The Basis of all Theatre

Is Food.

The most important thing for theatre is… food.
Food celebrates life.
Life revolves around food.
And thus, theatre is created out of good food.

This is the philosophy of a new director who I have the pleasure of working with on Hamlet.
I’m sure there will be plenty of more insight coming from him, so stay tuned.

Money and Gunpowder

There are two people in a debate about what are the most pressing factors concerning a stable society. One of the pair, a military industrialist, is driven by money and might. He believes security, fiscal responsibility, and military might to be the most important pillars upon which a country functions healthily.

The other debater, a Christian man, is driven by his religious values. He believes that getting a liberal arts education, teaching ethics and morals, and supporting the poor are the most important pillars upon which a country functions healthily.

The two men spar words, arguing over what religion exactly entails, how it should influence leaders, how it should influence romantic relationships, and what to do with your religion when you’re in a position of power.

These two people are not Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. Nor are they Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. They are Andrew Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins.

Who are Andew Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins?

They are characters in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara. It’s one of the plays I’m working on right now. And it was written in 1905. For those of you who can’t do math, that’s one hundred and three years ago.

It appears that either Shaw was a great prophet – a possibility which I’m not entirely willing to rule out – or there are certain historical/philosophical constants which govern the cosmos. And one of those constants is the divisiveness in opinion as to who is responsible for caring for the constituents of a country. Shaw’s characters might as well have been ripped from this morning’s newspaper headlines. And I’m willing to bet that they will ring as true and imminent a year from now, and then some.

I’m not going to preach as to which of the two I believe is in the right. Or… in the “left” as I would have it. I’m going to share one of the characters’ dialogues, just to shed a little light on the state of the world today. Anybody who thinks we’re at the lowest of lows, living in a time when our governments are riddled with corruption, our leaders incapable of leading, and trillions of dollars being spent on death and destruction should take a look at Shaw.

Things haven’t changed that much:

“There are two things necessary to Salvation… Money and gunpowder. That is the general opinion of our governing classes. The novelty is in hearing any man confess it.”

“Is there any place in your religion for honour, justice, truth, love, mercy, and so forth?”

“Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.”

“Suppose one is forced to choose between them and money or gunpowder?

“Choose money and gunpowder; for without enough of both you cannot afford the others.”

“That is your religion?”


The Moses Claus and the December Dilemma

It seems the Toronto Star just doesn’t seem to understand multiculturalism.

Ironic, this being the most multicultural city in the world. Check out this current article on the December Dilemma. It seems that for some, the easy solution when faced with a city where people of “non-White-European decent” actually make up the majority is to just combine everything culturally important together into a melting pot of madness. With all due respect to my American friends who are more familiar with the melting pot strategy, here in Toronto we’re used to a more cultural mosaic approach to life. Of course, this all implies that there’s a problem that needs solving – a notion which I take issue with.

Every year around this time, there’s a big fuss about how to deal with the intersection of religions and public life. A couple years ago, the Star published a story glorifying Chrismukkah and its so-called “benefits.” I immediately penned a response, which they printed. In response to the nonsense of this season, I present it below, as a dose of medicine for those who are are stymied by the insanity of December.

Tolerance Invovles Understanding Uniqueness

Jennifer Bain reports on the growing trend in Canada of interfaith families combining Channukah and Christmas into a hybrid mishmash. While this may be a perfectly logical notion for some, it is important to note that there are detrimental effects of doing so. Ask my professor’s daughter who was taught to believe in the “Moses Claus” as a child, and now does not know what to believe in.

Channukah is called so for a reason – it is the Hebrew word for rededication. Channukah is the time when Jews celebrate and remember the rededication of the ancient holy Temple after its horrific destruction. To alter the word to “Chrismukkhah,” or “Hanumas,” lessens the significance of the holiday. It erases the true meaning of the word, and presents a distorted version of the holiday.

While there is much that non-Jews can learn by celebrating Channukah with Jewish friends and family, and vice-versa regarding Christmas, it is of paramount importance to remember that Channukah is a Jewish holiday and Christmas is a Christian holiday. To combine them is to misrepresent the true meaning of each holiday.

To truly increase tolerance and knowledge of dual cultural heritages, interfaith families should learn about each holiday individually and uniquely, rather than attempting to assimilate them into an entirely new celebration which is no longer grounded in its true roots. This is especially true for interfaith families with children. Let them be taught about each religion’s traditions rather than a new hodgepodge. Doing so will only breed a generation of children who believe in the “Moses Claus” – who comes down the chimney to light the Channukiah and eats the Latkes left on the table.

Also worthwhile to check out is the Hat Man’s take on the season.

No lamenting lost individuality

In this world, we largely define ourselves in relationship and opposition to those people and things around us.
Individuality is sham – a misnomer that doesn’t do justice to the fact that we live in an hyper-connected world.
Don’t get me wrong – uniqueness does exist. I have my own unique characteristics, beliefs, abilities, opinions, and thoughts.
But it is impossible to be an individual in this world. There is nothing singular about life anymore. Perhaps some monks and hermits can truly say that they are individuals, but for those of us living in the concrete jungles, our individuality has been lost.

And that’s nothing to lament.

To be sure, it’s a good thing.

This all dawned on me this past weekend, as I hopped on the metro and travelled out to the ‘burbs to see a dress rehearsal for a fine production of Arthur Miller’s Enemy of the People. It’s being put on by the large Jewish theatre company here in Montreal. I live in an almost entirely French neighbourhood on the French side of town. Thus, my walk from my apartment to the metro was surrounded by the usually Frenchness of this locale.

A half hour later, as I got off the metro, I entered a different world. It looked a bit like North York in Toronto. Kate remarked that it looked like Halifax. Funny how suburbs all over the world look exactly the same. Ahh, suburbia. The Jewish theatre is, of course, located in a largely Jewish suburb, which meant that I was now in a much more familiar world – Hebrew adorned billboards, an Israeli flag flew outside the local JCC, and Mezuzah’s adorned the houses. I’m home!!!

Of course, it was nice to be in a place that I identify much more with than the Francophone neighbourhood in which I live (and love living in!) At the time, I felt that being in the Jewish neighbourhood was reflective of a huge part of my individuality. Here I was, one of the only Jews at my theatre school, going off to the Jewish theatre with school friends. But — upon further reflection — it occurs to me that it’s exactly the opposite of individuality. I may be unique (albeit slightly so) in my position at school, but that doesn’t make me individual in my being. This little journey across town reinforced my connection to a different group of people – it didn’t strengthen my individuality.

A few hours later, again on the metro, the hockey game had just finished and hundreds of Habs fans piled onto the metro cars. All of a sudden, I felt quite singular again. I made jokes about yelling out cheers in favour of the Leafs, then running for my life at the next stop. But in truth, I had this feeling of being an “individual” again – being surrounded by an entirely opposing culture. (On that note, anyone who doesn’t understand the diametrically opposing forces of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens should educate themselves. Read: Dave Vaisberg, you can’t be a fan of both teams!) But as I’ve thought about this seemingly innocuous event, it paralleled my theatre experience… my status as a leafs fan is not part of my individuality, it’s part of my connection to a much larger institution.

An intriguing revelation to have. I’m still not entirely sure it can be said with 100% certainty (can anything?), but I challenge others to come up with examples of true individuality.

Worth repeating…

The following editorial is from the Thursday October 25, 2007 issue of The New York Jewish Week.

What’s The Big Idea?
Gary Rosenblatt

There is something thrilling — yet also disturbing — about the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation’s new quest for The Next Big Jewish Idea, a plan to sponsor a two-year visiting post at Brandeis University for the contest winner to develop a proposal that will “change the way Jews think about themselves and their community.”

Thrilling because there is an air of creative excitement about the prospect of coming up with a concept as transformative as birthright israel, which the Bronfman Foundation helped found and which has inspired tens of thousands of young Jews from around the world who in the last decade have benefited from a free trip to Israel.

But what troubles me is the very notion that we
need, and can benefit from, a quick fix to the myriad problems that threaten the future of Jewish life as we know it in America.

We set a trap for ourselves if we think that any one project can deal with issues as complex as increasing assimilation, diminishing Jewish birthrates, less identification with Israel and American Jewish institutions, and a rise in secularism and distrust of organized religion, for starters.

The good news is that, while it’s true that most young Jews are not interested in affiliating with synagogues and organizations the way their parents and grandparents did, that doesn’t mean that they are not exploring their own ways of expressing Jewish identity. I for one am heartened, particularly this week after experiencing The Conversation — a two-day conference sponsored by The Jewish Week in partnership with CLI (the Center for Leadership Initiatives), bringing together more than 50 current and emerging Jewish leaders around the country from a variety of backgrounds to meet, network, and explore new ideas together.

I met a number of men and women in their 20s and 30s who are engaged in fostering and strengthening Jewish community in a variety of ways, from Internet projects to experiments in Jewish communal living to educational innovations.

One of the more memorable sessions — all of which were off the record so as to give the participants a sense of comfort to speak openly — was an hour-long discussion by the full group on what Jewish art means today: who produces it, how it’s defined, and what it expresses. It’s an especially rich topic since there has been a burst of creativity of late from young Jewish musicians, filmmakers, photographers, painters, comedians and others in the arts.

I came away more optimistic about the Jewish future, convinced that we don’t need a Silver Bullet but rather, as veteran University of Michigan Hillel director Michael Brooks says, “we need Silver Buckshot” — any number of small but sustained efforts to heighten Jewish identity and awareness.

The Bronfman Next Big Idea project echoes a 1929 contest sponsored by Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck chairman, to help Judaism “best adjust itself to and influence modern life.” The winner of the $10,000 prize was Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, whose seminal work, “Judaism as a Civilization,” led to the foundation of the Reconstructionist movement.

Almost eight decades later, we are still trying to help Judaism “best adjust itself to and influence modern life.” But that’s an ongoing process that can best be done by cultivating the natural blossoms of creativity that are sprouting all around us.

Jewish life doesn’t really need another Big Idea. It already has one, and it dates back thousands of years. Judaism gave the world the concept of monotheism, produced the Torah and a set of commandments and rituals that have sustained us as a people ever since, as well as the notion that we have a relationship with our Creator and are partners in repairing the world.

One big idea is enough. The challenge today is not to come up with another one but to fulfill our original role as “a light unto the nations,” not in the sense of superiority to others but rather as humble models, still and always dedicated to leaving the world a better place for our children than the one we inherited from our parents.

That’s an idea, and goal, that can and should keep us going forever.

Gary Rosenblatt is the Editor and Publisher of The New York Jewish Week.

Instant Gratification, Part I

Who thought a commercial could contain some pretty deep life philosophy? Let alone one for Hyundai, at that…

Instant gratification has us in a stranglehold.
So much so, that we don’t want to fix things anymore. We just replace them.

Don’t like your nose? Get a new one.
Don’t like your job? Get a new one.
Don’t like your spouse? Well, get a new one.

Whatever happened to commitment? To standing by our decisions?

going places…

On a train, rumbling through the farm fields of Quebec in the direction of Toronto, I finally make contact with the world outside of Montreal. The train has internet. My apartment does not. How ridiculous. And yet, within this fact, I’m sure there’s something deep to be explored… something about how you have to go places to find people… or something about how you have to find your place between homes to see the world… or something like that… yeah, something deep like that.

I’m sure I could find something more important to say. But I find myself succumbing to the movement of the train. It’s relaxing and making me tired.

I’m going to sleep.

living the simultaneous life

My life, or whatever it can be called right now, has entered an unusual new phase. Moving to a new city and studying at a new school (indeed, an entirely new type of school) will of course entail a few hectic weeks of moving, unpacking, and settling in. And of course, that’s what I’m stuck in the middle of. But my life, or whatever it may be called right now, (I’m thinking… “Property of the National Theatre School of Canada”?) seems to be stuck in an entirely new mode of existence.

I’m simultaneously on standby and overdrive.

I had classes from 9 to 7 today. And it’s only the second day of school. Truth be told, we actually haven’t even really started the school year yet, this is just a chance for our programme to work before everyone gets here. It’s overdrive. And I love it. But it’s overdrive.

But I’m on standby, too. I have no internet, phone service, or tv. The outside world would cease to exist, were it not for the wonderful free internet at the cafe around the corner from me. I still have yet to respond to Rabbi Yoffie regarding the dialogue he initiated with me over my previous infamous blog post, and I have yet to catch up on a lot of correspondence from the summer.

So here I am, standing by and waiting, while at the same time revving my internal engines.

My message to the rest of the world: give me a week, and I’ll resurface.

I hope.