Joel Bernbaum and Kayvon Kelly explore friendship in My Rabbi. Photo by Derek Ford.
Joel Bernbaum and Kayvon Kelly explore friendship in My Rabbi. Photo by Derek Ford.

Just how challenging can friendships be? Kayvon Kelly and Joel Bernbaum put their own to the test with their play My Rabbi, set to open the new season at the Firehall Arts Centre.

[pullquote]“The theme of old world politics affecting new world friendships is very relevant and crosses many cultures in our Canadian mosaic.” – Joel Bernbaum[/pullquote]Inspired by their real-life friendship of eight years, the self-described comedic drama may use the Middle East conflict as its backdrop, but Kelly and Bernbaum say that it is only a small part of its story.

“It really is a show about friendship and the way friendships are affected by our lineage and how they affect our lives here today,” says Kelly.

“Religion, politics and identity are also part of it, but they are merely forces that work on the friendship between these two characters and we watch as those challenges have an impact on them,” adds Bernbaum.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, the two began writing the play six years ago, shortly after graduating from the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria. Told to “write what they know” the two landed on the idea of combining their friendship and their diverse backgrounds – Kelly is half Iranian and Bernbaum is Jewish – as the basis for their play.

Told through a broken narrative, My Rabbi explores the relationship between Arya and Jacob – one a Muslim, the other Jewish – before and after their individual spiritual journeys to their ancestral homelands, the point at which the story diverges from the playwright’s own. “Arya travels to Iran to find out what his culture is all about and where he comes from, and Jacob goes to Israel to study to be a Rabbi,” says Kelly.

“We weave the narratives together so the audience can see the impact their spiritual journeys have on their friendships,” explains Bernbaum. “These characters begin their lives as born and raised Canadian men who don’t have any connection to the Middle East, much like our own.”

But rather than any attempt to find answers to the complex issues around the clash of Judaism and Islam, Kelly and Bernbaum made a conscious decision to instead use their play as an opportunity to ask questions of themselves and their audience.

“What we realized very early on was that we both don’t know everything about what is happening in the Middle East and we had, and still do have, a lot of questions ourselves,” says Kelly.

For Bernbaum, that focus on asking questions was validated after a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year: “There was a gentleman who told us how many more questions he had about the issue after seeing the show than he had when he came in. That was important for me because it meant that he was going to seek his own understanding, and engender more dialogue with his own community.”

Of course, one would be foolish to think that any exploration of the Middle East can be free of politics, but Kelly and Bernbaum insist that the politics take a backseat.

“Politics are very present, but it isn’t a show of rhetoric or political ideals,” says Kelly. “It isn’t preachy, they just happen to be facets in the relationship.”

Besides, Kelly believes that the politics are already an intrinsic part of what the audience brings, long before the curtain rises: “Audiences are going to bring their own views into the theatre with them, and when they are watching an argument on stage they are filling in so much of what these two characters don’t say with their own experiences.”

Friendship and politics aside, Kelly and Bernbaum see the biggest strength of My Rabbi comes from knowing that the story will resonate with other communities within our country’s vast cultural landscape.

“There are a lot of ways into the play for Canadians, not just Jews and Muslims,” says Bernbaum. “The theme of old world politics affecting new world friendships is very relevant and crosses into many cultures of our Canadian mosaic.”

My Rabbi plays the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St) October 7-18.  Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.