As I prepared to address a Toronto congregation on both days of Rosh Hashanah last week, I was struck by the very simple fact that drew us together; that we each identified as Jews.
Obvious, perhaps, but also profound. It is so much easier not to “do” Jewish in the Diaspora. It takes effort to prepare. Show up. Take the day or two off work.
About twenty years ago, before the onset of hyper-cultural sensitivity set in (which somehow seems to have skipped over Jews), my boss, the CEO in a large financial services company, just couldn’t wrap his head around all those “extra” Jewish holidays. Exasperated, he once asked me: “So, Viv, really. What do you do on Christmas Day?!?”
To which I replied: “So, boss, really. What do you do on Yom Kippur?”
Talk about a deer in the headlights.
I. HIGH HOLIDAYS IN TORONTO
Most Canadian Jews – as in other Diaspora communities – are traditionally observant, at best, marking only major holidays and with a “light touch.”
In my hometown of Toronto last week, I spoke to a breakaway group from a large conservative congregation. The service at the relatively new “Song Shul” centered on the extraordinary musical interpretations of Cantor Simon Spiro, interspersed by commentary from his wife, Aliza, guest speakers and others. The crowd is much more diverse than in most shuls, attracting all denominations (from what I could see) except for the strictly orthodox. For the conservative Toronto community, the Song Shul is deliciously nonconformist. Nothing radical. Just a wee bit “outside the box.”
The single common denominator shared by all – sitting in the hall or watching services livestreamed at home – was their open identification as Jews.
What I spoke about, and think about, constantly, is what that actually looks like in 2022.
For a start, it means that 90% of the attendees were born after the creation of the modern State of Israel, an extraordinary fact. Many of our immediate family members were Holocaust survivors. In fact, a study completed in 2015 confirmed that close to 30% of Jews over 66 in Canada were survivors. That strikes me as being very high, proportionally.
With approximately 375,000 Jews, Canada is home to the fourth largest community in the world, after Israel, the U.S. and France.
II. JEWS BY ASSOCIATION
When I was serving as Canadian Ambassador to Israel and met with the then head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, I noticed an interesting map on the wall of his office. The map detailed the number of Jewish people (according to religious law) in each country of the world. As well, it showed “Jews by Association,” and in this category the numbers skyrocketed. Like off the charts. I asked him to explain.
“It’s an American map,” he noted, with a wry smile. “Jews by Association,” he explained, refers to anyone who lives in a household in which there is a Jewish person. So, in a family of five, where the father is Jewish (meaning that the children are not, according to Jewish law) they were all categorized as “Jews by Association.” In real life, these “Jews by Association” would not be considered true members of the tribe by religious authorities unless there had been some form of conversion sanctioned by the ultra-Orthodox state Rabbinate.
III. ORGANIC JEWS
I love maps. And this bizarre concept of Jews by Association overlaying the world was fascinating.
Sharansky was enjoying the exchange as well: “Do you know where the Jewish population is growing organically?”
“What do you mean by organically,” I asked?
“Where a Jewish mother and Jewish father have Jewish children, in accordance with Jewish law,” he explained. “There are two places in the world where the Jewish population is growing organically.”
Ok. So Israel is obvious. But I could not think of another country where the same held true.
“Toronto,” he said. “The Toronto community and Israel.”
I was surprised. And not.
Today, the Toronto Jewish community, where I was born and lived for more than 50 years, hovers at around 200,000. And, compared to many Diaspora communities, it is very tight, connected to Israel and Jewishy Jewish.
I know, right?
IV. ON BEING JEWISH IN CANADA
Particularly under the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has aggressively self-branded as uber-woke, “progressive” and a country that celebrates “diversity and inclusion.”
In spite of the federal government’s obsession with “Islamophobia,” it is hate crimes against Jews that are on a steep upward trajectory and have been for years, eclipsing all other groups. Antisemitism in Canada is more “European” than what may present in the U.S. It is quite entrenched institutionally – including at the highest levels of the public service in Ottawa – something I have experienced extensively and directly. It is more than tolerated.
Until the 1990s in Canada, there were no Jews in the upper echelons of banking, white-shoe law firms and large corporations. It was even “understood,” when I was applying for an articling position (apprentice year) at Toronto law firms in the late 80s that there was no point in submitting applications to certain top tier shops. Not if you were Jewish.
And the “clubs.” There is that enduring cluster that still blackballs aspiring Jewish members but trots out their tokens whenever the issue arises. Restrictive covenants – legally prohibiting Jews from purchasing property – were in force in certain areas of the city until 1964. And they were enforced.
V. DOING JEWISH IN TORONTO AND THE DIASPORA IN 2022
When I lived in Toronto, doing Jewish was challenging. From what I observed last week – my first time being in town for Rosh Hashanah since 2013 – that hasn’t changed. Quite possibly it is even more difficult now.
That Jewish communities the world over are struggling with how to reinvent themselves is no secret. In the post-Holocaust and establishment of Israel era – two mind-blowingly dramatic and polar events in Jewish history – we are seeing the rapid assimilation of the small global Jewish population. A companion development is the profusion of a flavor of “progressivism,” heavily supported by many Jews, that sees Israel as the ultimate oppressor.
Being Jewish – being young and Jewish – is a tough proposition these days. If one is not anchored by faith and religion, the tethers are strained.
So, I asked the obvious question.
Why are we here? In this synagogue. Pausing our other, more secular lives, to mark this important day with other Jews?
Each person will have their own answer. But every one of us must consider this seemingly simple issue in the context of the miraculous moment of Jewish history in which we live. We must understand our Jewishness in relation to Israel.
For more than 2,500 years, our forefathers and mothers yearned and prayed, for redemption in the biblical land of Israel. Following the horrific genocide in Europe which destroyed the largest Jewish population on the planet at that time, the modern State of Israel came into being.
Some, like the anti-Zionist Satmar sect, have no problem articulating their allegiance to God and rejection of the modern State of Israel as a secular abomination. For the vast majority of Jews, however, things are not quite so black and white.
As Jews take stock of their spiritual lives during these Days of Awe, which fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they cannot do so in a vacuum. We are meant to take an “accounting of the soul” in this period; using that classically Jewish way of approaching complex issues, by articulating them in dialectical terms. “Accounting” is very technical in tone and practice – and grates when applied to matters of the soul and character. The point is that we are meant to apply the same surgical, disciplined scrutiny to our inner lives and values as we might to our household budget. No room for sentimentality or compromise. Either our values add up or they don’t; either we are actualizing our beliefs with intention or we are sleepwalking through life.
And a huge part of that calculation involves our relationship with Israel. One can reject, qualify, bargain, accept. But one must engage.
VI. DOING JEWISH IN ISRAEL, YOM KIPPUR 2022
Sifting through my thoughts and issues on the matter of Jewish identity is no walk in the park. I decided candor, however inconclusive, is the only approach. I am in no position to judge or prescribe nor was it appropriate in such a situation.
So, I shared with those assembled how honored I was to have been invited to speak on such an important occasion, and how truly daunting was the task. I shared how I had agreed to speak on Rosh Hashanah only but insisted on returning to Israel for Yom Kippur.
“I’m a Tel Aviv Jew,” I explained, to muffled laughter. “Not a Jerusalem Jew. Not a faith-based Jew.”
I was pretty sure that few, if any among those listening, had experienced a Tel Aviv Kippur, so I described the holiest day on the Jewish calendar in the most secular city in Israel.
The days leading up to Kippur are the busiest all year for bicycle stores in Israel. That is because of the unspoken social contract among all – that respects the prohibition on driving. For the pious it is because of religious dictates. For people like me it is just because. Because we have been seduced by the specialness of the day in this place.
From sundown on Erev Yom Kippur – or Kol Nidre – until sundown on the following day, Israel’s airports are closed to traffic. All shops and businesses are shuttered. The sudden tranquility is an extraordinary experience. There is no white noise. Only in its total absence do we become aware of its otherwise constant presence. The odd emergency vehicle is the only traffic.
All one hears are children and families, who take over the streets and highways on bicycles. Major thoroughfares and town squares become giant boards for chalk art. Younger hipsters often move living room furniture onto the streets and hang out. Oh. And air pollution plummets after only a single day of virtually no fossil fuel exhaust.
In Toronto, even for a secular Jew like me, marking my holidays was difficult. Like constantly swimming upstream. My home was suffused with my brand of Jewishness. But, outside of my four walls, life carried on as if it was just another day. I was an indoor Jew.
In Israel, my life is a mirror image of that. My home is not particularly Jewish in character. I don’t feel the need or pressure to reinforce my beliefs or identity here, as I do there.
In Israel, I go outside and Jewishness is everywhere. In the profane and the sublime and everything in between. I am an outdoor Jew, or, as recently deceased Israeli author and sometime provocateur A.B. Yehoshua liked to say, I am living my Jewish life, fully.
He famously made the comment at a conference in the U.S. in 2006, saying that only in Israel could one live a full Jewish life; that anywhere else their identity was fragmented and compartmentalized. His comments were perceived by some as an attack, who argued in response that Jewishness is not attached to land but to religious, cultural and ethnic traditions. Otherwise, how would we have survived all the centuries of dispersal and persecution?
Fair point. But now, in 2022, we live in an era where the modern State of Israel does exist. Where every single part of our lives touches on this reality. When I vote on November 1, in the fifth national election in three years, I will be participating in what I consider to be something of an existential referendum for the Jewish state. We are not voting on economic or security policies. No party has even proffered a serious economic platform and there is virtually no daylight on security matters between the left and right.
What we are voting on, fundamentally, is what we value more in the state of Israel: liberal democracy or Jewish religious law; civil standards of governance aligned with the western world or a creeping orthodox authoritarianism? In Israel, I cannot sidestep my Jewish identity. It is everywhere.
In Toronto, I was keenly aware of the lack of synchronization of my Jewish life with the outside world, which was always a bit jolting.
In Israel, I walk outside and the world is in tune with my identity. There is no jolt.
May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life.
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