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.’”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Congregation Beth Israel’s former parking lot will be replaced by an underground parking garage with a 200-vehicule capacity. The roof will be an interconnected series of courtyards. (photo from Beth Israel)
This September, when construction is complete and Congregation Beth Israel reopens at Oak and 28th, Vancouver’s oldest Conservative synagogue will join a very special Vancouver membership. The structure will be on the city’s list of green buildings.
Vancouver is pushing to become the world’s greenest city by 2020 and, this year, it began phasing in bylaw changes that would require both residential and commercial construction projects to integrate more environmentally friendly features into their infrastructure. For BI, this means a building that uses less electricity, more natural resources like sunlight and outdoor carbon-reducing green spaces and, wherever possible, partners with neighborhood facilities to reduce energy usage.
BI executive director Shannon Etkin told the Independent that the congregation has known for a couple of decades that it would have to replace the 65-year-old building. “The air conditioning system was shot, the plumbing and electrical systems were very old and outdated and subject to continuous breakdowns, [and] the roof was well past its best-before date,” he said.
In addition to its age and the environmental concerns, the structure no longer fit the needs of the synagogue’s membership.
“We also wanted a space large enough [where] all of the congregation could be under one roof at High Holy Days instead of having to have a second service, or an alternative service for other people because we didn’t have space for them in our main building.”
“The spaces weren’t designed for the way we work with our congregation now,” said Etkin. “We also wanted a space large enough [where] all of the congregation could be under one roof at High Holy Days instead of having to have a second service, or an alternative service for other people because we didn’t have space for them in our main building. We didn’t have lounge spaces for people to gather informally. Some of the rooms were too small and some of the rooms were too big. The auditorium was not large enough for many families who wanted to have functions at the synagogue.”
The new building, said Etkin, will be attractive, as well as serve the needs of the 600-family congregation. “We are going to have a beautiful sanctuary…. It will feel intimate for various-sized numbers of people attending services,” he said, adding that the social hall will be able to accommodate larger wedding and other simchah receptions.
As well, people who want to sit and shmooze after services or while waiting for a class or a presentation will be able to do so. “We have informal spaces for people to lounge in and be able to talk to one another, [and] we will have new technology allowing us to project images in different rooms, a sound system, all those different things we didn’t have in the previous building,” explained Etkin.
BI Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said the changes will make a big difference to the atmosphere and functionality of the synagogue. “One of the other critical components of the building is lighting. The new sanctuary will have a skylight and lighting that will make the whole place bright. Dim, dark lighting like we had in our old building is depressing. Brighter lights are more uplifting and spiritually enhancing,” said the rabbi.
“The building will be extremely friendly for those with physical challenges,” he added. “Not just the bimah, which will be extremely accessible for someone with physical challenges, but washrooms as well.” And, he noted, “[The] heater will work in the winter, and the air conditioner will work in the summer, and not vice versa.”
Despite all of the environmental improvements, Infeld said the congregation has decided not to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification through the Canadian Green Building Council, as doing so would cost upwards of another $100,000, and the congregation feels the money could be better spent on projects within the synagogue. However, the new building’s environmental features would allow it to apply for a gold rating as a LEED building. For example, Metro Vancouver’s design guide for LEED buildings points out that using daylight to enhance the brightness of the building’s interior is not only appealing, but energy efficient. Properly applied, it can reduce electricity usage and heating bills – as can the design of the overall structure.
In fact, said Mark Ostry, principal architect at Acton Ostry Architects, Inc. – the new building’s designer – many of the esthetic and functional changes will provide environmental benefits, including the congregation’s decision to keep the building’s original frame; a decision that was also a nod to its 82-year history (the congregation was incorporated in 1932 and completed the structure in 1949).
“Roughly 60 percent of the building area has been accommodated in the original building,” said Ostry. According to a 2012 study by Preservation Green Lab, an arm of the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation, construction retrofits that emphasize green techniques are often easier on the environment than new construction.
Ostry said they are also looking into BI joining a district energy system (DES) that would be run by the nearby B.C. Women’s and Children’s hospitals complex. Hooking up to a DES would mean that BI could reduce energy usage further. Shaughnessy Hospital introduced an earlier version that shared service with the Oak Street hospital complex back in the 1980s, and the proposed DES upgrade would allow BI to benefit from that network.
Ostry said other environmentally beneficial features include the landscaping that is going to serve as the roof to a shared underground parking lot.
“This [will allow] the synagogue to be wrapped with a network of interconnected courtyards,” said Ostry. “In addition to promoting biodiversity, the soft-planted landscaping contributes to storm water management…. Equally important, these courtyards establish a strong connection between the synagogue and the outside. Landscape areas have been designated to accommodate a gaga pit, chuppah, sukkah, outdoor services and various informal activities – all of which enhance the meaningfulness of the natural world in Judaism.”
BI’s reconstruction started in 2012 and, according to Etkin, it is expected to be complete in time for this year’s High Holy Day services. Almost all of the funding has been raised through donations, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has contributed for a preparatory security review. He said the support from both congregation members and the larger community is what has allowed the redevelopment to move forward. With only $2 million of the targeted $18 million cost still to raise, BI’s new home is almost complete. And, in this new home, the “building will finally face east, toward Jerusalem,” said Infeld. It has been a long-term goal and, now, he said, “It will finally be correct.”
Since last year’s Chutzpah! Festival, the Jewish Independent has been waiting to see Noah Drew’s Tiny Music. The read-through in 2013 was a unique experience of a work-in-progress, and it will be fun to compare that “teaser” with the production that takes to the Rothstein Theatre stage later this month as part of this year’s Chutzpah!
“This play has actually been slow-cooking for almost 10 years,” Drew told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “In 2004, the fabulous actor/writer Josh Epstein approached me about writing and composing a musical together. We jammed on ideas, and decided to adapt a short story by Sholem Aleichem called The Fiddle, which I’d been very fond of growing up. At my grandparents’ house, I used to listen to a record of the great Howard Da Silva reading Aleichem’s stories accompanied by a klezmer band, and The Fiddle was one of my favorites: a dark fable in which a boy who’s obsessed with music is forbidden to have anything to do with it, but can’t help himself, to his family’s ruin. Josh and I wrote a few songs and scenes about a boy in the Old Country who was born with unusually large and dexterous hands – a violin prodigy. Some of the material was great, but then, life happened – Josh booked a big show in Toronto and moved there, and shortly afterwards I got a full scholarship to do my MFA in acting at Temple University in Philadelphia, and also moved east. Every once in awhile, Josh and I would connect and talk about working on the show, but it never quite happened.
“Then, in 2010, I was visiting my friend Sarah Shugarman (a wonderful musician in Toronto) and ended up unearthing one of the songs I’d written for the Fiddle project. When I read her the lyrics, she was effusive in her praise and excitement, and encouraged me to reopen the piece. We talked about co-composing, but in the end the scheduling and geography didn’t cooperate (I had completed my degree and moved back to Vancouver by this point) so I decided to push forward with the project alone.”
At the heart of Tiny Music is Ezra, described in the Chutzpah! program as “an autistic man with an auditory-processing disorder that heightens his experience of the sounds around him.” About the writing of such a character, Drew explained that, around the time he re-committed himself to the play, he was “spending a fair amount of time with two members of my family – one adult and one child – who are on the autism spectrum. I also had a private acting student who was autistic. I noticed that all three of these individuals had certain challenges, particularities and special abilities when it came to focusing, and that all three seemed to have a very strong relationship to music. Music has always been incredibly important in my life also, and I was finding nice connections with my autistic family members through listening to and/or playing music together. I conceived of a contemporary version of the Sholem Aleichem story with an autistic man who hears in an extraordinary way at the play’s centre.”
Drew said he wrote a handful of songs and a first draft. “A two-day script workshop in Montreal in January 2013 led me to a second draft of the script, which was presented as a reading in the 2013 Chutzpah! Festival,” he said. “That reading was a bit of a whirlwind – we had only the one day to rehearse – but it was a good opportunity to see how the story was working (and where it wasn’t) and to hear a few of the songs with piano and voice. I learned from that reading that some aspects of the characters and story were really working, but others were a bit superficial and/or clunky.
“I went back into the writing process and, in October 2013, the show’s director/dramaturg Jamie Nesbitt and musical director Yawen Wang came out to Montreal to join me, sound designer Joe Browne and eight Concordia theatre and music students for a six-day workshop of the piece. That was a fantastic process! In addition to further developing the script and story, we got to explore the most important question of the piece stylistically: how can we make the songs, story, instrumental music and sound design all work together as a cohesive whole? We did some wonderful experiments, played around with ways of combining the elements and made discoveries such as: in this show, sometimes a sound cue or instrumental moment could actually replace dialogue. The script, music and sound all moved forward a couple of drafts. The characters were becoming more three-dimensional. The music was becoming more contemporary (‘less Sondheim and more Bjork’). The unique world of the show was coming into focus.”
Rethinking the storytelling
At this point, however, Drew and Nesbitt – co-founders of Jump Current, the producer of Tiny Music – noticed a “significant problem with the script.”
“Although the show is experienced from the perspective of an autistic individual, the storytelling mode was still quite ‘neurotypical,’” explained Drew. “Ezra had monologues in which he explained his situation and point of view to the audience in a very linear, chronological way. But the more I read and spoke to people about the range of autistic experiences, the more I realized that this linear way of speaking and thinking didn’t feel right. At Jamie’s urging, I took the script apart, and re-imagined it as a world in which time and memory are at times fluid, fragmented and unpredictable. Now, in the language, sound, music and staging, we are finding rhythms, patterns and textures that feel more true to who Ezra is. Rather than just describing and showing the story of this unique individual, we are figuring out how to invite the audience to share his visceral experience.”
This is what makes Tiny Music not just a regular, run-of-the-mill musical.
A sound design musical
“I call Tiny Music a ‘sound design musical’ because I want the audience to spend 90 minutes really hearing through Ezra’s ears,” explained Drew. “For Ezra, tiny details of the sonic environment that might go unnoticed by most people are very vivid. Sometimes, these details might mesmerize him. At other moments, they might overwhelm him. And sometimes, he hears the patterns in things so vividly that mundane sounds coalesce and occur for him as music. So, the songs in Tiny Music don’t just happen because, hey, it’s a musical. Instead, we only have songs because either (a) it makes sense that another character would actually be singing to Ezra in a certain situation, or (b) Ezra’s internal experience of certain sound patterns ends up transforming non-musical sounds into a kind of song. And, there are many times in the show – even some pieces I’ve called a ‘number’ – when nobody actually sings. Instead, it’s more like the environment itself that sings … all the sounds on all the floors of the building he’s in combine to make a kind of ‘sound design song,’ or a the voice of a person who is just speaking warps and distorts in Ezra’s perception, becoming rhythmic and harmonic. Every sound can be a kind of music if you really listen.”
The producers: Jump Current
Tiny Music is but one of several projects that Jump Current is currently producing, despite its relatively recent appearance on the theatre scene. “Very close friends who have led kind of parallel lives for awhile now,” Drew and Nesbitt started the company last spring. Of the reasons for the collaboration, Drew said, “We’re both fairly well known in Canada as theatre designers (he for video projections and I for sound), but we both consider ourselves to be theatre artists in a much broader way than only design. In fact, we both are suspicious of the way that sometimes design tricks and flash can get in the way of real, organic moments of storytelling in the theatre. (Also, as it happens, Jamie and I are both married to yoga teachers who used to work as actors, who are now studying to be expressive arts therapists – go figure.)
“In 2012, Jamie got very involved in working on Tiny Music, and I started working as a dramaturg on a play he’s writing called Salamandra (which is based on the true story of his inheriting a 150-bedroom castle in Poland from his great-uncle, Poland’s former minister of war, and his great-aunt, a former Polish movie star). Because we were doing these two projects together, and because our views about theatre, politics and life are so aligned, we decided to start a company together.
“In addition to creating and producing works of theatre and media-based performance,” he continued, “Jump Current’s mission is to research, develop and champion uses of design and technology that illuminate live human-to-human connection, and counteract people’s sense of alienation from one another. We believe deeply that, although, of course, it’s true that we live in an age when technology can really separate people from direct, organic connection, there are ways that it can also facilitate a shared experience of wonder that can really unite people.”
Another project that Drew and Nesbitt are developing is The Riot Ballet, “which explores themes of crowd psychology, identity and protest – both peaceful and violent,” said Drew. “We recently participated in a two-week development process in Barcelona, which led to some really exciting material and ideas. The team is amazing – this project brings us together with fantastic theatre companies from Spain, Colombia, the U.S., and a dance company from Toronto. We’re aiming for a late 2015 or early 2016 première in the U.S., then dates in Canada and Europe.”
All of this is in addition to Drew being a tenure-track faculty member in the theatre department of Montreal’s Concordia University, his continued freelancing in sound design and his voice teaching work. One of his sound design projects, he told the Independent, is for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ production of This Stays in the Room, which will be performed at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver March 19-30.
About his full schedule, Drew said, “I feel very grateful that my years as a full-time freelancer and the demanding process of doing an MFA really helped me develop good time-management skills! But, when it’s all amazing, a busy life is a pleasure. Sometimes, when things get a little too intense, my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘At least it’s not boring!’ We’re usually smiling.”
Tiny Music takes place Feb. 25 and 26, 8 p.m., at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. It stars Anton Lipovetsky, Susinn McFarlen, Caitriona Murphy and Bob Bossin, with musicians Yawen Wang (piano and accordion), Joe Browne (live electronics), Caitriona Murphy (violin), Mike Braverman (clarinet), Jodi Proznick (bass) and Jason Overy (drums). There is a post-performance talk-back on Feb. 25. For tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com, call 604-257-5145 or 604-684-2787, or drop in to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Six-year-old Yosef Nider has been playing the violin for two years. On Wednesday, Feb. 26, 10 a.m., in the gymnasium at Vancouver Hebrew Academy, he makes his concert debut. Yosef will play a recital in honor of his beloved Zaida, Marvin Nider, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2013.
Concert for a Cure will raise money for the B.C. Cancer Foundation. Yosef’s mother, Elizabeth Nider, said the idea for the fundraiser came about organically. “Yosef and I were talking about tzedakah one night before bedtime and he asked me if we’re only supposed to give tzedakah to people who don’t have enough money for food and clothing and I said, no, we can give tzedakah to many other places, such as schools, aquariums, scientists or doctors who look for cures for diseases,” Nider told the Independent. “And then, Yosef asked me what kind of diseases, so I gave an example of cancer and he right away said, ‘I want to give all of my tzedakah to cancer scientists so that they can find a cure for Zaida.’ I told him how that was a very nice idea and cancer scientists need lots of tzedakah because they have lots of experiments and testing to do. Then, a few days later, in the car, Yosef announced, ‘Mommy, I want to make a fundraiser for cancer scientists.’ (I’m still not sure where he got the word ‘fundraiser’ from.) And when I asked him what he wants to do, he said, ‘Have a violin concert.’
“At first, he said that he wanted to have the concert at the place where the Cavalia show is held, but I told him it might not work because it’s probably just for Cavalia. Then I told him I’d do some thinking and get back to him and finally we decided that having the concert at Vancouver Hebrew Academy would be best, because other kids could attend and perhaps get inspired to fundraise for organizations or causes that they are passionate about, as well. And here we are.”
The relationship between a grandparent and any of their grandchildren can be close, but sometimes an eldest grandchild holds a special place in a grandparent’s heart. Yosef, his two siblings, Ephraim and Sari, and their Zaida have the added benefit of living in the same city and the opportunity to develop a closeness that comes from more regular interaction.
“Not to generalize but, generally, zaidas have more fun with older kids since there is more to do with them. Not to mention, Yosef and Marvin have a lot in common: they both love skiing, building, wood working and playing with Lego. They have been doing these things together for a few years and, because Yosef loves to ask questions and Marvin loves to answer them, they’ve gotten to be quite a pair.”
“Yosef is the first grandchild, which makes him the oldest grandchild, which means that he has more exciting things to do with his Zaida,” noted Nider. “Not to generalize but, generally, zaidas have more fun with older kids since there is more to do with them. Not to mention, Yosef and Marvin have a lot in common: they both love skiing, building, wood working and playing with Lego. They have been doing these things together for a few years and, because Yosef loves to ask questions and Marvin loves to answer them, they’ve gotten to be quite a pair.”
Yosef takes lessons in the Suzuki method with a private teacher and he has been spending time specifically on his recital repertoire ahead of the concert later this month, said Nider. “Yosef practises every day except Shabbat and that hasn’t actually changed; he is still practising the same amount. He is, however, practising with his violin teacher more on the songs for the concert and not learning any new pieces for now. He is also meeting with [clarinetist and community member] Connie Gitlin … and they are practising to play together.”
Families approach illness and sharing sad news with their youngest members in various ways, but Nider said she felt clear that she should share the news about her father-in-law’s prognosis with her eldest son, a choice she feels fits with her family’s orientation towards life. “First and foremost, where I get all of my ideas and strength is from living a Torah-based life,” she explained. “We, as Jews, have been blessed with a blueprint for life. It says right in the Torah how to deal with difficult situations … so my ideas are certainly not original by any means. I have found tremendous strength from the belief that Hashem runs the world [and] we are never in control.
“I know that this idea has trickled down to our kids without us even realizing it; I know this because the day after we found out about Marvin’s diagnosis, my husband [Jeff] was in shul with Yosef and my husband was having a hard time focusing so he had to leave. My husband told me that Yosef looked up at him and, seeing tears in his father’s eyes, he said simply, ‘Abba, everything happens for the good.’ Yosef knows that there is a greater plan and that we are not usually privy to the reasons why things happen and when. Just this fact alone is essential in dealing with any kind of difficulty, whether illness or otherwise. I also can honestly say Jeff and I are extremely thankful that in Yosef’s school there is no shortage of educators, from preschool to head of school, who believe these same beliefs [and] teach children these values from the get-go. So, what I teach my child at home is hugely supported at school and I have found that these two factors greatly increase Yosef’s appreciation for why things happen, both good and bad, and how we can’t always explain the reasons.
“Personally, I believe that explaining in simple terms what is happening is helpful in keeping children from being afraid. If they understand what cancer is, for example, then there will likely be less fear because it makes sense and it is not a secret.”
“Another aspect that I have found to be effective is being open. Personally, I believe that explaining in simple terms what is happening is helpful in keeping children from being afraid. If they understand what cancer is, for example, then there will likely be less fear because it makes sense and it is not a secret.”
Yosef’s original fundraising goal for the B.C. Cancer Foundation “was $1,000 and he surpassed that goal in less than 24 hours of word getting out about Concert for a Cure,” said Nider. At press time, Yosef had surpassed $6,500 and his new goal was $10,000. The Feb. 26 concert was sold out.
“It’s incredible to see this level of support,” Nider said. “People who don’t even know Marvin but just know Yosef have donated, and vice versa. We didn’t realize it, but the creation of Concert for a Cure has become something of a small piece of joy amidst all of the daily stress and worry that is affecting our family. Marvin and Barbara (Yosef’s Bubby) check the donation website often and it’s giving them nachas to feel supported by friends, family and people who they don’t even know but who believe in this cause.”
Meanwhile, Yosef is also a regular six-year-old. His favorite subjects at school are art and math. Asked what is the best (and worst!) thing about playing the violin, Yosef said that the best thing is “that people listen and that it’s fun.” And the worst? “When people say ‘encore.’” Sorry to say, Yosef, chances are that’s exactly what you’ll be hearing on the 26th – and a hearty bravo.