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  • Jewish Performance in Canada
  • Belarie Zatzman (bio) and Laura Levin (bio)

So many talented young writers are Jews, and I'm sure, in New York, not one of them has been asked as I was recently asked at a party in Montreal, "When are you going to stop writing about the Main Street and Outremont? I mean, aren't you ever going to write about Canada?"

—Mordecai Richler

This CTR issue on Jewish performance in Canada broaches Richler's provocation as a wry yet vaguely troubling and revealing remnant. At one level, it points directly to the diasporic sensibility of Jewish artists or, more specifically, to those "multiple subjectivities that are the hallmark of diaspora's 'double consciousness'" (Zemel 177).1 Here, we attempt to map that doubleness—the struggle to live simultaneously, if ambivalently, in "one's own community and in other peoples' territories" (Zemel 178). The inherent complexity of living within a diasporic culture mitigates against any single reading of Jewishness. It obliges us to ask how performance might narrate diverse Jewish experiences and questions of self-definition. At another level, it reveals a tacit discomfort, on the part of Richler's interlocutor, with the overly local and ethnic (read: Jewish) preoccupations of this celebrated Canadian writer, a writer who, presumably, should be concerned with national (read: more universal) questions and concerns. Richler's remnant remains powerful, even thirty years later, as several Jewish artists continue to express anxieties about being perceived by audiences and major producers of culture as "too Jewish"—in Richler's words, too "Main Street" or too "Outremont."

Notwithstanding these diasporic anxieties, Jews have had an open and vibrant presence in Canada since 1760. The diversity of Canada's Jewish community is notable: Weinfeld (2001) details the widening of Canadian immigration policy after World War II, which finally allowed Holocaust survivors (late 1940s and early 1950s) to emigrate, as later did North African Sephardic (1950s) and Hungarian Jews (fleeing the 1956 Hungarian Uprising), as well as South African, "Soviet"/Russian, and Israeli Jews (1970s and 1980s). Smaller numbers [End Page 3] of Jewish immigrants from other areas like Ethiopia, India, Latin America, and the United States also contributed to the diversity of the Canadian Jewish community. In 2011, Jews represented only a small minority—approximately 1.3%—of the Canadian population, a proportion virtually unchanged since 1921 (Schnoor 182-184).

As this issue illustrates, theatre has been an important part of Jewish cultural life in Canada. Professional and community-based Jewish theatre companies have thrived in a number of Canadian contexts, both historical and contemporary. These include Montreal's Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and The Segal Centre for Performing Arts (formerly Saidye Bronfman); the Vancouver Jewish Heritage Theatre; the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre; and Toronto's Teatron Jewish Theatre, Harold Green Jewish Theatre, Theatre Asylum, Leah Posluns Theatre, and Nephesh Theatre Company.2 Jewish theatre is also nurtured through several Canadian theatre festivals (Toronto's Ashkenaz Festival, Vancouver's Chutzpah! Festival, and more recently Montreal's International Yiddish Festival) and by the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre's annual Jewish Playwriting Competition, which, since 1989, has been a major source of activity in Canadian Jewish playwriting, along with their annual Between Stages Play Reading Series and public workshops.3

It is also useful to think more broadly about Jewish theatricality. Performance has long been a part of Jewish lived experience, despite early prohibitions, biblical and Talmudic. Consider the ancient and ongoing public practice of chanting Torah; Miriam, sister of Moses, who directed the women in dance and song; and Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese Jews) conversos who publically performed the role of Christians but secretly lived as Jews in order to survive. Or consider sixteenth-century purimspieln (plays that narrated the holiday of Purim), which became the foundation for Yiddish theatre and was one of the major forms of expression for Jewish culture in Canada beyond synagogue affiliation (discussed in this issue by Rebecca Margolis).4 The Hagaddah, a text read at Passover, leads Jews in a theatrical retelling of their liberation from slavery. In asking us to perform, to act "as if" we, ourselves, were escaping from Egypt, the ritual collapses past and present, probes issues...


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