Culture  Sacred messages, secular stage

Hassidic performance causes controversy at the Rialto theater... or maybe not

Last week my laptop died. Amongst thousands of lost photos, songs, essays, and other detritus, was the first draft of this piece. I felt obliged to inform its subject and apologize that the article would be late. His response was as follows,

“Dear Angus: Everything has a reason. You lost the story because there must have been some divine issue with it. Must be meant to be redone.”

Simultaneously optimistic, controversial, courteous, egotistical, and ever-sensitive to the divine order of things, these twenty-six words say much of what I learned about Rabbi Chaim Yehudah Gruber during the following evening…

Controversy is the buzzword here. It’s 8 p.m. on Parc, and the Rialto Theatre has just opened its doors for a one night show, to a most unusual crowd. To be precise, we’re on the corner of Bernard, an important detail considering that tonight, location is everything. Broadly, because we’re in outer Outremont, home to Canada’s largest Hasidic Jewish community, and, specifically, because the Rialto is a public, “secular” venue.

Host, sole-performer of “Redemption is Here,” and general budding social unifier, Rabbi Gruber is the catalyst for this rare blend. An aspiring teacher, renowned in local synagogues, he is the mastermind behind this “multi-media event.” While he circulates affably amongst a sparse crowd, giving interviews and conscientiously attending to the needs of what are more party guests than audience members, it is difficult to discern quite what he has in store. The stage is bare save for a lectern standing front and centre and a cloaked prop to one side.

My background research has unearthed little beyond the Rabbi-penned press release, in which he tags himself “Outremont’s most controversial Hasidic Rabbi” and gives a teaser of his story. Victim of an uncensored library copy of Maimonides, Rabbi Gruber accidentally began teaching that the Messiah’s return will bring all monotheisms under Judaism because, in some way or another, Christianity and Islam have both spread the word of the Torah. This idea, at odds with the insular and focused Hasidic way, thrusted the Rabbi into a negative, controversial limelight and caused his excommunication. This ban was lifted, but not before both his reputation and teachings were indelibly colored by the experience.

All of this was manifested in the event, the public crowd, and this oh-so-attractive murmur of controversy. Proof of how central the latter has become to this evening lies in the demographic of those in attendance. The journalistic presence outweighs all else, so much so that the enforced Hasidic dress code appears to have included mandatory notepad and pen. One industrious freelancer stops me, “Apparently there’s going to be a fight!”

Michaela Di Caesare, Communications Director at the Rialto, is more moderate, “It’s a very interesting social experiment…Everyday coming into work it just feels like the communities are so separate.” It’s easy to see. The single early-bird Hasidim sits stoically in the middle of the room, his isolation broken only for a brief word with the fight-mongering journo. “So many people are curious about these worlds colliding,” enthuses Di Caesare.

A late pack of Hasidim enter and head to a restricted upper-tier as we settle into a powerpoint presentation about the Hebrew alphabet. “I’ll be on in a moment!” comes a shout from the back, as it rapidly becomes clear this is one of the least theatrical events the Rialto has seen. Indeed, the Hasidim in the upper wings soon begin photographing the secular folk down below, illuminated generously by ever-shining house lights.

The audience adopts this peculiar irreverence, both Hasidim upstairs and public down below waiving the norms of their meeting space, the theatre. A journalist to whom the Rabbi gave a lengthy interview throws her head back in laughter at a private conversation; a camera-clad Hasidim moves downstairs and perches on my left, panning slowly across us, the wildlife.

Despite the Rabbi’s optimistic endeavour, Outremont’s social walls seem like they are unfortunately being reinforced rather than broken down, and it is not about to improve. During an explanation of his excommunication there is a sudden influx of near twenty Hasidim at the door. Huddled together, they appear like underagers who have snuck into the local bar. Some posture and strut about, others, more timid, dare not break the threshold. Their intentions are more ambiguous. Have they turned up this late to see the show? Or is the much-touted controversy materializing? Regardless, their presence rouses the already restless atmosphere.

Looking to placate, the Rabbi takes questions from the floor, which boiled down to “Why have you gone public with an Hasidic affair?” A further shift in mood suggests this is the crux, and likely the grievance, of our newest members. His responses, focused on a commitment to honesty and love, are fragmented by the need to firefight bubbling tensions in the upper tier. “Can I call for calm?” The plea sends heads scanning the Rialto, searching for just what is going on. The cloud of confusion thickens when two cops and a paramedic emerge from the Hasidic throng at the door. Rabbi Gruber concedes a timeout. As it turns out, he will not return to the stage.

Pressure from the theatre manager and the police bring an end to proceedings. Whilst they talk at length with an ever-smiling Rabbi, the Hasidim continue to discuss amongst themselves, moving freely around the theatre – they do seem hostile. One approaches me with hand outstretched but retracts the offer when his “Shalom” is met by my “Hello.” “Why have you come to see this man?” he probes, but leaves before hearing an answer.

Mindful to honour our interview, the Rabbi ensures I am not ejected with everyone else, before sitting down with a surprising opener, “I hope you enjoyed it!” Despite everything he is still the party host. “I think it’s great! I just got a call from a big rabbi in the community who was here, and he loved it.” As he denies any penchant for controversy, his commitment to “love and comfort” gains integrity by a faithful insistence that no Hasidim was hostile. “I’m going to say no… I’m just going to say it was a misunderstanding…and they wanted to come back!” But why choose this theatre in the first place? “It was chosen for me by these series of coincidences.” And where was it all going? I asked. “To wonderful places… I was going into a divine conversation and explaining how the Lord is everywhere.” Make no mistake; on matters of divine intervention and faith in his God, the Rabbi is his own honest and resolute arbiter. His role in the community, however, hangs on a jury we do not understand. But for Rabbi Gruber, it was thumbs up from the one judge that really matters, “The almighty must have intervened because he knew it was going to be…really good.” Incidentally, if you’re reading this, deem it divinely sanctioned.