Unless you live in Toronto, it’s difficult to grasp the cultural, commercial, and Jewish significance of Honest Ed’s. Opened in 1948 by Ed Mirvish — the American-born son of Lithuanian immigrants — the 160,000-square-foot discount emporium has become a kind of landmark for its casino-like exterior, mind-numbing array of goods, and retail showmanship epitomized by trademark signs touting irrationally low prices.
For mid-20th-century Jewish immigrants who lived nearby, Honest Ed’s was a kind of beacon, melting pot and shopping destination rolled into one; for Asian, African, Caribbean, and other newcomers now, its role hasn’t changed. With that in mind, the Koffler Centre of the Arts — a Jewish arts institution whose mission is “to bring people together through arts and culture to create a more civil and global society” — invited six Canadian artists to mine Honest Ed’s history and identity through “interventions” throughout the store.
“Summer Special,” which opened this week, isn’t an explicitly Jewish show; in fact, only one of the artists, Sarah Lazarovic, is Jewish herself. “We like the fact that sometimes our exhibitions are about implicit or inferred Jewish content and we like our viewers to try to decipher and determine it for themselves,” said Lori Starr, the Koffler’s executive director and the vice president for culture at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The exhibit is the 13th in the Koffler’s series of off-site exhibitions, which has inserted sometimes-provocative art in venues as diverse as a condemned building, disused photo-processing hut, and an old synagogue. (Full disclosure: the Koffler presented my Forward-sponsored show, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Gladstone Hotel gallery in 2011.)
While it’s long maintained headquarters in Toronto’s heavily Jewish northern reaches, the Koffler Centre of the Arts has never had a permanent home downtown, where much of its edgy programming originates.
As a result, the Koffler made a virtue of necessity, building a brand around acclaimed off-site exhibitions that showcased its content at urban venues from a west-end discount store to the Royal Ontario Museum.
Now it looks like the Koffler may finally settle down. The organization announced today that it will become an anchor tenant of Artscape YOUNGplace, housed in a refurbished 1914 Beaux-Arts building expected to be completed next fall. Koffler and Artscape officials confirmed the lease-signing this morning. The Koffler had applied for the space — and finalized the deal —within just two months, according to spokesperson Tony Hewer.
In 2000, filmmaker Alan Zweig gained modest success on the festival circuit with “Vinyl,” a documentary probing the quirks and eccentricities of compulsive record collectors. (“Compulsive” referring not to some guy with a few hundred LPs, but to some guy who rents a U-Haul locker on the edge of town to serve as a supplementary storage archive.) In a highly conversational, and often confrontational manner, Zweig pressed his subjects to spill the beans about their hoarding impulses, their loneliness, and all of their other personal peccadilloes. And it was all intercut with shots of Zweig interviewing himself in a vanity mirror, mining his own emotional depths.
It’s a style that Zweig — a former taxi-cab driver who shares an affinity with the bare-all first-person narratives of Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar — would employ in his subsequent studies of human loneliness: 2004’s “I, Curmudgeon,” 2007’s “Lovable,” and 2009’s “A Hard Name.” In the post-“Bowling For Columbine” climate of documentary filmmaking that favours glossy production values, didactic voice-overs, and dumbed-down argumentation, Zweig’s films reek of bluntness and sincerity. Their ostensibly slapdash quality (he doesn’t light his subjects or use crews; it’s all Zweig and his camera) suits their anxious, candid approach — the cinema of emotional crudity.
Now Zweig, 59, is being honoured with a retrospective of his work at the 2011 Canadian International Documentary Film Festival (more colloquially, Hot Docs), which runs from April 28 to May 8 in his native Toronto. It’s a fitting homage, given Zweig’s cult status in the Toronto film scene. I spoke with Zweig in a coffee shop in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, one of the city’s less gentrified quarters, where the he makes his home.
John Semley: How did you land on the particular style, or non-style, that defines your work?
Michael Wex is best known for his acerbic, authoritative books on Yiddish language and culture, but in this fall’s “The Frumkiss Family Business,” he has turned his attention to fiction. The sprawling novel is a farcical family saga, following three generations of a Jewish clan in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor neighborhood and questioning, in Wex’s characteristically hilarious way, the role of Jewish culture in a secular society. Recently, Wex took some time prior to his October 30 appearance at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors to speak to The Arty Semite about his new novel, the Canadian Jewish experience, and being compared to other Jewish writers.
Emily Landau: Where did the germ of this novel come from?
Canada is home to less than three percent of the world’s Jewish population, but every other year, Jewish artists from around the world congregate in Toronto for the Ashkenaz Festival, which returns this year from August 31 to September 6 at the city’s Harbourfront Centre.
The festival was created in 1995 as a forum for klezmer and Yiddish music, but has since developed beyond its original Ashkenazic mandate. It now includes Sephardic and Mizrahi artists, and has become a mecca for cross-cultural fusion and experimentation.
This year’s festival features more Sephardic and Mizrahi artists than ever before, said Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein, who recognizes the elasticity of any of these categories. He cites festival performer Gerard Edery, a Moroccan-Jewish musician, as representing the fluidity of Sephardic traditions. Edery’s travelogue takes audiences on a lively musical tour through Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Erica Strange, like many of us, sees her therapist regularly — only hers helps her work through her problems by sending her to the past, the future and even to alternate existences. Our shrinks can’t pull off tricks like that, and we’re certainly not getting the same bang for our buck that Erica is. In fact, she never gets a bill for her sessions with the mysterious Dr. Tom.
Erica Strange is the protagonist of the hit Canadian TV series “Being Erica,” set to launch its third season on September 22. Although she inhabits a world of magical time-traveling psychotherapy, Erica — Jewish and in her early 30s — has gained a very real following because she seems so, well, real.
TV watchers have related to Erica (played by Erin Karpluk) from the show’s debut episode in 2008, when they met her going nowhere professionally and personally, wracked by regret, and dealing with a serious guilt trip laid on her by her family. “I’m suffocating under the weight of your collective disapproval,” Erica cries.
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