-acre farm nearby that is among the longest-lasting remnants of the ‘60s communes that Charles Manson gave a bad name to. And it was based on the teachings of Leo Tolstoy. Read more…