Socially-engaged play by Alex Poch-Goldin, commissioned by the Canadian Stage Company, but never produced there. It won the 2002 Toronto Jewish Playwriting Award, and toured Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in a German translation in 2006. In 2010, it toured Germany for the third time. Ironically, a play about the Canadian ethnicity found its first audience in Europe in another language.
Alex Poch-Goldin fully engages Jewish tradition and customs in Yahrzeit, setting them in multi-ethnic Toronto, and testing their values through a series of confrontations among family members, a Serbian immigrant caregiver, and a young African-Canadian boy. The small apartment inhabited by patriarch Meyer Jacobs and his son, Mark, accommodates both domestic and international disputes. The actions and histories of the characters function as metonyms for wars in Europe and the Middle East. Meyer’s account of his family’s history – the exodus from Russia during the revolution, the struggle to build a new life in Montreal, and the second exodus to Toronto in the face of Separatist anti-semitism is a parable of the Jewish immigration to Canada.
Meyer’s right hand is paralyzed by a stroke, and his physical limitations are indicators of his intransigence and bigotry, which have alienated his daughter, Jackie, and tax the patience of his son. Even though Mark’s marriage is disintegrating he attempts to help his father. But Meyer sends the money Mark has given him for his medicine to Israel for planting trees in memory of his wife. The Yahrzeit candle he lights on the anniversary of her death is his attempt to commemorate a marriage which he imagines as happy, even though his wife had left him. He imposes on Mark his strong desire for grandchildren, but Mark is resistant to this familial obligation, given his own failing marriage. He also resists his father’s political loyalties, expressing his sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinians.
Through the caregiver, Ruzika, the Bosnian war is introduced to the political agenda. She has left Serbia to find a new home, and is attempting to sponsor the two sons she has left behind. Like Meyer, Ruzika is trying to hold her family together. But as he ironically points out, his parents came to Canada to find a home, and his daughter leaves her home to wander the world. Jackie has rejected his traditions and aspirations for a life on her own terms with a lesbian lover in Dallas: “The universe has a place for us, we just have to find it. . . a place inside. Where you accept things and move on with life. Where you make peace with the world and yourself” (70).
When Meyer suffers a heart attack – strategically placed as the climax at the end of Act I, both son and daughter prove ineffectual, and he is saved by his young neighbour, Devon, an African-Canadian who draws pictures in chalk on his door stoop. This unlikely hero knows CPR, which he has learned in the Wolverines (a Canadian transmogrification of the Scouts). By the end of the play, he has become a surrogate son, when Mark moves out to find his own apartment, and Jackie returns to Dallas. His interest in art and in sports suggests that he is rapidly becoming the ideal new Canadian. And Meyer locates two more extended family members when he offers to pay for the sponsorship of Ruzika’s sons, and to call in a favor owed him by the father of an immigration official.
Meyer is the irascible and comic centre of Yahrzeit. He tells stories so that others will “get the point,” although the point is not usually the logical outcome of the story. The play has a similar didactic function, envisioning the possibility of an Arab and a Jew sitting under the trees in Israel paid for by a Jewish Canadian, and the possibility of a Muslim and a Serbian-catholic family sharing a farm in Serbia. Canada is posited as the peaceful land where racial and ethnic conflicts can be resolved; although, ironically, generational conflicts can result in the disintegration of family homes. As Meyer points out, even the Hudson Bay Company store – that archetype of indigenous Canadiana, now sells suits made in China, instead of suits cut by Jewish tailors, such as himself.
Yahrzeit is published by Scirocco Drama, Winnipeg, 2005
Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University
Last updated 2011-03-23