MONTREAL — Growing up in a typical Jewish milieu in Montreal in a family that had traditional expectations of their daughter (i.e., that she would date and, above all, only marry a Jewish guy), Robyn Israel chafed at what seemed like limited horizons.
Her solo show Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak (JGDK), which is being staged for the first time in her hometown during the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival in June, is a humorous and often touching semi-autobiography.
Semi only because she has taken some creative license for dramatic effect. Otherwise, this is a very personal take on her life so far.
A graduate of Herzliah High School in St. Laurent and McGill University, she left Montreal in 1994 to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., where she lives today. When not performing and writing, she teaches at a community college and practises as a therapist.
In the publicity, she describes the show as “a hysterical and honest look at the life of an unconventional person who embraces other cultures while trying to maintain her Jewish identity…
“JGDK is about loving your family, leaving your family and growing into your own person, instead of the one whom others expect of you.”
In an interview, Israel said: “I always had a wanderlust, I wanted to explore other cultures, but there was an internal conflict between wanting to keep Jewish tradition and yearning for a different way.”
As the title suggests, JGDK confronts stereotypes, including the ones Jews hold about themselves. It stems from an “absurd” remark made to her by a Jewish man, when she was coming back from her favourite water sport. (A hanging kayak is one of her few props on stage.)
With a name like Israel she has come up against her share of “bumps” and being Jewish in London has its moments. As a single (divorced), childless woman of a certain age, she faces other kinds of typecasting – all material for the show.
“I’ve used humour to address some of the painful moments in my life,” she said.
In the space of an hour, Israel plays a dozen characters from her Lithuanian immigrant grandfather to her mother to her boyfriends.
Her mother is the parent who “challenged” her, with her well-meaning insistence on wanting what she thought was best for her daughter.
For a while, Israel did live up to those expectations. She got married – to a Jewish doctor. After the marriage ended, she broke with her past and lived as “a bohemian” in the San Francisco area for eight years, getting into theatre, and staging her first comedic monologue My Mother, God Love Her.
Since then she (or, more precisely, her lead character) has been on a quest for new love, but her parents’ admonitions still haunt her well into adulthood. Her relationships – so far not permanent – with a variety of (non-Jewish) men, including a Buddhist and a NASCAR fan.
“I’m thrilled to finally bring JGDK to Montreal, it’s Montreal that shaped me,” said Israel, “but I do have reservations because this is a very personal story, and a lot of people here know me and my family.”
Her parents did see the show in Ottawa. Sadly, her dad, with whom she was close, died in December so playing here without him will be emotional, she said.
JGDK premiered at the London Fringe Festival in 2007, and won an award for outstanding comedy. In a revamped version, she has since 2009 presented the show at fringe festivals and theatres in Halifax, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, Toronto (at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre), and New York.
In Montreal, JGDK, directed by Peter Busby, will play June 16, 17, 18, 20, 22 and 23 at the Bain St. Michel, a century-old former bathhouse on St. Dominique Street. Plays are staged in the emptied pool, but Israel is shlepping her kayak anyway.