Left to right, Ori Laizerouvich, Israel Atias, Daniel Gad and Omer Perelman Striks co-star in The New Black. (photo from ChaiFlicks)
I have to improve either my Hebrew comprehension or my English speedreading skills before April 12. The second season of The New Black premières that day on ChaiFlicks and it’d be great if I could understand more of what was going on – even with my limited capacity, the first season was an absolute blast.
Also recently premièring on the streaming service ChaiFlicks, which carries all sorts of Israeli films and TV shows, was the second season of Checkout, an Israeli comedy in the tradition of American sitcoms Superstore, The Office and Parks and Recreation. It has some seriously funny moments, though a couple of the characters may grate on folks, as some of the characters on the aforementioned American shows did.
Superstore takes viewers into an Israel that most Jews will recognize, but that will be less familiar to those whose only experience of Israel is via the news. The show is set in a small supermarket, Issachar’s Bounty, in a small town, Yavne. The store’s patrons are regulars, and one in particular, fanny-packed customer Amnon, who has a complaint or gets into a confrontation every time he comes in to shop, is particularly annoying, as often is his main sparring partner, the brash cashier Kochava. But the other characters – notably Shira, the store manager who idolizes and sees herself as an up-and-coming Steve Jobs – offer enough less-in-your-face humour that the show is well worth watching if you like reality-show-type comedies. As in the other shows of this genre, there is a camera crew making a documentary about the store, so the characters not only interact with one another, but express their views in interview snippets with the film crew.
In the guise of humour, many a true observation is made in Superstore, which touches upon social inequality, terrorism, racism, homophobia and many other issues. Viewers can choose to just laugh at the goings-on depicted or they can take more away from the show. The same can be said of The New Black, which has some uncomfortable moments – for example, are we supposed to laugh when one of the yeshivah students is appalled when his matchmaker sets him up with a woman who uses a wheelchair? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to be appalled at his behaviour, behaviour that one can easily imagine of many self-absorbed 20-something guys who fancy themselves a prize despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the four yeshivah boys at the centre of The New Black seem like regular college-age men is why the show has broad appeal. That is does, while also being packed with somewhat-high-level (to non-Orthodox Jews) talmudic discussions, is a notable achievement. It is easy to see why the show was nominated for eight Israeli Television Academy Awards. It is smart, engaging, fast-paced and has a fantastic soundtrack. While non-Jews will have to watch it with a semi-knowledgeable Jewish friend and non-Hebrew-speaking Jews will occasionally have to press pause to take in the subtitles fully, The New Black has legs … and Borsalinos aplenty.
For access to these two comedies, and many other programs, visit chaiflicks.com.
A still from Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West, a series of vignettes that shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
The Wild West, Jews in Germany and a surprisingly vivacious Israeli seniors home feature among the diverse films at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival this year.
Somehow, we tend not to associate Jews with the legends that have built up around the development of the American West, a serious oversight that is in the crosshairs of filmmaker Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West.
The mythology of the Wild West is perhaps as much an invention of Hollywood as of history, so it is notable that the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced the genre of the cinematic Western, featured Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson – né Max Aronson.
The myth of the West was no less inspiring to Jews than to other Americans and dreamers from around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous names in the lore was Wyatt Earp. The film introduces us to Josephine Marcus, who fled her family in San Francisco to become an actress and ended up being Earp’s wife. Earp himself is buried along with the Marcus family in a Jewish cemetery.
The gold rush drew Jewish peddlers and merchants to the West Coast in the late 19th century including, most famously, Levi Strauss, who left the Lower East Side and, via Panama, arrived in San Francisco. His brothers sent dry goods from New York and Levi sold them up and down the coast. When Jacob Davis, a tailor, was asked by a woman to construct pants that her husband wouldn’t burst out of, he imagined adding rivets. He took the idea to Strauss and the rest is American clothing history. As one historian notes, it was a Jew who invented “the most American of garments.”
The rapid industrialization in the mining sector is where the Guggenheim family got its start and so, while the name is now most associated with Fifth Avenue, the finest address in New York City, their start was in the gritty West of the 19th century.
We meet Ray Frank, the first woman said to have preached from a bimah. Called the “golden girl rabbi,” she was not ordained, but was apparently a phenomenon that drew crowds to her sermons.
Many people will know that Golda (Mabovitch/Meyerson) Meir spent formative years as an immigrant from Russia in Milwaukee and then Denver. This footnote to her history is often considered curious and interesting, but in this film it integrates the Jewish experience of the 20th century and its roots in the American West with the development of the Jewish state – the opening up of another frontier, one might say.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, seeing the poverty in the Lower East Side, actively encouraged migration to the West. The film introduces families who have worked the land for generations, some of whom have maintained their Jewish identity and at least one of whom was raised Methodist. But, it suggests, the thriving Jewish community of Denver owes much to the failed farmers of the West who made their way to the nearest metropolis to salvage their livelihoods.
The documentary is really a series of vignettes and at times the shift from one story to another is confusing but, as a whole, Jews of the Wild West successfully shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
* * *
The festival features two German films that complement each other in interesting ways.
In Masel Tov Cocktail, a short (about 30 minutes) film, high schooler Dima (Alexander Wertmann) welcomes viewers into his life just as he is suspended for a week as a result of punching a classmate in the face during an altercation in the washroom. The “victim,” Tobi (Mateo Wansing Lorrio), had taunted the Jewish Dima, graphically play-acting a victim in a gas chamber, a performance enhanced by the austere, sterile setting of the restroom’s porcelain-tiled walls. So begins an interplay of victim and perpetrator that is just one of several provocative themes weaving through this powerful short.
Dima’s family, it turns out, heralds from the former Soviet Union, like 90% of Jews in today’s Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the German government actively encouraged migration of Jews to revitalize Jewish life in the country. This fact, like other statistics and tidbits, is flashed across the screen.
Juxtapositions pack a punch, including Dima’s switching between a baseball cap and a kippa, perhaps reflecting his complex identities, as well as the schism in the identities of post-Holocaust Jews more broadly in a society that struggles to assimilate the idea of contemporary, living Jews in the context of the blood-soaked soil of their state. A shift from colour to black-and-white also evokes the stark break between the present and the past.
But the present and the past are themselves in conflict as Dima recounts how other Germans react when they learn he is Jewish. Why does he only meet Germans whose grandparents weren’t Nazis, he wonders. Statistic: a survey indicates that 29% of Germans think their ancestors helped Jews during the Holocaust, while the screen text helpfully informs us the number was more like 0.1%.
Dima’s teacher, who can’t utter the word Jew and struggles to get the word Shoah out of her mouth, wants Dima to share his family’s Holocaust story with the class. The film’s implication is that Dima’s family was largely spared the trauma of the Holocaust, but he decides to play along because, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
Dima’s grandfather is taken in by the AfD, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party, convinced that their pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rhetoric means that they are defenders of the Jewish people. In a moment that confounds the AfD campaigner (and causes the viewer to reflect), Dima drags his grandfather away from the campaigner while yelling: “Don’t let foreigners take away your antisemitism.”
The film is kooky, funny and light, while also serious, dark and thoughtful throughout.
That description applies to the similarly named feature film Love and Mazel Tov, which features Anne, a non-Jewish bookstore owner who has Munich’s largest selection of Jewish titles and who herself is more than a little obsessed with all things Jewish – including potential romantic partners.
“Some are into fat. Some are into thin. Anne is into Jews,” a friend explains. This turns out to be more than a romantic or erotic attraction, perhaps a disordered response to national and family histories.
Thinking she has found not only a Jewish boyfriend but a doctor at that, Anna (Verena Altenberger) courts Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), who in typical cinematic fashion lets her believe what she wants to believe until the inevitable mix-up explodes in a farcical emotional explosion – though not before an excruciating family dinner.
Parts of the film exist on a spectrum between cringey and hilarious. The film features (at least) two fake Jews who don this identity for extremely different reasons, inviting reflections on passing, appropriation and the fine line between veneration and fetishization.
Both of these films use humour to excavate deeply troubling concepts of identity and addressing horrors of the past. They approach these challenging themes in truly innovative and entertaining ways.
* * *
Understated comedy is key to the success of Greener Pastures, an Israeli film in which Dov, a retired postal worker, has lost his home after a “pension fiasco” involving the privatization of the postal service.
He is a curmudgeonly old square when it comes to marijuana, which the government has decided should be available to anyone 75 and over, but he sees a moneymaking opportunity. Dov (Shlomo Bar-Aba) enlists a network of seniors to order medicinal cannabis and mail it to him so he can distribute it to his “connection,” who shops it around to younger consumers. This “kosher kush,” guaranteed “Grade A government-approved stuff” sold in tahini bottles, brings Dov into conflict with a two-bit drug kingpin in a wheelchair and, of course, a snooping police officer.
There is romance and suspense in this madcap caper, but there is also the theme of elder empowerment, along with the laughs.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs online only March 3-13. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Vancouver counselor and comic David Granirer has been standing up for mental health, literally, for nearly two decades. His brainchild, Stand Up for Mental Health, is a program that has helped hundreds of people on the road towards addressing and recovering from all sorts of psychological disorders by taking to the stage and performing comedy before live audiences.
The concept came to Granirer after observing his students during a stand-up comedy clinic he taught at Langara College in the early 2000s. While the course had nothing to do with mental health, Granirer noticed that some students experienced psychological benefits by the end of the semester.
“So, in 2004, I thought, why not put this in a package for people who wanted to do comedy but also wanted that life-changing experience? And, since I work in mental health and have a mental illness, this was the natural place to start,” said Granirer, who, in addition to advocating for destigmatizing mental illness, speaks openly about his own experience with depression.
“I’ve had students overcome long-standing depressions and phobias, not to mention increasing their confidence and self-esteem. There’s something incredibly empowering about telling a roomful of people exactly who you are and having them laugh and cheer,” he added.
The idea, which was seeded in Vancouver’s Oakridge neighbourhood, has blossomed to a program that Granirer has run in 50 cities throughout Canada, the United States and Australia – in partnership with mental health organizations in each area.
Granirer has trained nearly 700 comics since Stand Up for Mental Health’s inception. In that time, there have been more than 500 shows for a range of audiences, including mental health organizations, government departments, corporations, universities, correctional facilities and the military. He even created a show for the United States Secret Service in Washington, D.C., in May 2021.
In Vancouver, the Stand Up for Mental Health course is six months long. Classes start by teaching participants how to write stand-up routines; then they spend the next part of the classes working on their acts. Each week, participants write some jokes and bring them in to try in front of the class. Most of the acts are about their mental health experiences.
Classmates do a lot brainstorming together to hone the routines. At the halfway point, each student does a five-minute set. Afterwards, the prospective comics develop a completely new set for their graduation show at the end of the program.
In terms of therapeutic benefits, Granirer said doing comedy builds a comic’s confidence and self-esteem, enabling many to tackle other challenges in their lives successfully. It also helps get rid of the shame many feel about having a mental illness.
“People transform their past trauma into great comedy material,” he said. “In therapy we call that a cognitive shift. All the bad things they’ve been through now make a great act. Instead of feeling ashamed, they now feel proud of what they’ve been able to survive.”
Granirer emphasized that, while much can be explored in the process, the humour has to be clean, and there are taboo elements, such as homophobia, racism and antisemitism, which are off limits.
When the pandemic started last year, Granirer shifted to online classes and shows on Zoom. In 2021, Stand Up for Mental Health has done about 25 virtual shows for organizations across North America. Recently, live classes have resumed.
“The pandemic has also got in the way of my traveling to other cities where I’ve trained groups,” Granirer said. “I just finished training a group in Culpeper, Va., and had to emcee the show virtually instead of in person.”
Granirer has been the recipient of numerous accolades over the years. Among the honours decorating his mantel are an Award of Excellence from the National Council for Behavioural Health, a Life Unlimited Award presented by the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, a Rotary Shine On Award in Australia for special achievement in mental health, and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada.
His work for Stand Up for Mental Health has been featured in media throughout the world, including, of course, the Jewish Independent, and also in The Passionate Eye documentary Cracking Up. Granirer is the author of the book The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success.
The new year promises a busy start for Stand Up for Mental Health. On Jan. 12, Granirer and his team of comics are organizing “an evening of stigma busting comedy” called Speaking of Normal. The Zoom event will be hosted by TSN personality Michael Landsberg. To attend, visit wellnessinstitute.org/speakingofnormal.
The next Stand Up for Mental Health Vancouver class starts on Jan. 25 and is currently recruiting students. Classes are Tuesdays from 10:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. More information can be found at standupformentalhealth.com or by emailing Granirer at [email protected].
As far as being able to participate, Granirer stressed, “there are no prerequisites, no auditions, and no one needs to have any comedy experience. All they need is a desire to do stand-up comedy.”
He strongly encouraged his fellow Jewish community members to take part.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Left to right: Rob Stover, Kimball Finigan, Adam Abrams, Michael S. Weir and Adrian Maxwell in Metro Theatre Vancouver’s The Odd Couple. (photo by Tracy-Lynn Chernaske)
Neil Simon’s famous comedy The Odd Couple opened Oct. 30 on the Metro Theatre Vancouver stage. It runs until Nov. 14.
We meet divorced sportswriter Oscar Madison (played by Rob Stover) as his buddies arrive for their weekly poker game. One of the friends welcomed into Oscar’s messy abode is news writer Felix Unger (played by Adrian Maxwell), who is also divorced, but exists on the opposite end of the neat-and-tidy spectrum. The fact that the men are opposites in so many ways does not prevent Oscar from inviting Felix – who is so depressed it worries Oscar – to move in. Of course, they drive each other nuts.
Jewish community member Adam Abrams plays Roy, a regular at Oscar’s Friday night poker games, in the Metro Theatre production, which is directed by Catherine Morrison.
Abrams has been a part of the local theatre scene for more than 20 years, including many musical theatre productions. “I also played Richard in North Van Community Players’ The Trouble With Richard,” he told the Independent. “A personal favourite was portraying Abraham Goldstein, builder of the Sylvia Hotel, in Kol Halev Performance Society’s Two Views from the Sylvia, back in 2017. That was my last time on the stage, and it’s so great to be back, as part of the return of live theatre, after such a long and trying time for all of us.”
He said that, in real life, he is more like Felix than Oscar.
“My wife Christine will vouch for that – and would readily admit to being much more of an Oscar!” said Abrams. “When Felix is fussing over his London broil dinner or imploring Oscar’s guests to use a coaster, I very much see myself, the chef of the family and the one who is always keeping things tidy. After years of sharing a home, Christine and I have negotiated a much more successful arrangement than anything seen in the play. But our relative household peace has depended on us both accepting each other’s style to some degree.”
As for the character he plays in the show, Abrams said, “I like Roy, though he is somewhat crankier and more blunt than I’d be. He’s a voice of reason for Oscar, imploring him to do what’s right – stop gambling, and pay his debts. No surprise, as he’s Oscar’s accountant!
“My favourite scene in the show is the date with the Pigeon sisters, Oscar’s upstairs neighbours,” added Abrams. “The conflicting attitudes to divorce – a mere inconvenience to the sisters, pure heartache to Felix – and how he both derails Oscar’s hopes for the evening and endears himself to the sisters, is a delight. And, while it’s hilarious, there’s an undercurrent of true emotion that I find touching even as I’m laughing, which I do every time I see it!”
Live performances – that you can see in person – are, thankfully, a thing again. At least, for now. And this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 4-24, features many shows that people will be able to attend, most of which will also be streamed digitally.
For the two artists the Jewish Independent interviewed this week about the festival, the upcoming performances hold special meaning.
“I am so looking forward to coming back to Canada,” said New York-based comedian and storyteller Ophira Eisenberg, who was born in Calgary. “And Vancouver at that! Where it all started.” Eisenberg performs Nov. 7 at the Rothstein Theatre.
Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art’s Momentum of Isolation sees its world première at the theatre Nov. 13 and 14. The dance company returns to Chutzpah! as resident artists. The Rothstein Theatre and Chutzpah! “have been critical to the growth of Radical System Art and my work as an individual artist,” Kuebler told the Independent, describing the theatre as “the cradle that supported us” during “our infancy as an organization.”
“When I stepped back into the theatre,” Kuebler said, “it was like being back in a close friend’s home. It feels right. There’s a groove and comfort there. This has enabled us to create with as much momentum as possible, both as a company and collective of artists.”
Stepping back into a theatre has been an emotional experience for many artists.
“This spring in New York, I performed numerous times outside,” said Eisenberg. “All of the situations were a little different and, a couple of times, the address of the show was a large tree in a park! It wasn’t ideal and definitely was challenging, but people really wanted to laugh and take in some live entertainment, so it was uplifting.
“My first real performance inside at a comedy club was in early May, when New York opened small performance venues,” she said. “The audience was distanced and masked, and I think they laughed louder and harder than an audience of 3,000 – or maybe my ears weren’t used to hearing live indoor laughter and it sounded explosive. Either way, it almost brought me to tears, and I know I’m not the only one that felt that way.”
Eisenberg comes to Vancouver soon after the final episode of National Public Radio’s comedy trivia show Ask Me Another, which she hosted for nine years, interviewing and joking with numerous famous folk, including Sir Patrick Stewart, Awkwafina, Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, among many others.
“After interviewing hundreds of celebrities, authors, musicians,” said Eisenberg, “one thing that stands out to me is that, whenever we talked about a project that meant a lot to an artist, they mentioned that what made that project so successful was the supportive environment – and the fact that they worked with people who allowed experimentation and even failure. That ended up bringing out their best work. I think about that a lot when it comes to creating a space for artists to truly succeed.”
Eisenberg has headlined and performed at countless festivals and appeared on numerous comedy networks and programs. She has her own comedy special, called Inside Joke, and her first book, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy (Seal Press), was optioned for a feature film. She is a regular host and storyteller with the Moth, an organization that has become a radio show and podcast, in addition to putting on live events and other activities.
As for what she would still like to accomplish in her career, Eisenberg said, “I’m working on another podcast that I hope is also long-running! But I have so many things I’d like to do. Maybe too many things! On the docket are writing another book, and I’d love to write for TV. Performing live is my first love, so I’m looking forward to a safer world where that can happen more often.”
Eisenberg’s journey to success began at a young age.
“I truly believe I was drawn to New York as a child from watching Sesame Street!,” she said. “I went to McGill for university, where I got a bachelor’s in anthropology and theatre, then moved to Vancouver for a couple of years, where I tried standup for the first time.
“I was honestly too scared to move to New York,” she admitted, “so I moved to Toronto and spent five years performing and starting to understand my craft. Then, one day, I thought, ‘I need to move to New York now while I can still happily live with a futon and milk crate furniture.’ Two years after moving here, I discovered the Moth…. I love writing jokes, but I was working on other material that just did not fit into the standup mold. I found an outlet of expression at the Moth and in this short form storytelling, and I continue to pursue both.”
When asked to describe her connection to Judaism and/or Jewish community or culture, Eisenberg said, “I have a joke in my act that goes something like this: ‘I was raised Jewish in Calgary, Alberta, or so I thought because when I moved to New York I wondered, “maybe I was raised Protestant?” Everyone in New York is more Jewish than I am. My Puerto Rican neighbour knows more about Judaism than I do.’
“That is just a joke but living in New York is definitely the first time I felt surrounded by pervasive cultural Judaism. My father was the principal of the Hebrew school in Calgary but left that job the year I was born, so I went to public school. We still practised at home and went to synagogue during the High Holidays. As an adult, I’ve definitely been able to find my community here in Brooklyn, which is very wonderful and embracing.”
In 2018, before the pandemic sent us all into relative isolation, the United Kingdom appointed its – and, apparently, the world’s – first minister of loneliness, to address the problem as a public health issue.
“Right away, the title of ‘minister of loneliness’ grabbed me,” Shay Kuebler told the Independent. “There’s something very simple about it and it almost feels like a caricature, yet, when you think of someone whose entire work/career is to disrupt loneliness, it becomes deeply serious. When you read about isolation and loneliness, the gravity of this position becomes even more clear.”
The United Kingdom’s action was a catalyst for Kuebler, who noted, “You can now find multiple countries that have ministers of loneliness.”
The work Momentum of Isolation “speaks to a number of ideas around isolation and loneliness,” he said. “By doing so, I hope to open up greater conversations around the topic and maybe have audiences start their own exploration of the topic.”
Momentum of Isolation explores the theme both through physical isolation and social isolation, explained Kuebler. “These two points are explored through a number of different scenes, which make the show episodic in its structure, with some through-lines and arcs for characters moving all the way through.”
The work has turned out to be even more relevant than Kuebler initially thought it.
“Honestly, this show took on an evolution that I could have never projected,” he said. “The timing of our first full-company research period coincided with the closures and lockdowns across 2020. I knew that this project was important, and being forced into an online/isolated form of research was profound, to say the least.
“This isolated online research, which enabled one-on-one time with each of the company artists, created a well of material,” he said. “It was a format that was completely new, but something I found extremely valuable. While working with each artist one on one, I was simultaneously writing and composing music for the work. This not only led to a lot of new scenes and ideas, but it also distilled what was most relevant and necessary to say.
“For me, this piece was both a rediscovery and a reinforcement of what I hold most valuable. It has brought me back to how and why I want to create. I am grateful for this.”
For those unfamiliar with Radical System Art and dance in general, Kuebler added, “I know when we hear ‘dance’ and, especially, ‘contemporary dance,’ a lot of people can feel hesitant. I want readers and audiences to see this show as more of a ‘contemporary theatre experience.’ It brings together technology, design and multiple art forms around a very relevant – and timely – theme. It is something being made now, through many different artists and their many unique experiences…. With a collaborative approach to connecting with our audiences, we hope to create something new, relevant and accessible.”
Josh “Socalled” Dolgin leads an evening of Yiddish songs as part of Chutzpah! 2021. (photo from Chutzpah!)
The Chutzpah! Festival returns this November, presenting music, theatre, comedy and dance that reflect the joy of coming back together. For more than two decades, Chutzpah! has been an annual highlight of Greater Vancouver’s arts season. From Nov. 4 to 24, artists will once again grace the stage of the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, the festival’s hub, and share their work in person and online. Tickets go on sale Sept. 15.
The 21st Annual Chutzpah! Festival will include a variety of performances, paired with conversations and opportunities to interact with the artists. Audiences will have the chance to attend in-person shows, with COVID safety protocols in place, or enjoy digital streams from their homes. With an emphasis on artists from across Canada, the festival will also present work from Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom.
“Artists and arts enthusiasts alike have been eagerly awaiting our chance to come back together to share our stories,” said Jessica Mann Gutteridge, artistic managing director. “With the joy of reconnecting comes the knowledge that our lives have profoundly changed over the past year-and-a-half. The Chutzpah! Festival will explore and celebrate the many ways we tell stories now, with a variety of ways to experience and participate in the work.”
The festival opens Nov. 4 with a screening at the Rothstein Theatre of the Marx brothers classic A Night at the Opera, during which City Opera Vancouver will sing the operatic music parodied in the film. The 1930s cinema experience will include festive treats, glamour and a costume contest.
In the comedy realm – all in-person performances at the Rothstein Theatre – Canadian-born, New York-based stand-up comedian, storyteller and writer Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR’s comedy and trivia show Ask Me Another, performs Nov. 10. Israeli-American stand-up comedian Avi Liberman is joined by special guest Jacob Samuel and host Kyle Berger on Nov. 20. And Iris Bahr, who impressed Chutzpah! audiences in 2020 with her festival hosting and her solo show DAI (enough), performs her new solo show Nov. 23.
The dance performances at the Rothstein will be in-person events, as well as digitally streamed. Nov. 6 and 7, a Project inTandem double-bill features the works of Calgary producers and choreographers Sylvie Moquin and Meghann Michalsky, which explore the themes of female struggle and empowerment. Nov. 13 and 14, Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art return to Chutzpah! as resident artists with the third “chapter” of Kuebler’s research that began in 2018, after he read about the United Kingdom hiring a minister of loneliness. On Nov. 16 and 18, Ballet BC artist in residence Alexis Fletcher, who was 2019 and 2021 Chutzpah! resident artist, returns to the festival with a solo integrating movement and the visual art of Vancouver painter and HIV/AIDS activist Tiko Kerr, while 2020 and 2021 Chutzpah! resident artist Ne.Sans Opera & Dance, led by Idan Cohen, returns to showcase a new solo drawing inspiration from the myth of Orpheus and Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with co-creator Ted Littlemore (aka Mila Dramatic).
Theatre works featured are Lilach Dekel-Avneri and the Pathos-Mathos Company’s The Eichmann Project – Terminal 1 on Nov. 8 (digital stream available); The Flame – An Evening of Storytelling on Nov. 17, under the stewardship of artistic director Deborah Williams, featuring storytellers including Stephen Aberle, Glenda Zenoff, Eleanor Lipov and Helen Schneiderman, with musical guest Anton Lipovetsky; and Halifax-based Surplus Production Unit’s A Timed Speed-Read of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial Transcript on Nov. 21 and 22.
Montreal’s Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, accompanied by a local string quartet, leads an evening of rediscovered Yiddish songs, with stories and perhaps a little magic, on Nov. 19, and Israel’s Guy Mintus Trio’s performs A Gershwin Playground Nov. 24. (Digital streams available for both shows.)
Nov. 8-12, Chutzpah! Festival favourite, U.K.-based theatre artist Tamara Micner, transforms her theatrical work-in-progress (workshopped in the 2020 festival) into an audio installation. Audience members will be invited into the Zack Gallery to listen to Micner’s reading of letters written to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, reflecting on how their music informs her feelings about friendship, activism, Jewishness and art. There will be opportunities to “meet” the artist via video stream for conversations about her work and ideas.
Throughout the festival, Bahr converses with festival artists, featuring her stand-up and a wide-ranging cast of characters.
Due to COVID-19 safety processes, all tickets must be purchased in advance and will not be available at the door. Visit chutzpahfestival.com starting on Sept. 15 or call 604-257-5145.
Left to right, comedians Andrew Packer, Jacob Balshin and Che Durena are currently on the JNT Comedy Tour, which takes them to small towns around Alberta and British Columbia until Sept. 6. (photo from David Cyr Photography / JNT Comedy Tour)
The JNT Comedy Tour, known for presenting the “highest” level of comedy in Canada from coast to coast, returned for their fourth edition Aug. 18. Featuring stand-up comedians Andrew Packer, Che Durena and Jacob Balshin, the tour comprises live shows in 19 communities across Alberta and British Columbia, and runs until Sept. 6.
Packer is an international headlining comedian and creator of JNT Comedy; his credits include performances at JFL42 (Just for Laughs), JFL Northwest and Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. Durena came runner up in SiriusXM’s Next Top Comic and he has headlined shows at JFL42 and appeared on JFL All Access on Comedy Central. Balshin, who is a member of the Jewish community, was named Toronto’s Best Upcoming Comedian at the I Heart Jokes Awards in 2018, and was nominated for Breakout Comic of the Year in 2020; his comedy has been featured on SiriusXM and CBC’s LOL.
The trio brings the tour into British Columbia Sept. 1, to Kimberley, with actor Sarah Stupar joining them. They then head to Creston Sept. 2 and Crawford Bay Sept. 3, before returning to Alberta for the tour’s last show.
If you happen to be traveling the province early next month, check out linktr.ee/jntcomedy for tickets and show times.
Megan Phillips, left, and Hayley Sullivan in A Coveted Wife of East Van, part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs Sept. 9-19. (photo by Marn Norwich)
An all-star Jewish team consisting of poet Marn Norwich, director Ariel Martz-Oberlander, jazz musician Itamar Erez and actress Hayley Sullivan join forces to produce A Coveted Wife of East Van, the post-pandemic dating musical that you didn’t know you needed at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. Light and fun, this show is the cathartic release we’ve all been jonesing for after months of pandemic isolation and, if you’re single, forced celibacy.
A Coveted Wife of East Van tells the story of Samantha Cohen as she navigates friendship, men and dating apps while making some very bad decisions along the way. Featuring both original music by Erez and familiar melodies from shows like Fiddler on the Roof, the story is set in Commercial Drive’s Café Deux Soleils. Samatha goes on a date with an East Van hippie, don’t forget the crystals; a mansplainer, need we say more; a pimp; and a murderer, who brings her ex’s head as an offering on their date. Just before things go horribly wrong, Samantha is saved by her best friend in this story about friendship, online dating and the search to find “the one.”
Norwich, an independent journalist for the CBC and Georgia Straight, and Erez, nominee for 2020 Instrumental Artist of the Year award, are joined by award-winning director Martz-Oberlander and Sullivan, as well as producer of the Or Festival Olivia Etey; Best of Fringe Award-winning actor Megan Phillips; winner of best comedy at the 2020 Florence Film Awards actor Mostafa Shaker; and set designer Michael Duggan, who has 30-plus years in the industry and has worked on more than 25 film productions.
A Coveted Wife of East Van opens Sept. 11, 3:30 p.m., and closes Sept. 19, 4:30 p.m., with several shows in between. The Fringe Festival runs Sept 9-19. For the full schedule, visit vancouverfringe.com.
Niv Nissim, left, and John Benjamin Hickey co-star in Sublet, one of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s many offerings this year. (photo from facebook.com/subletfilm)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival will take place exclusively online March 4-14. And, while you might think that COVID’s continued presence would necessitate a trimmed-down festival lineup, there are as many high-quality and diverse films being offered this year as in previous years. We give JI readers a small teaser of what’s to come, with more reviews in our next issue.
Sublet explores divides
In the film Sublet, a New York Times travel writer whose shtick is to get a feel for a city in just five days arrives in Tel Aviv. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) has booked the apartment of film student Tomer (Niv Nissim) but, realizing the student has nowhere to go, the pair end up as temporary roommates.
The somewhat uptight middle-aged Ashkenazi American, standing out like a sore thumb in his semi-casual blazer, is contrasted with the hot-tempered, in-your-face young Sabra. The differences between the two men – and, by extension, between two generations of Jews, of gay (or, in Tomer’s case, possibly bisexual) men, of Israelis and Diaspora Jews – form the heart of the leisurely paced film. Just as Tomer ridicules Michael’s touristy ideas of Tel Aviv’s highlights, the cinematography captures the city at some of its grittiest best.
Is it a generational divide or a cultural one that has Tomer and Michael adopting wildly different sensibilities toward the tragedies of recent Jewish history and the experiences of gay men in the AIDS crisis, which Michael’s first book explored?
“It’s so depressing,” Tomer says of the AIDS pandemic. “Why does everything always have to go back to that?”
A more stark response – and one that is darkly humorous but startlingly confusing to Michael and perhaps many viewers – comes when one of Tomer’s friends is discussing fleeing Tel Aviv for a more successful artistic life in Berlin.
“It’s a bit odd that you’re moving to Germany, the place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy,” Michael observes. The Israeli pair pauses for a moment, then burst into hysterical laughter.
“Berlin’s, like, the coolest place,” Tomer assures Michael.
The theme of patrimony runs through the drama. Michael and his partner are struggling to find a surrogate for a baby they want to parent. Tomer, it turns out, is himself the product of a mother who chose the path of artificial insemination. Michael is wondering if he is getting too old to start afresh as a father. Tomer, in his clumsy way, may be struggling with the absence of his own paternal influences.
The bonds and divisions between generations, between conceptions of the past, between Israel and exile are explored but unresolved in this pleasant (if sometimes PG) film. The brief glimpse of Tomer’s hilariously awful horror film is just a bonus.
A shiva from hell
When her parents browbeat her into attending a shiva, Danielle does not expect to run into Maya. The two young women have an entwined past, so much so that other attendees can’t remember which one is which. The film Shiva Baby quickly turns into a subtly riotous adventure in the joys and drawbacks of tight-knit communities and the challenges of keeping secrets in a yenta-intensive environment.
Though their shared history is a source of immense awkwardness and brilliantly snarky sparring, for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), this shiva is a house of horrors. Having told so many lies to cover her failure to launch successfully into adulthood, every turn, every new face at the shiva, is an opportunity for sequential interrogations and fresh humiliation. It becomes an unintentional parlour game to piece together the variety of stories Danielle has told of changing majors, areas of specialization and plans for the future. Family, friends and acquaintances compare conflicting tales Danielle has woven over the years, creating an elaborate narrative of mostly imagined endeavours.
Her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) seem both oblivious dupes and co-conspirators in Danielle’s web of deceptions. The loving but exasperatingly overbearing parents add to their daughter’s discomfort time and again, leading to an understated climax that literally shoves Danielle’s bad choices in her own face.
This “comedy of discomfort” is a masterpiece of interfering adults and world-weary youth. The unifying bond between generations is a shared art for the backhanded compliment and straight-up insults. After Danielle spills coffee all over herself and a friend’s baby, her mother offers solace: “Well, thank God Sheila’s coffee is always lukewarm.”
Shiva Baby, a Canadian-American co-production, features a musical score that amusingly invokes the horror genre to emphasize the nightmare scenario in which Danielle finds herself, almost exclusively of her own design. Any awkwardness on the part of the viewer is alleviated by schadenfreude that whatever she has coming is probably well overdue.
In Bloomywood, Michael Bloomstein (played and co-created by David Meyers) wanders around Tinseltown asking random people on the street to help him make a movie about his life. (photo from David Meyers)
When David Meyers moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, one of his goals was to make it in Hollywood. Without any connections or famous friends, he set out to get a project off the ground. Finding humour in his struggle, Meyers developed a fictional comedic YouTube mini series called Bloomywood, which is loosely based on his experiences.
Meyers plays the main character Michael Bloomstein, a nice Jewish guy who wants to write his uneventful life story for a major Hollywood studio.
“It isn’t autobiographical per se, but is definitely based on my experience of trying to be an artist,” Meyers told the Independent. “Michael Bloomstein has never been to Hollywood before, but he does have an unyielding self-belief and a willingness to do anything to succeed. As he chases his goals, Michael will see the highs and lows of the industry – and question if he really has what it takes to make it.”
Meyers said there is so much rejection and “no” along the way for people trying to succeed in Hollywood that he and his co-creators want to show there can be joy and optimism in chasing your dreams.
In the series, Michael wanders around Tinseltown asking random people on the street to help him make his movie, using an unscripted mockumentary format. “In the tradition of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, Bloomywood incorporates man-on-the-street interactions, sketch comedy and improv to explore the absurd realities of Hollywood,” said Meyers.
“When we made the show, I thought no one would stop to talk to Michael when I approached them on the street – but almost everyone did. And I think it is because they were attracted to this character who was determined to be positive and happy, no matter what happened. And I think that’s a message people could really use right now, with all the negativity we are bombarded with.”
Meyers, who was raised in Fort Lee, N.J., went to Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. After graduation, he worked in the staff secretary and communications offices in the White House for three years, then did communications and speechwriting in the U.S. Senate. He worked part-time in journalism, wrote plays and pursued acting, as well. He did a national commercial with Danny DeVito, was in a feature film called Killer Caregiver for Lifetime TV, did a commercial with James Franco, and more.
He has written plays that have been produced around the United States, and has two TV shows in development. His play We Will Not Be Silent – based on the true story of a group of German college students who opposed Hitler during the Second World War – had five productions around the country. “It was supposed to come to New York, starring two-time Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon and directed by Dexter Bullard. Unfortunately, we were derailed by COVID, but I hope not permanently,” said Meyers.
Growing up, Meyers was very active in his Jewish community. His grandfather was Orthodox and his grandparents were a very big part of his childhood. Because of his strong Jewish identity, Meyers wanted to make it clear that Bloomstein was a member of the tribe.
“Viewers will definitely know Michael is Jewish,” he said. “He talks about it all the time. Since so much of the show is improvised, and since being Jewish forms so much of who I personally am, I knew Michael had to be Jewish. Once I came up with the name Michael Bloomstein, it wasn’t even a question. I didn’t try to come up with a Jewish name – it’s just so internal to me, that my first idea of a name was Michael Bloomstein.”
“Not only that,” Meyers continued, “Bloomstein brings up his Jewishness constantly – whether it’s landlords liking him because he’s Jewish and, therefore, responsible, or the fact that his Jewish mother doesn’t believe in him. It informs all of his interactions and, to be honest, he’s definitely a bit of a nebbish.”
Meyers met his co-writer for the show, Taylor Gregory, after an audition in Los Angeles. “The director left right before I was supposed to go on,” he said. “So Taylor and I talked about the way that people mistreat actors and writers (Taylor is also a writer), and how hard it can be to pursue your dreams amid all the rejection.
“Taylor had the idea to create this show – he initially called it Doormat – which would have my character constantly being rejected, but still move forward with hope and optimism. We decided to start filming and see what happened. Taylor’s friend Rory Leland is an incredible editor and he shot all of our footage. On our first day, the character of Michael Bloomstein really came to life. Rory and Taylor had so many great ideas and the three of us put together Bloomywood.”
They started filming Bloomywood last November and, after finishing seven episodes, the pandemic arrived. “COVID hit us really hard. We had to stop production on the show, abridging our season from 10 episodes to seven,” said Meyers, noting that each episode is two to three minutes long.
“We had an amazing social media person who was helping us, who had to withdraw after her mother died from COVID. We had a great press agent who agreed to take us on pro bono because she loved the show – and then she had to leave because of staff cuts at her agency and a death in her family. At times, it felt like the show was cursed,” said Meyers. “But we were inspired to move forward with hope and optimism, just like Michael Bloomstein. The show inspired me to stay positive on a daily basis.”
Meyers is financing the show himself. “I have been using my money from past acting and writing projects to try and invest in myself and get exposure. Right now,” he said, “the main goal is to get as many people to see Bloomywood as possible.”
Meyers is thrilled with feedback they have received. “It’s been amazing,” he said. “We have heard from celebrities and TV writers, including one of the writers from The Goldbergs. It has been really gratifying because we put so much time and so much love into this show.”
One of the people they heard from was Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines. “We sent Cheryl a cameo request and, in return, we would donate money to charity, asking if she would watch our trailer and send Michael a message,” Meyers explained. “We assumed she wouldn’t do it, but she did! And we could tell by her response that not only had she watched the show, but she enjoyed it, so that was extremely gratifying.”
Although Meyers doesn’t have any ties to Vancouver, he said, “There is so much TV shooting in Vancouver and I’ve often said that I want to move there one day – I am just waiting for the right professional opportunity.”
Who knows, maybe Michael Bloomstein will wind up taking his quest for fame on the road to Canada!
Bloomywood can be found online at youtube.com/bloomywoodtheseries and at bloomywood.com.
Alice Burdick Schweigeris a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.