Personal and religious identity studied, questioned in playwright’s latest work
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Is there anything more central to Judaism than asking questions?
“That’s a tough one,” is how Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff begins his answer. “I’m not sure. It feels like a bold statement to make definitively. I certainly would say that asking questions is central to Jewish tradition and Jewish learning, but is anything more central? I think that’s up for debate.”
In his career in the theatre, Thau-Eleff, 42, is used to being the one who is asking.
When Thau-Eleff opens the door at the Manitoba Association of Playwrights offices to greet a reporter, his reputation as an inquisitive writer who probes religion, politics and identity precedes him.
One of his earliest jobs in theatre came 20 years ago when he was an assistant director on the Royal MTC production of Bigger Than Jesus starring Rick Miller, who co-created the award-winning hit show with director Daniel Brooks.
“I was too young to realize I should have been intimidated,” Thau-Eleff says.
He saw the way Miller and Brooks constantly questioned themselves and the stereotypical approaches to storytelling, committing to an ideal of uncertainty and self-exploration in their treatment that struck Thau-Eleff immediately.
About five years later, Thau-Eleff was sitting at a seder, the Jewish paschal feast held during the holiday of Pesach, or Passover. During the seder, four questions are traditionally asked about what makes that night different from all the others. Other common questions include “is horseradish any good if it doesn’t cause sweat to drip from my brow?”
At the seder table was a man named Ben Baader, who moved to Winnipeg from Germany in 2005 and teaches European and Jewish history at the University of Manitoba. The playwright and the scholar, who is trans, quickly became friends, and their discussions of life, religion, and Jewish history were illuminating and wide-ranging.
A few years later, Baader began exploring his Judaic practice through an orthodox lens.
At the same time, Thau-Eleff was becoming an established playwright whose works included Remember the Night, Good People Bad Things, and Three Ring Circus: Israel, the Palestinians, and My Jewish Identity.
That last show listed was Thau-Eleff’s first as a solo performer, making its debut at the 2004 Winnipeg Fringe Festival.
“It was exploring my struggles as a young Jewish person who had grown up very rooted in the Jewish community (who was now) advocating for a human rights struggle which can be controversial in the Jewish community,” he recalls of the play.
Words such as “controversial” were applied to the work, which through Thau-Eleff’s personal, conflicted lens drummed up conversations and asked questions about the struggles faced by Palestinian people. Thau-Eleff says he was speaking from the heart, with his Jewish upbringing and grassroots activist ideology at the forefront of his storytelling.
“I grew up with such a strong ethos that we survived the Holocaust and that human rights are central to who we are and what we do, and so, in a large way, I was doing what I was always taught to do,” he says.
Within the theatre community, the embrace was obvious: Three Ring Circus was named the best new play at that year’s Fringe Festival.
Around 2012, Thau-Eleff was talking about his friendship with Baader to a theatre colleague. At the end of that chat, the colleague expressed interest in the play.
“I said, no, no, no. It’s not a play. It’s just a story,” Thau-Eleff says. “And then I told this to Ben, and he said, ‘I would help you with that.’”
They hit the books. With Baader’s help, Thau-Eleff started exploring the Talmud, a collection of writings that “cover the full gamut of Jewish law and tradition,” according to Chabad.org. Thau-Eleff was fascinated by the rabbinic debate in the Talmud, which provides insight into the Torah from some of the most renowned thinkers in Jewish history. Years later, he attended a summer Talmudic retreat in the U.S., geared mostly toward the LGBTQ+ community; he stayed in a tent, and was welcomed and embraced by the other attendees, he says.
“A big lesson (from the Talmud) is there are a lot of rules, but they cannot exist without interpretation, so if we feel that they’re set in stone, which of course, the 10 Commandments literally were, that is a misunderstanding,” he says. The Talmud is a main interpretive text, but it is also an ongoing conversation, he adds.
Translated to English, the word Talmud means study, or learning.
According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Talmud is “regarded as sacred and normative” but to say that those norms have been challenged and discussed at length would be an understatement of biblical proportion. Norms, after all, are not fixed entities.
With insight from the Talmud and Baader’s experiences guiding the vision, Thau-Eleff began sketching out the first few pages of a script that would become known as Narrow Bridge.
In 2015, the playwright brought a six-page script to Ari Weinberg, the former director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. Then, Thau-Eleff approached local performer and artist Elio Zarrillo, who uses they/them pronouns, to show them the script. It became obvious to cast Zarrillo as the central character, Sholem, who transitions genders while also embracing orthodox Judaism.
Narrow Bridge, which had its first public reading in 2018 and was set to debut in 2020, will finally make its world première at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre on March 11.
“No matter what background you come from, when you see this play, there are so many universal lessons,” says Narrow Bridge’s director Tracey Erin Smith, who collaborated on the show with Scout Rexe, a cultural dramaturg whose work as a writer explores queer and trans identities, along with social change. “One is that everyone feels on some level that their insides don’t match their outsides, and the other is life is meant to be lived with people. We are stronger and healthier that way.”
Before being cast as Sholem, Zarrillo had never been in a synagogue before, but in order to know their character, the performer felt it necessary to attend a Shabbat service. Along with Thau-Eleff and castmates Harry Nelkin and Alissa Watson, Zarrillo attended services at several Winnipeg synagogues; like in other religions, different denominations and congregations have different rituals and routines.
“It was all part of my intention to bring as much understanding to the role that could be possible given that I myself am not Jewish,” Zarrillo says. “I really wanted to be respectful of that aspect of the character’s identity and to be mindful about telling a story that is sacred and true to so many people.”
To look up photos online or watch a documentary would not have been enough. Zarrillo even stuck around for the post-service Kiddish, where they indulged in the ancient Ashkenazi delicacy of pickled herring.
For Narrow Bridge, the title of which is derived from the writing of the revered Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the journey to the stage was long and winding, and forced Thau-Eleff to evaluate what it meant for him — he identifies as ‘basically cisgender and straight’ — to be the one to write this play, and along with the cast and crew, to tell this story.
“We live in a time where it’s been acknowledged that a lot of marginalized people’s voices have been appropriated, and that is not OK. And we know that people from marginalized communities should be speaking for themselves,” he says.
“At the same time, there’s something inherent in playwriting that involves research. If I could write only within the narrowest parameters of my own lived experience, I’m not sure that it’s possible, and I’m not sure that it helps anyone. And I’m certainly not sure it’s interesting.”
In the years since the play’s journey began, Thau-Eleff, Zarrillo and director Smith feel that they have grown to understand and appreciate each other’s experiences, bridging the gaps between them and resulting in what all three consider to be an honest, funny and timely piece of theatre.
That, of course, is all a question subject to interpretation.
Narrow Bridge opens March 11 and runs until March 19 at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre at 123 Doncaster St.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.