I had the privilege of seeing Mark Leiren-Young’s play Bar Mitzvah Boy when it premièred at Pacific Theatre in 2018. It was funny, edgy and insightful, and well-acted by Gina Chiarelli and Richard Newman. It contained a lot of local references, making it even more special.
What I see from the Playwrights Canada Press edition, which was published in 2020 and arrived at the JI sometime in 2021, is that Leiren-Young’s notes on various aspects of the play allow productions to change certain references and pronunciations to localize the action, thereby making it special no matter where it is performed. For instance, the audience first meets Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon, who is in her mid-30s to maybe 45 years old, on a jogging path, “dressed in sweats and a ball cap for a local sports team.”
The next scene: in the rabbi’s office, there sits a man in his mid-60s or older, Joey Brant, “decked out in prayer regalia – including tefillin, which are on incorrectly.” This is our first hint that he, despite initial appearances, is not a rabbi or a religious Jew. When Michael arrives, Joey assumes that the relatively young woman in running gear doesn’t belong at the synagogue – and certainly isn’t the congregation’s spiritual leader. This exchange sets the tone for the essentially two-person play that unfolds. The other cast member is Sheryl, the receptionist, who is never seen, only heard. As described by Leiren-Young, the actor of this role (which was Jalen Saip in 2018 at Pacific Theatre) should have “the accent you want the woman who runs your local deli to at least pretend to have.”
I love having these types of stage direction “made public.” It is a completely different experience to read a play than to attend it in person. It’s almost like listening to the acoustic version of one of your favourite pop musicians – if they are able to sing on key and play their chosen instrument skilfully, they really are excellent at their craft. Similarly, if the words of a play still make you laugh and cringe and move you emotionally in other ways, with no cues from actors or audience members, it is a very well-written play. Bar Mitzvah Boy in book form made me do all those things – I chuckled a lot throughout, and also got teary near the end. Michael and Joey (the bar mitzvah “boy,” btw) are both dealing with some serious, raw issues.
Since I finished the book, I’ve been revisiting some of the many topics it covers. I’ve thought about my own beliefs about Judaism and faith, what happens after we die, what makes a good friend, parent or spouse, how people navigate challenges differently, the ways in which a congregation (or any other group) can be both supportive and trying at the same time.
Leiren-Young dedicates the publication to his mother, Carol Leiren: “I guess it was worth sending me to Talmud Torah.” For viewers or readers of Bar Mitzvah Boy, it certainly was worth it – thank you.
Richard Newman and Gina Chiarelli in Bar Mitzvah Boy, at Pacific Theatre until April 14. (photo by Damon Calderwood)
The number 13 means different things to different people. To a baker, it’s that extra pastry that he adds to a dozen; to the superstitious, it’s considered bad luck to the extent that some buildings do not have a 13th floor. To a Jewish boy, it means his right of passage into manhood, a journey fraught with both angst and joy.
But what if you missed that momentous occasion, for whatever reason, and now, as a grandfather, as your grandson’s bar mitzvah approaches, you have an urgent need to have a bar mitzvah ceremony? This premise forms the basis of local playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, a two-hander being staged at the intimate Pacific Theatre in Vancouver until April 14. It won the American Jewish Play Project’s prize for best new Jewish play last year, with successful staged readings in New York, Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
Joey Brandt (Richard Newman) is a successful Vancouver divorce lawyer who wants to study privately with Rabbi Michael (Gina Chiarelli) in order to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson’s big day. He is surprised to learn that she is female, and even more surprised when she refuses him as a student, suggesting that he join Cantor Rubin’s bar mitzvah class instead. Joey is obviously a man used to getting his way and, not surprisingly, his stint in Rubin’s class turns into a fiasco, as Joey disrupts the class and takes all the boys out for Hawaiian pizza (you know, the kind that has ham on it). The rabbi eventually relents, in light of both Joey’s advocacy skills and a big donation to the synagogue’s renovation fund.
The chemistry between the two actors is palpable. The audience is led through a witty pas de deux, and both teacher and student experience personal metamorphoses through their weekly interactions. Joey – who has not been to shul for 52 years – learns to put on tefillin, as well as studying the liturgy and history of his people, in a crash course in Judaism. Meanwhile, the somewhat bohemian rabbi (she jogs and smokes marijuana – for “medicinal purposes” only) works through her own demons, which include an almost-12-year-old daughter with cancer and a husband who cannot cope with the illness. In an engaging twist, the professional roles reverse as the players grapple with the existential question of whether G-d is a metaphor or a real entity on which to base our faith.
Newman, who says that he is “Jewish on both sides” is stellar in his role as Joey (and his Hebrew is not too bad, either) but it is Chiarelli who steals the show with her sublime portrayal of a working mom having to deal with a sick child and an unsupportive husband. Kudos to Chiarelli, who is not Jewish, but who has mastered the dialogue and rituals of the script.
The set design is sparse but effective. One side is a backlit bimah with a lectern and a dove-shaped eternal flame hanging above. The other side does double duty as the rabbi’s study (replete with a library that includes Kosher Sex by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the Kama Sutra) and Joey’s office. The costumes are simple and the music – klezmer, what else.
Leiren-Young peppers the play with local references that will resonate with some of the community audience – names like Cantor Rubin, Rabbi Solomon, Schara Tzedeck, the astronomical prices of the real estate – some contemporary quips about the Broadway musical hit Hamilton and singer Kenny Rogers, and a multitude of Jewish clichés. He is the master of witty repartee, as anyone will know who has seen his play Shylock, which was, most recently, at Bard on the Beach last year.
“I had a truly crazy bar mitzvah at the Beth Israel,” said Leiren-Young when asked in an email interview by the JI about his own bar mitzvah experience. “There was a snowstorm and my mom’s car was hit en route to the shul for Friday night services. After that, standing at the bimah
and singing was easy! I drew a lot of inspiration for this play from real experiences – a mix of my own and stories from friends – but I just realized I left out the snowstorm. Maybe that’ll go in the movie.”
As to whether or not you have to be Jewish to get the play, he said, “No more than you have to be Catholic to ‘get’ Doubt or Mass Appeal or Sister Mary Ignatius (three ‘Catholic’ plays I love). But there are definitely moments that will hit harder for a Jewish audience and, I suspect, there will be jokes only Jewish audience members will laugh at.”
It is somewhat ironic that the world première of this play is being held in the basement of an Anglican Church, but that is part of its cachet.
The audience take-away from any play is deeply personal but, as Joey says in his bar mitzvah speech at the end of this journey into his faith: today, I am a man here to honour my family and ancestors, to celebrate being a Jew and becoming a member of a community with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that membership. And, to that, we say, amen.
Team BC Junior Olympic level 10 (16+) were bronze medalists in the 2017 Canadian Championships in Artistic Gymnastics that took place in Montreal May 25-28. Congratulations to the whole Gymnastics BC team, which included 18-year-old Rachel Rubin-Sarganis (third from the left). (photo from Gymnastics BC)
In the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), we learn the saying, “Teach us to number our days so that the experiences of life should provide us with wisdom that only years can bring.” How fortunate we are that we have this exceptional woman, Sylvia Hill, admired by all who know her.
Sylvia has been part of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver since its inception and is an honourary life member. On June 6, Sylvia turned 103 years old. We honour her as she continues to inspire us with her staunch resolve to advocate for better lives for seniors – be it in the home where she was once president of the residents or within the community at large.
In the newsletter put out by the Snider Campus, Sylvia was called “the Face of Louis Brier” and was honoured during morning services on June 10, with a special kiddush following. On the day, we of JSA proudly wished you, dear Sylvia, a yom huledet sameach, a happy birthday, and we wish you continued good health for many years to come … beez (until) 120, and thriving, as has been the theme of JSA’s Empowerment Series this season. Continue being a beacon of light for us to follow!
With love and deep respect.
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At the annual general meeting of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance on June 14, Gisi Levitt received a Life Fellow Award for her 12 years of service as VHEC’s director of survivor services.
The Meyer and Gita Kron and Ruth Kron Sigal Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education was awarded to Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, who teaches Jewish history and English at King David High School. She recently worked together with VHEC on the Student Docent Training Initiative, a successful pilot project in which volunteer students from KDHS were trained to become docents. Two of the student docents, Milena Markovich and Jacqueline Belzberg, did an outstanding job of sharing with the audience their experiences of guiding their fellow students through the VHEC exhibition In Defiance: Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust.
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On June 20, Women in Film & Television Vancouver celebrated leaders for their outstanding work and contribution to advancing opportunities for women with their annual Spotlight Awards. This year’s recipients included Mark Leiren-Young, who received the Iris Award.
The Iris Award is given to a person who has demonstrated a commitment to the promotion of female creators and their screen-based works, either through curating or programming or through print and online media sources. Named after the Greek mythological figure Iris, associated with communication, messages and new endeavours.
Leiren-Young was also one of the finalists for the 2017 BC Book Prizes’ Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize for The Killer Whale Who Changed the World (Greystone Books).
Killer whales had always been seen as bloodthirsty sea monsters. That all changed when a young killer whale was captured off the west coast of North America and displayed to the public in 1964. Moby Doll – as the whale became known – was an instant celebrity, drawing 20,000 visitors on the one and only day he was exhibited. He died within a few months, but his famous gentleness sparked a worldwide crusade that transformed how people understood and appreciated orcas. Because of Moby Doll, we stopped fearing “killers” and grew to love and respect “orcas.”
Leiren-Young is a journalist, filmmaker and author. His Walrus article about Moby Doll was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and he won the Jack Webster Award for his CBC Ideas radio documentary Moby Doll: The Whale that Changed the World.
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It was a banner year for the Leo Awards, which received a record 1,295 entries, from 301 unique programs in 14 different categories. Among the finalists was David Kaye – for best lead performance by a male in a motion picture for his work in Cadence and as part of the cast of Grocery Store Action Movie, which was nominated in the category of best music, comedy or variety program or series.
In 2013, the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival in partnership with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library announced a new initiative: the Jewish literary laureate project.
“It is a vision of Yosef Wosk,” said book festival director Nicole Nozick in an interview with the Independent. “He came to me at the end of last year, and we talked about it. The City of Vancouver has its poet laureate, Evelyn Lau. It’s a similar concept, only belonging to our Jewish community. The post is a two-year position, selected by our laureate committee, to be a literary ambassador to the community, spread love of the written word, raise the profile of Jewish writers, encourage reading and writing and promote multicultural exchange.”
Wosk described how he came up with the idea. “I remember hearing about England’s poet laureate when I was in high school. I was intrigued by the idea of poetry playing such an important role in society. A few years ago, I was privileged to be able to endow the position of poet laureate for the City of Vancouver. This helped to champion the place of poetry in our midst. Poetry presents us with a surprising rhythm that moves and inspires us in many ways. Poetry also has the power to condense a great deal of information and emotion into a few well-chosen and often surprising words.
“Once we witnessed the success of the Vancouver poet laureate initiative, I thought it was a natural extension to also stimulate poetry in more particular communities, such as the Greek, Chinese, Jewish, Italian, Korean and so on. Although poetry was my initial inspiration for this program, we concluded this was an opportunity to extend the program to include all forms of literature, such as non-fiction and fiction prose, plays, theatre, etc. Working with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library and the Jewish Book Festival, we have taken the first step towards modeling a literary laureate program for one particular community. If this is successful, it can be replicated in other communities.”
Wosk discussed this project in relation to the current state of the publishing industry.
“Poetry partakes of the eternal,” he said. “In some ways, poetry is an antidote to a plethora of electronic media. Whether reading in the privacy of your home, in a café or in a gathering of poets, we are transported to surprising realms of mind and matter, emotion and spirit. Other forms of literature, like a family of diverse relatives, compliment poetry…. Today, more is being published than ever before. It doesn’t matter whether text is handwritten, printed or electronically mediated: they are all related forms of communication. It still serves the same purpose of transmitting information in one of several forms.”
The benefits of this program are manifold. “Certainly the laureates themselves will benefit by being able to share their creativity with the community,” said Wosk. “They will also receive an honorarium in recognition of their work and appreciation for their time. The community, from school students to other published poets, will be stimulated by the encounter with the literary laureate, who … we hope might act as a catalyst for writing in the community.”
Nozick emphasized that, despite the growth of digital media, people are still reading. “We want our laureate program to take reading to the next level, inspire more participation,” she said. “The particular activities are up to the laureate himself. Each laureate will bring his or her own unique strength and interests to the project. He will have a permanent office at the Waldman Library and work in collaboration with the library and the Jewish Book Festival. Our inaugural laureate is Mark Leiren-Young.”
The committee came together last year and brainstormed who would be the best writer for the position, she explained. “We selected Mark because he is a gifted, award-winning writer. He has experience writing across different genres, including playwriting, memoirs, documentaries, humor, and he is also good with people, able to connect with different generations.”
Leiren-Young commented on how important the position of laureate is to him. “For someone who grew up in Vancouver – and the JCC – it’s a completely unexpected and very cool honor. Yosef Wosk has launched several amazing programs, and I hope I can do justice to his vision for this one. The timing was amazing too. My latest book, Free Magic Secrets Revealed, actually starts at the Jewish Community Centre, and many of the key scenes take place in the JCC.”
Leiren-Young’s pilot laureate initiative is the Multi-Generational Media Lab Storytelling Project. It pairs King David High School students with seniors to share and hone their storytelling in a digital format.
“I recently served as the writer-in-residence for Vancouver Community College,” said Leiren-Young. “While I was there, I spent a bit of time with the oldest student on campus. I think he was in his mid-seventies. From the moment I met him – my first week at VCC – I kept asking if he had any stories he wanted to share. He kept telling me he didn’t have anything.
“Naturally, in my last week, he finally handed me a story about growing up in a small town. He had all these rich, detailed memories about his childhood, so after my residency was over, I contacted the community archive for the town Trail, B.C., so they could have access to and share his stories. But I kept thinking that if I’d known he was willing to tell his stories, I could have set him up with a student who could have interviewed him.”
The multi-media project is in the planning stage now. “Over the summer, we’ll be recruiting seniors, and I’ll work with them to focus on specific stories they want to share,” said Leiren-Young. “In September, when the school year begins, the high school students will be introduced to the project and will prepare their interview questions. The final presentation will take place during the Jewish Book Festival week in November.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].