Meet author, performer and storyteller S. Bear Bergman


March 7, 2024

S. Bear Bergman is the author of ten books, the founder and publisher of children’s book press Flamingo Rampant which makes picture books celebrating LGBT2Q+ kids and families, and a popular theatrical performer and storyteller. This Trans Day of Visibility, March 31, 2024, LGBTQ+ at the J and the Ontario Jewish Archives will present The First Jew in Canada: A Trans Tale, written and performed by Bear. We caught up with him to learn more about the project, the importance of storytelling, and why sour cream is a superior latke topping.

Kultura Collective: Hi Bear! Can you please tell us a bit about you and your work as an author, performer, and inclusion advocate?

S. Bear Bergman: The truth is that I have been a queer pain in the tuchus for almost 35 years at this point, since 1990 when I came out and was one of the founders of the first Gay Straight Alliance (I was 15 then; I am 49 now). Along with that came a lot of public advocacy for queer and trans youth and students in Massachusetts in the 90s, including at the state legislature, along with AIDS activism (a lot of yelling in front of government and medical buildings, mostly), and I have been at it since. I’ve written 9 books, with the 10thSpecial Topics In Being A Parent – coming out in July. I also founded and run Flamingo Rampant, a children’s press which makes books that celebrate 2SLGBTQ+ kids, families, and communities, and I do a lot of consulting for organizations trying to do a better job around gender equity, and 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion, in addition to being a storyteller and performer. Writing it out, it seems like… a lot of different things, admittedly, but overall my various artistic and activist pursuits have all been variations on the theme of equity and justice for 2SLGBTQ+ people and communities, including a considerable focus on welcome and celebration, as well as what I refer to as “justice of the imagination” – the critical importance of possibility models for 2SLGBTQ+ people at all stages of life.

KC: We are looking forward to your latest play The First Jew in Canada: A Trans Tale. What inspired the production?

SBB: I have known the bones of Jacques’ story for years, through my husband j wallace skelton’s work – we actually met at a conference where I was performing a piece about my identities as a Jewish gender outlaw, and he was teaching a workshop on Jewish gender outlaws in history – not shocking we made a match, even from the beginning, if we’re being honest. A considerable part of why I found him so immediately interesting was his historical work into Jews who had been, variously, gender-noncompliant – and the story of Jacques kind of seeded itself somewhere in the creative slurry of my brains back in 2007.

Then, during lockdown in the fall of 2020, I was invited by JW3 in London, England to participate in an online event called Uncovered. Six of us were asked to give a Japanese style of talk/performance called a pecha kucha, in which the performer has 20 slides and speaks about each for 20 seconds. It’s a little bit fast and furious, but a lot of fun. When I got the invitation, I suddenly thought of Jacques, and asked my husband to dig out his notes and research so I could take another look at them, and once I was in the conversation with the historical documents the seed sprouted, if you will, and I was keen to work with the story more.

KC: The First Jew tells the story of Jacques LaFargue, a young transgender man who, in 1738, set off from France to what is now Quebec City, determined to make for himself a new life. Can you tell us about your research journey and how the findings have been woven into the performance?

SBB: I piggybacked off j’s research to begin, reading the colonial record about his arrival and subsequent imprisonment before he was shipped back to France – he caused quite a stir, so there’s a fair bit we know about him. The show is, as I say in the opening, embroidered onto the bones of nine facts we have about Jacques, and within each section I explain what about his story is also resonant with mine – since I am also, among other things, a trans man and a Jew who emigrated to Canada – and how my experience is a lens through which I see his experiences. If you’ve ever had the experience of seeing someone on social media post about someone else’s actions they can’t understand, but you feel like you immediately get why that second person did what they did, it’s a version of that; when I looked at the whole “who, what, when,” of the story, the “why” part wrote itself, because in many ways his experience mirrors mine.

KC: Why did you feel it was important to tell this story on stage?

SBB: I understand it’s ridiculous – especially in this day and age of social media and every kind of digital entertainment that you can pause and replay – but I have so much faith in the power of live theatre as a way to let people enter into someone else’s emotional or experiential landscape. I always have. Good storytelling is powerful, it’s galvanizing, the audience leaves changed. Live theatre is also never the same twice, which I find a little magical – the audience makes their mark.

Also, theatre and storytelling do the thing I most want in terms of what I tend to talk about as “justice of the imagination”: they make a little bubble of time when the characters become real, and the audience can really imagine them in a sweaty, exuberant, and very present way. That gets very important when you don’t know or get to see any, or many, stories of people like you; when you’re a person who is hungry to be represented, especially in positive ways. It’s not dissimilar from the founding principles of PJ Library – what if Jewish kids got access to a whole library of Jewish stories, written by Jewish authors, in which Jewish kids who are loved and happy (and not moments from extermination) got to have adventure and celebration? It’s absolutely critical for our wellness as people to see representations of ourselves, our families, our communities, so we can imagine possible futures – possibility models, to quote the brilliant Laverne Cox –  of who we could become.

KC: The First Jew is a collaboration with the Miles Nadal JCC as well as the Ontario Jewish Archives. How did this partnership evolve?

SBB: I was scheduled to premiere the show at a different venue, but that venue was no longer able to meet their commitment to the show. At that point – feeling a little uncertain and more than a little disappointed, with a freshly made show burning a hole in my pocket – I decided to bring the idea to a venue and program I knew would value it. The JCC, and specifically their LGBTQ+ at the J program, were immediately excited and we decided we could work together and make it happen in time for Trans Day of Visibility on March 31. So it was a combination of great people there, and shared values.

KC: How did you incorporate Jewish themes into the writing?

SBB: That part kind of handled itself, to be honest. Jacques was Jewish, I’m Jewish, his Jewishness was at least a part of the reason he was imprisoned, and also – very Jewishly – there is some debate about his story, and in particular whether he was indeed trans (also very Jewishly, I think I’m right, and I have done the text study to prove it). Beyond that, storytelling itself – as an artform – feels very Jewish. Not exclusively, obviously, many cultures have strong traditions of storytelling and oral history; I am not remotely trying to claim it as a singularly Jewish cultural tradition. But storytelling is something we’ve valued across millennia, and there are ways in which this show is not unlike Midrash – what’s behind the text we’re given? How are we to interpret these facts? Given what we know, what truth can we make of it? How should it guide our actions in the future?

KC: The First Jew will be premiering at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto. How are you anticipating the audience’s reaction? What do you hope viewers will walk away with?

SBB: I think a lot of queer and trans people are hungry for stories of our lineage. Centuries of colonization and expulsions violently erased and destroyed so many of those stories, so much language and ceremony, so much history, so many people. My hope is that the audience will leave feeling like they got to meet an ancestor they didn’t know they had, and that for the GIaNT (gender-independent, nonbinary, trans) members of the audience it will feel like perhaps some of their yichus, their sense of lineage, has been restored. In the workshop he gave the weekend we met, my husband said something that I’ve quoted often since: “being a Jewish gender outlaw is a radical act, but it is a radical act with a very long history.” Especially now, while a certain portion of the population is very busy acting like trans people didn’t exist before last Tuesday or whatever, it’s comforting and validating to look back hundreds of years and see an ancestor.

KC: You have described the performance as “a stubbornly Jewish journey of optimism, faith, and joy.” What is Jewish joy to you?

SBB: I would say, for me, it’s the joy of feeling connected – the joy of being together with fellow Jews. Sometimes that’s physically together, sometimes it’s a connection across history or across locations, with both shared history and… shared differences, if you will; the way that being Jews together can bind us if we allow it to, even when our experiences of being Jewish may be wildly different. It’s very Jewish, in my opinion, to look at an old story in a new way, to investigate a text together, to consider what brought us to our current understanding and how we might be able to move forward together from those places of understanding. Sometimes I think about how long we have endured, how cleverly and ferociously we have protected the knowledge and stories we’ve created, and I will tell you truthfully that I feel the tug of it somewhere deep, that thread that stretches across millennia, the ways I am bound in.

KC: We know you are very busy with multiple projects on the go! What else are you working on right now?

SBB: Oy, so true. I have a book coming out in July, Special Topics In Being A Parent, a follow-up to a previous advice book (don’t tell anyone, but at the First Jew In Canada premiere there will be limited-edition preview ‘zines with a tiny secret chapter of the book that are available only at shows). I am also touring a devised show called Gender Reveal Party, which premiered at Summerworks Festival in 2019 and is a really fun twist on the concept of a gender reveal party, in that people get to talk about their own genders (after an intensive devising lab of all GIaNT performers and creators). Beyond that, I am working on a movie script with a co-writer, which is the first time I have ever really “co-written” anything and the process is very different, but very productive, and… I have a few more little projects in their own seedling stages as well. Stay tuned!

KC: Lightning round question!

  • Applesauce vs sour cream? Sour cream, though I accept the applesauce people (the people who use both, I have questions).
  • Poppy seed vs prune Hamantaschen? I like both of them, and also apricot. This year, upon the advice of some friends, we are also planning to experiment with peanut butter? But I feel a little skeptical.
  • Spinning the Dreidel vs Finding the Afikomen? I am a dad now, and negotiating with the union of children (they form a bargaining unit every year) for the return of the afikomen is a great joy.
  • New York vs Montreal bagels? As a person currently suffering Regina, SK “bagels” I long for either one, but the New York version have my heart.

About the project and the artists:

About S. Bear Bergman:

Described by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg as “…a brilliant, thoughtful artist and a mensch and a half,” S. Bear Bergman is the author of ten books, the founder and publisher of children’s book press Flamingo Rampant which makes picture books celebrating LGBT2Q+ kids and families, and a popular theatrical performer and storyteller. Bergman has travelled across North America and the UK, sharing stories in which he braids together elements of his life and communities to create funny, thoughtful, engaging work that’s easy to enter (and difficult to forget). His forthcoming book is SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A PARENT, from Arsenal Pulp in July 2024.

About The First Jew in Canada: A Trans Tale

Date: Sunday, March 31, 2024, 7 PM
Location: Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave., Toronto
Cost: $18-$36
Click here for tickets

This Trans Day of Visibility, LGBTQ+ at the J and the Ontario Jewish Archives are pleased to present The First Jew in Canada: A Trans Tale, written and performed by S. Bear Bergman.

In 1738, a young transgender man named Jacques LaFargue set off from France to what is now Quebec City, determined to make for himself a new life. The First Jew In Canada: A Trans Tale is his largely untold story, embroidered onto the bones of nine verifiable facts about his life and existence, and interwoven with the modern experience of a trans and Jewish immigrant to Canada three hundred years later. A thrilling and illuminating tale, The First Jew In Canada takes its audience on a stubbornly Jewish journey of optimism, faith, and joy – including the joy and affirmation of finding an ancestor you never knew you had. 

About the Miles Nadal JCC

MNjcc strives to be an inclusive, welcoming hub for healthy & joyful community, anchored in Jewish values where all downtown Toronto feel they belong.

At LGBTQ+ at the J there is no right way to be Queer, and no right way to be Jewish; there’s certainly no right way to be both. Our programs aim to support diverse, pluralistic, and accessible community at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Jewish identities and experiences. We bring Queerness into Jewish moments and bring Jewishness into Queer life, striving for spaces where everybody can bring their full self. We both celebrate and amplify LGBTQ+ Jewish people and stories, in recognition of their inherent value.

Click here to learn more about LGBTQ+ at the J

About the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA)

The Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre (OJA) is the largest repository of Jewish life in Canada.

Founded in 1973, the OJA, a department of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, acquires, preserves and makes accessible the records that chronicle our province’s Jewish history. The OJA’s collections span all segments of Ontario’s Jewish community, including individuals and families, businesses, cultural organizations, and synagogues. These records date from the community’s earliest days in the province in the 1850s to the present. The OJA supports a wide range of researchers through its vital work. Through exhibitions, programs, research assistance, and walking tours, the OJA tells the stories of Ontario’s Jewish community.

Click here to learn more about the OJA

Related Blog Posts

July 5, 2024

Summer is here and the Toronto Holocaust Museum wants you to dive into history through inspiring stories and meaningful dialogue.

June 10, 2024

Since the Toronto Holocaust Museum opened its doors one year ago, the Museum has been an essential space for dialogue, reflection, understanding, and remembrance.

June 7, 2024

A path to celebrating and understanding the Jewish experience in the arts.