The power of the microcosm: play about friendship reflects on global issues

The interaction between Jewish and Muslim cultures is an internationally relevant and controversial issue that many artists find challenging to address. However, Sum Theatre’s Joel Bernbaum and Kayvon Kelly, co-creators and stars of My Rabbi, a play that will feature at the Firehall Arts Centre October 7-18, personalize this large-scale issue by placing it in a context of a friendship between two young Canadian men whose respective spiritual journeys alter their bond over time.

Bernbaum, who is Jewish, and Kelly, who is part-Iranian, are close friends, and began writing the play in an attempt to create work for themselves after graduating from Victoria’s Canadian College of Performing Arts six years ago.

And though the two have never experienced mutual conflict due to their cultural differences, they wanted to explore what that might be like without creating an overtly political piece.

“We wanted to write a play inspired by our friendship. The politics and the religion and the cultural similarities and differences are all major elements in the piece, but they work as forces on the friendship,” says Bernbaum.

A very Canadian quest

My Rabbi features a non-linear narrative that depicts the friendship between two lead characters, Jacob and Arya, both before and after they each undertake spiritual quests: Jacob goes to Israel and New York and becomes a rabbi, while Arya travels to Iran to explore his roots.

“In a lot of ways this is a Canadian [search for identity], going abroad to try and find definition through the old world. And when [Jacob and Arya] try to start-up their friendship again ten years later, all of a sudden they are unable to look at each other as a person, but only as a culture,” says Kelly.

Both Bernbaum and Kelly wanted to use the relatable dynamic of a friendship between the lead characters to expose the cultural tensions that exist here in Canada, yet are often ignored by the pervasive narrative of the country as a harmonious cultural mosaic.

“A mosaic is shards of material put together: as a whole it is beautiful, however what is not talked about enough is the friction between these shards of culture,” says Bernbaum.

Kelly also points out that My Rabbi challenges the Canadian tendency to avoid dialogue on controversial subjects.

“In Canada we have a lot of racism and cultural conflict going on…old world politics are still affecting us here, and that’s a very Canadian [tendency] that we just don’t feel ready to talk about those things,” he says.

Joel Bernabaum plays Jacob whose spiritual journey in the play laeds him to become a rabbi. | Photo by Itai Erdal

Joel Bernabaum plays Jacob whose spiritual journey in the play laeds him to become a rabbi. | Photo by Itai Erdal

Emotional education

Bernbaum and Kelly are the only actors in My Rabbi, and they have both relished the challenge of playing several characters in addition to the leads, as well as performing a work they had themselves written.

Director Julie McIsaac was impressed with how the two co-creators made the issue of a relationship between Jewish and Muslim cultures less overwhelming and more relevant to the everyday Canadian experience by observing it through the lens of a close friendship.

She also believes that there is a unique advantage to My Rabbi allowing the audience to process complex issues on an emotional rather than a primarily intellectual scale.

“Human beings are emotional creatures…when you place [issues] in a context of a fictional narrative and you add the element of storytelling and emotional engagement, people are more likely to remember the experience and to be affected by it,” says McIsaac.

The response the play received in its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe suggests that My Rabbi is indeed making an emotional, and sometimes provocative impact.

McIsaac recalls observing several viewers who seemed very uncomfortable because of some of the dialogue in the play, yet who ended up thanking the actors after seeing the entire show and fully grasping its context.

Both Bernbaum and Kelly emphasize that they did not set out to postulate easy solutions to the issues their lead characters face, but wanted to generate questions instead.

“If we have done our jobs right, people will leave the theatre with more questions than they had when they came in. The play isn’t the solution, the play is a catalyst for discussion, and that thirst for understanding [can be] the path towards a solution,” says Bernbaum.

Kelly wants the audience to feel a sense of culpability for the problems the play explores, and to be moved to contemplate their own solutions to their real life counterparts.

“The question I want to ask the audience is how can we [all] do better,” he says.

For more information on My Rabbi, visit, and for more on Sum Theatre, go to