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ShiksaReviewed by BERNIE BELLAN (Posted March 10) I have to admit that when I went to see “Shiksa”, the latest production of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, on Thursday night, based on what I had read in Randall King’s column in the Free Press on Wednesday and what I heard from CBC theatre reviewer Joff Schmidt Thursday afternoon, I was expecting another stereotypical rendition of a non-Jewish woman having to deal with the unaccepting parents of a Jewish boyfriend.

To a certain extent, my expectations were fulfilled when I did see the play. The Jewish parents, Abe and Esther Stein (played by Harry Nelken and Patricia Hunter) do employ too many exaggerated Jewish characteristics to be quite credible. Even the Jewish boyfriend, Zack (played by Andrew Cecon), comes across as too stereotypically Jewish: a lawyer who is constantly hectored by his parents for not having a Jewish bride yet.

As I sat through the opening scenes, I thought to myself: “Oh no, here we go again – Jews being treated as somewhat bigoted when it comes to accepting a non-Jew into the fold.” But, as “Shiksa” developed, I began to find myself utterly enchanted by the character of the principle character in the show – the “shiksa” herself: Emma McTavish (played by Tracy Penner).

It didn’t hurt that Penner herself is a very attractive blonde – thus fulfilling the stereotypical Jewish male fantasy of what a “gorgeous shiksa” should look like.
(Heck, even my own mother used to tell my wife that she looked like a shiksa. Meachelle was somewhat insulted by the term, until I made it clear to her that it was a sort of back-handed compliment.)

While I was expecting “Shiksa” to be more of a satirical comedy – poking fun at what might be perceived as anachronistic attitudes among old-school Jewish parents toward non-Jewish partners of their children, it turned out to be quite poignant and, in the end – deeply moving.

The play opens with Zack knocking on Emma’s door in a bit of a farcical scene, where Emma thinks Zack is her landlord come to evict her. Once she learns that Zack is quite harmless, she does warm to him and even allows him to kiss her.

Emma says to Zack: “Did you know a man makes love the way he kisses?”

Zack says: “Well, how was I?”

Emma: “It never hurts to get a second opinion!”

As promising as that opening scene was, the next scene, in which we are introduced to Zack’s parents, could have been improved with some more original dialogue. How many more times are we going to have to watch a Jewish mother try and interest her son in dating a nice Jewish girl? While I realize that the playwright, Cairn Moore, has said that the play is based partly on her own experience, it might have been more fun to give the mother some more interesting lines. As for the father, please – not another Jewish father saying that his son is dead to him once he realizes that he’s dating a non-Jewish girl (something that happens in a later scene, but comes as no surprise at all given how Abe Stein is first introduced to us).

Yes, a similar scenario has played out many times in Jewish households, and when the mother actually opens a copy of The Jewish Post & News and reads an obituary that her husband has posted for their son – as much as that might seem impossibly ludicrous, I have to tell readers that did actually occur in our paper years ago. (It was a father from Saskatchewan who posted an obituary for his daughter, who had married a non-Jew. At the time we weren’t aware of the circumstances when we published that obituary – almost 30 years ago. Had we known the facts, we would have contacted the father and asked him to reconsider. I wonder whether anyone would dare do that in this day and age? Surely even the most orthodox among us wouldn’t resort to that sort of humiliation in 2016.)

As the play continues, however, and the stereotype of Zack as the hen-pecked son being too embarrassed to introduce Emma to his parents – or take her anywhere where the two of them might be recognized is reinforced, I found myself cringing in my seat. “God”, I thought, “what would non-Jews think of us watching this play?” (Yes, I’m concerned about what they think of us, just as I cringed watching Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”, when he plays a neurotic Jewish man who falls for gorgeous shiksa Diane Keaton. Why is it always the case that a beautiful woman will be attracted to a man for his mind in movies and plays? Is it ever the case in movies or plays that an attractive man is attracted to a woman who is either plain or downright unattractive because of her personality or intelligence? That does happen in life, you know.)

In dramatic fashion though, “Shiksa” takes a sudden twist. There is some foreshadowing of this earlier when Esther Stein hints that her own family background wasn’t quite fully Jewish. I don’t want to give away any of the surprises in the play, however, as there are several that unfold, but Esther does develop a strong affection for Emma.

Yet, I wondered what Emma really saw in Zack. As played by Andrew Cecon, he did come across as quite the nebbish. Emma, in contrast, displays the full gamut of emotions and, as the play moves on, becomes an utterly compelling character. No doubt, Cairn Moore was able to inject more of her own thoughts and feelings into the “shiksa” more so than the other characters in the play and, while she says that “Shiksa” is based only partly on her own experience, I’d hate to think that her own husband was as much of a milquetoast as Zack.

Zack himself has a great deal of trouble coming to terms with his own Jewishness. At one point he says to Emma: “I wasn’t born Jewish any more than you were born Catholic. It was how we were raised.” Hmm…I wonder about that. What do you think? Is that true? I’m not sure – but it was just one of the several thought-provoking ideas that are sprinkled through the second half of the play especially.

Later, in a scene when Esther is trying to explain to Abe why Emma is being increasingly drawn to aspects of Jewish life, she says to him: “That little girl doesn’t care about choosing; she cares about belonging.” Again – a profound observation. Is that what draws many non-Jews to Jews: a sense of belonging to a group with a palpable identity? I wonder whether that still holds true as Jews have become increasingly assimilated into the wider community. Even traditional Jewish mother Esther Stein is shown to have a love for some aspects of Christmas. There’s such a blurring of what it means to be Jewish any more.

Yet, as Emma finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to what is depicted as a traditional Jewish lifestyle, including Friday night Shabbat meals and studying the Torah (and in an email I sent to Cairn Moore, I noted that I’ve met many female converts to Judaism who become far more observant than their husbands, so I thought this theme rang very true), Zack continues to rail against what he regards as the “hypocrisy” of so much of Jewish life, e.g. observing Shabbat, but driving to synagogue.

In one of the final scenes we discover some shocking news about Emma’s life. I found the manner in which the actors handled this discovery to be especially touching – and well done. Even a hard ass like me was choking up as I watched Emma and Zack bringing some closure to a part of Emma’s life that, as it turns out, helps to explain who she is and why she’s found herself drawn to Judaism.

“Shiksa” is a short 90 minutes. It’s well directed by Ari Weinberg in what is his first stab at directing a Winnipeg-grown play. It moves quickly and, although I’d work on some of the opening scenes, for the most part it works quite well.

For gosh sakes though, do we have to have so many cruel jibes at “homosexuals” from Zack’s parents? Even if that kind of talk did – and no doubt still goes on, in many Jewish households, listening to actors talking about “faigelehs” and pink shirts in what I suppose was supposed to be a humourous scene is discomfiting in this day and age – and just not funny. I would have wished that the parents weren’t such cardboard cutouts to begin with. It made it all the harder to accept their eventual transition into warm, empathetic characters later on.

But, that’s a minor gripe. Sadly, there were only about 35 people in the audience the night I saw “Shiksa”, which was a reminder of what trouble the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre was in when it was forced to close two years ago. Yes, it’s a brand new show, and the name of the play will no doubt offend some people, but we need to support the WJT as one of the crown jewels of Winnipeg’s Jewish cultural heritage. If you’re at all hesitating to go see it because you have no idea whether it’s any good, take it from me: I was thoroughly surprised at how good it was.

“Shiksa” will be on four more times: Saturday, March 12; Monday, March 14; Wednesday, March 16; and Saturday, March 19. All shows start at 8:00 pm.

Tickets are available by calling the WJT at 204-477-7478 or at the door.

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