Satire, sitcom mix to offend nearly everyone

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The Briss

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/07/2009 (4888 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Briss

By Michael Tregebov

New Star Books, 240 pages, $19

THIS provocative novel is ideal for those who like a little politics with their humour.

Equal parts political satire and Jewish family sitcom, The Briss is outrageously funny, even as it confronts hard questions of Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and Jewish identity.

Author Michael Tregebov is a former Winnipeg Jew who has lived in Barcelona, Spain, since the early ’80s, and his world view is unlikely to find favour with his hometown’s Jewish establishment.

Reminiscent in tone to early Mordecai Richler and even to the made-in-Winnipeg sitcom Less than Kind, The Briss has something to offend nearly everybody.

The novel opens in the early 2000s. Protagonist Teddy, in his 20s, is sent to Israel to escape the embarrassment of his parents, Sammy and Anna, over his affair with a rabbi’s wife in Winnipeg.

Unfortunately for them, the opposite effect is created when Teddy is caught on CNN acting as a human shield for Yasser Arafat shouting “Corrupt occupation!”

The clip is seen by enough of the Winnipeg Jewish community to deepen Sammy and Anna’s shame. To make it worse, Teddy phones home to let them know he has fallen in love with Aïda, a Palestinian princess (literally, a princess) and that a grandchild is on the way.

The politics are presented in highest relief in the sections of the novel set in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Tregebov challenges western abstraction and ignorance about the impact of occupation and colonization on Palestinians and Israelis, which is explained in detail to kids from Boston by a disaffected Israeli soldier.

Tregebov sets this unforgettable scene against a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a rally that the soldier compares to scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

The laughs are more easily had back home with the usual elements of the family comedy: a live-in-grandmother, a doting sister, friends and less than friends, sprinkled with Yiddish and lots of corned beef, chopped liver, lox and pickled herring.

There is no glossary, but a quick check with Google provides the illumination required.

Well-structured, the story is mostly told in dialogue. This is Tregebov’s strength. Some of the narrative description feels awkward, but the character-revealing conversations are excellent.

The novel plays out the Jewish proverb “Grandchildren are your reward from God for not having murdered your children.”

Sammy and Anna are disappointed in both of their children. Their disappointment started with Teddy’s decision to drop out of medical school to become a nurse, and with their daughter’s decision to marry a nebbish and to have a one-night stand with a schlemiel to top it off.

The family comes together at a cottage on Lake Winnipeg, the outdoors heavy with fish-flies, the interior heavy with dread at the anticipated arrival of Teddy’s Palestinian princess.

Aïda provides the opportunity for the family to show their true colours as they try to relate to what they can only imagine as “other.”

Comedies often end with a wedding. This one ends with a briss, the Jewish ritual circumcision of newborn males.

It’s too early to know whether this really is a happy ending, but certainly there is a glimmer of hope.

Victor Enns is a Winnipeg writer and a former editor of The Manitoban when Michael Tregebov was a campus activist at the University of Manitoba in the1970s.

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