Since the early 1900s, Winnipeg’s Jewish community has left an indelible mark on the local arts scene.
Until its closure in the 1950s, the Queen’s Theatre in Winnipeg’s North End was home to five decades of Yiddish theatre arts.
That tradition continues today. For years, the Rady Jewish Community Centre’s (Rady JCC) Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture has brought together local and international talent in celebration of Judaic arts and culture.
Running from Nov. 12 to 19, this year’s Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture is packed with a lively program of music, film, theatre and more.
“The premise of it really has been to introduce Winnipeggers to a variety of aspects of Jewish culture,” producer Karla Berbrayer says.
This year, as Berbrayer explains, the festival is taking a cross-cultural approach.
On opening night, a blending of Indigenous and Israeli music will welcome audiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The Rady JCC will screen a selection of films on Jewish culture. A musical celebration of Jewish icons by the group Prairie Hearts will close the curtain.
And in between, there will be operas, book fairs and thoughtful discussions. In other words, there’s something for everyone at Tarbut. This is just a highlight reel.
Weaving two worlds together
Playwright and novelist Primrose Madayag Knazan describes most of her adult life as having a foot in two worlds.
Drawing from her experiences as a first-generation Filipinx-Canadian immigrant who converted to Judaism, Madayag Knazan’s work is centred on themes of identity, culture and change.
“I try to show that even though cultures can be different, there are ways to weave them together,” she says.
Her semi-autobiographic play Precipice made a name for itself after winning the top prize at the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition.
“Precipice started off as just a couple scenes for my conversion class 20 years ago,” Madayag Knazan says. “We had to do an oral presentation. As a writer, I decided (I was) going to write a play.”
Years later, that short presentation would become a critically acclaimed production.
Madayag Knazan tells stories that aren’t being told elsewhere – a principle that drove her to write her young-adult novel Lessons in Fusion.
“I specifically wrote Lessons in Fusion and Precipice for my children, who are Ashkenazi Jew and Filipino, so that they can see themselves,” Madayag Knazan says.
In her talk, she hopes to shed light on the historical connections between Jewish and Filipino communities.
“There is actually a history of the Philippines taking in Jewish refugees during World War II,” Madayag Knazan says. “They actually had a policy of the government to give certain spaces of land to Jewish refugees.”
Finding a common ground
Building an artistic bridge between Israeli and Indigenous communities in Winnipeg has been a dream for Berbrayer for years. In 2022, it’s finally coming to fruition.
Initially, Berbrayer connected with Vince Fontaine, the then-leader of Indian City, an Indigenous folk-rock musical project.
“At the beginning of this year, I had actually discussed this concept with him,” Berbrayer says. “I had really selected, in my mind, Indian City as the group that I would want to work with.”
In January, however, Fontaine died. Band member Neewa Mason is continuing Indian City’s legacy. Now as co-curators, Berbrayer and Mason are gearing up for a week-long residency program and performance that will blend Indigenous and Israeli cultures.
“We were doing Zooms and going ‘okay, let’s actually do this,’” Mason says. “This is a great idea, especially for the timing right now with the Truth and Reconciliation movement about educating about the residential schools and learning how we can share our culture and heal.”
Berbrayer spent hours researching Israeli musicians and bands that could complement Indian City. It just so happened that she stumbled upon gold.
Passerby, a musical project spearheaded by Gilad Segev, is founded on cross-cultural principles. Throughout his career, Segev has traveled around the globe, musically interacting with other cultures.
“This is what this guy does. He makes a career out of going to different countries and meshing with the cultures and creating music with them,” Berbrayer says. “It’s kind of ... meant to be that he is the person that I choose to work with Indian City.”
With just weeks until Passerby jets off to Winnipeg from Israel, Mason believes that the collaboration will spark discussions about how Indigenous peoples and the Winnipeg Jewish community can build relationships with each other.
“We are taking our cultures and our music and some of our traditional chants and prayers … and we’re going to be putting those together with not only just our music, like we usually do, but each other’s music, as well,” Mason says.
“To hear a Jewish prayer being incorporated with rock-and-roll music and Indigenous chanting is going to be so awesome and new.”
During virtual conversations, Mason said she and Segev found several parallels between their cultural and life experiences. Mason is the daughter of a residential school survivor, and Segev is the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“We’ve always been taught to keep the bad stuff hidden, right? Nobody wants to talk about the ugly stuff,” Mason says. “To have both Gilad and I being children of survivors, and just even talking about that is something that’s going to help the Jewish community and Indigenous peoples open their eyes to that.”
Ahead of the show, a week-long residency will commence, allowing the two groups to be immersed in each other’s cultures.
The group will visit the Gray Academy of Jewish Education and Southeast Collegiate, which has a large population of students from northern Indigenous communities, to draw connections between the Torah and the Seven Sacred Teachings. They’ll also drop by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) to visit the Indigenous peoples and Holocaust exhibits. Then, they’ll wrap up at Berbrayer’s house for a Shabbat dinner.
“The whole residency program and the workshop to me is the essential component and probably the most important part,” Berbrayer says. “The show is really a testimony to what transpired during everything that went before.”
It’s all in the name of diving into each other’s worlds.
To view the full program and to reserve tickets for the Rady JCC’s Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture, visit bit.ly/3srm9es.
Published in Volume 77, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 27, 2022)