Nolan Hupp and Annika Hupp play two schoolchildren who protest to save the shul in The Original Deed. (photo by Gayle Mavor)
When Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, sometimes known as the “Singing Rabbi,” visited Victoria on a concert tour in the 1960s, he heard about a plan to move the city’s downtown synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, to the suburbs. According to local lore, the singer/songwriter’s impassioned advice to the shul community was, “Don’t sell the place. There’s too many prayers in the walls!”
In The Original Deed, staged for the first time last month by the play’s author, Sid Tafler, a similar thought emerged from the lips of the story’s main character, Sam Abelman, played with pathos and humour by Toshik Bukowiecki.
Sam, an amalgam of several longtime Victoria residents, invited his granddaughter, Ellen (delightfully portrayed by Ava Fournier), to listen as they walked together through the synagogue on a wet November day.
All Ellen heard was the sound of traffic outside. Sam smiled and said he heard people praying, even though the two of them were the only living souls walking around the old shul.
The plan of Sam’s son, Morris, to sell the old synagogue puts him at odds with his father, who had his heart set on restoring it. Their struggle fills most of the play, providing a perfect storm of difficult family dynamics made even more poignant by Jewish geography.
An active city-centre heritage synagogue is rare in Canada. During the last half-century, most urban Jewish communities moved to the suburbs, but not Victoria. This play helps us imagine why.
Performed at Congregation Emanu-El, the action unfolded within the synagogue’s sanctuary, mystically directed from the bimah by the ghost of Sam’s wife, Rivka.
The role of Rivka was tenderly portrayed by Zuzana Macknight, an accomplished Czech actress forced from her homeland in 1968 after it was invaded by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Macknight expressed a deep affinity for Rivka’s emotional journey through life as a child Holocaust survivor. Rivka felt such a passion for peace in her family that she managed to influence the play’s happy outcome from beyond the grave.
The greatest magic in this play swirled around its youngest actors. As Sam tells his granddaughter the story of his solo escape from Germany on a Kindertransport train to England during the Second World War, Nolan Nupp stole the show as Sam’s younger self. Nolan is a natural as Young Sam, who gave his bewildered little sister, Esther (played by Nolan’s real sister, Annika), a candy to help her remember him, as their mother tearfully forced them apart at a German train station.
In another flashback, Nolan communicated the horror Sam experienced as he watched the destruction of his beloved German synagogue during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which unmasked the Nazis’ murderous intent in November 1938.
All four child actors staged a protest as Victoria Hebrew School students, chanting and waving signs proclaiming, “Save our Shul,” dressed as the elders who inspired them.
Although you may have missed this heart-warming show, which only ran four nights to packed houses in Congregation Emanu-El’s storied sanctuary, you can still visit. Come for Shabbos on a Saturday morning when you can hear prayers in the walls and add your own.
Shoshana Litman, Canada’s first ordained maggidah (female Jewish storyteller), lives in Victoria.