Fear, loathing and a scramble to regain safe ground


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The campers are arriving in three hours and all is quiet at Camp Mazal: the calm before the swarm.

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The campers are arriving in three hours and all is quiet at Camp Mazal: the calm before the swarm.

Three of the senior staffers are nowhere to be found, but the camp secretary, Ohbee (Ori Black, in a play on his own initials), is wide awake in the office. Where is Naphtali (Hershel Blatt)? Where is Saul (Tom Shoshani)? Where — for god’s sake — is Saint (Wayne Burns)?

“Wake up!” Ohbee screams over and over into the camp-wide sound system. “Wake up!”

Leif Norman

Tom Shoshani plays one of four young camp counsellors forced to deal with the aftermath of hate in Summer of Semitism.

It’s the first of many rude awakenings awaiting the four unlucky counsellors at Camp Mazal forced to contend with an ancient, insidious hatred rearing its ugly head in this Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production.

Don’t they have enough to worry about? Mrs. Rosen won’t stop calling to tell them about little Benji’s allergies and bed-wetting problem.

It’s no secret that Summer of Semitism deals directly with antisemitic hate: the title promises it.

But it is no less painful when the tzevet (staff) walk into the bathroom to find symbols and words once and now forever used to justify their people’s eradication.

It’s an electric, explosive moment of discovery, which Black — a first-time playwright — uses as a jumping-off point for a larger conversation about being othered.

Summer camp, for each of the four characters, has historically been a safe space for free expression of religion and culture. But when swastikas and Nazi euphemisms are painted on the wall, and when one of the young men is beaten with only a small measure of mercy, that illusion is shattered like glass.

What Black — a former camp counsellor and secretary himself — tries to do here is create an environment in which four young men are forced to deal — for themselves, and for their campers — with the aftermath of hate without destroying that feeling of safety for the next generation. It’s a tremendous burden to bear.

Leif Norman

Despite the play’s central theme, here are a few sparkling moments of humour in Ori Black’s Summer of Semitism.

One cannot criticize this experience as being unrealistic: the incident at Summer’s heart was inspired by a real-life occurrence in 2019 at a Jewish summer camp in British Columbia, and its characters mention the antisemitic murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

With direction by Krista Jackson, the acting is quite strong, particularly from Burns, who as Saint might not be Jewish by birth, but is no less familiar with the isolation of difference.

Black shines as he lies through his teeth to nagging parents and camp donors. As Saul, Shoshani is tasked with the duty of rational thinking, playing it straight as the world turns sideways. Hershel Blatt plays Naphtali as awkward, gangly and unpredictable.

There are moments when Black’s script touches on fresh territory, including in an underdeveloped sexual relationship between two of the counsellors. There are also a few sparkling moments of humour — Ohbee fixing his desk with roll after roll of duct tape, Saint pointing out one of the vandals made a spelling error.

But ultimately, these moments are too few, and the tone often shifts toward melodrama reminiscent of the 1992 prep-school film School Ties, starring Brendan Fraser as the lone Jew amongst a crowd of nobles and elites; at times, it feels as though the characters are quoting from a textbook.

With a runtime of an hour or so, the characters could have used about 10 to 15 more well-used minutes to establish more effective backstories, and to build a more believable connection to the audience and to each other. It would have been nice to know a bit more about the history of Camp Mazal.

Despite some structural flaws, Summer of Semitism capably examines universal truths, particularly when Ohbee expresses his desire to be Jewish “without worry.” He’s jealous of those members of his tribe who wear kippot on their heads and who don’t feel the need to tuck their Star of David necklaces into their shirts when they walk across campus.

Leif Norman photo

There is promise and skill on display in Summer of Semitism, the debut play by Ori Black (left) with co-star Hershel Blatt.

There is promise and skill on display in Black’s debut show, which unfortunately has overtones of prophetism, as far-right nationalism continues to infiltrate mainstream politics in Canada and the U.S., threatening the safety and freedoms of minority religious groups, people of colour, women and members of the LGBTTQ+ community.

For those who’ve only recently begun paying attention, Summer of Semitism is a wake-up call.

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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