Joanne Waters, left, and Karen Brumelle. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Karen Brumelle and Joanne Waters have much in common. They have been friends for more than 40 years. Both spent their childhood and young adulthood in the United States. Both came to Vancouver when their husbands started working at the University of British Columbia. Both are artists and have participated in multiple exhibitions. Both are inspired by nature. But they never exhibited together until now. Their show, Brush and Wire, is at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery until March 16.
The artists’ visual narrations complement each other, as Brumelle’s cheerful paintings of rivers and forests provide a quaint background for Waters’ wire sculptures of birds and sea creatures.
“You’re influenced by the place you live in,” Brumelle said, explaining her landscapes of local scenery. Color and line serve as her creative language, the vehicle of her love for her adopted land. “Everything I look at, I mentally put a frame around. I always wonder: what might make a good painting? I take lots of photographs but I don’t want photographic likeness. I want to simplify the images, find their emotional core. I am more concerned with portraying a spiritual essence.”
Orange leaves blaze on her autumn trees. The green flow of the Fraser River invites contemplations. What many Vancouverites see from their windows, Brumelle explores through brushstrokes, paper and scissors.
“Collages are more fun. They are spontaneous, a free exploration.”
In her collages, Brumelle combines paper shapes with painting. “Collages are more fun. They are spontaneous, a free exploration. The pattern of the paper often suggests the collage details. I collect papers, buy them wherever I travel. My collages are more abstract than my paintings but they’re also more playful.”
Perhaps the playfulness of her collages is an echo of her long career as an art teacher. Before she retired in 2004, she taught art at Arts Umbrella and other schools. For 10 years, she taught art at Lord Byng and loved it.
“When I was a teacher, I constantly tried to come up with new exercises for my students. I wasn’t painting as much then – no time – but my creativity was engaged fully. The fun part of teaching was to see what my students would come up with.”
Now, when she has more time, she is drawn to capturing the quiet, elusive beauty of nature. Recently, she also started adding figures to her compositions. “I want to express the wonder of the world, its size, its light and shadow, its patterns and its hidden places. I need to paint. I get grumpy if I don’t.”
“Crochet, knitting, felting, macramé, I’ve done it all. I also made baskets and sculptures from dry kelp and driftwood for 20 years.”
Like her friend, Waters feels the irresistible attraction of nature and the urge to share her artistic discoveries. “I always had to create,” she said. Although by education, she is an occupational therapist, art has always been important to her. “I started with fabric art,” she said. “Crochet, knitting, felting, macramé, I’ve done it all. I also made baskets and sculptures from dry kelp and driftwood for 20 years.” Not many artists occupy such a niche, and her crafty, whimsical kelp pieces sold well at arts-and-crafts boutiques around British Columbia.
She also taught various arts-and-crafts classes and worked in recreational therapy. Among her students were not only healthy adults and children but also seniors with mental and physical disabilities. “When I worked with low-functioning people, my creativity went into making their work look good. Being creative isn’t just art.”
Her transition to wire sculpture is more recent. “When my husband died a few years ago, I moved to a smaller apartment,” she said. “There was no place to dry kelp, so I started experimenting with wire. I made a wire basket. Then I thought: if I could make a basket I could make anything. I made a dolphin. Then a bird. I use picture books and the internet and I usually fiddle with wire in front of the TV. About two hours at a time; afterwards my hands get tired.” Her wire ducks promenade in front of Brumelle’s paintings of ponds and rivers. Her starfish cling to the plastic stool legs as if they were pier piles submerged in a river. Her fisherman dreams of the biggest catch of his life and, behind him, a father and son roam a beach on her friend’s painting. The organic connection between the two artists links them on a subliminal level, as well as in their everyday lives.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
As the Winter Olympics returned to the headlines these past few weeks and we were filled with memories of four years ago in Vancouver, I decided this time around to root for the bronze medal winners.
I cheered for the bronze because, in my opinion, the most exiting Olympic competition is not the race for the gold, but the battle for the bronze. While it is exciting to see who will win (I did root for gold medal winners, too), I was particularly drawn to cheer for the ones who didn’t lose.
In 1995, a study was carried out by social psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich on the psychology of Olympic medal winners. The study showed that athletes who won the bronze medal were significantly happier with their results than those athletes who won the silver. Those who placed second were more frustrated because they had missed the gold medal, while the bronze medalists were simply happy to have received any honors at all (instead of a fourth-place finish). This is even more pronounced in knockout competitions, such as soccer’s World Cup, or the NCAA Final Four competition, where the bronze medals are achieved by winning a playoff; silver medals are awarded after a defeat in the final.
The truth is that the competitions would seem incomplete without a third-place finisher. Imagine if they only gave out a gold medal. It would be all about one person, too egocentric and too exclusive. For that matter, two is really not much better. The silver medalist is merely the guy who didn’t win. Without a bronze, he or she can’t even say, “Well, at least I didn’t come in third.” Number three, on the other hand, has a sense of fullness, of completion. Like the old saying, “three’s a crowd,” everyone is represented. Or, better put like the TV show, “three’s company.”
We know this in our own colloquialisms, as well. Three is the predominant way we categorize the world around us. What do we call the alphabet? The ABCs. What do you tell your kids when they are trying something and can’t get it right? Third time’s the charm (unless it takes more than that, of course). What does the starter say for a race? On your mark, get set, go! You tell a joke, it has to be: a priest, a minister and a rabbi – leave one out and you risk offending by not being inclusive in your offending humor. Nobody stands up at a wedding and shouts two cheers for the bride and groom. At Starbucks, it’s tall, grande and vente. Even made-up terms have a hierarchy. And, in those cases where the expanse of society has necessitated a fourth category – as in small, medium, large and extra large – it has the clear connotation of existing outside the norm, beyond the scope of what is necessary. It just doesn’t fit – pun intended.
Our rabbis knew this, as well. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon the Righteous proclaims, “Al shlosha d’varim ha’olam omed: al haTorah, v’al haAvodah, v’al gemilut chasadim”: “The world stands on three legs: Torah, prayer and deeds of loving kindness.” Leave out any one of these and the world collapses in disarray. The Vahavtah of the Shema gives the same message: love God with all your heart, soul and might – miss one of these and you have not loved God completely. More positively: do all three of these and you can feel a closeness to God that would otherwise escape you.
Three is a very Jewish number. Three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was three days into the journey from Egypt when the Israelites encountered God in the desert. Traditional Jews pray morning, noon and night. Hebrew verbs have three-letter roots, which serve as the foundation for the whole lexicon of Jewish expression. The list goes on.
One of the most powerful instances of three in Jewish tradition is the custom of placing three shovels of earth on a grave at a funeral. I am frequently asked, “Rabbi, why three shovels of earth?” We place three shovels of earth for the same reasons mentioned above. Three is complete; it shows intention and a fullness of action. One could be inadvertent, two is somehow just not enough, but three means that you have fulfilled the mitzvah.
One of my favorite teachings from Jewish tradition is about the mezuzah and why it rests on an angle on the doorpost. Rashi said it should lie flat, while his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, said it should be vertical. In a rare moment of compromise between these two schools of thought, a student of them both, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, ordained a third way, a compromise position. It rests on an angle because, among the many given reasons, the key to a peaceful home, to shalom bayit, is compromise, finding a third way.
Bronze medalists give meaning to the achievements of the others, they place everything in perspective. They are not to be forgotten as last of the best, or even remembered as first of the worst. Rather, they are the essential pillar of the competition, the bridge between just making it and not making it at all.
We live most of the moments of our lives on that bridge – balanced precariously between success and failure. Celebrate the bronze medals in the many moments of your life: they are hard fought and hard won.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom. Follow him on Twitter, @rabbidanmosk.
The author’s grandfather, Solomon/Zalman (later, Bernard), is at top right.
I have been researching my family history for some years now. Usually, over the winter break, when life slows down to a dull roar and I can spend time at the computer. I pore over JewishGen for hours, entering names of people and places into search engines. The same searches over and over, hoping that databases will have been updated; that something in my mind will click; that I will finally reach the right person; that the right person will still be alive – that someone will be able to tell me what happened to the women in that photo. The photo from Vienna. The photo of the family that could have been. That should have been. These four brothers and two sisters. The brothers who escaped. The women who did not, and perished. Where? How? The women whose stories have never been told. Or maybe they were told to someone in the United States, Argentina, Scotland or Mexico – but not to me.
In recent months, I have started to ask new questions. These new questions are concerned, as ever, with the people in the photo. But they are also about my own motivation. Why do I feel compelled to keep searching? Why do some people live by the adage that it’s all water under the bridge, while others steadfastly paddle upstream? Would it not be easier to drift with the currents of time, away from our family’s past and just meander, uncomplaining, toward the future?
People used to tell me that true self-knowledge only comes to us when we have children of our own and are challenged daily, hourly, to face ourselves. We find out if we have truly stuck to the resolutions of childhood. You know, the resolution that we’d do things differently, be more engaged, more sensitive, empathic, less busy, more patient – that we’d truly remember what it was like to be a child.
Sure enough, since my first searches brought me in touch with my many cousins, I have had children of my own. I watch our older child leaving behind his early childhood, becoming more and more aware of our small family unit. I hear his wistful questions during each year’s big festivals and explain that our family is scattered across the world. I set up Skype for him to speak to relatives on other continents. His curiosity, persistence and intellect are bound to lead to more searching questions, questions about who we are and where we came from. And since he is already attached to his Jewish roots in our household of mixed traditions, I know that I’ll need to get my story straight soon enough. I know this because it is already beginning. Perhaps this is why I search, I wonder? So I can look him in the eye and know that I don’t have to fudge it?
But then I realize that my motivation comes from a more complex place than one where i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. It’s not just about information; it’s about education.
There is certainly no education quite like motherhood. Children are such dogged teachers. Their curriculum may seem haphazard at times, their lesson planning a little sketchy, but when I take a step back – a really big step back – I find that what they are teaching me has as much to do with my ancestors as the two little chaps asking me to help them finish a puzzle, reassemble a broken toy or read a particularly difficult word.
Researching one’s family history is a gesture as deeply spiritually maternal as the act of raising one’s own children. Yes, there is a visceral desire shared by all humans to know where we come from and who we are, but there is an added layer of compassion, of love, of nurturing that comes when the people we love are gone.
Researching one’s family history is a gesture as deeply spiritually maternal as the act of raising one’s own children. Yes, there is a visceral desire shared by all humans to know where we come from and who we are, but there is an added layer of compassion, of love, of nurturing that comes when the people we love are gone. And not only are they gone, they left us too soon and in a manner so horrific that time and again, the adjective I hear from survivors’ children and grandchildren is “secretive.” So often, people simply don’t want to talk. They don’t want to share their stories because that would mean choosing to relive the horror, to tell tales that are replayed in dreams over and over again. The ones that wake them up at night and destroy the possibility of sleep for hours to come.
Those of us who grew up in the safety of this part of the world, we who are too young to have been witnesses to these crimes against humanity, we are aware of our good fortune. We know how lucky we are to have grown up in peacetime and, yet, we can feel somehow diminished by our lack of suffering. At the same time, and as we become parents ourselves, we dream of extending our parental love back through time to embrace and soothe the wounds inflicted on our forebears. We recall those who died in infancy or childhood. Having expanded our capacity for love, our fluency in that subtle language, we want to communicate absolute safety to that vulnerable child, the terrified adult unable to keep her children safe. We are challenged by the desire to reach out to our tormented and murdered ancestors, adults and children alike, to lift them out far beyond the atrocities and into the warmth of our own homes, our present, a safe and comfortable existence that they never knew.
And yet, unable to do so, we do what we can. We learn their names and we express our empathy and our sorrow by inscribing them and their stories in Word documents late at night while our children sleep, so that tomorrow, when they wake up, their parents can let them know, as they do every single day, that they are loved, that their world is safe and that, as small as it is, the human heart embraces the whole wide world.
Shula Klinger is an author-illustrator in North Vancouver, B.C. Her young adult novel, The Kingdom of Strange, was published in 2008 by Marshall Cavendish.
From left: Leah Deslauriers, Devorah Goldberg, Lisa de Silva, Donna Cantor, Julie Hirschmanner and Charles Leibovitch, with Debbie Sharp in front. (photo by Karon Shear)
All of us fervently wish that, as the years gather, we will be able to gracefully embrace and be embraced by them. On Jan. 22, an overflow crowd at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver Dayson Boardroom learned how to do just that.
Shanie Levin, Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver (JSA) coordinator of the event, called Aging in Place, welcomed everyone. Co-hosted with the JCC Seniors, the session – which was moderated by Donna Cantor, senior outreach counselor at Jewish Family Service Agency – featured a panel of experts on the subject.
The first to speak was Debbie Sharp, field supervisor for the United Way’s Better at Home program, which offers support by paid staff and unpaid volunteers for seniors 55 and older who want to remain at home while aging, with the ability and dignity to do so. The United Way offers programs that are funded by the B.C. government in up to 68 communities across the province, and can offer help in a range of non-medical services on a sliding fee scale. Some programs are even offered at no charge.
The specific services offered reflect the different needs of each community, explained Sharp. Among those offered are yard work, minor home repair, light housekeeping, grocery shopping, friendly visiting, snow shoveling, and transport to appointments. The program is intended to help seniors play an active role in their communities and continue living at home surrounded by family and friends.
The next panelist was Julie Hirschmanner, occupational therapist at Vancouver Coastal Health, who listed ways in which seniors can stay at home safely. VCH can provide the services of health-care providers such as nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and care managers to help with bathing. Hirschmanner recommended equipment that would make each step of aging easier – grab bars and raised toilet seats, for example – and general advice. In stressing that prevention is the best tool seniors themselves can use, she listed certain hazards we tend to overlook in prevention of falls: rushing to get things done, rising too quickly from a seated position, getting overtired, carrying too much in both hands so being unable to use rails, climbing onto furniture to reach for things, wearing slippers with no backs (hence, no support), dimly lit areas, incorrect or overuse of medication, and clutter in pathways or stairs. She also reminded attendees that people can call 911 if they have fallen and cannot get up, and highly recommended a medical-alert bracelet if one lives alone.
The JSA’s Charles Leibovitch spoke about the many important services offered by JSA peer support counseling graduates, who have passed an intensive 11-week training course. This program, initiated by JSA and set up by Leibovitch in 2011, offers peer counseling, in which trained individuals are matched up with clients requiring the service; friendly home visits, which involve a trained graduate visiting the home of a senior, usually one who is too frail to venture out on their own, and assisting them with shopping, light errands, banking or getting to medical appointments; Shalom Again friendly phone calls, where the loneliness and isolation of individuals is alleviated by someone keeping in touch with them on a daily, weekly, bimonthly or monthly basis. It is important to allow time for conversation, some socialization and perhaps even to encourage a slow reintroduction into community activities. These services are at no cost to the client receiving them.
There have been three graduating peer-counseling classes, with about 13-15 graduates in each. A new class is underway and there are 30 clients at present, with a waiting list. The clients are matched with the counselors, and followed up by Leibovitch and Lynne Moss, his assistant, after the initial introduction. The client also receives Leibovitch’s cellphone number to be used if anything urgent arises. Cantor remarked that she has met many happy clients of these match-ups.
Lisa de Silva, a private occupational therapist, spoke next. Her four staff offer the services required pre- and post-surgery, and can be booked as needed, and not on an ongoing basis, as this type of care can be quite costly – though it may be covered partially by Blue Cross or another insurance provider. De Silva and her staff also offer general at-home care services – and, between them, they speak four different languages, which may be helpful to non-native-English-speakers in times of stress.
The last presenter, Devorah Goldberg, is an interior designer. Specializing in design for seniors, she incorporates function and beauty, using ergonomics to ensure that each client has a home best suited to his or her needs. Her suggestions include cupboards built lower down, no gas stove, labeling items or color-coding them so they are easily identifiable, sensor lamps beside the bed, a large dial phone with numbers (and even the faces) of dear ones for speed dialing, grab bars in the bathtub and by the toilet, extra shelves to house toiletries within easy reach, and no soft sofas (as it is too difficult to stand up once seated).
JCC Seniors coordinator Leah Deslauriers, who contributed her wonderful sense of humor throughout the presentations, thanked the panelists and presented each of them with a token of appreciation on behalf of the organizers and attendees. Many questions were asked during the presentations, which showed the audience’s keen interest in the topics that were being discussed.
Binny Goldman is a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.
Dr. Charles Kaplan and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. (photo from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)
The small group meeting to pray and learn in living-rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s couldn’t have known for certain that their community would survive to grow into a 200-family congregation, but they did know that they’d helped start something special. That much was apparent from the start.
This year, Or Shalom, the outgrowth of that small group, celebrates 36 years, but will also say goodbye to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. She and her husband, Charles Kaplan, arrived in Vancouver in 2005, encountering a vibrant and energetic Jewish Renewal congregation, with a permanent home on East 10th at Fraser Street – and an already storied history.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel who co-founded Or Shalom with his wife and partner, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, was in 1974 the first person to receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Siegel is director of spiritual resources for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he also serves as associate dean of the ordination programs, chair of the rabbinic texts department and rabbinic director of ALEPH Canada. From his Gulf Island home, Siegel described the congregation’s early evolution, and what makes Renewal’s approach resonate today.
“We consciously chose Vancouver, Hanna and I, as a place to move to because we wanted to start a congregation and we wanted to see whether the things that made us newly excited about our Judaism were things that other people would respond to, other people who were also disenchanted or disconnected, so we were looking for a place to do that.”
About a year after arriving here, the Siegels’ vision took root. “We started the second year that we lived in Richmond, in 1978. We started what was then called the Hillel Minyan, and we would meet once a month on Friday night and the following Shabbos morning,” he said.
With help from friends, the Siegels were able to put a down payment on a home on West 22nd Avenue and started leading Shabbat morning services in their living-room. The name was changed to Havurat Sim Shalom. Over the next several years, services were held in participants’ living-rooms, rented homes and on the University of British Columbia campus. The Siegels worked in partnership, Daniel taking leadership of more traditional aspects, he recalled, and Hanna Tiferet on the creative expressions. In that way, there were various access points for participants.
“The intention was that we wanted to create something that gave ownership to people very quickly,” he explained. “So, Torah discussions, which could be done in English, and pesukei d’zimrah, which could basically be some melodies bridged by reading … were open to almost anybody as soon as they wanted to try it. And then there was leading shacharit and reading Torah, which required traditional skills, which meant that people had to decide to improve their Hebrew or whatever they needed to do. I think that was always intentional…. The motto of Havurat Sim Shalom was ‘traditional, egalitarian, creative,’ that’s what we called it.”
Harley Rothstein was a member of the young community. In an essay he wrote in 2000 about the history of Or Shalom, he shared some of those experiences. “I attended the minyan for the first time in January 1980. Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated. I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies. I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion. I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat). The physical layout was fascinating. Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living-room). I was delighted by the potluck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years. I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and immediately became a regular participant.”
“The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.”
Later he wrote, “The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters. We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership. What made it work was that we honored the centuries-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring our own creativity and insight, as well as our commitment to deeply held political values, such as gender equality, social justice and peace.”
By the time the Siegels left for Hanover, N.H., in 1987, Or Shalom was already on firm footing and, though it was still small and mostly consisting of friends, its early success encouraged mainstream congregations to reconsider some of what they wanted to offer. “I think Or Shalom served the function of being a kind of presence that encouraged a bit of ferment in the community, which I think was good because supposedly people cared about the fact that so many young people were not connecting … and they wanted them to connect,” Siegel said. “When we actually got them to connect, I think people had mixed feelings about that success.”
The tension between tradition and creativity was the defining feature. “The most important thing in my mind about what Hanna and I were trying to set up was a community that would be experimental and traditional at the same time,” he explained. “What Zalman called ‘backwards compatibility.’ The creativity that we do is compatible with what we inherited. That still is a very important thing to me. That’s why I do halachic thinking…. In my mind, what was really innovative about Or Shalom as we envisioned it was that combination of a creativity [that] was backwards compatibility, which was loyal to the tradition … both in the sense that we respected what we inherited and we also respected that we inherited a tradition of creativity…. I would say that was the challenge that we faced when we started it, and it would be the challenge that I would hope Or Shalom would look to finding ways to face and play with over the next 36 years.”
“Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Today, Renewal communities have sprung up all over North America – and beyond, Siegel said. “We have strong connections in Brazil, we have some people in Costa Rica now, we have a small hevre in Germany and in Amsterdam and in Stockholm, less so in England. And in Israel.” This growth can be attributed to the fact that “Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Duhan Kaplan, who has now been Or Shalom’s spiritual leader for nearly a decade, warmly described her first days with Or Shalom and her plans to continue participating in the congregation and wider Jewish community. “When Charles and I first came to Vancouver, we fell utterly, totally in love with Or Shalom – and East Vancouver. None of that has changed; if anything, it has intensified. Every week day, I appreciate Vancouver’s combination of natural beauty, access to urban services and perpetually green foliage. I especially love the winter mist and fresh air. With every Shabbat gathering at Or Shalom, I get cumulatively more relaxed. I worry less about logistics, and appreciate more deeply the way that singing, studying, shmoozing and celebrating life events together creates spiritual community. Leading the service has become a spiritual high for me; I take note of who is there, try to connect with them in thought and feeling, and help uplift the group with words and music.”
Growing up in New York, Duhan Kaplan said her “childhood experiences of Judaism were all positive: a large social circle, Orthodox synagogue, Conservative Jewish day school and Hebrew-speaking summer camp.” A self-described book addict, she graduated from university with plans to be an educator.
“My own education is ongoing; I’m in love with school,” she said. “I have a BA in philosophy from Brandeis, an MEd in adult education from Cambridge College Institute of Open Education, a two-year certificate in ayurvedic yoga from the New Life Centre, a PhD in philosophy and education from Claremont Graduate University, rabbinic ordination from ALEPH … a graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Vancouver School of Theology; and I’m currently taking graduate courses in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Honestly, I’m pretty tired: for 33 years, I’ve been working full time, going to school and raising children – without nannies or extended family, but with a great marital partnership and an organized household.”
After spending several years as a philosophy professor, Duhan Kaplan said she was looking for something new. “My leadership role in our local havurah and my powerful dreams and conversations with God led me to deeper Jewish study. I found [ALEPH]’s ordination program, a hybrid distance-learning/residential program, with an emphasis on kabbalah, just right for a philosopher juggling work, family and school. In 2005, I received smicha, moved to Vancouver and started to work at Or Shalom.”
She is inspired by and proud of her accomplishments during her tenure, including the year-long Exploring Judaism course, her experiences working closely with bar and bat mitzvah students and the more “personal moments in pastoral care, where I witness people’s reserves of strength and courage. I may be exhausted a lot of the time, but I never, ever feel my work lacks meaning.”
“Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Renewal’s orientation towards Judaism and life provides a vehicle to chart a satisfying course, she noted. “Renewal is spiritual and socially liberal. Following the early Chassidic teachers, we explore the inner spiritual journey of Jewish life. We take seriously life’s existential questions and we fully expect Judaism to help us answer them. To stimulate our souls, we study, sing, make art and have fun. Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Judaism’s evolutionary character resonates with those who haven’t fit into more mainstream Jewish life. “Or Shalom is really a community of seekers. Our members are deeply committed to Judaism, but they don’t participate out of a sense of obligation,” she explained. “Each person is genuinely and self-consciously on a path of spiritual and moral growth. Of course, we are all at different places on our path. But this self-awareness really makes working relationships easier; people reflect, reach out across conflict, and grow the community.”
Though the time has come to move on from synagogue leadership, Duhan Kaplan doesn’t plan to stop being a teacher. “Charles keeps reminding me to take some down time, but my normal way of living is to be working, going to school and volunteering. Next year, I’ll be working part time, teaching three graduate courses each at the ALEPH seminary and the Vancouver School of Theology. I’ll continue to take courses in Jungian psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have agreed to a big volunteer project for Ohalah: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. I hope to do some cat transportation for VOKRA, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue. Yes, I’ll still be blogging! And I hope to put the finishing touches on the animal book.
“Of all the roles I play, educator still resonates most deeply,” she continued. “When I’m teaching, I can be scholar, deep listener and interpersonal facilitator all at once. I have to be well prepared and flexible at the same time. And I get to play with different learning modalities, as we explore really deep ideas in ways that work for the learners.
“Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies.”
A Pittsburgh native who grew up in “a relatively non-observant, culturally Jewish-identified home,” Charles Kaplan said that he “began to rediscover and explore my Jewish (religious) roots in my 30s and this accelerated exponentially after Laura and I met.” A multi-instrumentalist, he and his wife have continued the tradition of making music a large part of the service. “Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies,” he said.
And though he often gets asked by others about being the rabbi’s husband, he said “Or Shalomniks are far too comfortable with egalitarianism to even think the question! Usually, it’s asked with a clever smile, ‘You know the wife of the rabbi is the rebbetzin. What do they call the husband of the rabbi?’ My standard answer is ‘Around here they call me “the hubbetzen!”’ In all seriousness, supporting the rabbi’s work as a spouse is a challenging responsibility regardless of gender.” Among other contributions, “I’ve gotten myself involved in davening, musical events, ritual committee and even building maintenance! All with ‘ivdu et Hashem b’simcha!’”
Pat Gill and David Kauffman are co-chairs of the board of directors, and spoke to the JI about reaching the double-chai milestone. Or Shalom “occupies a unique place in Vancouver Jewish life,” said Kauffman, who first discovered the congregation in 1985. “Firmly committed to inclusiveness, we make efforts to invite and engage everyone who wants to explore, or return to Jewish life and Jewish community, regardless of their background…. As a participatory shul, most Shabbat services are different each week, portions of davening and reading Torah and Haftorah by a significant percentage of the congregation.”
Gill said she heard about Or Shalom “20 years ago when my husband and I were planning to move here from Seattle. A friend said we should check it out; we’d like it. She was so right. Our first event was High Holidays, 1994, and we were hooked!”
Both agree that Duhan Kaplan has “set the bar high” for the next rabbi. “Reb Laura has brought to Or Shalom a high level of insight, analysis of text, and ability to teach,” said Gill. “As well, her davening and leyning are exceptionally musical and beautiful…. I believe Reb Laura was the first female congregational rabbi in B.C. Her knowledge, intellect and desire to work with the greater Jewish community in Vancouver have earned respect for her and, I believe, for female rabbis in general, as women become more accepted in the role of pulpit rabbi.”
Kauffman seconded that praise. “Reb Laura has brought the aspects of Jewish life that Or Shalom dreamed of in a rabbi. Teaching that draws from rabbinic tradition and modern philosophy, davening that reflects musical influences both traditional and more recent, such as those taught by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and others. For the greater Vancouver Jewish community, Reb Laura is known for her courses all around the Lower Mainland, including Talmud Torah, Vancouver School of Theology, Melton Institute and the most recent Limmud Vancouver. We expect that Reb Laura will continue to teach in her many ways in and around Vancouver even after she leaves the role of Or Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader.”
For now, the search for an interim rabbi continues. “We’ve embarked on a rabbi search mission, one based on the thorough process that gave us such excellent results 10 years ago,” said Kauffman. “We’re looking for an interim rabbi for about a year, and posting a larger search for a full-time rabbi to start in the summer of 2015. Our process will eventually bring the committee’s three top choices to Vancouver for Shabbaton-like interviews, after which a community process will help us find the best match.”
Or Shalom’s 36th anniversary celebration features entertainment by Tzimmes and Grand Trine, on March 1, 7:30 p.m., at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Tickets at 604-872-1614 or [email protected].
Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis will play at Vancouver FanClub on March 9. (photo from Chutzpah!)
The 2012 Vancouver Jewish Film Festival brought Dudu Tassa to local audiences – on film. The 2014 Chutzpah! Festival is bringing Tassa to the city again – in person.
Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis will play at Vancouver FanClub on March 9. Tassa, on vocals and guitar, will be joined by Nir Maimon (bass guitar), Neta Shani Cohen (cello), Eyal Yonati (computer), Barak Kram (drums) and Ariel Qasus (qanun). They will perform “Iraq ’n’ roll” – not coincidentally the name of the documentary that screened at VJFF.
Gili Gaon’s film Iraq ’n’ Roll followed Tassa as the rock musician/composer reconnected to his musical roots: specifically, as he gathered information about his grandfather and great-uncle, Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, respectively, who were famous musicians in Iraq in the 1930s. When they emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, they were unable to make a living as musicians and their music was all but forgotten. That is, until Tassa set about discovering more about his cultural heritage.
In addition to the film, Tassa’s 2011 release – Dudu Tassa and the al-Kuwaitis – reinterprets the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ work in a contemporary context. On the album, Tassa “sings their songs in Arabic and Hebrew, and integrates Iraqi, Middle Eastern and Israeli rock music.” The album features archival materials from the Kuwaitis and “integrates a variety of styles and guests, among them Yehudit Ravitz and Barry Sakharov. Tassa’s mother and Yair Dalal also take part in this exciting project.”
Tassa grew up in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel, close to Tel Aviv. “I started out by playing the guitar and singing at a young age,” he told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “I was noticed, and realized that this was what I wanted to do in my life and went in that direction. Growing up, my musical taste changed but, in my heart, I will always be a rocker. At home, my mum listened to mostly Arabic music when my dad was out of the house. The general idea was to become ‘Israeli’ and to listen to Hebrew music.”
Tassa put out his first album when he was only 13 years old. He described the genre of the music on that recording as “more oriental singing. I then turned towards rock and, by 2000, I was a singer/songwriter. I joined many productions and became a requested guitar player. I played for many years on a famous TV show with a comedian – that’s how I earned the money to finance my own material.”
His second album came out in 2000 and his third, Out of Choice in 2003, includes a version of “Fug el-Nahal,” which his grandfather and great-uncle used to perform; the song also appears on Tassa’s 2004 album Exactly on Time. While the al-Kuwaiti brothers did not write the song, they performed it, and the song represents Tassa’s first foray into interpreting and performing that type of music, sung in Arabic.
“My grandfather and his brother, Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, were great composers coming from Kuwait to Iraq. They composed many songs, which spread in popularity throughout the entire Middle East. The sultan in Iraq in the ’40s appointed them to start the National Broadcasting Orchestra and they composed, played and recorded for many years, until they emigrated to Israel in the ’50s.
“My grandfather and his brother, Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, were great composers coming from Kuwait to Iraq,” explained Tassa of what he discovered in his research. “They composed many songs, which spread in popularity throughout the entire Middle East. The sultan in Iraq in the ’40s appointed them to start the National Broadcasting Orchestra and they composed, played and recorded for many years, until they emigrated to Israel in the ’50s.
“I am named after my grandfather Daoud (David); Dudu is a short name for David,” he added. “My grandfather died just when my mum was pregnant with me.
“I had always heard of my grandparents and the dark side of it was that, when arriving to Israel, they had to make their living out of other things and could not support themselves with music. I was aware of it always, but didn’t deal with it.”
He has since dealt with it, of course, and he is continuing his family’s musical legacy with his current work. About that, he said, “In a way, I guess, it keeps their names alive. In Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s period, the composers’ names were deleted on all the compositions (because of their Jewish heritage), and now the world again recognizes them. Also in Iraq, a few years ago, Iraqi musicologists on TV recognized the Kuwaitis to be the most important composers of modern Iraqi music.”
Tassa is also a record producer, he has composed music for film and TV, and has even tried his hand at acting, which was “a truly new experience” for him – he played a Syrian prisoner in Samuel Maoz’s 2009 film Lebanon.
“I am currently working on a new album,” he said, sharing with the Independent that he still gets “excited each time before the release … like a child.”
Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis’ appearance at the Chutzpah! Festival is the first of a tour. “We continue to New York – the Jewish Heritage Museum, where they also have an interesting exhibition on Iraqi Jewry – then to Boston, South by Southwest showcases in Austin and, finally, San Francisco.”
About how musical performance has changed since his grandfather and great-uncle took to the stage, Tassa said, “The fact that we can use the computer, and involve recordings inside a live performance, does change a lot.
“As for the audience, I think they will judge good music and bad music so, in that sense, maybe nothing has changed. As a matter of performance, it’s the same. Either you’ve got it on stage or not. I think that although we try to impress [people] with great lights and sounds, it all comes down to if the listener is moved or not.”
Vancouver FanClub is at 1050 Granville St. The March 9 show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets ($25/$30 plus taxes and fees) are available at chutzpahfestival.com, as is the full festival schedule.
Idan Sharabi will be joined by three other dancers when he comes to Vancouver for Chutzpah! (photo by Tami Weiss)
From running around barefoot as a child to dancing for audiences around the world, Idan Sharabi has never stopped moving. “Dancing is the only action I have been doing all my life,” he told the Independent – and we in Vancouver can see him in action at Chutzpah! early next month.
The festival runs Feb. 22 to March 9, and Idan Sharabi & Dancers opens for eight-member Italian contemporary dance company ImPerfect Dancers in performances on March 6, 8 and 9. While based in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Idan Sharabi & Dancers are an international group: accompanying Sharabi to Vancouver are Ema Yuasa (Japanese), Rachel Patrice Fallon (American) and Dor Mamalia (Israeli). Sharabi himself has studied in Tel Aviv (Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts) and New York (Juilliard School), performed with Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT) in The Hague and Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, and had his work shown in – among other places – Israel, Switzerland, the United States, Japan, Italy and Canada (Montreal and Toronto).
“I have loved every person I have met from Canada. I have had a great connection with them immediately. There is something I like about Canadians!”
The Chutzpah! show will bring Sharabi to Vancouver for the first time. “I have been many times to Montreal but never anywhere else in Canada,” he said. However, “I have loved every person I have met from Canada. I have had a great connection with them immediately. There is something I like about Canadians!”
Idan Sharabi & Dancers will be coming to Vancouver from a residency in Holland. “Right after, we go to Rome to perform in the Food for Thoughts event [hosted] by the European Dance Alliance of Valentina Marini and, after, to teach repertoire workshops and master classes at the Contemporary Dance School Hamburg, in Germany,” said Sharabi, who has known and collaborated with each Mamalia, Yuasa and Patrice Fallon for some years now.
“Dor and I have worked together for the past 2.5 years,” Sharabi told the Independent. “We met back when I created for him and others in The Project of the Israeli Opera House, in 2011. Since then, we’ve been good friends and inspiring each other to create.
“Ema had danced with me in NDT and we created a lot together there: both Adar and K’zat (two pieces of our repertoire were made back then with her). She joined the group in 2010, when we had just started in Israel with our first show, when we weren’t yet settled at all. It was the show Home, which I had created for five dancers and, only two years later, I was able to start Idan Sharabi & Dancers as a traveling and performing group. It took those years, but Ema stuck with me through it, even though she lived in Holland – it was done by e-mails, phone, Skype. We made it happen, and she joined us again, since August 2013, in the Copenhagen Summer Dance Festival of the Danish Dance Theatre, who invited us to perform Adar there.”
Last but not least, Patrice Fallon and Sharabi met each other in 2011 at the Springboard Danse Montreal program. He has worked with her since then. “I was invited by Yuri Zhukov recently to create for his company ZDT [Zhukov Dance Theatre] in San Francisco, Calif., and I insisted on him auditioning her for the company,” explained Sharabi. “She got it and came to do my project there – we created together Spider on a Mirror. Everyone was happy with the decision to bring her, as she is definitely a great and very physical, groovy dancer with an open mind and heart, and then I realized she should definitely join us every time, whenever it’s possible.” The Chutzpah! show will be the first time that Patrice Fallon joins the full group of Idan Sharabi & Dancers in performance – she will also be with them during their residency in Holland prior to their coming here.
Born in Rishon Le Zion, Sharabi moved with his family to Mazkeret Batya when he was four years old. “It was like a tiny town,” he said of where he grew up. “Back then, everybody used to know each other and you got really close to your neighbors. The whole town was like a big neighborhood. Now, there is a road to it but when I was a child, there was no road yet for cars to drive on, and we used to run there barefoot, there was just sand. Actually, I don’t remember many cars … inside the village. We could basically use the ‘road’ (the sand) to lie down on, we would play there.”
Sharabi said he grew up in a traditional Jewish home. The youngest of three children, he went to synagogue with his father and brother every Friday night, and there was always Shabbat dinner, at least until he was in his mid-teens. “No one from my family works formally in the arts,” he said, “but they are all very creative, and especially my mother, who writes stories and poetry – but never to be published.”
Asked when he first discovered dance, Sharabi shared, “I always remember dancing and moving around as a kid. In general, as a kid, I was weird, according to the stories and my overall feeling. My mom says I was telling her things like there is movement inside plants, that the flower I was holding in my hand is not only what we see. She also says my father tells her that he can never understand me and he thinks my mom and I understand each other because we are both ‘crazy.’
“So, movement, and even exploration, was always there. I first started dancing in a class when I was about 12 years old.”
Sharabi also shared the recollection of a vacation at a hotel where his family stayed every summer. He participated every night in a dance activity for kids. “I think it was called Disco-Kid or something,” he said. “Apparently, according to the stories, I stayed there every day after the other kids left and kept moving around with one of the entertainment team of the hotel, and made myself – and her – memorize movements. By the end of the week, I had a little dance I had choreographed for us! Then, she brought my parents to watch me when I was dancing.”
“I don’t know how to describe how dancing makes me feel, but I can say for sure that dancing is the only action I have been doing all my life.”
A year later, he said, he was studying dance. “I don’t know how to describe how dancing makes me feel, but I can say for sure that dancing is the only action I have been doing all my life.”
One of Sharabi’s recent creations – with two other members of the group – is Nishbar, which means both broken and breaking, and the work has “a lot to do with feeling broken … breaking down or breaking up,” explained Sharabi. He said, “Everything we create in the group is personal on a certain level and people are touched in the creation process. I feel the moment when there is no inspiration for myself or the dancer, it stops there.”
“I realized how we always have our first stage in the process, which is playing a lot of games in the studio, getting to know the dancers, their personalities, their insecurities, the natural movement approach, their ideas of things, their creativity or the lack of it. Mainly, you see the reasons for one to dance almost right there on the spot.”
Sharabi and Mamalia recently were inspired to choreograph a work for Israel Ballet, at the ballet company’s invitation to Sharabi. “It was a very interesting process,” he said. “I realized how we always have our first stage in the process, which is playing a lot of games in the studio, getting to know the dancers, their personalities, their insecurities, the natural movement approach, their ideas of things, their creativity or the lack of it. Mainly, you see the reasons for one to dance almost right there on the spot…. This is something I always start with these days. In my group, I can sometimes just start with a lot of improvising with the dancers, or just watching them improvise and [encouraging] them towards different directions, giving them more and more tools to develop, things that I think of at the moment, leaving the freedom for them to develop other things…. I love this kind of process because I always learn so much from it.”
At the Chutzpah! Festival, Idan Sharabi & Dancers will be presenting a première formed from a couple of different parts of their repertoire. Called Makom, Sharabi explained, “Dor is a dear friend and so I talk to him a lot. I realized at a certain point that I simply love talking to him, I love how witty, funny, easygoing and open and sensitive he can be. I decided to start recording our talks. It became small interviews I would make with him before rehearsing. I asked him stuff in English instead of Hebrew because I started thinking [I would like] to use the material. He didn’t think we would do such a thing and it definitely surprised him to hear himself on the soundtrack. Then we went through a whole process of discovering his voice and the sound it creates in space and time. The textures of his voice and the meanings of what he had said were almost always connected.”
About the future, Sharabi said, “We might travel to Malta this summer. I go a lot to Europe to teach and create for companies as a freelance choreographer and this has created interest recently from a lot of companies to join my company with theirs, and so we do a lot of collaborations.
“We are booked to perform Nishbar and more works from our repertoire in Jerusalem, in Beit Mazye Theatre, in May. After, [we’ll be] in Herzliya with another show with the orchestra there. Poliphony invited my group for this collaboration. Artistic director and conductor Gil Shohat had met me recently and expressed his interest in my work to live music. I loved the idea and we are going to work on that as soon as we step in Israel again.”
ImPerfect Dancers and Idan Sharabi & Dancers are at the Rothstein Theatre on March 6, 8 p.m.; March 8, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (evening includes a talkback); and March 9, 4 p.m. Note: There is partial nudity. Tickets ($20-$28, plus taxes and service charge) are available at chutzpahfestival.com, as is the full festival schedule.
Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch. (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
When theatre and its creative engines become the main focus of a theatrical show, the results can be fascinating. An audience is always hungry for a glimpse behind the scenes.
This is exactly the case with Hirsch, which tells the story of the well-known Hungarian-born Canadian director John Hirsch. Premièred at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2012, it played in Edinburg and then Winnipeg, and it’s been a smash hit in each location. It’s coming to Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 25-March 1. Presented as part of the Chutzpah! Festival, it is co-produced by Touchstone Theatre.
Created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, Hirsch is a solo show, directed by Thompson and performed by Nashman. In an interview with the Independent, Nashman described the show’s origins: “This play was built from research, blossomed into improvisation, and then was recorded, refined and ordered,” he said by phone from his home in Toronto. “It retains in performance something of the anarchic energy of improv.”
As do many theatre people, Nashman admires Hirsch, a legendary figure in Canadian theatre. Born in Hungary in 1930, Hirsch was the sole Holocaust survivor of his entire family. In 1947, he arrived in Winnipeg as a refugee. He didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing his passion, theatre. Eleven years later, he co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) with Tom Hendry. Afterwards, according to Thompson’s research, the MTC audience doubled for seven years in a row – an outstanding achievement in the world of theatre. Later, Hirsch directed phenomenally popular shows in Canada and the United States and from 1974 to 1978 was the head of television drama at CBC. He died of AIDS in 1989.
“Hirsch is a fantastic subject for a play,” said Nashman. “He lived more than nine lives and was constantly reinventing himself.”
Nashman said that the main goal of this project is “to convey the scope of his [Hirsch’s] life and the power of his work. And our solution was to refract his life through his productions. So there’s a back-and-forth between real-life segments and recreations of his rehearsals or performances.”
“I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre.”
Hirsch has received rave reviews as well as public acclaim, and Nashman attributed its success to the hero of his performance. “I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre. And there is the immigrant experience of someone who championed Canadian culture and creativity more than the people born to it. For all these reasons, it transcends generations and ethnic boundaries to become an Everyman story.”
As co-creator of the show, an author as well as an actor, Nashman said he doesn’t feel compelled to adhere too strictly to the text of the play. He wrote it, so he is free to improvise, to adapt to the pulse of the audience. As a result, every performance feels different, fresh. “The play-script does not convey the crackle of anything-could-happen, which fills the live auditorium,” he said. “In fact, my opening monologue changes each night in slight but significant ways, depending on the mood and people in the house.”
“Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov. That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
The show not only forges a link between the stage and the audience but it also streamlines the history of Canadian theatre performance, from Shakespeare to contemporary works. Despite being a modern play, it allows the actor to experience classics the way Hirsch envisioned them. “Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov,” Nashman said. “That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
Of course, introducing multiple characters in one show is challenging, but Nashman doesn’t shy from challenges, on stage or off. “Ideally, every project is a scary challenge, and I actually look forward to the moment in rehearsal when I say to myself, ‘this is impossible.’”
Nashman’s creative road is studded with such moments of daring and triumph. In 1999, he founded Theaturtle, a company whose mission it is “to create essential, ecstatic theatre that touches the earth and agitates the soul,” according to Nashman’s website. He serves as the artistic director and is the only constant member of the company, but Theaturtle has instigated many collaborations. One of these produced another Nashman solo show, Kafka and Son. Initially developed more than a decade ago, it toured successfully across Europe and won the Outstanding Performance Award at the Prague Fringe in 2013. Based on his performance in the show, Nashman was selected Toronto’s number one theatre artist of 2008 by NOW Magazine.
Nashman’s love for theatre began in childhood. “My father was a summer camp director and had a flair for showbiz,” he explained. “But my urge for theatre was self-generated and started when I was very young. It was so natural for me to perform that I had trouble considering it as a profession. Even now, when I’m busy, I say: ‘I have a lot of fun to do today.’”
Amitai Marmorstein’s dream as an actor was to play a superhero. However, in an interview with the Jewish Independent in April 2011, he bemoaned the type of roles he was getting and said, “I can never play an action hero, but I often play younger boys.” Fast-forward three years and Marmorstein’s dream has come true – in a way. In the world première of Nothing But Sky, written and directed by local playwright Kendra Fanconi, Marmorstein takes on the role of Joe Shuster, one of the creators of the iconic DC Comics character Superman. The play runs Feb. 21-March 2 at Scotiabank Dance Centre’s Farris Family Studio.
Canadian-born artist Shuster teamed up with writer Jerry Siegel, whom he met in high school, and together they gave the world its best-known superhero. Originally depicted as a bald, ugly villain determined to rule the world, Shuster and Siegel morphed their creation into the handsome character we know today, modeled on swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The name of Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, was made up of a combination of names of then popular movie stars Clark Gable and Kent Taylor.
Superman was an instant hit as a defender of truth, justice and the American way. Unfortunately, Shuster and Siegel were poor businessmen and neglected to secure a copyright, leading to lawsuits with the publishers and the loss of their creation in the 1940s. Undaunted, they came together again in 1948 to create a new hero, Funnyman, a Jewish crime fighter who used humor and sarcasm to defeat his foes – or, as one pundit called him, a “crime-fighting meshuggeneh.” Unfortunately, Funnyman never caught on. Shuster and Siegel parted company, and Shuster experienced a low period, during which time his eyesight deteriorated and he was forced to take work drawing pornographic cartoons to make ends meet.
Marmorstein and Fanconi sat down to talk with the JI before a recent weekend rehearsal. Fanconi described the genesis of the production. “I had an acting teacher who said that movement is like a cartoon character,” she said. “I had just finished working on a project with kids where we meshed line drawings with video projections that interacted on stage, and I thought it would be fun to play with these two concepts – to tell a story through an evolving comic strip. So, I looked for a Canadian artist to showcase, and I found Joe Shuster.”
She set about researching the Jewish duo. “I fell in love with the story of Shuster and Siegel and their Superman. Contextually, he was developed just prior to the Second World War and at a time when Hitler was coming to power in Europe. Shuster and Siegel were these two nerdy little Jewish guys who came from immigrant families and who were bullied at school. They came up this character, who outwardly appeared to be meek and mild but had real inner power and [the] strength to conquer evil. Although Shuster felt that he was powerless to do anything about what was happening in Europe, by creating the superhero, he actually did something that changed the world.”
The third character in the show is Joanne Kovacs, who became the model for Lois Lane. In real life, they were a love triangle and Kovacs ended up picking Siegel, although she later lamented that she may have made the wrong choice. Fanconi noted, “The story traces their 60-70 years together, through the pinnacle to their fall. I find it more interesting to portray people who are deeply crushed by life and who deal with their losses than those who do not have to deal with adversity. The Lois character is particularly strong, she is an early feminist full of bravery and bravado. She does not have bulletproof skin like the superhero, but she throws herself into various situations to get her story. Actor Dawn Petten does a fantastic job playing that role.”
Projections, action sequences and animated characters are used to move through the development of the comic strip. “It is a beautiful but tragic story and we tell it through the form of a living comic book,” Fanconi said. “Keith Murray translated the comic book into a series of projections. It is a video design from beginning to end. It is like creating a comic, starting with a blank page in pencil and then moving through ink and then into color – an evolution – and the color adds emotional resonance. The animation [i]s provided by Paul Dutton of Academy Award-nominated Triplets of Belleville fame who has the last hand-drawn animation studio in Canada. His work is phenomenal.”
Marmorstein loved Superman as a kid. “I never thought I would get a chance to play him,” he said. “When I read Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, based on the lives of Shuster and Siegel, I thought some day I’d like to play one of those guys. When I heard about the audition for this play, I was so excited. Usually, I treat auditions all the same and do not get too emotional about them; whatever happens, happens. But I fell head over heels in love with Shuster’s character and I really wanted the part so it was a very traumatic few weeks for me while I waited to hear whether or not I had landed the role. When I found out, I was ecstatic. Coming to work is a joy for me,” he continued. “I do not think of it as a job at all.” Marmorstein felt he was right for the Shuster character. “I relate to his character – someone who outwardly does not have confidence in himself yet, underneath, is very strong and powerful. Working with Robert Salvador [as Jerry] has been great. We really complement each other’s style.”
Fanconi noted that the show is not just for comic book fans but also for anyone who likes a good story. “My hope is that the audience will have moments of depression and moments of joy. If I had to use one word to describe the production, it is ‘dazzling.’”
But a word of caution, Nothing But Sky is intended for a mature audience and is not suitable for children. For video clips, visit theonlyanimal.com. Tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
In 1492, as schoolchildren used to learn, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In Jewish history, as in the history of North American First Nations, 1492 stands out as a blue year for other reasons.
That year is remembered as the end of a golden age of Jewish civilization and multicultural amity in Iberia. The Jews of Spain (and, later in the same decade, the Jews of Portugal) were ordered to leave their homeland. In truth, the so-called golden age had ended for Jews more than 200 years earlier. The succeeding centuries had seen increasing levels of isolation, repression, exploitation, impoverishment, humiliation and violence, including notorious massacres in 1366 and 1391. Thousands of Jews had been forcibly converted, but even these “conversos” were not accepted as “true” Christians and were subject to pogroms perhaps as violent as any suffered by those who did not give up their Jewish ways. Spanish Jews were required to distinguish themselves by wearing a yellow badge. But, by 1492, it was determined that the proximity of conversos to their former co-religionists was causing recidivism. As in so many parallel instances, it was also no doubt a factor that Jews were evicted with few of their possessions, which were left to enrich the monarchs. And so the Jews were expelled, the departure slated for the day before Tisha b’Av.
In what appears to be a genuine effort at righting an historical wrong, the Spanish government announced recently plans to offer citizenship to Jews who can prove their Sephardi ancestry back to the expulsions. Lawyers in Israel and elsewhere are fielding calls by the score from people hoping to obtain Spanish citizenship, which, of course, also grants entry to the European Union as a whole.
The officials who are spearheading the drive to welcome back Spain’s Jewish descendants may believe that they are providing a permanent resolution, as best as can be done five centuries on, to a grave injustice. But perhaps they lack the breadth of knowledge of Jewish history to know the pattern into which their generosity falls.
Generation after generation, in duchies, principalities, city-states and empires throughout Europe, Jews in one generation would be exploited for economic advantage by the ruler then forced out when their economic usefulness was drained, only to be welcomed back when a new generation of leaders smelled economic advantage. Then, almost invariably, the cycle would begin again.
While this occurred in instances too many to count, yet in ways astonishingly alike each time, the expulsion from Spain stood out in Jewish history. Until the grievous experiences of 20th-century Europe, the expulsion from Spain was held up as the darkest example of the perils of Jewish statelessness since the destruction of the Temple.
There is little doubt that the current initiative by the Spanish government is being approached in a spirit of fraternity and justice. But it also has to be noted that the European economy overall, and those of southern European states like Spain in particular, are at their worst in a generation. It was precisely at times like these in history when a duke or prince would decide that it was an advantageous time to welcome back the Jews that his grandfather or great-grandfather had forced from the realm. The Jews of Europe, always seeking a place where they may find some peace and a welcome, would flow back in, experience a period of well-being followed inevitably by economic, political and religious oppression, followed by another expulsion.
Surely, this is not what the good legislators of Spain are thinking as they make this invitation. But Jewish people with a better sense of history can certainly be forgiven for seeing this act of generosity in a broader historical context.