Montréal Sait Faire: Cool Ways to Mark High Holidays

Sept. 15, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL — Six months into the COVID pandemic, Montreal Jewish organizations have come up with creative ways to observe the High Holidays outside the synagogue, while adhering to health regulations and making the best use of technology.

Chabad of Westmount got an early start with “To Life! An Epic Celebration of 5781” at a drive-in theatre held Sept. 14.

The sprawling Royalmount Drive-In Event Theatre opened this summer at the heavily-trafficked intersection of Décarie Boulevard and Highway 40, providing a venue for socially-distanced, open-air live entertainment.

The aim was “to life our spirits and celebrate the coming new year and the new hope it brings,” said Chabad director Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz.

Participants could stay in their car or sit beside it in chairs they brought, maintaining two-metre distancing for movements beyond that.

“To Life!” featured the eight-piece band Shtreiml and a performance by acrobats from Cirque du Soleil, which has been grounded since the start of the pandemic, and a pre-packaged dinner. There was also blowing of the shofar and song.

Jewish National Fund Montreal is also encouraging its supporters to prepare for the new year in a freilich way. It’s presenting a virtual wine tasting and live tour of the Golan Heights Winery in Israel on Sept. 16.

Participants can purchase packages of three, four or seven bottles of its Mount Hermon label vintages in advance to enjoy the tasting for real, and get a partial tax receipt.

Zoomed yoga and mindfulness are part of observance for Montreal Open Shul, a “post-denominational” pop-up project started by Rabbis Sherril Gilbert and Schachar Orenstein and Cantor Heather Batchelor that has been bringing inclusive, participatory Judaism to “unexpected places” like cafés, community centres and yoga studios since 2018.

Its High Holiday services and programs, all online, promise “more joy, less oy.”

The first-day Rosh Hashanah service is accompanied by live music with Fran Avni. On the second day, Orenstein, a certified instructor, leads a hatha yoga practice “through the lens of teshuvah” and a chanting service. Gilbert continues the theme of deep repentence during the Days of Awe through “centring practice.”

The sole in-person component is tashlich and shofar blowing at Beaver Lake on Mount Royal.

Following a Yom Kippur service, American musician, actor and Jewish studies instructor Anita Silvert present a “Bibliodrama” based on the Book of Jonah.

Two American rabbis, Jan Salzman and Mark Novak of the Jewish Renewal movement, join Gilbert and Orenstein for the concluding Yizkor and Neilah observances.

The Mile End Chavurah is also going almost entirely virtual. Founded 11 years ago, the grassroots, multi-generational community describes itself as “irreverently pious,” while seeking to re-imagine religious practice.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are conducted by ritual leaders, singers and musicians, and aim to be as participatory as is possible with everyone at home.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, four options are offered: a one-day out-of-town retreat for contemplation and study that may involve yoga and nature walks; an apple-picking outing; an outdoor gathering in the city; or the online “Songs of Social Action,” when participants can sing songs on themes ranging from anti-racism to LGBTQ issues to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal reports that the virtual cooking workshop on Moroccan Rosh Hashanah cuisine held on Sept. 13, hosted by its partner Wandering Chew, went well.

Ron Arazi of New York Shuk, an artisanal food purveyor specializing in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisine, showed viewers how to make such traditional holiday dishes as tanzeya, a stew of dried fruits, nuts and carmelized onions, and pain petri, an anise-flavoured challah.

Even the annual POP Montreal International Music Festival, which opens Sept. 23 in a hybrid in-person and virtual edition showcasing indie and alternative acts, is getting into the spirit of the season.

It closes Sept. 27 with “Alphabet of Wrongdoing: A Jewish Liturgical Redux,” a live-streamed performance by Daniela Gesundheit from Los Angeles. She sings her composition inspired by the High Holidays liturgy, adapted “for secular audiences and secular spaces.”

Gesundheit, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto, is a cantor and serves Toronto’s LGBTQ-inclusive Congregation Shir Libeynu as musical director. She is also founder and lead vocalist of the indie-pop band Snowblink. 

“Alphabet of Wrongdoing,” which she created a few years ago, is derived from the Yom Kippur prayer Ashamnu during which one confesses sins of the past year – alphabetically.

Her composition draws on its “themes of reckoning, forgiveness, mortality, striving and atonement,” she says, which should resonate with everyone.