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.
The character of Guy Nehama, played by Reshef Levi, dreams of becoming a standup comic. (photo from Topic)
It took me a couple of episodes, but then I was hooked. Initially, most of the characters on the award-winning Israeli show Nehama – in particular the lead, Guy Nehama, played by Reshef Levi – are completely unappealing, even annoying. While they more or less stay that way, they do start to show shades of competence and compassion, and begin to use humour to salve as often as to stab. But, most importantly, their intrigues, become, well, intriguing, and more plentiful.
The series starts dramatically, to say the least. Guy’s wife careens off the road, the car rolls (if I’m remembering correctly – so much has happened since then). She manages to get out of the vehicle but doesn’t make it far, though she does manage to make a short phone call. Since it’s the starting point of everything and the main plot, it’s not too much of a spoiler to share that she dies, leaving Guy with their five children, ranging in age from baby to high schooler.
A tech guru working for a beast of a man, Guy – as he repeats often – is the household’s sole breadwinner. Before his wife’s death, he had little or no time for parenting. After she dies, he has no choice but to change his attitude and his approach. It’s difficult, though, not just because of his own self-absorption, but because of the people around him and their pressures and secrets.
Overarching all this is Guy’s dream of becoming a standup comic. He had been the more talented half of a comedy duo and the fact that his partner went on to become famous, while he became his family’s breadwinner in a “real” job, frustrates Guy to no end. In the first couple of episodes, where we don’t see Guy perform, it is hard to believe that this whiny, lacklustre man who constantly dictates ridiculous stories into a recorder could be funny, but turns out he is, which, combined with him trying to do right by his kids, makes him an underdog to root for, as he discovers his wife had lied to him on more than one account – and others, including his children, continue to lie to him.
There are 10 episodes in the first season of Nehama. The acting is superb, the comedy is dark; the hour-long shows go quickly. Topic, a streaming service launched last year by First Look Media, can be accessed on topic.com, AppleTV, Android, Roku, Amazon Prime and elsewhere.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
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Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
The new artistic managing director of Chutzpah!, Jessica Mann Gutteridge, faced unique challenges in presenting the festival. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“This has been a challenging time for all communities. I hope that this year’s Chutzpah! Festival can bring a sense of joy, and the communal spirit that comes from sharing performing arts experiences with others, whether at the theatre or from the comfort of home,” said artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge in a recent interview with the Jewish Independent.
This will be the first-ever Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival that people will be able to watch at home. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the performances will be available online, Nov. 21-28, with a few opportunities to attend small-audience shows that are being live-streamed from the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. Not only will this be the first Chutzpah! presented digitally in the festival’s 20-year history, but it will be the first directed by Gutteridge.
“I knew that I had an exciting and challenging year ahead of me when I took the helm of Chutzpah! from Mary-Louise Albert, who was artistic director before me for 15 years,” said Gutteridge. “I really could not have anticipated how much the world would change just three weeks later, when the pandemic shuttered the Rothstein Theatre and the entire performing arts sector. The first month or so was spent focusing on our staff’s well-being and helping the many users of our theatre to reschedule and replan all the events that had to be canceled.
“The first thing I did for the Chutzpah! Festival was to take some time to think,” she said. “My board was wonderfully supportive from Day 1 and assured me that whatever scale I felt was right would be all right with them – even if I wanted to postpone for a year. I spent a great deal of time just thinking about the purposes of the festival, how it serves the community and the relationships we have with our audiences and community of artists. Even before COVID, when I was thinking about what my first festival might look like in a transition time, I felt inspired to bring together artists who had performed in the festival in the past with new artists who I hoped would join us in the future. So, I began by reaching out to artists from both groups so that we could just start to get to know each other, and find out how everyone was responding to this unprecedented situation.”
By early summer, said Gutteridge, it became clear that the health-related restrictions with respect to the pandemic would still be in place in November, “so I began to think about how we might incorporate digital presentations into the festival, and to talk to artists who were exploring this form of performance in their work.
“I was thrilled to learn that Iris Bahr, who was in the 2019 festival, is not only a brilliant actor and stand-up comic, but is also a podcaster who interviews other artists and public intellectuals with much wit and insight. I invited her to perform her solo stand-up, but also to function as our festival host and conduct live interviews with all the festival artists,” said Gutteridge. “Because Iris divides her time between Israel, New York and Los Angeles, we knew she would have to appear digitally and, though this adds another layer of technical complexity, I think it’s such a special opportunity that the present moment brings us – to join artists from across the world and have a chance to learn more about how the pandemic is changing and shaping their creative work.”
The festival’s online-only shows will include Bahr’s stand-up comedy performance (click here for story); New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen’s Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath) and former Vancouverite-current Londoner (England) Tamara Micner’s Old Friends, both of which are works-in-progress; a concert by Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus; and Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim.
There will be two shows live-streamed from the Rothstein, where limited audiences will be permitted. Ben Caplan will perform music from Old Stock, which is adapted from his music-theatre piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (see jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). And Chutzpah! artist-in-residence Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance) presents the world première of Hourglass. Closing out the festival are Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini (click here for story), who will be live-streaming from Brooklyn, joined by yet-to-be-announced local comedians performing at the Rothstein.
The lineup is a fraction of what it would have been if not for COVID, but Gutteridge thought it important to proceed with the event.
“Well, for starters, I’m stubborn and I like a challenge!” she said of the decision. “I also knew that we were well-positioned with staff and support to execute a creative and fulfilling festival, even though it would not look much like past festivals. In talking to colleagues inside and outside the JCC, and hearing from our community via a survey in July, I understood that there was a lot of enthusiasm to keep experiencing the kind of performing arts presentations that Chutzpah! has offered for 20 years now. And, looking ahead to dark November nights, I think we can offer a communal experience that will bring some much-needed joy.”
In addition to focusing on quality entertainment, health and safety has been at the forefront of the planning.
“We have worked carefully with health and performing arts sector experts to make sure that we are providing the safest possible experiences for audiences, staff and artists, including at our physically distanced, intimate live events at the Rothstein Theatre,” said Gutteridge. “I’m also very impressed by how our artists have risen to the challenge. Rokhl Kafrissen, the playwright of Shtumer Shabes, has been working with her cast via Zoom since April, when they presented a workshop of the play in lieu of the debut performance they were scheduled to have at LABA in New York. Our audiences will have a chance to meet the artists and see excerpts from the play, with context about the work’s meaning and creation, all performed from the artists’ individual locations. It’s a special opportunity for our audiences to peek inside the creative process.
“Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, a new dance piece with live piano accompaniment, is being created this fall at the Rothstein Theatre as part of our creative residency program. With 318 seats and a large stage, the theatre is large enough for physical distancing, and Idan is working with a skeleton crew – often just himself and the two dancers at work. The dancers, Brandon Lee Alley and Racheal Prince, are partners offstage as well as on, so they are already in a household bubble. The other dance piece, Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, comes to us from the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, where the performance was previously recorded in a studio theatre, so that health and safety protocols could be observed and the dancers could form their own bubble.”
Tickets for the festival start at $18 and are available online at chutzpahfestival.com or by phone at 604-257-5145.
Iris Bahr pulls double duty at the 2020 Chutzpah! Festival, as host and performer. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Comedien, writer, actor, director, producer and podcaster Iris Bahr will both host this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 21-28, and perform her stand-up live Nov. 26.
Known for her eclectic characters, Bahr will call on many of them as she converses with the other festival artists as part of her hosting duties.
“I’ll be conducting these conversations either as myself or as some of my characters, depending on the artist I’m speaking to,” Bahr told the Independent. “My alter egos include Shosh, the salty Israeli who has become popular on Instagram, Rae Lynn Caspar White, my ‘Southern redneck intellectual,’ and Shuli, my Orthodox character who is beyond excited to ‘dive into the arts’ for the first time.”
Many JI readers will know Bahr’s stand-up from having seen her perform at last year’s Chutzpah! The show will be somewhat different this time around.
“My stand-up will involve more crowd work and storytelling versus just straight-on stand-up to camera,” she said. “I have found that to be a more captivating and enjoyable experience for everyone involved when the audience can also engage and experience each other’s presence, it’s the closest we can get to a communal live theatrical experience in these challenging times.”
Eman El-Husseini, left, and Jess Salomon with furry family member Esther Honey El-Husseini. (photo by Mike Bryck)
Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, close out this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 28. They will live-stream from Brooklyn, and local comedians will join the event from the Rothstein Theatre.
In performance, the married Jewish-Palestinian lesbian comedy duo leans into the things that make them unique. Their chemistry is not only evident on stage, but even comes out in an email interview, where the pair play off one another like, well, a couple who knows and loves each other well.
JI: You met when you were each performing solo routines and continued in that vein, I think, even after you were married. When and why did you team up professionally as well?
Jess: It didn’t really come from us. We weren’t out in comedy until we got engaged so it was only after that, that we started making jokes about our relationship. Sometimes, we’d follow each other on a show and it became obvious who we were talking about. Like how many Jewish-Muslim-Palestinian Canadian couples that moved to America from Canada are there? Another comedy couple might be able to be on a show together and say my boyfriend did this or my girlfriend did that, and no one would connect that they were referring to one another. So, we built in this reveal and, eventually, people started asking if we were going to share the stage together. We didn’t want to, but it’s a sacrifice we make for the fans!
Eman: The first time we shared the stage was at a gig in an old synagogue turned community centre in L.A. I went on first and introduced Jess for her performance. We bantered, unprepared, on stage for about 10 minutes. We had no idea a reviewer from Tablet was in the audience and, although we individually performed for about 30 minutes separately, that 10 minutes of banter stole the show…. We didn’t think much of it but, a year later, 2018, we were in our hometown of Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. The BBC World Service was in town to put on a comedy show. They called us and asked if we’d want to record a set together and we said, ‘absolutely not.’ First of all, they have a huge listenership and we wouldn’t be able to polish an act under such short notice and, second, no one wants or should want to work with their spouse. But, the British have a way to persuade, it must be the accent.
At the same time, because we were back in our hometown, Just for Laughs offered us two shows to do whatever we wanted. We decided to perform individually for 20 minutes and then 20 minutes together. We almost got divorced but the audience loved it! We sold out both nights and added a third. Who would have thought a duo act would be so sought after? We’ve been working together ever since, and we are still married! I think, at this point, if we ever separated, we’d have to be closeted about getting divorced.
JI: From where do you get the strength and confidence to be a stand-up comedian?
Eman: I have no idea why and how I’ve stuck with this career after my first set. I bombed so hard and, until today, continue to bomb at times, but there is truly an addictive element to making someone laugh. Even if it’s a single person in a room. Laughter is so genuine and isn’t easily had. I mean, even in our day-to-day life Jess and I will share with each other how we made a stranger laugh shopping for groceries or walking the dog. It’s so rewarding.
Jess: Making strangers laugh and then talking about it is 100% an Eman thing. Right now, we’re in an argument over a speech therapist I’m convinced she hired just to entertain while she insists she has a speech impediment that must be fixed.
Eman: I feel like my strength and confidence comes from my parents. Although my sister and I have a brother, I managed to be the favourite.
Jess: You do have a masculine energy they might be responding to.
Eman: A big reason I wanted to be a stand-up comic is because of how misrepresented and underrepresented Arabs, Muslims and particularly Palestinians are in the media. More often than not, I am the first Palestinian someone meets in real life. I feel like an ambassador of sorts, dispelling stereotypes about my people. Exposure is such a powerful tool in getting through to people and if you can make them laugh that’s a big bonus. Even if people are immediately turned off by what I represent, they are still curious to hear what I have to say. I remember headlining a show in Niagara Falls once. I had to be on stage for 45 minutes. Twenty minutes in, I realized I haven’t made a single person laugh….
Jess: I love that it took you 20 minutes! That’s confidence.
Eman: They were conservative-leaning so, I called them out, ‘Guys! I know you don’t like what I’m saying but I can tell you like me.’ That eviscerated the room! From that moment forward I knew I could never quit comedy even if I wanted to.
Jess: I tried to do a joke about the no smoking sign on the plane and quickly realized there were at least a few comics who had done the same joke. That’s when I realized it’s better when I pull from personal experience. Even if I’m not an ambassador like Eman. I’m not the first Jewish comedian people have seen.
JI: How and when did your new Crave Canada special, Marriage of Convenience, come about?
Jess: After performing in Montreal for Just for Laughs and the BBC in 2018, we kept working on our duo act and growing our audience on Instagram for our comics (@theelsalomons). We sent a tape of what grew into an hour-long show to Just for Laughs and that’s how we got booked for the Crave special.
Eman: We realized people preferred us together than individually, which is insulting considering we had about a decade each of solo experience. It’s understandable, there are so many stand-up comics but rarely any duo acts.
Jess: There’s no one I’d rather lose my individual identity for.
JI: What is the origin of the cartoons?
Eman: Jess came up with the idea. We would get such a huge response on social media when we’d write these back-and-forth status updates about each other.
Jess: Huge is relative.
Eman: People asking when the sitcom was coming out.
Jess: And, knowing that it would take awhile for us to find the time to write a pilot that was pitch-ready and be in a place where we could sell a series, a weekly cartoon on Instagram seemed like a manageable place to start to develop the character version of ourselves and, hopefully, an audience. We also have a close family friend, Jesse Brown, who just happens to be an incredible illustrator that wanted to work on this with us. So that’s how it was born.
Eman: The El-Salomons was the hashtag for our wedding, and Jesse drew us for our invitations … my mother-in-law saw them and said, “He made you look thin.”
Jess: Actually, yes, that is how it was born.
* * *
Chutzpah! starts Nov. 21. For the full lineup and tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
Joel Chasnoff spoke at a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada on June 1 and he’ll speak at a CHW Montreal Zoom event on June 21. (photo from APB Speakers)
Michael Levin grew up in Philadelphia, joined the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier and died in a battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006. At that time, most Israelis weren’t familiar with the concept of a lone soldier – a legal term for a volunteer, usually (but not always) from outside Israel, who enlists to defend the Jewish state.
Levin’s death at 22 came just days after he returned hastily from his leave back home in the United States when he learned of the start of the Second Lebanon War. He flew back to Israel, hitched a ride to his platoon in Lebanon and took up the fight against the Iranian-backed terrorists. He was killed in an intense firefight in the Hezbollah-controlled village of Aita al-Shaab.
His grieving mother, Harriet Levin, was concerned that her son’s funeral would not have a minyan to say Kaddish and so, on arriving in Israel, she asked a few people to come to the military cemetery to ensure a proper Jewish burial. On her way to Mount Herzl, traffic was so congested she feared she would be late for her son’s funeral but, when she did get there, she discovered that the few people she had asked to spread the appeal for a minyan had shared the news widely. Media picked it up and more than 10,000 Israelis showed up to pay their respects.
It was a turning point in the Israeli consciousness, according to Joel Chasnoff.
Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and writer who shared his own story of leaving his Chicago-area home two decades ago to become a lone soldier. In a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada June 1, Chasnoff, who now lives in Israel, spoke of the changing understanding of lone soldiers – and his reflections on now being the father of soldiers. A decade ago, he chronicled his experiences as an IDF volunteer in the book The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.
Today, lone soldiers are a better understood phenomenon in Israel and supports are in place that were not when Chasnoff volunteered in 1997. There is now a network of Lone Soldiers Centres – commonly called Michael Levin Centres – around Israel, to help overseas volunteers adapt and smooth their way to a successful integration, coordinate holiday and Shabbat homestays and deal with the myriad complications that arise for a newcomer to Israel.
Chasnoff shared comedic experiences, including the challenge of proving he was indeed a lone soldier without Israeli parents, when government officials insisted that Levin’s father had never left Israel after his first visit in 1976. The stakes were basic – a lone soldier’s salary at the time was $160 a month instead of $80, plus a few privileges. But it required a sheath of documents from the States to prove that his father was indeed an Illinoisan, not an Israeli.
“Never mind that he had raised me in the U.S. and I have a very strong and good relationship with my dad. The Israelis believed that my dad was actually living in Israel the whole time and I was just trying to pretend that I was a lone soldier to get the extra $80 a month,” Chasnoff said.
His decision to join the IDF was sparked by a visit to Israel as a teenager.
“I got off the plane,” he said, “and, you know, you’re 17, your hormones are raging. What’s the first thing you notice being a teenager coming to Israel? How beautiful the Israelis are. The women were all tan and fit, the men were these hunks with muscles and crew cuts. It’s so odd because they have the same roots as we do, right? Except they look like supermodels and we look like Jews. How does that happen? That’s not fair.”
The soldiers he met were just a year older than he was.
“They were 18, and they had machine guns and berets and Ray-Ban sunglasses and forearms like bricks,” said Chasnoff. “And then there was me, slathered in sunscreen, wearing a fanny pack … stuffed with lactose pills.”
One of the eye-opening things Chasnoff discovered about the Israeli army, he said, is how democratic it was.
“I would even say insanely democratic,” he said, noting that soldiers argued about orders and fought with their superiors. “People ask me what’s it like in the Israeli army. I think the best way to describe it is, imagine a bunch of Israelis running an army. That is the Israeli army.”
This is why one of his platoon-mates was a darling among commanders: he didn’t speak Hebrew. The young man was raised in an evangelical Christian home in Oklahoma, but, at a certain age, learned that his mother had converted from Judaism. One thing led to another and he volunteered for the IDF.
“So, they made him a tank gunner,” Chasnoff said, “because, to be a tank gunner, you basically need to know six words – stop, go, left, right, forward, back. Tim was one of the best soldiers in our platoon because he didn’t have the Hebrew to argue back. When the commander would give orders, the guys would argue. Tim, by not having Hebrew, just did what he was told. And was an excellent soldier for that reason and one of our commander’s favourites.”
Unfortunately, a lack of Hebrew can be deadly in moments of military conflict. Chasnoff said some casualties in conflicts in Gaza may have resulted from linguistic challenges and he believes the military is doing a better job ensuring fluency in such situations.
While lone soldiers is a term associated with overseas volunteers, Chasnoff said that about half of the 6,000 lone soldiers are Israelis, mostly Charedim whose volunteer service or other factors estrange them from their families.
While lone soldiers were not so much in the Israeli consciousness a few decades ago, they are now a welcome oddity.
“I think, when you get a lone soldier in your platoon, people are very excited about it,” Chasnoff said. “Everyone wants to bring him or her home to show the family the sort of strange character who came all the way from New York City or Sydney, Australia, or whatever. People are really interested in what motivates them to serve, so they are invited. It’s very, very different than the old days.”
Addressing the broader differences between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Chasnoff riffed like the comic he is.
“We grow up with this myth that Israelis are, you know, just like us. They are Jews and we are Jews and we’re one big happy family. And then you get to Israel and you realize the Israelis are nothing like the American Jew. They speak their minds. They shout. They argue,” he said. “You’ll never be with an Israeli and wonder to yourself, ‘I wonder what she really thinks about me right now.’ I’m married to an Israeli for 21 years and I can honestly say that once in those 21 years has my Israeli wife apologized to me because, in the Middle East, apologies make you look weak and nobody wants to look weak. We had one huge fight where she actually apologized and it wasn’t even a real apology, it was an Israeli apology: she came up to me a few days later and said, ‘Yoeli, motek, I am sorry you’re such an idiot.’”
He also has plenty of material about growing up Jewish in America.
“My mom was actually one of these Jewish mothers who – let’s be honest – they have a special ability to worry about every situation,” he said. “You give them any scenario, they will figure out the potential thing that could hurt you in that scenario.”
For their annual family visit to Texas to see his paternal grandparents, Chasnoff’s mother would book the family on two separate flights so that, if a plane went down, the entire family wouldn’t be lost.
“That’s a typical Jewish upbringing,” he said.
When his zaidie gave him a jersey with the number of his favourite player and his own name, Joel, on the back, Chasnoff’s mother refused to let him wear it outside the house because a stranger would know his name.
“And, because he knew my name, I would think he knew me, so I would go with him,” he said. “You know why? Because I’m an idiot. That’s why there are no Jewish athletes. Not that we’re bad at sports, our mothers won’t let us wear the jersey.”
Readers will have another chance to hear Chasnoff speak this month. CHW Montreal is hosting a Zoom BBQ with the comedian on Father’s Day, June 21, at noon, Pacific time. Visit facebook.com/chwmontreal and click on Events for details. Funds raised benefit hospital workers at the Shamir Medical Centre and Hadassah Hospital in Israel.
Kyle Berger, left, and Scotty Aceman, co-producers of Rise of the Comics. (photo from Rise of the Comics)
The outer limits of the laugh-o-meter will be tested on Feb. 20 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre, when a group of Canada’s top funny people step on stage for A Night of Shticks & Giggles, presented by local comedy producer Rise of the Comics. This will be the third Shticks and Giggles show to raise money for the JCC Maccabi Games.
Headlining the event is Julie Kim, a two-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee for stand-up, who has performed at comedy festivals around the continent and appeared on CBC’s The Debaters and Laugh Out Loud. Her YouTube videos have amassed millions of views and, in 2018, she released her debut comedy album, Outside Voice.
Among other topics, Kim’s routine delves into modern parenting and various cultural issues, sometimes involving life seen from an Asian perspective. Yuk Yuk’s comedy club co-founder Mark Breslin called her “smart, funny, with enough self-awareness to deconstruct her life in a very sophisticated way.”
Other acts in the show, which Rise of the Comics describes as its “best line-up to date,” include Robert Peng, who bills himself as “an unemployed engineer who turned to stand-up comedy out of desperation”; New Zealander Sophia Johnson, “the one who keyed your car but probably shouldn’t have told you that”; Sean McDonnell, who Canadian comedy star Norm MacDonald has praised as “a fantastic talent”; and Brett Nikolic, a maven on Mountain Dew-flavoured weed.
Rise of the Comics is the brainchild of Vancouver stand-up comedian Scotty Aceman, who will also be on stage at Shticks & Giggles. Starting off as a weekly 30-minute program on Shaw Cable with the same name in 2015, the show has highlighted the work of many stand-up comedians who got their start on the local scene, such as Dino Archie and Ivan Decker, who has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Aceman, a University of British Columbia and B.C. Institute of Technology graduate, switched to comedy five years ago, after a 20-year stint in a sales job with Rogers in the corporate wireless phone department.
“Leaving the cellphone business after 20 years was a tough call,” he said. “But you have to chase your dreams. People would ask me, ‘What about my dignity and respect?’ I’d say dignity and respect went out the window the minute I had a Thursday morning bar mitzvah!”
In 2019, Aceman brought in Kyle Berger as co-producer of Rise of the Comics. Berger, sports coordinator at the JCCGV, will be the master of ceremonies for the Feb. 20 Shticks & Giggles.
Before joining the crew, Berger, in his role as JCC Maccabi Games delegation head, had hired Rise of the Comics for a fundraiser. He credits Aceman for allowing him to get his stand-up feet wet, with a debut performance at the Charqui Grill in Kitsilano in 2018.
“Stand-up was one of those things on my bucket list to do by the time I turned 40,” Berger told the Independent. “Scotty (and my then-girlfriend, now fiancée) were both big helpers in getting me up there on stage for a five-minute routine. My fiancée had had enough of me saying I was going to do it.”
Berger said, “Scotty’s reputation within the local comic community is a great asset. Nowadays, Rise of the Comics does all sorts of things, including parties in people’s living rooms. And, last year, we were hired by the Chutzpah! Festival to put on a show.”
Rise of the Comics currently works with a roster of more than 50 stand-up performers of all styles and experiences, and tailors its shows to any situation. They have created performances at such diverse venues as Hy’s Steak House, the Jericho Arts Centre and Ronald McDonald House, among others. Their gigs can cover everything from clean to dirty, social commentary to observational, but always, they say, with an emphasis on the funny.
Berger promises that he and fellow Shticks & Giggles comedians are likely to make mention, in one way or another, that their show is backed by the foundation created by Dr. Neil Pollock, a leading Vancouver male sexual health and circumcision expert, and his wife Michelle.
Esther Povitsky performs at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 22 as part of JFL NorthWest. (photo from JFL NorthWest)
Chicago-born comedian, actor and writer Esther Povitsky is one of several Jewish community members performing in the Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival, which takes place around Metro Vancouver Feb. 13-25. Her credits include being co-creator and star of the show Alone Together, a recurring role on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, parts on programs such as Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreation, stand-up on The Late Late Show and Comedy Central, as well as host of the podcast Glowing Up. The Jewish Independent spoke with her in advance of her Feb. 22 show at the Biltmore Cabaret.
JI: When did you first start doing stand-up and what motivated you to do it?
EP: I love comedy. I love watching it, I love laughing and making people laugh. I also liked the idea of being able to do something creative where I only relied on myself.
JI: Before you started stand-up, what were you working toward education- or career-wise?
EP: I thought I was going to be a professional dancer, and majored in dance in college.
JI: What is it about performing that you most enjoy, in stand-up and in acting?
EP: Having an excuse to drink too much coffee.
JI: When did you move to Los Angeles, and was it for a specific job or more opportunity for work in general?
EP: I did not have any specific jobs lined up! I moved here to pursue stand-up and worked as a babysitter, worked at a gym, a juice bar, and other random gigs.
JI: You describe your stand-up as just being you. Being Jewish on your dad’s side, where/how/does Judaism, Jewish culture or community fit into that, or your comedy series?
EP: I feel that I was raised very culturally Jewish and it’s a big part of my personality and who I am.
JI: In an interview you talk positively about the immediacy of seeing what works and what doesn’t onstage. How do you handle the highs and lows of comedy?
EP: I try to keep busy, stay active, spend quality time with friends and family, do puzzles, watch TV. I try to really focus on doing as many “normal” things as possible.
Povitsky’s Vancouver show is 19+. For tickets and the JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.