New film looks at Israelis living in Toronto

The cast and crew of Mifgash Theatre

TORONTO — The opening scene establishes the location of the film. A car pulls up to a snowbank as snow gently falls all around. The door opens and the camera focuses on the ground, where we see winter boots crunching the packed snow beneath.

Okay, boys and girls, this isn’t Hadera, Israel, on a particularly cool winter’s eve. The subjects are Israeli, but the location is Toronto in the middle of winter. The Israelis who make up the subject of the film are going to rehearsal to prepare for three performances of the classic Israeli musical Kazablan. They are part of the Mifgash Theatre, an amateur theatre group that performs in Hebrew. The film that documents their efforts is titled There’s A Place (Yesh Makom).

The play brings them together and keeps them connected to Israeli culture as they navigate their lives in the Great White North.

In the film, which runs under an hour, they tell about their immigrant experiences and how they compare their new homes to the ones they left behind.

Sort of like the plot in Kazablan, which is set in 1950s Jaffa and tells the story of the often difficult integration of immigrants to Israel – how they came from Middle Eastern lands and were considered outsiders by the dominant Ashkenazi culture.

The actors interviewed in the film, however, mostly tell how happy they are to be in Canada – how it is welcoming, safe and quiet. But they continue to be drawn to Israeli culture.

Most are content in their new situations, but they admit that they miss some aspects of Israeli life. One woman, Dafna, a talented songwriter, loves to canoe on Canadian lakes, but she misses the feel of the salt on her body at Israeli beaches.

Avi Lev is the Tel Aviv-born filmmaker who recently completed  There’s A Place. Mostly retired now, he worked for many years for the CBC, beginning back in the 1970s when he served as an emergency film editor for a crew that was tasked with covering the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

When his friend, a travel agent, invited  him to take in some Mifgash rehearsals she was involved with, he agreed. And when she suggested that maybe he should do a little show about them, he agreed again.

“I found something there,” he told The CJN. “I asked a few questions. I let them talk. The story built itself as I watched the rehearsals.”

What he learned mirrored his own experience as an immigrant in the mid-1970s. “I realized there’s a distance here. I see, all around me, all my friends – you can count on the fingers of one hand how many Canadian friends they have.”

The film, Lev said, acknowledges that there are as many as 50,000 Israelis in the Toronto area, but “they are not close to Canadian Jews.”

Still, the film makes clear that rehearsal space was provided free of charge by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the three performances of the play ran at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. The audience, Lev said, consisted not just of Israelis, but of Canadian Jews and gentiles as well.

Lev believes Israelis themselves bring on some of their isolation from the wider society. When more than a couple of Israelis get together, they default to speaking Hebrew, shutting out everyone around them, he said.

Still, Israelis in Canada are not rushing to go back to the Holy Land. “Most Israelis say, ‘I’m going back,’ but in the end, 99 per cent of them stay,”  Lev said.

They manage to enjoy Canadian life and stay true to their Israeli heritage. Lev himself joins several friends each week for lunch at United Bakers, and at other times, they venture  to “hashdashin,” or what he calls “the West Bank,” the Arab neighbourhood along Lawrence Avenue east of Victoria Park, to enjoy hummus and shwarma.

All the delights of home in your own backyard.

Well, not all and not for everyone.

For Dafna, the songwriter,  the pull of the homeland proved too strong. Despite many years in Canada, she missed the heat, the chutzpah and the feel of the salt on her skin. Only weeks after Kazablan ran last year, she returned to Israel. The feel of salt on the skin proved to difficult to resist.

Lev’s self-produced film will debut on June 11 at 7 p.m. in room 123 at the Lipa Green Centre. After that, the film’s direction is unclear. Lev is looking for a distributor.