Jewish cultural festival returns to fully live format
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Almost everything Primrose Madayag Knazan writes has an “essence” of her life.
The Winnipeg playwright and author has penned many pieces about the Filipino-Canadian experience, being a mother, and her conversion from Catholicism to Judaism in 2002.
“I write about specific experiences that have been embellished and enriched to the point that they no longer resemble the original seeds of the story,” Madayag Knazan says.
Madayag Knazan will be one of the many talents appearing at this year’s Rady JCC Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture lineup.
The annual festival, which takes place from Nov. 12 to 19, is back to its fully live format after taking a hiatus during the height of the pandemic. Last year’s event was a hybrid version, offering online as well as in-person events.
Madayag Knazan’s talk, Across Cultures, Across Sea, will be a discussion of the intersection of Filipino culture with Judaism, when they overlap and where they come head-to-head, she says.
“I will speak from my personal experience as a woman, as a mother, and as the child of immigrants. I’ll talk about the origins of my play, Precipice, and my novel, Lessons in Fusion, and the importance of representation and diverse stories,” she explains.
Precipice was crowned winner at last year’s Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition. But it almost didn’t come to light as she had discovered another playwright was also working on a play with very similar themes.
“I have always wanted to explore my experience with Judaism in my writing, but I admit I held back because another playwright was telling her conversion story. I now know that our stories are very, very different. I’m older and wiser and more outspoken. I now know that no two stories are the same and that even if there are similarities, there will always be people willing to hear different perspectives and hear about differing journeys to the same destination.”
Precipice was formed when, as part of her last project for conversion class, Madayag Knazan had written a short sketch about becoming a Jew by choice and about planning a Filipino-Jewish wedding. A few years later she wrote the first three scenes of the play to be read at a fundraiser for a local theatre company, she says.
“I wanted to continue with the story but not wanting to overlap, I shelved the story and worked on other plays.”
In March 2020, after being approached to be part of a new works theatre festival, she decided to tackle the play again, only for the world to stop a week later when the pandemic hit.
“In September 2020, the call-out letter came for the So Nu? Festival by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. In the letter, they were specifically seeking works that explored the intersectionality of Judaism with other cultures. I knew Precipice would be a perfect fit,” she continues.
Her novel, Lessons in Fusion, published in 2021, was written with her then 12-year-old son in mind. During pandemic restrictions he had difficulty with remote learning and had retreated into video games and YouTube, she shares.
“We had argued because he refused to read. When I asked him why, he gave two reasons; firstly many books for his age were set in a post-apocalyptic world and, during the pandemic, this was the last thing he wanted to read, and secondly none of the characters in books were like him.
“I then asked if I wrote a book, would he read it, and he said yes. I set out to write a story that captured the experience of living in a bi-racial family and coping with the pandemic.”
Lessons in Fusion went on to be nominated for several awards and reached the McNally Robinson Best Seller list.
The festival will also host the first-of-its-kind live concert and collaboration featuring Israeli musician Passerby and local Indigenous music collective Indian City.
“It has been something I have wanted to do for a few years”, says festival producer Karla Berbrayer. “I wanted to have an Israeli performer work with an Indigenous performer. I have worked with Indian City on several occasions and discussed the idea with the late Vince Fontaine in the past of putting something like this together”.
Originally formed by Vince Fontaine, Indian City is a folk-rock band currently led by Neewa Mason who is co-curating the collaboration with Berbrayer. The collaboration began weeks ago over email and Zoom.
“Indian City lost our founder Vince Fontaine in January,” Mason says. “After several discussions and a blessing from his family, we decided that we would keep going on. We strongly believe in upholding Vince’s creed of being Indigenous cultural ambassadors using our art form, which is music.
“Having this project, based on the sharing of our cultures through music is something special, and also something we’ve never done before. We hope to use this same formula to continue to share the beauty of Indigenous culture with other groups in the future.”
Gilad Segev aka Passerby is an individual who travels to work with different musicians according to the project he is presenting, Berbrayer explains. He will be coming to Winnipeg with three other Israeli musicians.
“Passerby will partake in a residency program in Winnipeg. During several days of learning, visiting Indigenous sites and sharing music, Passerby and Indian City will gain understanding about each other’s cultures,” she says.
“The Passerby Indian City project is special to me, as it’s my first attempt on heading up such a big project for us and I’m so grateful that Karla’s been here to help guide me through this process,” Mason says.
For Passerby, this collaboration is an act that reaches beyond the present moment, connecting the past to the future. He says he has a strong feeling the collaboration will lead to a “multi-dimensional” result.
“Everywhere I go, I search for collaboration, and I never know what to expect. As very deep roots exist from both sides, so if we start from there, from the root, we can meet in so many levels on our way to the present.
“As a Jewish person, as both sides have horrible past traumas as a people, I think our mutual way to understand each other may create special healing, with music as a tool to bridge between us,” he explains.
For Berbrayer, the most challenging aspect of coordinating the event were the logistics of pulling two groups, from different cultures and very different parts of the world, together. Encouraging a collaboration between groups who have never met before could have proved tricky, but it wasn’t the case here.
“Fortunately Passerby and Indian City hit it off immediately which relieved my anxiety and reassured me that it was the right choice to put these two groups together,” Berbrayer says.
Leading up to the concert, the two groups will conduct workshops for the students of South East Collegiate and Gray Academy of Jewish Education. They will also attend an Indigenous drum group, as well as participate in a Community 204 walk supporting Indigenous partners. They will tour the Forks, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), focusing on the areas of Indigenous significance as well as the Holocaust exhibit. The experiences of the week will culminate in a convert on 12 November at CMHR.
“The CMHR is a very fitting place for a concert mixing the music of two cultures. I hope the audience walks away with the feeling that learning from other people’s cultures through music is an attainable goal. Perhaps it may even inspire others to think of how they can create cultural liaisons through music. True reconciliation is about learning and sharing, and what better way to do that then through music?”
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.