Persian-Jewish programming an important part of 2022 Chutzpah! Festival's mission to build cultural bridges

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      The 2022 edition of the Chutzpah! Festival remains, unswervingly, committed to a goal that’s made it one of Vancouver’s most enduring celebrations.

      “First of all, absolutely the focus of the festival is to be a showcase of Jewish performing arts from around the world,” the fest’s artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge says in an interview with the Straight.

      At the same time, this year’s programming continue to recognize the importance of bringing different cultures together, and not just where audiences are concerned.

      “Part of our stated mission as an organization is also to bring artists who are not Jewish into dialogue with Jewish artists and bridge communities,” Gutteridge notes.

      On that front she’s understandably excited about the way Chutzpah! Festival will showcase collaborations between Jewish artists and non-Jewish artists of Persian heritage. Those worlds will come together through dance (All my being is a dark verse featuring Alexis Fletcher and Arash Khakpour), song (a spotlight performance from singer and actress Liraz), and cooking (a culinary class with Persian/Jewish food-focussed celebrity chef Ayelet Latovich).

      Inspiration for the programming started with Gutteridge being approached by Fletcher (who’s been a past Chutzpah! performer) and Khakpour (who has not).

      “They wanted to create a work that incorporated the feminist Persian poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad and the work of a contemporary Persian Canadian visual artist—Nargess Jalali Delia,” Gutteridge says. “I thought that sounded like a really fascinating project, so I started thinking about—because none of them are Jewish—‘What connections could I draw?’ And so I decided to explore Persian Jewish performing arts of various disciplines.”

      Raised in the States—Long Island, New York to be precise—Gutteridge grew up in a part of the world that has a large Persian-Jewish community.

      “Vancouver doesn’t,” she observes. “Vancouver has a strong Persian community, but not a large Jewish community. So I thought it was really interesting to dig into Persian-Jewish culture in a way that Vancouver doesn’t get to experience much. So I made a connection to this incredible singer, Liraz, who is huge in Israel. She’s an actress, recording artist, and singer. I think she decribes herself as Iranian-Israeli. Her music is really contemporary, and poppy, and jazzy, and fun, but also very inflected with her Persian roots.”

      Liraz’s third and latest album, Roya, was released earlier this summer, and the backstory is a fascinating one. The Israeli-raised singer used her debut, Naz, to connect with her Persian side, with songs sung entirely in Farsi. That attracted the attention of a group of Iranian musicians, who reached out to her, and then contributed music, via the magic of the Internet, to her sophomore outing Zan.

      Riza took that collaboration to new places, with those Iranian musicians travelling to Tel Aviv to work, uncredited, with Liraz in the studio, sessions recorded in secret so as to not upset authorities back in Tehran.

      “They couldn’t work openly together—it was too dangerous for them,” Gutteridge says. “Her songs have become like anthems for the liberation movement that’s happening in Iran right now, so we’re very exicited to have her in the festival. I think she really bridges the communities in terms of where they are at this moment.”

      As a trained dramaturg, Gutteridge notes that one of the things she loves most is being able to contextualize art for audiences. That has her looking forward to a Chutzpah! Festival digital event featuring Jacqueline Saper, who’ll be discussing her memoir From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran.

      “She’s written about her experience growing up Jewish in Tehran, pre- and post-Iranian revolution. She’s of course going to udpate things with analysis of the situation with the movement happening today.”

      As stoked as she is about all of the cross-cultural programming in this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Gutteridge gets extra-excited when she talks about a live-streamed (and on-demand) class with Israeli celebrity chef Ayelet Latovich. Recipes and ingredients for the dishes, which reflect Latovich’s Persian-Jewish heritage, will be provided to registrants in advance of the workshops.

      “It’s elemental that, when you break bread with someone, you deal with them in a very different, completely human level,” she says. “When I came into this festival as artistic director, I was determined that we would make food part of what we do. COVID got in the way, so this is our beginning in that direction.”

      In case one of the goals of all the 2022 Chutzpah! Festival’s Jewish-Persian programming is still not obvious, Gutteridge offers this: “If the arts do anything useful—and I’m not sure that art needs to be useful—but, if it’s useful, it’s that it helps people develop empathy. I think empathy is a pre-requisite for any kind of reconciliation, or communal action. So if we give people an opportunity to learn something about each other’s experience as a human, then that is a step towards maybe pouring a little balm on the choppy waters that are everywhere today.”

      Laughing, she adds: “Maybe you can fix my mixed metaphors.”

      No need—somehow the point has been more than perfectly made.

      Still, Gutteridge is happy to sum things up in a different way.

      “We can put things out there and raise questions and offer insights, but people have to take that away and do something with it. We can’t do it for them,” she says.

      The Chutzpah! Festival runs until November 24. For full information on shows and tickets, go here