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Chutzpah indeed: Itai Erdal's "A Very Narrow Bridge" spans very troubled waters

A wry and moving confessional on travails of Israeli expatriation

Erdal siblings under rabbinical scrutiny. Photo: Emily Cooper

At last the Chutzpah Festival lives up to its name. In case anybody didn't know, "chutzpah," in Yiddish, means something like "effrontery."

Kudos to author/actor Itai Erdal for the topical chutzpah of his one-act multimedia confessional, and to the Festival organizers for their chutzpah in premiering it in the boardroom (no less!) of the Jewish Community Center (JCC).

The play is an hour-long exploration of Erdal's postpartum pangs in emigrating to Canada from his native Israel. Granted, the manners here are less grating, if a tad stand-offish. And Canadian politics, at least in Vancouver, may be marginally less genocidal than Israel's colonization of Palestine.

But the hummus is lousy and the human relations are as watered-down as the unnervingly aseasonal fruits and vegetables.

All this comes out when he revisits Jerusalem to formally -- i.e. rabbinically -- divorce his ex-wife. Only then, under Israeli law, can she be free to remarry there, as she now wishes.

But the religious tribunal won't even consider her wishes in the matter. All that matters is his status in the Jewish caste system. If he's from the priestly Cohen caste, no divorce is possible, no matter what either of the partners may want.

The triumvirate of judges, of course, are themselves quintessential Cohens: crotchety, obfuscatory, self-righteously meddlesome, dilatory, bureaucratic.

In another master-stroke of chutzpah, Erdal and his co-directors, Anita Rochon and Maiko Yamamoto, have cast a black actor, Tom Pickett, and a female, Patti Allan, as well as a wispy young beardnik, Anton Lipotevsky, as the rabbinical black hats. And somehow, for all their diversity, all three of them manage to come off as crankily and endearingly Jewish as Bernie Sanders.

But more than the pat pietisms of the rabbis, Erdal is troubled by the growing religiosity of his sister, Talia. They grew up as close siblings in a secular household.

Like him, she's a modern person with some cosmopolitan world experience. They share a left-liberal political tilt and they're both appalled by Israel's callous irredentism in Palestine. She's a brilliant cellist and composer, with a promising concert career in Europe.

Yet she's become convinced that, without a religious dimension, Israel has "no right" to exist where it does. And she's determined to return there someday, where she can keep a properly regenerative Sabbath. Itai, who can't envision himself ever going back or getting religion, is afraid he's "losing her."

It's Talia who first appears in "A Very Narrow Bridge," lugging her cello in a red plastic case. She unpacks the instrument and launches into a spirited pizzicato rendition of the show's title song, an anthem by an 18th century Hasidic sage.

The song's lyric ("The world is a very narrow bridge/What's important is to not be afraid") has served variously as a triumphal battle hymn in Israel's 1967 Yom Kippur War and a plaintive prayer through dark decades of pogroms. Talia plays it both ways -- with many shadings in between -- in the JCC board room, as Itai (assisted by Candalario Andrade's projected slideshow montage) runs through a whirlwind recap of their shared family history and the deep, 6,000 year history of Israel's much-contested land.

In the end, Erdal gets his gett (rabbinical divorce decree) and the show climaxes with Talia's lengthy and passionate original cello disquisition on the old Hasidic theme.

It's as much her show as his, as much a musical as a theatrical event. But the Erdal siblings' "Very Narrow Bridge" -- like the interminable Israel/Palestine imbroglio or the worldly Jewish adventure of diasporic expatriation -- can only end inconclusively.

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