U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on April 9, 2013. (photo from U.S. State Department via jns.org)
It’s safe to say that in the coming weeks you’ll be reading a great deal about the memoir Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House, June 2015), authored by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
Oren spent the years 2009-13 as Israel’s envoy in Washington. Once a dual national of both the United States and Israel, the New Jersey-raised Oren had to surrender his U.S. passport at the American embassy in Tel Aviv before taking up his ambassadorial post – an emotionally wrenching episode that he describes in detail. Oren’s complicated identity as an American and an Israeli is a theme that runs throughout the book, and his treatment of this subject is a welcome tonic to the dreary and rather smelly charges of “dual loyalty” that too often accompany examinations of the relationship that Jews in the Diaspora have with the Jewish state.
The main attraction of the book, of course, is its account of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies, and Oren’s candor has already gotten him into trouble. Dan Shapiro, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, who makes several appearances in Oren’s memoir, told Israel’s Army Radio that Ally is “an imaginary account of what happened,” belittling Oren for having, as a mere ambassador, a “limited point of view into ongoing efforts. What he wrote does not reflect the truth.”
This is a serious charge, and it remains to be seen if Shapiro will attempt to substantiate it. In the meantime, it should be pointed out that what makes Ally such a fascinating read is that it provides, from Oren’s perspective, a detailed sense of the bitter atmosphere in both Washington and Jerusalem that underlay diplomatic efforts on the issues we are all intimately familiar with, from the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unlike other diplomats, Oren didn’t wait 20 years to publish his story – most of the key individuals in his book, most obviously U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are still in power, and the bilateral tensions that Oren agonizingly explains haven’t been lessened since his departure from Israel’s Washington embassy. Diplomats aren’t supposed to be this transparent, which is why Oren will be regarded in many circles as a man who broke “omertà,” the code of silence which ensures that we ordinary mortals are kept in the dark about what our leaders are saying in private.
While it’s true that Obama comes in for heavy criticism, Oren rubbishes the claim that the president is “anti-Israel.” The reality is more complex; as Oren writes, “the Israel [Obama] cared about was also the Israel whose interests he believed he understood better than its own citizens.” One might add that this paternalistic approach has informed Obama’s stance on the entire region, resulting in a sly policy that presents itself to Americans as a much-desired withdrawal from the Middle East’s endless bloodshed while, at the same time, fundamentally redistributing the region’s balance of power in favor of Iran, whose rulers have spent almost 40 years chanting, “Death to America.”
The board of directors of the Vancouver Writers Fest has appointed Nicole Nozick as executive director, effective June 22.
“Nicole brings to the Writers Fest extensive experience in festival management, journalism and communications, a collaborative approach to her work, and many business skills. We are excited to welcome her to our team,” said board chair Sandy Jakab. Nozick takes over from the Vancouver Writers Fest’s current executive director, Camilla Tibbs, who will move to her new role as executive director of the Richmond Gateway Theatre.
“I am honored to be joining the team at the Vancouver Writers Festival – a festival whose accomplishments I have long admired,” said Nozick. “With its sterling international reputation as one of North America’s premier literary events, the VWF is a cornerstone of Vancouver’s festival scene, well reflecting the energy, curiosity and vibrancy of our city. I am looking forward to working with the VWF board and artistic director Hal Wake, in co-leading this remarkable literary showcase that enriches the lives of so many.”
Nozick holds a BA in English from University of Cape Town and a post-graduate diploma in journalism from Tel Aviv University. Most recently, she was director of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival.
Emanuel Ringelblum (left), Rachel Auerbach (third from the left) and other Jewish intellectuals in Poland, 1938. (photo from whowillwriteourhistory.com)
Many Vancouverites will remember the 2008 traveling exhibit hosted by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre called Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. It provided an overview of Warsaw historian Ringelblum and a secret group, Oyneg Shabbes (Joy of Sabbath), who during the Holocaust worked to document and preserve material relating to their experiences. The artifacts they buried in milk cans and metal boxes – some 30,000 items – were found in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1946.
Now, Katahdin Productions is raising funds to make a feature documentary about Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbes archive. The film, Who Will Write Our History, is based on the book of the same name by historian Samuel Kassow.
Writers, artists, scholars, journalists, poets and diarists, more than 60 diverse people, handpicked by Ringelblum, collected and recorded as much as possible about every aspect of life in the ghetto – poems, paintings, photographs, underground newspapers, essays on hunger, smuggling, the Jewish police, clandestine schools and literary evenings and more. Their common goal was to ensure that the truth would survive even if they did not, as was the case with Ringelblum.
Only three members of Oyneg Shabbes survived the war. Among them was Rachel Auerbach, a prolific writer who would spend the rest of her life memorializing Ringelblum and Oyneg Shabbes. It is Auerbach’s writing and point of view that will provide the narration and narrative structure of the film. She will be voiced in the film by Academy Award-nominated actress Joan Allan.
In 1946, before Auerbach left Poland for Israel, she and the other two Oyneg Shabbes survivors led rescuers to the location of the first cache of the ghetto archive. The rescuers unearthed 10 metal boxes that had been buried on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A second cache of two milk cans was discovered when Polish construction workers were building new apartment buildings on the site of the former ghetto. The third cache was never found and is believed to be buried under what is now the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.
Directed and produced by Roberta Grossman with Nancy Spielberg as executive producer, Who Will Write Our History (whowillwriteourhistory.com) will make the story accessible to millions of people around the world. Katahdin Productions’ documentaries include Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, which won the audience award at 13 film festivals, was broadcast on PBS, nominated for a Primetime Emmy and shortlisted for an Academy Award; Hava Nagila (The Movie), which was the opening or closing night film at more than half of the 80 film festivals where it screened, and was released theatrically; and Above and Beyond, about Jewish-American pilots who volunteered to fly for Israel in its War of Independence, which earned 20 audience awards and critical acclaim. (For an article on the latter, visit jewishindependent.ca/spielberg-opens-film-festival.)
The goal of the Indiegogo fundraising campaign is to raise $100,000 to fund 10 days of shooting in Warsaw in fall 2015. On average, each day of shooting costs $10,000. Some days are much less expensive; for example, shooting exteriors of streets in Warsaw involves only a small crew. Other days are quite involved. For example, shooting recreations of key events in the story with props, costumes, actors, lighting, sets, stages, etc., requires a crew of 20+ people and costs as much as $20,000 per day. If the $100,000 goal is not reached, it will mean fewer filming days in the fall; if it is exceeded, there will be more, as needed to complete production.
A screenshot from Gad Aisen’s documentary, which has its Canadian première at the Rothstein Theatre June 28.
After the Holocaust and the Second World War, the British government that controlled Mandate Palestine severely limited Jewish immigration, continuing the restrictive policies from before the war. But the Jewish underground in pre-state Israel was operating a steady movement of illegal transports bringing Jews – mostly Holocaust survivors – from Europe to the Yishuv.
In November 1946, the ship code named Rafiach set off from Yugoslavia with 785 passengers. Twelve days into the voyage, a storm forced the ship to seek refuge in a bay on the tiny Greek island of Syrna but it ran aground and, within an hour, sank. The vast majority of passengers survived, crawling from the water onto the island, which is little more than a craggy rock, or jumping from the ship before it was fully immersed. It is not known exactly how many passengers drowned.
Among those who survived and eventually made it to Palestine were Lili and Solomon Polonsky z”l. Their daughter, Tzipi Mann, lives in Vancouver. She knew that her parents and some of their friends had been on the ship, but she had never delved into details. By the time her curiosity was piqued, her parents had passed away. But her quest to uncover the story of the Rafiach and its passengers has led to a documentary film that will screen here in its Canadian première on June 28.
Code Name: Rafiach is directed by Israeli filmmaker and television personality Gad Aisen, but he credits Mann as being the driving force behind the project.
Aisen is the creator of a TV show on Israel’s Channel 10 called Making Waves, about nautical topics. He served seven years in the Israeli navy before obtaining an MFA in cinema from Tel Aviv University. He had never heard of the Rafiach before he was approached by a student of Mevo’ot Yam Nautical School, who thought it would make a good topic for Aisen’s TV show.
Code Name: Rafiach is a story about Holocaust survivors finding a place in the world and also about the Jewish underground risking their lives to smuggle Jews into Mandate Palestine. There are many narratives of this sort, Aisen acknowledged, but the Rafiach’s tragedy and the rescue make this one especially poignant.
Because it is not possible to produce a story of nearly 800 people, the filmmaker decided to focus on a few individuals. One is Shlomo Reichman. Known to the circle of people around the film as “Shlomo the baby,” Reichman, now a grandfather, was thrown to safety from the ship.
“This man’s story was particularly touching because he was a newborn,” Mann said in a telephone interview. “He was three weeks old and he was tossed onto the rocks, but he wasn’t sure who tossed him. Was it his father, or was it someone else? For Shlomo, this has been sort of the core of his existence – who tossed me onto the rocks?”
The fact that the passengers were Holocaust survivors magnifies the impact of the incident, Mann said.
“If you can imagine Holocaust survivors having to deal with this,” she said. “There were so many personal, emotional issues attached to everything.”
In interviews, Mann and Aisen learned that adults who first made it to shore from the listing ship lay on the rocks to create a softer landing for those coming after.
For Mann, the Rafiach became a sort of obsession.
“In 2010, just one morning I thought, I need to find out more about this,” she said. “My intention was originally to try to write a book and I thought the only way I can do this is by being in Israel.”
She made arrangements to head for Jerusalem and enlisted the help of her cousin, Sara Karpanos, who lives there. They put an ad in an Israeli newspaper and the response was so overwhelming the pair had to rent a hotel space for a reunion of 200 Rafiach survivors and, in some cases, their children and grandchildren.
Unbeknownst to the two women, Aisen was already on the story. After being turned on to the history of the ship, Aisen had connected with an instructor at Israel’s naval high school who had led his students on a dive and recovered a couple of artifacts from the hulk of the Rafiach.
From what had seemed like lost history, Mann saw the story of the Rafiach begin to reveal itself. “A complete mystery was unraveling in front of me,” she said.
For Aisen, the story of the Rafiach “captured my heart, and I feel particularly connected to this story from many aspects, as a sailor, an Israeli and Jewish.”
To tell the history of the Rafiach in a documentary, he decided to use animation, which allowed him to be more creative than merely showing interviews with survivors.
“It enabled me to present the film in the present tense and not as a memory from the past,” he said. “It took me about six years to create the film, five journeys abroad, months in the archives, 300 hours of footage and a year’s work of three animators. But one of the more challenging things was to get to the wreck of the Rafiach and to dive and film inside.”
In a way, Aisen said, making the film let him vicariously live the life of an underground commander of an immigrant ship.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Centre presents Code Name: Rafiach on June 28, 7 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. Tickets are $10 and available at vjff.org.
Tara Cheyenne Performance’s how to be, part of Dancing on the Edge. (photo by Wendy D Photography)
This year’s Dancing on the Edge festival, which runs July 2-11, once again features the talents of many Jewish community members. The Jewish Independent asked several of them to describe the work they are presenting in the festival and to explain what makes it “edgy.” Their responses appear in the order in which their work appears in the festival.
Container, choreographed and performed by Vanessa Goodman, with original sound composition by Loscil, is a new work “that explores heritage, culture and resilience.” (Part of Edge 1, July 3 and 4, 9 p.m., at Firehall Arts Centre.)
“What makes the work ‘edgy’? Well, I am not 100% sure that I would categorize the work as edgy,” said Goodman. “However, I would say that the physicality/embodiment shifts between different extreme states, taking the witness/audience on a journey of my experience within the work.”
Re:Play: a duet choreographed by Naomi Brand and performed by Hilary Maxwell and Walter Kubanek. (Part of Edge Up, July 5 and 6, 8 p.m., at Firehall Arts Centre.)
“The piece is a playful exploration of the space between two bodies in dialogue,” said Brand. “It looks at what we choose to display and disclose and what gets hidden and smoothed over in conversation. The element of play is a theme that drives the duet as the dancers show and tell, watch and listen, repeat, respond and react to one another. The piece is set to a sound score that brings the process to light, with dancer Walter Kubanek practising Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 on piano, and sound clips of the dancers in rehearsal. Playing on the edge between cooperation and competition, the dancers engage in a dynamic negotiation of space.”
Feasting on Famine: choreographed by Shay Kuebler, Radical System Art. (Part of Edge 5, July 9 and 11, 7 p.m., at Firehall Arts Centre.)
“This performance looks into the extremes of bodybuilding culture and how it references capitalism and the corporatization of the human body – growth edges out all other aspects of self. One man’s physically charged journey into the depths of extreme health and fitness will leave the audience on the edge of their seat.
“The work combines theatre, dance, and martial arts to construct an edgy and modern look at the extremes of society,” said Kuebler.
Duck Dances “promises to be a whimsical exploration of curious imagery, woven together with the color red to reveal a charming tableau of events within the framework of Dusk Dances,” reads the description on Dancing on the Edge’s website. (July 9, 10 and 11, 7 p.m., at Portside Park.)
“I am creating a piece in collaboration with Jennifer Mascall and Susan MacKenzie for Dusk Dances. We’re calling it Duck Dances,” Amber Funk Barton told the Independent. “For me, this work is ‘edgy’ because I have never created a site-specific work and our intention is that our performers will also be all ages and abilities. Using Crab Park as a studio instead of a studio is not only inspiring but challenging me to work outside of my comfort zones and creativity.
how to be is “the latest ensemble creation to emerge from the strange mind of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg (Tara Cheyenne Performance). The piece examines how we think we should ‘be,’ how we think others should be and how impossible and futile it all is. Using ideas found in malignant social media, cultural restrictions, and the ceaseless voices in our heads, how to be traces five characters as they navigate how to be.” (Part of Edge 6, July 10, 7 p.m., and July 11, 9 p.m., at Firehall Arts Centre.)
“I consider this piece ‘edgy’ because it plays with text, audience relationship, what is ‘appropriate’ in life and in performance,” said Friedenberg. “This is not a typical dance piece, but it is a piece only highly trained dancers could do. I expect to tiptoe very near the edge of extremely uncomfortable and deliciously funny.”
What a mouth on Minnie! And I don’t mean it pejoratively. (I just wanted to get your attention.) Grandma Minnie Bloch is articulate and sensitive as she meticulously narrates the three-generational story that includes her own early life with her husband, their move to the United States from Eastern Europe, and the family she creates.
Minnie is the narrator/observer – acting almost like a Greek chorus – in the stirring new novel Prayers for the Living (Fig Tree Books, 2015), written by veteran novelist and National Public Radio literary critic Alan Cheuse.
Although she is not educated (in the formal sense), her intelligence and life experience enables her to depict for us so many living characters: her son Manny, who is a Reform rabbi and a businessman; his psychologically impaired wife, Maby; their problem-laden daughter, Sarah; and Manny’s mistress, Florette, a Holocaust survivor and a member of Manny’s congregation. Into this mix, we must also include Maby’s brother, Mord, who takes brother-in-law Manny into the family business.
How does Minnie narrate the rise and fall of this middle-class Jewish family? By telling her story to friends during occasional coffee-klatch meetings, portraying with motherly calm and painterly skill all the people she has encountered. Minnie has not personally experienced all the events she narrates, but she assembles them from talks with her son and other family members, from overheard conversations, and even from information discovered by reading pertinent private journals, which she cleverly doesn’t call “snooping” but “learning.”
Behind the voluble narrator, who speaks always from the heart, and often with poetic grace, stands the artistry of Cheuse, a sharp-eyed writer who brilliantly is the voice behind the voice.
Although the central narrator in Prayers for the Living (an ironic title, an inversion of the Kaddish, known as the Mourner’s Prayer, or Prayer for the Dead) is Minnie, the protagonist of the book is Manny, well-regarded by his congregation, who splits his duties between rabbinic work and business, ultimately not a happy partnership.
As the novel progresses, we learn of daughter Sarah’s missteps in college, Maby’s mental imbalance and alcoholism, and Manny’s visits to Florette, who is ostensibly painting her rabbi’s portrait but has other non-esthetic designs on him. In her telling, Minnie does not hide her family members’ flaws. The character of the book’s heroes, often shaped by earlier events, in combination with the exigencies of the present, leads them to their destined paths.
Cheuse plans the suspense, gives the hints of things of come, and arranges for Minnie to occasionally offer remarks akin to: “But I’ll tell you about that a bit later….” By so doing, he achieves a unique fluidity of time zones.
Minnie is the bedrock of the family, the only solid and trustworthy character in the book. She has perfect pitch for the rhythms of speech of Jewish women of a certain age, and faithfully reproduces the conversations of other characters in Prayers for the Living. This enables Cheuse to penetrate the psyches of his characters, their hopes and tremors.
Some central events are tiny sparks that build up to the conflagration that follows. Among them: Minnie, in Europe, fleeing from a groom that has been forced upon her; an accident in New York involving Minnie’s husband, which her son, Manny, witnesses; and Sarah, caught strumming a guitar on Yom Kippur by her rabbi dad.
By the riveting end of the book, whose intricacies and trajectory you have to discover for yourself, you can’t wait for one page to lead to another. You have a sense of what is going to happen – Minnie gives you little choice – but you still hope it won’t happen. Maybe a surprise will come your way. Perhaps
Minnie’s assessment is wrong. But even if you suspect what will happen and you know why, you still don’t know how it will happen.
Thank you, Minnie, for sharing with us your words and thoughts, your motherly wisdom and compassion. Yes, it all comes from Minnie’s mouth – to our ears and to our hearts.
Curt Leviant’s most recent book is the short story collection Zix Zexy Stories. This review was previously published on nyjournalofbooks.com.
Left to right, Susan Skemp, Ken Charko and James E. Taylor are making a movie about Dunbar Theatre’s history. (photo by 5U54N & J4M35 Productions)
To celebrate Dunbar Theatre’s 80th anniversary, the theatre is making a short film about its history to enter into film festivals around the world and for film and music awards in Canada. One of the goals is to raise awareness of the theatre, one of the few independent theatres still around.
“Our short film will showcase all eight decades the theatre has been playing movies for the Dunbar community. With the use of old movie clips, newsreels, actors, models, music and their resident ghost, Delores, we intend on making a very entertaining film,” said Susan Skemp (producer, writer and songwriter) in an email to the Independent.
The production team includes Skemp, Ken Charko (executive producer and owner of the Dunbar Theatre) and James E. Taylor (director, writer, editor). One of the many participants in putting together the film is Jewish community member Adam Abrams, who will voice one of the newsreels.
“I came up with the idea to make the film last December when Ken Charko and I were discussing what to do to celebrate the theatre’s 80th,” Skemp explained. She said she suggested making a movie about a movie theatre and Charko liked the idea; then Taylor joined the production team as director.
“We have assembled a wonderful group of people and I have likened us to Orson Welles and his Mercury Players group,” said Skemp.
“My idea for the script really came from the theatre and the people from the community who have passed through its doors and the films that have played on the screen. Even though the film is a history of the theatre, our goal is to make it as entertaining as possible,” she stressed. “The fact that the theatre has a ghost helps.”
The crowdfunding goal to bring the film to fruition is $20,000. Contributions to the fundraiser at fundrazr.com/campaigns/fxGG2 come with different perks for each donation level: from a DVD and an invitation to a red-carpet screening ($25), to those items plus two tickets to any film at the Dunbar ($100), to a film credit as an associate producer ($500), to listing as a producer ($2,500).
A son’s fascination with diggers has led to many other farm-related and animal designs. (photo by Shula Klinger)
When our son, Joel, started to talk, most of what he said was, digger, referring to the large machines that dig earth, so I started drawing them for him. Soon, he became passionate about tractors, so I started drawing those, too – because, like you, I would bend over backwards to meet my child’s needs.
Our Joel has always known his mind. And he has always known that his mother will turn herself into a pretzel when it comes to his education. I also learned how to draw forklifts, dump trucks and specialized mining equipment: road headers, skid steers and face shovels. Essential knowledge for every pretzel-shaped mother.
After several months and hundreds of diggers later, I had a box full of cut-out vehicles. I bought colored card stock and cut out what I hoped were the last 12 diggers. I framed them in an old IKEA frame and put it in Joel’s room, intending to hang it later.
Joel had his own plans, of course. It turns out that 2-year-olds aren’t particularly worried about hanging pictures at the proper height. Instead, his picture sat on the floor where he could poke the glass, name the vehicles and chatter at length to his pictures.
Having thought of his picture as something colorful to fill a spot on his wall, I soon learned that it was a bunch of other things: a teaching aid, a prompt for language development and a favorite companion. It was a comfort, a reflection of his passions and his developing identity. And, sure, it was in his bedroom sometimes, but mainly it traveled to whichever room he was playing in. I never did hang it up.
The diggers were followed by new designs for other families, and countless hours of conversation with them about art. I learned that very young children have strong opinions about shape, color and which medium is best for their project. I learned how art appreciation plays a role in family relationships that is just as significant as the time we spend on outings or reading together. It’s spiritual time, like meditating together, or contemplating abstract ideas, from the biggest ideas to why spiders are able to climb on ceilings without falling off.
The photos I received of toddlers teaching infant siblings about their art showed me that images can be a catalyst for extraordinary reactions in even the youngest kids. I also had my mind changed about what kinds of art children wanted. When a mother asked me if I offered custom versions of my posters, I hesitated. When I realized that she wanted a copy of diggers, “but in girl colors,” I got to work.
When choosing art for our children, there is much more to the decision than meets the eye. Of course, we want the content and color scheme to appeal to our young connoisseurs. We hope that it will complement the design of the room that surrounds it. But, as we see and hear how children respond to this art, it reminds us, as parents, that our own eyes need to open as wide as theirs.
Art appreciation is a kind of literacy and it can lead to explorations of identity, of self-expression, of relationship to and with others. It can elicit feelings of pride in ownership, feelings of attachment and a sense of agency. As she looks at an image, a child’s gaze can be curious, critical, contented, peaceful, excited, inspired. A child may be solving problems, learning about the world or checking his understanding of an issue. Indeed, they have the same types of reactions as adults. Art can engage, stimulate and challenge young minds, which is why we need to take care when choosing pieces for children’s spaces.
Megan Zeni and Kelly Johnson are dedicated to creating fun, educational spaces for children. Both former teachers, their company, Room to Play, helps families make the most of their homes, to create spaces that are stimulating without being cluttered or overwhelming. “Art sets the tone in room; colors, patterns and textures can have a calming or energizing impact,” explained Zeni.
These are all elements to consider, especially as we remember that the art we’re choosing may be the last thing a child looks at as his eyes close at night. Here are some things to think about when choosing or making art for young children:
Children have favorite colors from a very early age.
What do they care about?
Does the art fill a wall and strike a chord?
Does it inspire the child to touch it, talk to it?
Does it spark a conversation between your child and you or a sibling?
Questions to think about and ask your child, to encourage a sense of attachment and ownership of the art, include:
What do you see? What do I see?
Which colors do you see?
Which element is the biggest? Which is the smallest?
Should we frame it?
Where should we hang it? Should we bother?
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver.
Gwen Epstein is the second on right in this photo of Sister Suffragette, performed by Razzmatap. The troupe’s upcoming show at the Rothstein has already sold out. (photo from Razzmatap)
The audience at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on June 27 will be treated to a uniquely entertaining show – The Best of Razzmatap.
The local amateur tap ensemble’s members are all women, among them representatives of diverse professions – from a judge, to a teacher, to a physical therapist – and a range of ages, from 40s to 80s. Founder, director and choreographer Jan Kainer talked to the Independent about the group’s roots.
“When my daughter was 7, I started a little class with some of her friends, so she would have an opportunity to tap dance. One class grew to several classes at Kerrisdale Community Centre and, in about 1987, I added an adult class. It was just for fun and fitness. After about six months of class, I asked the adults if they wanted to participate in a Christmas concert. Only one person was willing but, by yearend, the group had worked up the courage to dance in public, and they never looked back…. After we started doing performances and competitions, we decided we needed a name. Everyone put in suggestions, and we voted on Razzmatap.”
The initial core members are still with the ensemble, and several new members have joined through the years, explained Kainer. “The dancers’ average age is 65,” she said. “Our oldest dancer is 86, and I do have to take her health and strength into consideration. I choreograph around the strengths of the dancers in the group, so it forces me to work at making the dances interesting.”
A multiple-award-winning troupe, the upcoming show at the Rothstein, like many Razzmatap events, is already sold out. Kainer thinks the group’s success is largely due to her dancers’ obvious delight on stage. “My group has learned over the years how to tell a story and how to express the joy they feel when dancing. I think it shows.”
One of the dancers, Gwen Epstein, shared her enthusiasm with the JI. “Our teacher Jan Kainer is wonderful,” Epstein said. “When she works on new dances, she tries to give everyone a small solo, to showcase what the individual dancers do best, but, most of the time, we dance as a group, and everyone participates in almost everything.”
Epstein joined Razzmatap about 20 years ago but, like Kainer, she has danced most of her life. “I always liked dancing,” she said. “My mom was a ballet teacher. Of course, I started with ballet classes but I liked tap dance better.”
She took tap dancing lessons until high school, then took a break from her late teens to early 20s. When she got married, she resumed dancing and never stopped, not while raising her three children and not while working full time as a microbiologist.
“I was with a couple of different groups for awhile,” she remembered. “When my daughter was 6, I took her to tap dancing lessons and learned that the teacher also had an adult group. I joined it. It was Razzmatap.”
According to Epstein, the group participates in several tap dance competitions every year and usually wins. “We like to compete,” she explained. “We’ve competed in B.C. and in Germany. We also traveled to New York, Chicago and San Francisco for workshops. We danced in Tap on Broadway in New York. It was fun.”
Everything connected to her favorite group is fun for her. “Tap dance is such a happy activity. The music is lively. You dance and you think of Fred Astaire and Singing in the Rain. You want to smile. Even though none of us is very young, dancing makes us feel young. People come to rehearsals and complain – my knee hurts, my back aches, my feet are sore, some wear knee braces – but then we start dancing and we dance.”
The group usually rehearses twice a week for two hours, but now they have increased to three times a week in preparation for the new show, and everyone is excited. “Everyone has to come to the rehearsals,” she said. “We’re all very enthusiastic about the coming show.”
In the June 27 performance, Epstein will appear in nine dances out of 10, but her favorite is the one where she gets to reminisce on stage – in dance, of course. “I perform in my mom’s clothing in that dance, and it makes me think of her. This dance is very important to me, especially now, when she passed away.”
Each dance of Razzmatap is a story, told in music and movement. Some pieces have serious historical connotations, while others invoke a vague sense of nostalgia or memories of bygone eras. Of course, to create the right ambience for such dances, the performers need multiple props.
“We make all our props ourselves,”
Epstein said. “One dance needed human-sized man puppets as our dancing partners. Another needed suitcases. And then there are costumes. Of course, Jan sets the tone, like the color or sequins, but we make them.”
Epstein has quite a collection of costumes by now, from 20 years’ worth of dancing. “I keep them all in labeled boxes. It’s interesting when we have to travel with all of them.”
Epstein enjoys all aspects of performing: the spotlight, the music, the public. “Before the show, you’re nervous, but after, you feel such a thrill,” she said. “And the audience loves our shows. They are smiling, laughing…. I like entertaining people. When I was young, I didn’t think to make dance a career. I still think it’s nice to have a good job and a hobby you love, but if I had another chance, I might have chosen to be a professional dancer.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
There are a few remarkable things that one notices when looking at the press material for Scratch, which is being presented by Theatre Plexus at Havana Theatre until June 13.
First, the play itself. Part of the story is in its title, which refers to the protagonist, a teenage girl who loses her mother at the same time as she is dealing with an egregious case of head lice. The other part is in the script by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman: the original mounting of the production by Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2008 was nominated for the Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding new play.
Second, Theatre Plexus. A relatively new company, it has gathered a small but experienced cast and production team for this show, its third.
“Theatre Plexus started somewhat organically, born out of the necessity of having an umbrella under which to put my personal projects,” explained actor and producer Caitlin McCarthy. “The first show I produced in Vancouver was 8 Girls Without Boyfriends in 2013, but it wasn’t until the following year when I applied for the Vancouver Fringe that I came up with the name. I was performing a show I had written, called Saudade. It occurred to me that I had a mandate (personal and professional): it was important to me to produce work with a strong female voice, and I preferred intimate theatre spaces. I know a staggering number of talented female actors who just don’t get stage time in Vancouver as often as they should, and I want to help remedy that. Scratch has four women in it out of a cast of six, and these women have scenes together that aren’t just related to a male protagonist. In fact, it’s a young, female protagonist.”
McCarthy plays that young protagonist, Anna, and it was one of the aspects that drew her to the play.
“I picked up a copy of Scratch because I liked some of the monologues – as an actor, I am always looking for good Canadian monologues, and Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman is based in Toronto. I was struck by how tender the play is – and how it presents grief from multiple angles. I also like that the play has a sense of humor and, though it is a play about loss, it is ultimately uplifting. Also, as I mentioned, there are four women in it (and, of course, two wonderful men) and I am an unapologetic feminist when it comes to choosing and casting plays.”
The co-producer of Scratch is Stephanie Izsak, who is also playing the character of Madelyn. Izsak is one of the many members of the production team affiliated with Langara College’s professional theatre training program, Studio 58. This is another remarkable aspect of the local production.
“Steph and I knew each other from Studio,” explained McCarthy of the connections, “and we approached the incredible Genevieve Fleming to be our director – I had gone to school with her…. Eileen Barrett did go to Studio, but I knew her from a playwriting group, Genevieve had seen a lot of Markian’s [Markian Tarasiuk] work while he was a student, we all knew David Bloom as the solo show teacher, and Jeff [Elrick] was recommended by the faculty as he’s still a student. So yes, there is a Studio 58 community to easily draw from, but we didn’t exclusively cast from a Studio pool. I feel so lucky to have Tamara McCarthy and Flo Barrett on board – now that I know them, they will definitely be part of the community I try to work with!”
The process from idea through casting to opening night on June 4 has taken some time, said McCarthy. “Steph approached me two years ago to work together, and I thought of Scratch as a project we could do. It took us a long time to find a venue we liked before we decided on the Havana. I wish there were more independent venues in Vancouver! The lack of space in this city has certainly given rise to some very creative site-specific theatre, but I wish there were more small, traditional theatre spaces to do plays.
“Once we booked the Havana (back in November), it all started to fall into place. We assembled this wonderful group of like-minded artists who felt like the play resonated with them, and we got everything in order for rehearsals to start.”
One of those artists is the aforementioned Bloom, who is a playwright, director, actor, producer and teacher, with a wide range of theatre and television credits, and a Jessie award for Palace of the End with co-directors Katrina Dunn and Mindy Parfitt.
“When Genevieve Fleming asked me to be in Scratch, I said yes very quickly because I liked the writing, and I knew that several scenes would be challenging to play,” Bloom told the Independent. “The other reason I said yes, though, was that I like and admire all the people involved in the project. Four of them are former students and our stage-manager/lighting designer is still one of my students. Theatre Plexus is a fledgling theatre company whose mandate is to do intimate plays with a strong female voice, in small spaces. I’m working with a great group of smart, talented people. How could I possibly say no?”
Bloom said he got into acting “by accident” in Grade 10, as a favor to a teacher.
“In elementary school, I had written and performed sketches with friends,” he explained, “but by high school, I had decided to be a writer; acting was not on my radar. Our drama teacher was short on men for a production of Twelfth Night and he asked me to take on the small role of Sebastian. I was not a popular kid, and I got laughs and applause. It was like catnip to me. I felt a rush during those two performances stronger than any drug. The truth is, I got into acting for exactly the wrong reason: ego gratification. I’ve never had that feeling quite like that again, and it’s no longer what I look for from theatre.
“At a certain point in my 20s, I came to believe in theatre as a spiritual/humanist practice. (The history of the art form has often been deeply entwined with various societies’ religious practices, as well as a way of channeling difficult, dangerous and thrilling ideas.) One of my more embarrassingly naive statements in my early 20s was, ‘Acting is like a priesthood. It’s like practise for being human!’ I understand how ridiculous and self-important that sounds. Luckily for my mental health, I’m also drawn to theatre’s ability to skewer pomposity, especially in myself. There’s something very freeing about being willing to look like an idiot in front of thousands of people.”
“There’s a sense of community that happens when a group of people with limited resources decide to work together to make a performance. It’s intimate and intoxicating.”
Bloom produced his first production at 17. “Nobody had told me that I couldn’t do it, so I did. I’ve continued in that vein ever since. I’d fall in love with the idea of a show, invite friends to my house to talk about it, and the group would create its own momentum that drove us to produce shows in crappy little spaces (the Firehall before it was a theatre, on the set of other people’s shows at midnight, whatever was available). There’s a sense of community that happens when a group of people with limited resources decide to work together to make a performance. It’s intimate and intoxicating. The people involved develop a sense that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Like most human endeavors, it’s an illusion,” he said, referring to Waiting for Godot, which examines human beings’ need to try to “create meaning for themselves in a meaningless universe.”
This need led Bloom, among other things, to start his own company. “Humans are social animals and we crave a sense of belonging; we need to believe our lives are meaningful. As a result, we’re easily manipulated (street gangs, political parties and xenophobic movements all manipulate that need). It’s also a source of community, sacrifice and some of the best qualities of humanity. I bonded with a group of people who shared my obsession and formed the Grinning Dragon Theatre Company in 1991. We changed our name to Felix Culpa about 15 years ago. Latin for “happy fault,” it is a reference to eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge (my co-director Linda Quibell is a very lapsed Catholic). The focus of the company’s work is the power of language and its unique ability to explore complex subjects such as morality, beauty and the subjective nature of truth.”
Bloom said he has been teaching since 2000, and it suits him “to a T.” The students have to create a one-person show and perform it before they graduate from Studio 58. “I feel blessed to have this job,” said Bloom. “It means that once a week, eight months a year, I have to think about what theatre is, how many different forms it can take and also how to solve specific challenges brought up by the imagination of wonderfully talented young minds. They regularly do work that astounds me. Then they go out into the world and, within a few years, many of them are far more successful than I am. I guess there’s a kind of legacy in that. Also, for awhile, they think I’m really smart, and that brings me right back to the egocentric pleasures that got me into the profession in the first place.”
A member of the Jewish community, Bloom described his family as “secular, intellectual, socially conscious.” He said, “My father is one of Canada’s great physicists. His sisters are, respectively, a mathematician who devoted most of her career to studying how math is taught (not well, in her opinion) and a school principal who pioneered methods of working with disabled children. They grew up on St. Urbain Street and other streets in that Montreal neighborhood, and they all went to Baron Byng High School.
“My father doesn’t remember Mordecai Richler from the school, but when my aunt met him, Richler remembered my father, something I get a kick out of. Long before I read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, my father had told me all the stories in the first chapter about ‘Flanders Field’ high school (for example, the teacher who would start each year asking the students, ‘How does a Jew write the letter S?’ and then draw a $ on the blackboard).
“Much of my work is an attempt to understand how human beings can treat each other so vilely. I am often attracted to artistic work that goes to very dark places. I’m also drawn to stories about people who are not accepted by mainstream society, whether they be Jews, queers, radical thinkers, dissidents, melancholics, eccentrics, Muslims, the list goes on.”
“It’s a little morbid,” continued Bloom, “but I first felt deeply Jewish watching an episode about the Holocaust on the amazing BBC documentary series World at War. I realized that Hitler wouldn’t care that we weren’t religious, didn’t follow the dietary laws, that my mother had converted when she married my father. Something about being the ‘other’ landed for me that afternoon and I was stricken. On many levels, the rest of my life has been colored by that. Much of my work is an attempt to understand how human beings can treat each other so vilely. I am often attracted to artistic work that goes to very dark places. I’m also drawn to stories about people who are not accepted by mainstream society, whether they be Jews, queers, radical thinkers, dissidents, melancholics, eccentrics, Muslims, the list goes on.
“My father told me that his mother sent him off to school every day with the admonition, ‘Ask some good questions!’ He explained to me that you would get the best out of your teachers if you challenged them and their ideas. It was acceptable, even essential, to challenge intellectual (and other) authorities because it would make them work harder. I was often a trial to my teachers, as you might imagine, but the best of them had a deep impact on me.
“There is a long history (one might say a talmudic history) of Jews being argumentative, especially with people we love. I consider myself part of that tradition. I love that about us as a people, and I love our love of literacy and our tendency to be stubborn and tenacious. But my instinct to challenge extends to challenging actions of myself, my fellow Jews, the state of Israel and the whole patriarchal, monotheistic basis of the religion…. There are probably many Jews who would not consider me a ‘real’ Jew,” he concluded, “but I believe myself to be true to our culture and the values of intellectual and spiritual inquisitiveness that have made us simultaneously unpopular and essential around the world for thousands of years.”
Tickets for Scratch are $18, with Saturday matinées $10, and are available at brownpapertickets.com. Partnering with Theatre Plexus on the production is the Living Through Loss Counseling Society of British Columbia. “All of the proceeds collected will go to counseling and group therapy for women at risk,” said McCarthy. “It’s very important for me as a producer to question what my contribution is to society – larger than just the theatre community. Grief is such a central part of this story and an inevitable part of human life and I believe this play has the potential to unite people in processing a very universal experience. Because what else is theatre for than to witness our own humanity and bring us closer together?” LTLCS will be holding a talk-back on Tuesday, June 9.