Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria is the subject and setting for The Original Deed, which opens Nov. 15. (photo by Sid Tafler)
Established in 1863, Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada. As the saying goes, if those walls could talk. Well, journalist and author Sid Tafler, a longtime member of Emanu-El, has given them a voice, of sorts.
Tafler, who has worked in theatre as a writer, actor and producer, has created The Original Deed, an historical drama about the synagogue.
Despite being such a landmark, Emanu-El “was nearly lost forever a generation ago, when a move was afoot to sell the old building and relocate to the suburbs,” reads the description. “The play tells the story of Sam Abelman, a Holocaust survivor and downtown jeweler, who fights to save the shul from the wrecking ball, while his son Morry tries to sell out and move the congregation to the suburbs. As the father/son struggle reaches a climax, Sam invokes ‘the Original Deed’ and a ghostly figure from his past emerges to salvage his dreams and his memories.”
Performed in the sanctuary, it features Toshik Bukowiecki as Sam, Zuzana Macknight as Rivka Abelman and Bobby Cleveland as Jack Abelman. John Roebuck plays Morry, while the rest of the Abelman clan is performed by Maureen Van Wyck as Leah, Annika Hupp as Esther, Nolan Hupp as Young Sam, and Ava Fournier, 12, who plays Ellen. Bill Taylor takes on the character of Phil Cogan, the lawyer.
“The play is set circa 1980,” Tafler told the Independent. “I say circa because the issue of selling the shul was discussed a number of times over 15 to 20 years, so 1980 is an average.”
Tafler mined the synagogue’s archives and online historical information, as well as the book Sefer Emanu-El, which was published by the synagogue on its 150th anniversary in 2013.
“I found that much of the written history about the shul is about the dynamic era of the founding in 1863 and the colourful figures of the gold rush and late 19th century,” said Tafler. “There is comparatively little about recent history. Some older members of the congregation knew about the proposed sale, which was discussed at board meetings, but not much detail about the how and why – specifically, why the idea was dropped.”
Tafler was inspired “by the intrigue and thinking behind this idea of selling the shul and moving to the suburbs, which many communities have done. When it first came up, the building was not the lovely restored heritage landmark it is now. It was covered in stucco and the ceiling had been lowered to exclude the balcony.”
In the real-life situation, there were proposals to buy an old church or to purchase land near the Jewish Cemetery on Cedar Hill Road, said Tafler.
“I created a family called the Abelmans to embody this story,” he explained. “Sam, an aging Holocaust survivor, is desperate to keep the old building, while his son Morry, head of the building committee, wants to sell out and move to a waterside location in Gordon Head (near the University of Victoria). Everyone gets involved: Sam’s wife Rivka, his granddaughter Ellen, his other son Jack, a wanderer; even his lawyer, Phil Cogan, who holds his finger to the wind and listens to his mother to decide which side he’s on.
“The stakes are very high for Sam,” said Tafler. “As a boy, he looked out the window of his home in Germany and saw his shul being destroyed on Kristallnacht. Soon after, he was shipped off to England in the Kindertransport, and never saw his family again.”
In addition to the history, Tafler said he was “also inspired by Zelda Dean, Emanu-El’s theatre maven, who suggested I write a play about the shul.”
It took two years and nine months for this production to go from idea to the stage, he said. “But, in some ways,” he said, it took 20 years. “My last play, Ghost on the Road, was produced at the Victoria Fringe Festival in 1997.”
The Abelmans are not real people, said Tafler, “but I have grown up with Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren from my earliest years. When I was still a toddler, my parents took in two teenage survivors from Hungary, a boy and a girl, who lived with our family in Montreal for a few years. In school, many of my classmates’ parents were survivors and I heard these stories firsthand. Here in Victoria, the survivors were a major presence in our shul.”
So, on whom is Sam based?
“Sam Abelman is one part Jack Gardiner. One part Peter Gary. One part Willy Jacobs. One part Ray Rose. One part each of my grandfathers, Sam Tafler and Eli Shetzer,” said Tafler. “But mostly, Sam, the lead character in The Original Deed, is himself, played by Victoria actor Toshik Bukowiecki.
“Jack, Peter and Willy were Holocaust survivors and members of our shul at different times,” Tafler explained. “They taught us about terrible loss and despair, redeemed by liberation, healing and building a new life.
“Ray was born in Victoria in 1920 and operated Rose’s Jewelers on Douglas Street, a business started by his father Joseph in 1912. He was a bombardier in the RCAF in the Second World War and flew 33 missions over Europe,” said Tafler.
“Sam and Eli were both born in shtetls in the Ukraine and immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century. They found work and raised families in Montreal and their many descendants now live across North America.”
As to some of the reasons Morry, or community members like him, wanted to abandon the historic building and move to the suburbs, Tafler provided several excerpts from the play, all spoken by Morry (Morris):
- “‘… there’s not enough room in this building. We can’t keep holding seders and Hebrew classes in this little space.’ (gestures at back, behind pews)”;
- “It’s a new age, Dad. We need a real school if we expect the kids to keep coming.”
- “Dad, this building is old, it’s small, there’s no room for a school, for offices.”
- “(At the site in Gordon Head): ‘Use your imagination. Two lovely, modern buildings. A social hall, parking lot over there. Open space for the kids. And for expansion.’”
The Original Deed runs at Congregation Emanu-El Nov. 15-16 and 18-19, at 7 p.m. Tickets ($20/$15) are available at Ticket Rocket, ticketrocket.co/event/details/101436/the-original-deed.