“You can’t tell from this photo, but this is the very end of our marriage,” Itai Erdal says, standing next to a large, projected picture of himself and his childhood sweetheart turned ex-wife. They are smiling and happy, and it’s not a lie, but it’s not quite the whole truth, either.
This is the first run-through of his new autobiographical show, A Very Narrow Bridge, which makes its debut as part of the Chutzpah Festival. Erdal attempts to make sense of the most complicated relationship in his life—his connection to Israel, where he grew up, and his identity as a secular Jew—by telling the story of his divorce. The amount of emotional and political ground Erdal covers in just an hour is remarkable, and with cowriters (and directors) Maiko Yamamoto and Anita Rochon, he digs deep inside himself, his family, and their shared history and culture. It’s intimate and thrilling and occasionally funny, but never salacious.
“There are a lot of hard things in this show,” Erdal says. “When something is hard to say, that’s why you should say it. And when something is hard to admit, that’s what makes for a good piece of theatre. So I’m not afraid to tackle the hard things, because that’s what makes for interesting art.”
Erdal is quick to point out that he is not a professional actor, having worked in theatre primarily as a lighting designer. “I’m very comfortable on-stage, I’ve always been comfortable talking in public, and I’m a bit of an exhibitionist. It’s not hard for me to be me, but I don’t think I could do Shakespeare or pretend that I’m somebody else,” he admits with a laugh. “So far, I draw all my stories from my life experiences. I served in the army and my life is different from people in North America, and they find it all so interesting. I also love documentaries and this is just like documentary theatre.”
His divorce drama gives Bridge its frame. In 2006, Erdal returned to Israel to give his ex a get (a divorce) so that she could remarry. He had no idea what he was getting into.
“They interrogated me for hours,” Erdal says. “Four or five hours and the whole time nobody talked to my ex once. They didn’t talk to her, they only talked to me. They don’t acknowledge her, they don’t refer to her, that’s how it works. The wife can ask for it and the man can give it or not give it as he chooses. I think all religions, if I may, were written by men and are somewhat sexist towards women. All religion. Judaism is not much different, it’s a very masculine religion, and you can see that in this crazy ceremony.”
There’s an element of the absurd in Bridge’s depiction of the divorce proceedings, but it also provides the perfect jumping-off point for Erdal to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how he distinguishes Judaism from Jewish culture, and his fears that his sister Talia’s deepening faith will widen the divide between them. Talia, a talented cellist, is actually on-stage, playing throughout the show, and the moments when she’s participating in dialogue with her brother are among the most affecting.
“Me and my sister were always pretty close, but her being religious, I completely don’t understand religion,” Erdal says. “I am an atheist and I feel very Jewish. I don’t think atheist Jew is a contradiction in terms. For me, Judaism is language, history, culture, customs, holidays—many, many things that have nothing to do with religion. I feel in many ways like religious people hijack Judaism. But religion is something that I cannot comprehend, so making this piece with her definitely gives me insight about how she sees the world and makes me feel closer to her.”
Sometimes all one needs is a very narrow bridge—even if it’s of their own making.
A Very Narrow Bridge runs from Saturday (March 5) to March 13 at the Jewish Community Centre as part of the Chutzpah Festival.