ribcage: this wide passage, Reveals First Jewish Woman In Canada Esther Brandeau, Disguised Herself As A Man
Most of us are familiar with the short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy by Isaac Bashevis Singer in which a young woman must pretend to be a man in order to follow her love of religious studies that traditionally excluded her. The most famous interpretation was the film version in 1983, Yentl directed and starring Barbara Streisand in the title role.
When Toronto interdisciplinary poet, teacher and performer, Heather Hermant, discovered the obscure but fascinating true story of Esther Brandeau, the first Jewish woman to set foot in Canada by way of Quebec City in 1738 disguised as a Christian man, she was so moved that she spent a decade visiting archives all over Europe trying to trace Brandeau’s genealogy through historical records. Hermant is nearing completion of her PhD on the subject.
“It really resonated with me as a queer female, and because of my own personal history. My family is Jewish on one side and Catholic on the other; both sides have connections to Quebec and one side was until more recent generations, francophone,” says Hermant who wrote and performs in the multi-media show ribcage: this wide passage, directed by Diane Roberts, an Urban Ink Production at The Firehall Arts Centre , Vancouver, March 3-8th.
“I also wanted a musical dimension to the video installations,” explains Hermant, “and collaborated with composer/fiddle player Jaron Freeman Fox. His original music will be performed by Vancouver musician, Elliot Vaughan.”
Esther Brandeau (Brandáo from the Portugese Diaspora) was 20 years old living in France in 1733 when her Jewish parents (her father a merchant from the town of Saint-Esprit) sent her on a Dutch ship to relatives in Amsterdam. Along the way it was shipwrecked on a sandbar near Bayonne and she was saved by one of the crew. Fifteen days later, dressed as a man, under an assumed name, she left for Bordeaux and other cities, working in various occupations as a cook, domestic servant and apprentice to a tailor. Then using the name Jacques La Faugue she embarked on the Saint Michel to Quebec City, New France, disguised as a labourer. When her real identity was finally discovered there, Brandeau was arrested and interrogated because the Canadian government at the time, barred Jews from entering the country unless they converted to Catholicism. She was actually kept under house arrest for a year pressured to do so. When Brandeau refused, she was deported back to France in 1778, disappearing from all historical records.
It was not uncommon in those times for women, who had very few rights, to bind themselves then dress and pass as men in the 17th and 18th centuries in order to be independent and move freely through society.
“Whether that was her reason or Brandeau was queer or a cross-dresser, or just following a lover, I’ve left up to conjecture,” says Hermant.
How apropos that this production be performed during the week of Purim in which another strong-minded Esther is celebrated and leads up to International Women’s Day, March 8th.