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SCRUTINY | Twelve Theatres Come Together For ‘A Global Hanukkah Celebration’

By Paula Citron on December 7, 2020

The Ester Rachel and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, Poland
The Ester Rachel and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, Poland

Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company/A Global Hanukkah Celebration, livestream, free, available until Dec. 18. Details.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company has been virtually busy during the pandemic with artists’ conversations, cabarets, readings, and even a radio version of the 1988 movie Crossing Delancey. For Hanukkah, however, co-founders and co-artistic directors, David Eisner and Avery Saltzman, wanted to do something more ambitious. And what could be grander than bringing together 12 Jewish theatres from ten countries for a global celebration of the beloved holiday?

Hanukkah — The Festival Of Lights

Also called the Festival of Lights, the eight-day Hanukkah holiday celebrates the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Kingdom. These oppressors of Judea had outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship the Greek gods. In 168 B.C., King Antiochus lV attacked Jerusalem, massacred thousands, and desecrated the Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus. The subsequent rebellion, led by Judah Maccabee (“The Hammer”) and his brothers, drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem.

Here’s where the miracle comes in. In rededicating the Second Temple, the Maccabees had to light the menorah (candelabra) over the altar which was meant to be burning every night. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah candles burning for a single day, the flames continued to burn for eight days, leaving them enough time to find a fresh supply of oil. The Jewish sages then declared an eight-day holiday in celebration of the miracle, which, according to the Jewish calendar, usually occurs around November or December. A Hanukkah menorah has nine branches. The ninth spot is for the Shamash, or the candle that lights the other eight. Each night after sundown, one more candle is added, until the eighth day, when all eight candles are ablaze.

Hanukkah is not a festival for those who have to watch their cholesterol. Because the theme is oil, Hanukkah food is fried, the two favourites being latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam filled doughnuts). Hanukkah is also a special holiday for children who get to spin special four-sided tops (dreidels) and are given gifts of money (Hanukkah gelt).

Napoleon Dead or Alive at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre (Photo: Nissm Aloni)
Napoleon Dead or Alive at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre (Photo: Nissm Aloni)

Harold Green’s Global Celebration

According to Eisner and Saltzman, since theatres are working virtually, their board suggested that they try something on an international scale. The Harold Green company belongs to the Alliance for Jewish Theatre, and through that organization, Eisner has been taking part in various panels. As such, he has met artistic directors from other countries like Hungary. This gave the men the idea of bringing Jewish theatres from around the world together. Says Eisner, “It was a way of illuminating humanity through connecting with each other. Everyone would be familiar with Hanukkah because Jews all over the world celebrate the festival.”

Armed with lists from the Alliance and the World Jewish Congress, they began to reach out to various companies. “Everyone was intrigued, and jumped on board,” explains Saltzman. “We didn’t get one ‘no’.”

Unfortunately, for various reasons, not every country was able to participate. Communication was not easy. For example, with the theatre in Moscow, they had to keep translating into Russian through a translator app before they sent the email, and vice versa. They also set out to find Jewish Theatres not on their lists, and so they started to make cold calls. They’d think of a city, like Warsaw, and Google “Jewish Theatre Warsaw”, which is how they found their Polish representative. “A great find,” says Saltzman. They also used contacts. For example, because they had produced a work by Israeli playwright Hader Galron, through her, they were able to reach Israeli theatre companies.

Ironing Out The Details

“Our motivating factor was, what would interest the Harold Green audience and still be entertaining,” says Eisner. “It also had to be an easy template that we could give to each theatre.” The clever, yet simple idea that they came up with was: in a video, tell us who you are, something about your history, your theatre’s mandate, and include the singing of a Hanukkah song in your language. The videos that came back were a mixed bag, needless to say, depending on the resources of the company, but the hero is Daniel Bowman, who took three weeks to edit them all together into a pretty classy film. What’s remarkable is there is only one repetition in the songs.

To fill out the program, Eisner and Saltzman added in some extras. Musical stars Alana Bridgewater, Gabi Epstein, Jake Epstein, and Saltzman all sing Hanukkah songs, along with a cute number (“I am a latke”) by Temple Sinai’s Ledor Vador Youth Choir. The children are there to bring in a sense of family. Before each of the countries, a candle is lit in the menorah, until all eight are ablaze. Bowman also did yeoman’s work creating the visual design and acting as cameraman. Bridgewater is an interesting inclusion. The singer explains how there are similarities between the Black and Jewish experiences, and sings a heartfelt, a cappella rendition of Duke Ellington’s beautiful spiritual “Come Sunday”.

For the finale, music director Mark Camilleri laid down tracks for Peter Yarrow’s “Light one candle” (he of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), so all the countries could learn the song, which Bowman spliced together.

As a side note, in order to allow for eight candles, Australia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Russia each get their own candle, while the two German companies and three Israeli companies are put together as sections, and North America includes Mexico and the United States.

Maia Morgenstern (centre) and TES Orchestra at the State Jewish Theatre (Bucharest, Romania)
Maia Morgenstern (centre) and TES Orchestra at the State Jewish Theatre (Bucharest, Romania)

Experiencing A Global Hanukkah Celebration

I watched the video twice and plan to see it a third time because I was fascinated by the different ways each theatre interpreted the format. In short, I loved it.

The three Israeli theatres are very different. We got a tour through the ancient courtyard of the one in Jerusalem, which, apparently was once a rest stop for pilgrims before they entered the gates of the city. The Jaffa artistic director made the point that his theatre is a stage for Arab-Hebrew culture, and that their repertoire is bilingual. The Tel Aviv theatre turned out to be founded by a Toronto native.

I was particularly impressed by Australia’s Alexis Fishman, who wrote and sang the amusing swing-style song, “My baby eats all the Hanukkah gelt”. The snappy music video followed both the sexy Fishman and her honey who danced his way through the streets of Sydney.

The singer from Hungary, on the other hand, took us for a moody, nighttime walk through Budapest while imparting the subtitled noir-ish lyrics of “The doughnut song”. In contrast, Romania’s video took place on stage and featured a joyous dance. We also found out that the Hungarian and Romanian theatres perform to mostly non-Jewish audiences. Russia produced a slick video that took the audience through what looked to be a Jewish museum and gift shop.

The Polish artistic director was the only one who mentioned the Holocaust, stating that his theatre was a monument to the six million dead. His theatre came about when two theatres were merged together to become the Ester Rachel and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theatre, they being mother and daughter. He reminded us that Ida Kaminska was the brilliant actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the enduring 1965 Czech film The Shop on Main Street.

The artistic director of the New York theatre explained how he had to teach his actors to speak Yiddish, while the Mexican artistic director said that her theatre, which dealt with social issues, also had satellite performances in Uruguay and Argentina. Of the two German theatres, Rostock showed an excerpt of a puppet show explaining the Hanukkah story, while Berlin did a general greeting from the company of actors.

The inclusion of the talented Toronto singers was a smart move because it gave us three more Hanukkah songs and a moving African-American spiritual. As for the youth choir, kids are always cute.

The combined video is, by turn, charming, heartwarming, and compelling, and definitely worth a visit.

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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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