Esther Povitsky performs at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 22 as part of JFL NorthWest. (photo from JFL NorthWest)
Chicago-born comedian, actor and writer Esther Povitsky is one of several Jewish community members performing in the Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival, which takes place around Metro Vancouver Feb. 13-25. Her credits include being co-creator and star of the show Alone Together, a recurring role on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, parts on programs such as Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreation, stand-up on The Late Late Show and Comedy Central, as well as host of the podcast Glowing Up. The Jewish Independent spoke with her in advance of her Feb. 22 show at the Biltmore Cabaret.
JI: When did you first start doing stand-up and what motivated you to do it?
EP: I love comedy. I love watching it, I love laughing and making people laugh. I also liked the idea of being able to do something creative where I only relied on myself.
JI: Before you started stand-up, what were you working toward education- or career-wise?
EP: I thought I was going to be a professional dancer, and majored in dance in college.
JI: What is it about performing that you most enjoy, in stand-up and in acting?
EP: Having an excuse to drink too much coffee.
JI: When did you move to Los Angeles, and was it for a specific job or more opportunity for work in general?
EP: I did not have any specific jobs lined up! I moved here to pursue stand-up and worked as a babysitter, worked at a gym, a juice bar, and other random gigs.
JI: You describe your stand-up as just being you. Being Jewish on your dad’s side, where/how/does Judaism, Jewish culture or community fit into that, or your comedy series?
EP: I feel that I was raised very culturally Jewish and it’s a big part of my personality and who I am.
JI: In an interview you talk positively about the immediacy of seeing what works and what doesn’t onstage. How do you handle the highs and lows of comedy?
EP: I try to keep busy, stay active, spend quality time with friends and family, do puzzles, watch TV. I try to really focus on doing as many “normal” things as possible.
Povitsky’s Vancouver show is 19+. For tickets and the JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
Jessica Kirson and Big Jay Oakerson are part of the Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival lineup in Vancouver Feb. 13-25. (photos from JFL NorthWest)
The Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival takes place around Metro Vancouver Feb. 13-25. Among the performers are several members of the Jewish community, including Andy Kindler, Jessica Kirson, Big Jay Oakerson and Esther Povitsky. The Jewish Independent recently spoke with Kirson and Oakerson.
Kirson is an award-winning comedian. She has appeared on several talk and TV shows, and has her own podcast, Relatively Sane. She was a consultant, producer, writer and actor in the Robert De Niro film The Comedian and will play herself on the HBO series Crashing with Pete Holmes. As part of JFL NorthWest, she will be at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 17, 9 p.m.
JI: Since the JI spoke with you in 2016 ahead of your Chutzpah! show (jewishindependent.ca/gonna-be-a-fun-night), a lot has happened in your world. Could you share some of your professional highlights over the last few years?
JK: So much has happened. I have done a ton of television and movie appearances. I’m loving traveling all over the world doing stand-up. I am executive producing a movie for FX, a documentary about female comedians; it will première this summer. I had a special come out on Comedy Central called Talking to Myself, in addition to a bunch of other projects.
JI: You’ve been in the podcast world for a long time now. What do you particularly like about the medium?
JK: I started Relatively Sane because I wanted to create a podcast that wasn’t just funny and silly. I wanted it to get real also. I wanted to talk about anxiety, depression, etc. I love it. It’s one of my favorite creative mediums now.
JI: What is the difference, if any, performance or prep-wise between working on a radio show versus a podcast?
JK: It’s very similar. I don’t do a ton of prep work with my guests. I love finding things out while I’m talking to them. It’s more real that way.
JI: Can you tell me a bit about your Comedy Central special, how it came about and what it has meant to you career-wise?
JK: I had felt like I deserved a comedy special years ago. It was the one thing I felt I deserved that I didn’t get. I got a call from Bill Burr. He told me he wanted to produce my special. He shocked me. I feel very grateful to him. When comics do things like that for other performers, it’s amazing. We should all do it for each other.
JI: Similarly, The Comedian and Robert DeNiro. How did that happen?
JK: DeNiro saw me performing at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. He was looking for comics to be in his movie. We met up that week, we connected and I became his right-hand person. I ended up being in the movie and getting a producer credit. The hardest part was showing up every day, giving my opinion and not caring what the producers and director thought. It was very intimidating but I had him by my side so it worked out.
JI: Is getting your own television show still something you’d like to achieve?
JK: Yes, I would love to have a talk show.
* * *
Oakerson has appeared on many television shows. He has recorded two specials, one for Comedy Central in 2016 and one for Netflix in 2018, as well as three albums. He was the host and creator of What’s Your F#$king Deal?! and currently co-hosts the podcasts The Legions of Skanks, The SDR Show and The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder. For the JFL NorthWest festival, he will perform at the Biltmore Cabaret Feb. 19-20, 9:30 p.m.
JI: When did you first start doing stand-up and what motivated you to do it?
BJO: I started doing comedy in 1999 at the urging of a friend who caught up with me after high school and expressed her disappointment in me never trying it before.
JI: In what ways has your stand-up style changed since you first started?
BJO: First of all, my level of nerves is significantly down. I think I’ve evolved it into a very comfortable style of storytelling and interaction versus joke writing/telling than I started with.
JI: Did you grow up in a household where you were encouraged to form and express your own opinions?
BJO: I don’t recall anyone in my household being highly opinionated about anything.
JI: Were you a witty or mouthy child?
BJO: 30% mouthy, 70% witty.
JI: What role, if any, does being Jewish, Judaism, Jewish culture or community have in your life and/or your career?
BJO: I thought I’d get a bump in this business because I’m Jewish, and nothing. I guess I’m not that kind of Jewish.
JI: What is it about pushing the boundaries that you most enjoy, and to what purpose do you do it?
BJO: “Edgy comedy” was generally the comedy I was drawn to growing up, so it’s just sort of how my humour developed. If I can make you question things or think about a different perspective on something, great, but, ultimately, I’m just trying to make people laugh.
JI: Are there any red lines you won’t cross?
BJO: Not if I think I can make the subject more funny than offensive.
JI: What do you enjoy most about doing podcasts?
Both Oakerson’s and Kirson’s shows are 19+. For tickets and the full JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
In next week’s JI: an interview with Esther Povitsky.
Left to right, Three Echoes artists Sorour Abdollahi, Devora and Sidi Schaffer. Their exhibit, Hope and Transformation, is at Amelia Douglas Gallery until Feb. 29. (photo from Three Echoes)
Connected by similar values and inspirations in their creative work and in their lives more generally, Sidi Schaffer, Sorour Abdollahi and Devora are longtime friends. Their fifth exhibit together – as the informal collective Three Echoes – is called Hope and Transformation. It is at the Amelia Douglas Gallery at Douglas College in New Westminster until Feb. 29.
“Art transcends the limitations of time, space, language and cultural background,” said Devora in her written remarks, prepared for the exhibit’s opening Jan. 16, which was postponed because of the snow, and given Jan. 21. “The echoes from within spill over onto the canvases,” she said. “Together, our works create a dialogue of hope and transformation.”
Devora told the Independent that the name for the exhibit came “through talk and discussion between the three of us in reflecting on our individual and collective journeys and where we found ourselves, and the world, at that moment.”
“Today, there is a lot of anxiety about globalization and migration,” Abdollahi said. “As an immigrant artist, my art deals with connections between cultures and hybridity. Therefore, my works might help serve as a bridge and tell the immigrant story.”
Abdollahi was born and raised in Iran, where she graduated with a diploma in Persian literature from Yazd University and a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Art in Tehran. In Vancouver, where she settled 20 years ago, she studied at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She writes in the exhibit catalogue that her Iranian heritage and Canadian experience “have had a tremendous influence on my works’ subject matter, dealing with the mediation between the modern and the ancient, the old and the new, the West and the East.”
The artist uses collage, a multi-layering technique and mixed media. “My works show the relationship between culture and environment and migration,” Abdollahi explained to the Independent. “Our environments are changing both internally in our mind and externally, and my works illustrate this change. My works create negotiation between different cultures and societies.”
Schaffer also started her fine arts education in her birth country, Romania. In Israel, she received a degree in art education and taught in the school system for more than a decade. When she came to Canada in 1975, she studied at the University of Alberta, where she majored in printmaking and painting. Initially focused on abstraction, her work has become “more integrated, combining abstract and figurative forms,” she writes in the catalogue. “Now I am continually exploring new possibilities with mixed media, a combination of print, drawing, painting and collage. Important for me is the visual poetry, the relationship of form, space, colour and light. Some of my works in this show are a combination of collages of different things from nature and painting; others are collages of my own imagination.”
“I am an optimist and also I am amazed about the continuous transformation in nature around me,” Schaffer told the Independent. “I combined my love and respect for the beauty of flowers and leaves, surrounding them with hope, and new imaginary landscapes. In a way, I give the dry flowers a new life, bringing them out from the pages of old books.”
As for Devora, she told the JI, “What gives me hope is my relationship with the Divine – that there is no separation, that we are all connected and made of stardust, that we are all on an unfolding journey of being together. I attempt to express that emotion onto the canvas.”
For Devora, art has the power to transform the viewer when the viewer can hear her work speak to them from their own experience. “At the opening,” she said, “the Douglas College students from two classes – one poetry class and one art history class – gathered around and engaged with all three of our works, asking questions, wanting to understand the process, the intention and how they could relate from their own lives to what they were seeing.”
Normally, only the art history students attend each artist talk. However, after Devora shared that the Zack Gallery at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver hosts Pandora’s Collective poetry nights, where members of the collective create works inspired by the art, the Amelia Douglas Gallery invited the poetry class, as well.
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., where she earned a master’s at California School of Professional Psychology, Deborah Ross does all of her creative work under her maternal grandmother’s name, Devora, in honour of her grandmother, who was murdered in the Holocaust. “Her spirit gives me the strength and confidence to create,” said the artist in her remarks for the exhibit.
Devora, who now lives both in Vancouver and on Salt Spring Island, came to Canada in 1993. She has studied art at Emily Carr, Langara College and elsewhere. “My artwork reflects the love I have for the creative process and exploration,” she writes in the exhibit catalogue. “I am fascinated by the inner world of emotion, dream, metaphor and story and strive to illuminate both the universal and personal by bringing them onto the canvas.
“My latest works explore the interplay and continuum between abstract and representational images of landscapes and figure, and a fascination with the surreal, in mixed media combining acrylic and collage.”
In her remarks for the exhibit opening, Devora explained, “My art reflects a search for understanding and clarity about my personal and ancestral history and the world. My experiences inform my work as I go inside and bring them onto the canvas. I endeavour to transform darkness into the light of hope. I am interested in what is hidden and how it informs what is revealed.”
She noted that she, Abdollahi and Schaffer “turned to esthetics as a way to focus and navigate our journey.” And she expanded on this concept. “Through the lens of esthetics combined with the common immigrant experience and effects of war and displacement,” she said, “the three of us have managed to bridge all other divides: language, ethnicity, culture, religion and country of origin. Our childhood environments and experiences could not have been more different on the surface and yet the foundations of connection and similarity were already being laid down, established through the development of the lens of sensitivity to beauty in the world and compassion for the human experience.
“Our ideal, of different cultures living in harmony, is reflected in our own personal experiences, in which intimate exposure to the world of ‘the other,’ unearths commonalities and gives rise to a greater depth of understanding about our own lives.”
She concluded, “In closing, I would like to quote Sorour, as Sidi and I feel that her words speak for all three of us: ‘In my friendship and collaboration with Sidi and Deborah, I see an opportunity to explore and express my own culture, but also to relate these themes to other cultural experiences – recognizing the echoes of each other in our works and our lives. My works side by side those of my friends’ works create a dialogue and negotiation which hopefully provides the viewer with a different vision of the world – one which is borderless, free and peaceful.’”
Malka Martz-Oberlander, left, and Dalia Currie are co-directing Little Shop of Horrors, which is at the Red Gate Revue Stage from Feb. 6-9. (photos from TES Theatre)
At 17, many Jewish Independent readers were probably spending most of their time hanging out with friends, maybe doing a music or art class or two, some sports activities. In addition to being a student, 17-year-old Jewish community member Malka Martz-Oberlander is a filmmaker, writer, film and theatre director, cartoonist, musical theatre actress and photographer. Her latest initiative is a production of Little Shop of Horrors, which is at the Red Gate Revue Stage on Granville Island Feb. 6-9.
Presenting the production is TES Theatre, or Transforming Education, which, explained Martz-Oberlander, was “originally the theatre program at the one-of-a-kind Windsor House School: a democratic, multi-campus, K-12 school in East Vancouver.
“When Windsor House School closed down last year,” she said, “former principal Meghan Carrico decided to start a theatre company for the students, like myself, who wanted to continue to do theatre and musical theatre together. The program that arose after the school’s devastating closure is grounded in the same democratic philosophy. Our mission is to make sure any student who wants to do any aspect of musical theatre can and will be supported by a willing cast and a professional musical theatre teacher.”
Martz-Oberlander is co-directing Little Shop of Horrors with Dalia Currie. Last June, the pair co-directed a production of Much Ado About Nothing that Currie adapted. According to Martz-Oberlander, Currie “loves Shakespeare” and has “co-directed and acted in many of the Bard’s shows,” including playing the role of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018, as part of the Carousel Theatre Teen Shakespeare Program.
Currie found musical theatre through joining Windsor House in 2018, said Martz-Oberlander. “She played Olive Ostrovsky in The 20th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Gaston in Beauty vs. Beast, an original parody of the tale as old as time.”
For her part, Martz-Oberlander performed with Encore Musical Theatre (formerly Broadway Edge) for four years, then performed in two shows with Windsor House School and, this year, is a member of Arts Umbrella’s Pre-professional Musical Theatre Troupe.
Martz-Oberlander said she and Currie initially pitched Little Shop of Horrors to the theatre company because they had both grown up watching it, “and we were very excited at the thought of directing our first musical together this year with the mentorship of our new musical theatre teacher, Isabella Halladay, who is a local musical theatre artist.”
The production involves around 30 people, said Martz-Oberlander, “and all but three of them are students. We held auditions for people within our theatre community,” she said. “We made sure that anyone who was interested has been involved in some way, whether it be onstage or in the tech booth. The actors range from age 14 to 19. There is no live band, we have backing tracks.”
Little Shop of Horrors, both a film and a Broadway musical from the 1980s, is now back on Broadway, said Martz-Oberlander. “It’s about an orphan boy taken in and given a job by Mr. Mushnik, a European Jewish immigrant and the owner of a run-down flower shop in the ‘bad part of town.’”
Despite the fact that both writers of the musical were Jewish – Howard Ashman (who passed away in 1991) and Alan Menken – Martz-Oberlander said that she and Currie were concerned about the portrayal of certain characters, in particular that of Mr. Mushnik.
“As a cast and individually, we have discussed when it’s good to bring out stereotypes and when it’s actually really harmful,” Martz-Oberlander told the Independent. “For example, the character Mr. Mushnik seems like a two-dimensional, money-hungry shop owner. The character embodies this Jewish stereotype throughout the whole story. My non-Jewish co-director and I have tried our best to approach this thought-provoking comedic piece with the intention of not perpetuating hurtful stereotypes. When producing a show written in a different decade, when values were different, it’s so important to come at it from an authentic, respectful and knowledgeable way.”
Martz-Oberlander had only praise for the production’s venue, the Red Gate Revue Stage. Saying that the cast and creative team were “incredibly lucky to get to rehearse and perform” there, she added, “I think a place like the Revue is vital at a time in Vancouver where things are less and less affordable – to have arts spaces and small theatres like the Revue is very important.”
As for Little Shop of Horrors, Martz-Oberlander said, “I think it’s a great opportunity to come out and support local youth-directed theatre and watch a fantastic show! This show is really a one-of-a-kind, hilarious science fiction musical that will have you humming tunes for weeks after.”
Gila Green will talk about her two latest books at the Jewish Book Festival on Feb. 9. (photo from JCC Jewish Book Festival)
From the first page, White Zion reads like a memoir. Through 16 short stories, we get to know Miriam and her family, from her great-grandparents to her own children, as well as the places they are from, including Yemen, Israel at various points in its history and Canada. It is easy to wonder how much of Miriam is her creator, Israeli-based writer Gila Green, who will be at the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival Feb. 9.
“The stories in White Zion are all about emotional truths,” Green told the Jewish Independent. “So, if that’s what’s coming across, that is some measure of success. I did not say this but Alice Munro did – I recall reading an interview with her in which she said: ‘If your audience thinks all you did was wake up and write down everything that happened to you yesterday, then you’ve succeeded.’ I would love to hear about how readers relate to these emotional truths, how they connect.”
Green will also bring her young adult novel No Entry to the festival, for which she will talk at both the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (12:30 p.m.) and the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre (4 p.m.) that Sunday.
The heroine of No Entry is Yael Amar, a teenager from Ottawa, which was where Green was born and has lived. Yael has traveled to South Africa to intern for a spell at a private bush camp near Kruger National Park. (Green’s husband is South African, and Green has lived in the country.) There with the intent of helping protect elephants from poachers, Yael ends up in danger herself.
Despite the connections her books may, or may not, have with her own family, Green prefers to write fiction. She described nonfiction as “limiting” for her.
“As soon as someone tells me to write a true story, I’m suffocating,” she said. “I have to start questioning what is fact, what is memory, what lacks context, what is something I’ve just convinced myself is true and on and on. I spent four years at Carleton [University in Ottawa] studying for a journalism degree, so all of that kicks in. In the end, the short story is a wrung-out sock, more like a dozen tangled wrung-out socks. No one wants to read a sock. There is no connecting with it.”
Fiction allows for the expression of emotional truths that would be impossible to express otherwise, she said.
“Writing fiction allows me to hone in on a feeling – something I want my audience to feel, which is how I start every story I write. I ask myself, ‘How do I want this story to make the reader feel?’ and I start from there – and I can hold that emotion under a magnifying glass. I can distort it, blow it sky high, cut interference to ant height or delete. I can take one characteristic of one person on a single day about a single event and I can magnify it, so that the rest of the human being is rendered invisible. These were some of my goals with White Zion. The characters are all gross distortions of one human trait or another.”
But that doesn’t mean that facts don’t enter her work.
“I tried to be as faithful as possible to the historical period,” she said, referring to the stories in White Zion, “and I spent months researching everything, from what vegetables they could have been selling in the Jerusalem market post-1948 to how they could possibly have been heating their homes. I also used the same biographical details for two of the characters, Miriam and her father. It was important for me that Jewish fiction expand to include Yemenite voices, religious voices, gay voices, the more voices the better.”
Green also did much research for No Entry and, in addition to crafting an entertaining, at-times tense, thriller-like novel, she educates readers on the nature of elephants and the very real threat of their extinction.
“Yael is a Jewish eco-heroine,” said Green, who noted that the character’s boyfriend, David, is also Jewish. “She’s not religious but both of her parents are Jewish – she mentions in No Entry how the South African traditional dish she tastes for the first time reminds her of her mother’s chulnt on the Sabbath and, in No Fly Zone, she has an Israeli-themed dinner with her parents. None of the other characters are Jewish…. I do like exploring different kinds of Jews though. If readers want a more obvious Jewish heroine in the sequel[s], please write to me.”
Green has finished writing No Fly Zone, the next book in what might become a series. In it, she said, “Yael Amar is back with her best friend Nadine Kelly, this time protecting Kruger National Park from the skies. But she is about to learn a big lesson when it comes to moral relativity and friendship.”
Green added, “I set out to thread the senseless loss of human life with the equally nonsensical destruction of animals in No Entry and I continue this in the sequel. I did this not because I’m trying to make a point about the connection or status between humans and animals – that’s the wrong way to understand my motivation. Rather, I’m trying to weave together the criminals who commit these inhuman acts: they’re connected.
“Often,” she said, “the same people willing to sell illegal blood ivory are involved in terrorism, human slavery and other acts that bring nothing but grief to the planet. I wish to emphasize this linkage, to shout it from the rooftops. But, in real life, I figured an exciting, adventurous, teen novel was a more effective way to go.
“I purposely made the terrorist event [in No Entry] happen in Canada because I want to get the message across that fatal betrayal doesn’t just happen in Africa or the Middle East. That attitude might allow some of us to feel off the hook. It happens everywhere and we all have to make sure we are part of the solution or there won’t be one and that thought is too devastating to imagine. I refuse to go there and No Entry ends on a victorious note for a reason.”
Though the sequel has been written, its publication date will depend on what happens in Australia and the bushfires that continue to destroy the country. Green shared, “I am very sad to say that my publisher Stormbird Press was on Kangaroo Island and has burned to the ground. The staff was evacuated on Dec. 20th. We are all praying for their safety and that they fully recover but, for now, everything is at a standstill and there is terrible devastation.”
Green is already working on her next novel. In A Prayer Apart, her main character, for the first time, is male, she said. “He’s an Israeli-Jewish teenager living through the 2014 war with Hamas, knowing he’s next in line for the front line. By the same token, he’s had it with his parents and school and his rebellious behaviour lands him in lockdown, one step away from juvenile jail.”
She said she will let readers know on her website, gilagreenwrites.com, when the publication details are finalized.
An avid reader since childhood and now a prolific writer, with four books published since 2013 and two more on the way, Green said, “Mankind cannot live without stories. Period. We are our stories. When people are down, what they are really saying very often is they don’t feel connected. Stories connect us.”
Gary Shteyngart opens the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival on Feb. 8 at Rothstein Theatre. (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
“You want to know the first rule of running a billion-dollar-plus hedge fund?” Lake Success protagonist Barry Cohen recalls telling the high school boys who invited him to speak to their Investors’ Club. “Don’t sweat the metrics. We’re not really about the numbers. Do you know what we are? We are a story. Hedge funds are a story about how we’re going to make money. They’re about being smart, gaining access, associating with someone great. You. You are someone smart enough to make others feel smart. You are bringing your investors something far more elusive than a metric. You’re bringing them the story of how great you’ll be together.”
Through the character of Barry Cohen, on his journey to what would be self-discovery if he were at all self-aware, author Gary Shteyngart explores the societal circumstances in the United States that led to the election of President Donald Trump – and could well do so again.
Shteyngart opens the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival on the night of Feb. 8. In conversation with CBC’s Lisa Christiansen at Rothstein Theatre, he will no doubt talk about his latest novel, Lake Success, about a hedge-fund manager who flees his wife and young child, who has recently been diagnosed with severe autism, as well as a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into his financial dealings.
Barry is stuck in a childlike state. He had a difficult father and his mother was killed in a car crash, a death Barry witnessed and which haunts him. Barry yearns for affection; he cannot regulate his emotions. He believes himself to be a self-made man and he is constantly coming across people he thinks would benefit from his mentorship, from fellow fund managers to a poor black youth he encounters on his travels to his first girlfriend, with whom he is trying to reconnect – hence, the bus trip. He is trying to find her, in the hopes of rekindling that relationship, and all the lost hope it encapsulated, while disregarding all the relationships – personal and business – he has left behind in New York City.
The main female characters in Lake Success – Barry’s wife, Seema, and his former girlfriend, Layla – are not as well-constructed as is Barry. Despite a sympathetic portrayal, it is hard to understand what anyone would see in Barry, yet he manages to attract smart and beautiful women. The novel provides some explanation as to why Seema would marry him, including family expectations. And, after meeting him for the first time, she recalls, “she went home and Googled Barry’s net worth and found it comforting. A man that rich couldn’t be stupid. Or, Seema thought now, was that the grand fallacy of 21st-century America?” So, she thought she was connecting with an intelligent and wealthy man, but how Barry continues to be an attractive prospect to women (and men) after he cowardly runs away from his responsibilities and is nearly penniless is a bit of a mystery.
For some readers, Shteyngart might come down a little too easy on the one-percent, as exemplified by Barry, Seema and the few people we meet in their realm. When the Jewish Independent asked the author why it was important to imbue the character of Barry with humanity, Shteyngart said, “Books about inhumane characters are not fun to write. Imagine an entire novel set from Trump’s point of view. Eat burger, get angry, eat burger, get angry. It’s just not 330 pages worth of material.”
That is not to say that Shteyngart is condoning the lifestyle of the ultra-rich; in fact, quite the opposite, though he does so with seeming resignation.
“Without giving too much away for the new reader,” he said, “Barry does change. Somewhat. Slightly. But the damage that has been done to the country socially and politically by Barry-like oligarchs is not going to go away, even if the next election ends the so-called Trump Era.”
While Lake Success doesn’t offer insight into how the divisions in Trump’s United States could be repaired, Shteyngart’s acerbic wit and astute observations offer an entertaining read that will hopefully elicit readers’ introspection about our own privilege and identities, how we define and carry ourselves in the world. Both Barry and Seema have a conflicted relationship with their cultural heritage; Barry his Jewish, Seema her Tamil.
As Barry holds his three-week-old son in his arms – long before the autism has been diagnosed – “he whispered through all his agnostic lapsed-Jew bullshit, ‘Please, God, just don’t do anything to him, okay? My sins are my own.’”
Later in the novel, on the bus as it enters Louisiana, Barry overhears a conversation between two white men, one an aspiring preacher who declares hatred of “any kind of ignorance,” then goes on to explain why “they nailed Jews to the cross” and that “Muhammad was killed, because he couldn’t accept Jesus Christ as permanent.” At that moment, “Barry realized that the man was now looking at him. And also that he was a Jew. He hadn’t really thought of being Jewish since he was in grade school. But he did now.”
Even later, Barry would again look at his heritage differently, considering how it could be passed on to his son. For the most part, though, Barry is perceived as a white male throughout the novel.
“Yes, it’s very strange,” said Shteyngart about being Jewish in America. “I was being interviewed by a Jewish intellectual who was trying to convince me that we weren’t white. Which is oddly enough the talking point of the neo-fascist right. In any case, the feeling that Jews were a part of the American mainstream – think Seinfeld – has been badly shaken both by the physical attacks against Jews and by the general feeling that the country is now being run as an exclusive enclave for straight white Christian males with the occasional sprinkling of Sheldon Adelson.”
Lake Success is a provocative read with some brilliant one-liners, such as the description of neighbours in their building, whom Barry hates, as being “so featureless, they could have come with the hallway,” and, when he faces difficulty becoming a writer, Barry concludes, “He was a damaged person, but not damaged enough to make a life out of it.”
The Jewish Book Festival runs to Feb. 13 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and other venues. For the full lineup, visit jewishbookfestival.ca.
Ben Caplan is narrator and co-creator of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, as part of the PuSh festival. (photo by Stoo Metz Photography)
The 2020 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival opens next week. Among the highlights is Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which follows Chaim and Chaya from the pogroms in Romania they are fleeing, to Halifax’s Pier 21, where they meet in 1908, to Montreal, where they end up living. The show, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, is narrated and co-created by Halifax-based musician and performer Ben Caplan, with whom the Jewish Independent recently spoke.
JI: How and when did you become involved in the production?
BC: It all started with a phone call from 2b Theatre Company’s artistic co-director Christian Barry in mid-2015. Christian was familiar with my work as a songwriter and performer in the music world and he wondered if I would be interested in collaborating on creating a theatrical production featuring new songs that we would write together.
To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I tend to be a very solitary writer and, though I had a lot of experience in theatre many years ago, it had been a decade since I had performed in theatre. The first few writing sessions were pleasant enough and Christian and I got along great, but we were struggling to find the story that we wanted to tell. As we were searching and exploring to find the substance of what the work would consist of, a confluence of events conspired to show us the story that would become Old Stock.
The first thing was our growing consciousness of the scale of the human tragedy emerging in Syria as a growing number of refugees started trying to find their way out of the violence. Next came Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments about “Old Stock Canadians” during the 2015 leadership debate. This othering of “non-Old Stock Canadians” seemed to be vile and absurd. At what point does one get to call themselves “Old Stock”? I am the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants who came to Canada fleeing violence in their own home countries. Was I supposed to think of myself as “Old Stock” or did I fit into some other category in our [then] prime minister’s logic.
Around this time, Christian’s wife, who happens to be the celebrated playwright Hannah Moscovitch, gave birth to their first child, Elijah, and came across the immigration records of her own great-grandparents who immigrated to Canada in 1908 through Pier 2 in Halifax. She realized that, if her great-grandparents hadn’t made the journey to Canada, she would not exist, let alone her infant child. It was then that Hannah asked if she could write the scenes for the show we were trying to create.
With Christian’s vision of the artistic whole, my work as composer and lyricist, and Hannah’s work as playwright, we were off to the races and we worked together to create the show. We thought that the Jewish story from 110 years ago had a striking and tragic resonance with the tragedy unfolding in our own time. I should mention that, of course, the originating cast, musical director Graham Scott, our production manager and designer Louisa Adamson, and many others played a huge role in realizing the vision and bringing the music and the play into the world.
JI: In broad strokes, could you describe how the co-writing process worked?
BC: Christian Barry created the structures and conditions that made it possible for any of these songs to be written. I was probably not always the easiest artist to work with – I tend to desire quiet and solitude when I am writing.
The way it usually worked is that Christian would book a time and a space in whatever city we were able to meet up in (we did writing in Halifax, Montreal, Stratford and Banff) and the day would start with conversations and questions. We would talk, share ideas, listen to music, read texts, Google things, etc.
Out of our conversations and questions, the idea for a song would emerge. The first one we wrote was something for their arrival at Pier 2. We didn’t have a scene or a broader context to work with but, after awhile, Christian would say something like, “We know they are going to come through Pier 2, let’s start there.” I sat at the piano and started mashing out some chords and throwing words into the air. Christian had a wonderfully delicate touch after I got rolling, and would provide helpful comments, critiques, and throw ideas into the room.
JI: What is it about the production that drew you back to performing?
BC: I had stopped performing in the theatre after I became somewhat disillusioned of the possibilities of making a career in theatre. In 2005, the year I did my last theatre performance, I was working on academic pursuits, theatre and my hobby as a singer-songwriter. My life was over-full and something had to give. My logic was something like, in theatre, you need to rely on finding a lot of talented people who are willing to work on a project that takes a lot of time and resources to complete. As a singer-songwriter, there is more room to work solo and bring other people into the project as interest and resources permit. So, that’s the path I chose to express my artistic impulses. I gave up the dream of becoming an actor to focus on the more reasonable and safe path of becoming a songwriter. Ha!
When Christian called me to ask me to make a piece of theatre with him, it was a no-brainer. Being a part of this show has been one of the great privileges of my life. Not only did I get to collaborate with a crazy good team on writing the thing, but I had the opportunity to perform on stages that I wouldn’t have dared to dream of stepping onto when I was making theatre 10 years ago. It’s been an amazing learning experience and one that is sure to influence my work as a performer for the rest of my career.
JI: In what ways does the story and/or themes of Old Stock speak to you as a Canadian in 2020?
BC: What is most meaningful for me about the story and themes of the show is the humanization of the character of the refugee. It has been disturbing to see the ways in which migrants have been portrayed by so many politicians and media outlets around the world. They are often spoken of as hordes, masses and statistics. What is lost are the individual human lives – people with hopes, dreams, fears and trauma searching for a safe harbour.
In Old Stock, we tell the story of Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents coming to Canada. We see their struggles to overcome their past and to generate new and complicated identities. I think that we all, as human beings, have complicated and multi-layered identities. I think that, among other things, this show is about demonstrating layered and sometimes tragic identities with compassion and a healthy dose of humour. That’s basically the most Canadian thing I can think of.
For tickets to Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story and other PuSh shows, visit pushfestival.ca. The soundtrack to Old Stock is available on Spotify, YouTube and elsewhere.
Joanna Garfinkel is part of the creative team behind the world première production of Berlin: The Last Cabaret, part of the PuSh festival. (photo from the artist)
The world première of Berlin: The Last Cabaret, presented at Performance Works Jan. 23-26 by City Opera Vancouver in association with Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre, is almost sold out. Part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the only tickets that remain will be sold at the door, though writer and Jewish community member Joanna Garfinkel told the Independent, “I hope we are able to add more presentation opportunities, as well, since this is truly becoming an exciting and rich production.”
Set in Nazi Germany in 1934, a group of artists must decide whether or not to perform their new political show – which, reads the press release for Berlin, “challenges state media, calls out the Nazi classification of gay individuals as ‘degenerates’ and includes parodic inflection that women are being marginalized” under the new regime – or save themselves.
The opera takes place “two weeks after ‘the Night of Long Knives,’” said Garfinkel, “when the future had been cast, but many were not yet seeing it, including my own family. One thing that interested me a great deal is how people are forced to make compromises under oppression, and even make excuses for what’s happening around them.”
The “Night of the Long Knives” was the June 30, 1934, purge by Hitler of more than 85 members of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi party’s initial paramilitary wing.
Rather than being a satire itself, Garfinkel explained that Berlin: The Last Cabaret “is more an unearthing of the under-heard Jewish and queer artists who flourished in the Weimar era and were crushed by the Holocaust. The humour we employ is their urgent satire, which feels fresh and relevant with all that is going in the world right now.
“My own family escaped from Berlin to Winnipeg (eventually), so I am both bound to respect and honour the history, and also privy to the dark humour we employ about it.”
City Opera Vancouver approached Garfinkel last spring, she said. They had “heard about me from my dramaturgical work with Playwrights Theatre Centre and the historically based Japanese Problem for my own company, Universal Limited. I was excited by the opportunity to work with an opera company, which would be new to me, but on something quite close to my heart, history and interest.”
The relevance of the opera was one of the reasons she joined its creative team. In regard to choosing projects in general, she said, “Right now, it feels like art must be speaking to the world and on behalf of marginalized voices. Theatre is too much work, and the world too messed up, to work on projects that don’t resonate on an activist level. I am lucky right now to get to choose to work on things that are so resonant.”
Garfinkel, who is billed as librettist for the production, clarified that categorization.
“I contributed story, structure and additional dialogue for this piece,” she said, “but it’s important to note that the songs themselves are historical, written by composers Eisler, Spoliansky, Hollaender and Weil, so I am not, technically, the librettist. However, building a story and play around preexisting songs presents its own challenges. It was of central importance to me that the Jewish/queer and other marginalized artists of the time were centred in our story.
“We were working with excellent (but unavailable!) collaborators in our composers and, together with director Alan Corbishley, music director and historian Roger Parton and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, tried to honour their work and build a vital story around it.”
Cheyenne Friedenberg is also a member of the Jewish community.
Berlin: The Last Cabaret stars actors with a background in music and spoken theatre, rather than traditional opera singers, and each performer, according to the press release, “was involved in the creation of their on-stage characters and storylines.” The production features a live four-person band.
Jane Remocker and her daughter, Catriona, holding a photo of Geoff Remocker, who passed away in 2016 from pancreatic cancer. (photo from BRCAinBC Committee)
Education is a key goal of the upcoming One in 40: From Awareness to Empowerment event being held at Congregation Beth Israel on Jan. 8.
“BRCA 1 and 2 is the code for variant mutations of two genes known to increase the lifetime risk of several serious cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers and other cancers linked to reproduction in women and prostate cancers in men, as well as pancreatic cancers and melanoma in all genders,” explains the BRCAinBC Committee’s project primer. One in 40 is the probability of carrying the genes among Ashkenazi Jews – compared to a risk of 1/500 to 1/1000 in the general population.
The BRCAinBC Committee, organizer of the One in 40 event, describes itself as “a group of concerned members of the Jewish community in British Columbia, many of whom have been affected personally or in our families by the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes and genetically linked cancers.”
The committee’s work is supported by Beth Israel, which is its home, as well as many other community members, organizations and institutions, including the B.C. Cancer Agency, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Diamond Family Philanthropic Fund.
“There are currently no efforts being made in British Columbia to create awareness or cover general genetic testing for people of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage – in the past, this was due to the prohibitive expense of testing,” notes the primer.
“There have been significant recent gains in the medical community around improving the affordability of testing for genetic mutations,” it continues, “however, awareness of risk is still low amongst members of the Jewish community and, currently, holding a risk profile of being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent is not sufficient to be covered for genetic testing under B.C.’s Medical Services Plan (MSP).”
The impetus for the committee and the One in 40 event was the death of Geoff Remocker of aggressive prostate cancer in 2016. After he died, his wife, Jane Remocker, and the family met with Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. She explained to the Jewish Independent in a phone interview that, as members of the congregation, there were donations being made to the synagogue in her husband’s honour, and the rabbi wanted to know where the family wanted to direct the funds. The couple’s youngest daughter, Catriona, who works in the healthcare field, suggested they do something with respect to BRCA genes. Since they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do on the topic, the donations were held in a discretionary fund until Jane Remocker scheduled a meeting with the rabbi and her daughter two years later, in June 2018.
“By then, she and I had ideas and came up with our three basic goals,” Jane Remocker told the Independent. The three short-term goals of the committee were education and awareness within the Jewish community, and easier access to information about the BRCA genes; advocacy, which involves providing information about and access to screening options, both private and public; and fundraising to cover what has become the One in 40 community-wide education event and the BRCAinBC.ca website, which will be launched in January.
Since Geoff Remocker didn’t meet the criteria for B.C. Cancer Agency’s Hereditary Cancer Program, which offers genetic counseling and testing for “residents who may have inherited an increased risk for specific types of cancer,” he signed up for a B.C. Cancer study of drugs that treat prostate cancer, which included gene testing.
Remocker said he signed up for the study because, “as he said to me, ‘I don’t think the drugs will help me, I think it’s too late. But, if there’s a gene that’s driving this cancer to be aggressive and resistant to treatment needed, that knowledge will help other people.’” It was discovered that he was indeed a BRCA carrier.
Part of the issue, said Remocker about why her husband wasn’t eligible for the Hereditary Cancer Program, was that, while they knew some of her mother-in-law’s medical history, they knew nothing about her father-in-law’s side of the family, who came from Poland and Russia.
“And this is not uncommon,” she said. In addition to this generation not talking about health issues, in general, there wasn’t so much knowledge about health back then.
While a lack of family medical history can be one obstacle in getting genetic testing, she said, another is that many people don’t realize that men can be carriers of the BRCA mutant genes.
“They thought it was only a gene that affected women as breast cancer,” said Remocker. It is important, therefore, and a goal of the committee’s educational program, to make sure that Jewish men – especially if they have roots in Europe – know that they are possible carriers and, therefore, consider getting screening.
Confirmed panelists for the One in 40 event are Dr. Rona Cheifetz, medical lead of the Hereditary High Risk Clinic, B.C. Cancer Agency; and Dr. Intan Shrader, who, along with Dr. Sophie Sun, is co-medical director of the B.C. Cancer Hereditary Cancer Program. The panel will also feature medical oncologist Dr. Daniel Khalaf of the B.C. Cancer Agency and Jewish community member Tovah Carr, a BRCA carrier. There will be a chance for audience members to ask questions.
Keynote speaker Libby Znaimer of Zoom Media is national spokesperson for Pancreatic Cancer Canada; she is a cancer survivor and a BRCA gene carrier. Her personal fight against breast and pancreatic cancer is the subject of the 60-minute documentary Cancer Saved My Life, which discusses “the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations that predispose people to pancreatic cancer, and the connection between BRCA and breast and ovarian cancer,” as well as the “groundbreaking research going on in Canada and Israel, where there is a BRCA-rich population.”
The BRCAinBC.ca website will be “a one-stop place for people to go to get information about the genes and the mutations that indicate the cancer risk and where they can go for private screening if they don’t meet Hereditary Cancer’s criteria or they don’t want to wait,” said Remocker.
Hereditary Cancer has a long wait list, she said, so the website will have some options for private screening. “We’ve researched and found a number of accredited medical genetic labs that do specific inherited Jewish genes screening and we know that, [for] at least two of them, the results are accept[ed] by the Hereditary Cancer Program.”
Currently, the cost for private testing is about $250 US, said Remocker. This alternative means that, “instead of waiting six to 12 months to get your first interview with the Hereditary Cancer Program, you get a saliva test, you apply. They send the package to you, you send it back and you get your results anywhere from two to six weeks.”
A person can then take those results to their family doctor, she said, as a referral is needed for the HCP.
The website will also feature personal stories of those who have been affected by the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, as well as links to current research and resources.
Michelle Capobianco, the executive director of Pancreatic Cancer Canada, will be in attendance at One in 40, Catriona Remocker told the Independent. “[T]hey are considering working with us to roll out similar events to Jewish communities across Canada to improve awareness,” she said.
Jacob Samuel is at Yuk Yuk’s Vancouver Dec. 27-28 to record his debut stand-up comedy album. (photo from Jacob Samuel)
Jacob Samuel’s headlining performances at Yuk Yuk’s Vancouver Dec. 27 and 28 are special – Samuel is recording his debut stand-up comedy album live.
“I have complete freedom content-wise, and I am trying to record an album that has 45 minutes of the best jokes possible,” Samuel told the Independent. “I’ll mainly be recording jokes from the act I’ve honed over the last five to six years in venues throughout Canada. Part of my act has jokes about being Jewish and Judaism that I’m very proud of because they challenge stereotypes people may have about Jewish people as opposed to confirming them.”
The last couple of years have been productive for Samuel.
In 2017, he was part of the television taping at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and he made his first appearance on CBC’s The Debaters. Since then, he has appeared two more times at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and has returned to The Debaters, as well.
In 2018, he made his debut at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and he was featured on JFL Northwest’s Best of the West Compilation album last year. In total, he has now taped five sets for Canadian TV and has performed even more times on CBC Radio.
“This summer,” said Samuel, “I got booked to go to the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal for the second time, back-to-back. I went to perform on the Hasan Minhaj Gala. The galas are taped for TV in the 3,000-person theatre at Place des Arts.
“Getting on a JFL gala is the most coveted spot in Canadian comedy because those are the biggest shows at the festival. Every year, only a dozen or so Canadian comics get that opportunity.
“JFL Montreal, by the way, is the biggest comedy festival in the world – the entire comedy industry is there. So, when I was there, I was able to connect with 800 Pound Gorilla, an American Record label (based in Nashville) for comedy, and I told them I was doing a gala and wanted to record an album soon and, luckily, they were interested in signing me.”
Success entails doing harder gigs and carries the pressure to produce material at a faster pace, said Samuel, but he seems to be keeping things in perspective.
“I’m in my early 30s now, so the main thing in my life is that I enjoy getting home and going to bed earlier more than I use to. I don’t stay up late hanging out and drinking with other comics as much after shows. Not that I was ever a big partier, but it’s just nice to admit you like being in pajamas now.
“I also met my girlfriend/partner through comedy and we’ve been living together for a year-and-a-half now. So, I do a lot of writing by bouncing ideas back and forth with her. I have many more jokes now about being in a long-term relationship. My partner is not Jewish and did not know many Jewish people growing up, so it’s been interesting observing what she thinks about Jewish culture. I took her to her first Passover seder last year. On the way there, she asked me what it would be like and I said, ‘It’s hard to describe but tonight will be the most excited you’ll ever be to eat a hard-boiled egg.’”
Samuel recalled his early days in comedy.
“When I did my first open mic, I just wanted to see if I could physically do it,” he said. “I did not intend to become a comedian but, somehow, I got hooked and kept going. I’m starting to close in on 10 years and it’s weird to think about because, in some ways, comedy still feels like such a new thing. Having said that, when I look at very old videos, I cringe. I keep a hard copy of some of my earliest jokes in a drawer just to remind myself how far I’ve come (those jokes were very bad).”
When asked how his comedic content, delivery or style has changed since he began, Samuel said, “In short, it’s gotten a lot better. Part of learning how to do comedy is trying a lot of different types of jokes and seeing what works for you. So, now, I have a much better idea of what my ‘style’ is. Also, after countless professional club gigs, five TV tapings and several radio appearances, I’m a much stronger performer than I used to be. I’m able to do more complicated bits of material and I can now take ideas that used to be too abstract or subtle and make them work. I now have way fewer jokes about being single and way more jokes about things like carrot cake and moths.”
In addition to stand-up, Samuel is also a talented cartoonist, even having his work published in The New Yorker. While this aspect of his creative life has been put on the backburner for the last few years, he said, “I’m still cartooning but I’d like to put more time into it after this album.”
Other than that, he said he doesn’t have any other major projects planned at the moment.
“I’d like to do a second album in a few years, when I have more material. In the meantime,” he said, “I’ll keep trying to return to Canadian festivals and TV and radio. My partner and I would also like to do more sketch writing. Maybe I’ll submit to write for Canadian TV.”
Tickets for the live album recording shows Dec. 27 (8 and 10:30 p.m.) and Dec. 28 (7 and 9 p.m.) are on sale at yukyuks.com/vancouver.