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After a three-year delay Winnipeg Jewish Theatre will finally present the premiere of “Narrow Bridge” by local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff

By MARTIN ZEILIG Daniel Thau-Eleff was looking forward to seeing his play about a transgender person, “Narrow Bridge, “ on stage back in March 2020.
“But we were interrupted by the pandemic,” the Winnipeg-based playwright, performer, director, and artistic producer of Moving Target Theatre, said during a Zoom conversation with this reporter on January 26.
Ben Baader, an associate professor of history at the University of Manitoba, and the inspiration for his play, was interviewed along with Thau-Eleff.
Narrow Bridge will now premiere March 11 – 19, 2023 (with a preview on March 9) at the Berney Theatre in the Asper Campus.
Thau-Eleff and Dr. Baader will also discuss the play and its history on Sunday, March 12 at Limmud 2023—Winnipeg’s annual Jewish cultural festival at the Asper Jewish Community Centre — in a joint presentation called “TRANSGENDER AND ORTHODOX: TWO FRIENDS, A JOURNEY, AND A PLAY.”
“The play is a moving and engaging story told with heart and humour,” notes the publicity material.
“The main character, Sholem, transitions genders while discovering Orthodox Judaism. Walking the tightrope of family dynamics, history, activism and Talmud study, Sholem wonders if, as Rebbe Nachman said, “‘All the world is a very narrow bridge.’”
Featuring Elio Zarrillo, Alissa Watson, and Rhea Akler in their WJT premieres, along with long-time WJT favourite Harry Nelken, the play will be directed by “Drag Heals” creator Tracey Erin Smith.
Thau-Eleff’s plays are “personal-political,” meaning they explore an issue “usually related to human rights or social justice, through individual characters’ struggles,” mixing documentary and autobiographical elements into fiction, he says.
“My good friend, Ben, was the inspiration and has been on the journey with me the whole time,” he adds.
“This is the first interview we’re doing right now (about “Narrow Bridge”). Ben is both transgender and practices Orthodox Judaism. He wasn’t Orthodox when we first became friends. I’ve been lucky to be part of this journey.”
Thau-Eleff noted that the idea for Narrow Bridge began some 10 years ago after Baader returned from a national retreat in the U.S. hosted by Eshel.
“Eshel’s mission is to create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families,” says its website.
“Through its innovative and culturally sensitive programming, Eshel supports LGBTQ Jews, opening hearts, minds and doors in traditional Jewish communities. Eshel envisions a world where Orthodox LGBTQ individuals can live out their lives in the Orthodox communities of their choice.”
Thau-Eleff noted that he met with Baader a short time after the Eshel retreat.
“We were talking about this apparent impossibility that so many people, whom Ben had just met, are living a transgender life within the Orthodox tradition, where there’s a barrier down the middle of the synagogue separating men and women,” he said.
“So, it seems impossible and yet people find a way to make it work. I was really fascinated by that contradiction.”
“Then, I was visiting another city and sitting in a coffee shop with an artistic director, whom I barely knew. We were getting to know each other. At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘Well, I’m interested in your play about transgender Orthodox Jews.”’
Thau-Eleff replied to his interlocutor that it wasn’t a play, just a story.
“Then, I returned to Winnipeg and I told that story to Ben and he said, ‘I would help you write that play’,” the playwright said.
“And, we started talking. I interviewed other trans Jewish and non-Jewish people. I read a few books on the subject and started writing. In 2018, we did a reading of the first draft of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s “So New Festival.” That was great.
“But, a lot of the writing took place between 2018 and the present. Now, we’re back into things.”
Baader reflected that he came back from the Eshel retreat empowered by the “amazing and beautiful community; and how people, who are deeply committed to two different truths, are insisting on living their lives even though they are often shunned by their communities.
“It’s a space of tremendous beauty and courage,” he said.
“At the time being trans was much more scandalous than it is today. It’s less provocative today than it was ten years ago.”
Thau-Eleff added that at Limmud he’ll be talking about the process he uses when writing a play.
“When I launch a writing project, it’s always an opportunity to learn,” he emphasized.
“In this case, I got to learn from Ben’s and others’ experiences, and to explore my own experiences with gender and Judaism.”

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