— Production photo
As Canada goes back to war in the Middle East in an atmosphere of deep cultural, religious and geopolitical confusion (who are the good guys again?), Joel Bernbaum and Kayvon Kelly’s My Rabbi—opening the Firehall’s 32nd season—is a timely reminder of the complex ways these faraway wars can resonate on the home front.
Real-life friends Kelly and Bernbaum play childhood best-buddies Arya and Jacob, who bump into each other in Toronto some years after their college days. In a series of conversations interspersed with flashbacks we learn about their daddy and family issues—secular Arya’s conflicts with his Persian Muslim relatives, Jewish Jacob with his secular father. Turns out Jacob went on to rabbinical school, then to Israel where he became a rabid Zionist. He now shepherds a congregation in Toronto. Arya, meanwhile, visited Iran, embraced Islam, went to Mecca, toured the Middle East, and has come back something of a wreck.
Most of the flashback scenes take place in bars where we see them as just two guys looking to pick up women, joshing each other about their ethnicity, talking about sex almost constantly, sometimes pretty graphically. They also share intimacies about their home lives, their family problems. It’s classic homoerotic stuff.
As adults their intimacy is gone. There have been bombings at Toronto synagogues and Rabbi Jacob is extremely sensitive to anything even vaguely Muslim. He’s not comfortable with his lifelong friend any more. Arya must be an anti-Semite by definition, if not a terrorist. This won’t end well.
The play has some very powerful moments. The two actors double as a variety of other characters—each other’s fathers, especially—and Kelly in particular is terrific. Director Julie McIsaac’s staging on a bare floor with just a couple of chairs and a small table is very effective. We get a visceral sense of how religion and politics can destroy a loving friendship.
But the 65-minute-long script, developed for the Edinburgh Fringe, seems more like a sketch than a fully developed play. The steps by which these two moved from BFFs to ideological enemies are too superficially outlined. As well, Jacob’s rabbi character seems one-dimensional by the end. His new perception that the friend he has known so long and so well is now an enemy of Israel and the Jews lacks nuance. I don’t doubt that someone can turn into a different person via a religious or political conversion. But that a relationship so deep and strong as this one appears to be can turn 180 degrees on the evidence of—what? Again, I needed the play to go deeper to make that turn convincing.
My Rabbi could also be clearer about how attitudes toward gender might have skewed these guys’ brains. There’s a disturbing casual misogyny in their barroom conversations where women are no more than sex objects, and their lives seem entirely shaped by fathers, grandfathers and male cousins. Drawing a clearer connection between patriarchal religious and cultural attitudes and the trouble they can cause even in profound male friendships would be another useful way to develop this interesting one-act.