Multiculturalism Within Judaism

Howard Rotberg, a lawyer and president of Beth Jacob Synagogue

Multiculturalism Within Judaism
Vol 2 # 1
February / March 1993

The fact that you are reading this magazine indicates that you have an interest in better understanding the various cultures now present in Canadian society. Perhaps you are yourself a member of an ethnoracial minority. As such you will no doubt have an appreciation of certain cultural diversities within your own ethnic or racial or religious group. These diversities within the different cultures of Canada are important to explore, if for no other reason than to avoid ethnic “stereotyping”. Our various constituent cultures all have rich traditions and all have variations in those traditions. Our respect for Canadian cultural diversity includes an appreciation of these variances within other cultures, and this respect carries over into a tolerance for cultural variations within our own cultural groups. In this way, multicultural groups can help promote tolerance and better understanding in Canadian society as a whole, and the norms of Canadian society can help multicultural groups achieve better tolerance and understanding within their own groups.

The purpose of this article is to provide a short introduction to the major groupings within the Jewish “community” in contemporary Canadian life. Judaism has always constituted throughout history something more than just a religion – both Jews and non-Jews have referred to the “Jewish people”. Yet a cursory examination of the varieties of Jews, from either an ethnic or racial perspective, or from the perspective of religious practices or identifications, will leave one searching for the common thread that links this “people”. Unfortunately, that common thread seems to have been the stubborn persistence throughout history of anti-semitic persecution. To be sure, anti-semitism has not sought to distinguish Jews by ethnic origin, skin colour, religious observance or social class, and while one can identify certain common values that unify the group, unification has as often resulted from a common threat, as from common religious observance.

In Canada, the majority of Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Germany. The two major periods of immigration were from the 1880’s to the 1920’s and just after the Second World War. These Jews were known as Ashkenazi Jews, after the Hebrew word for Germany, indicating that most at one time resided in Germany or Poland. The other major group of Jews, ethnically speaking, are termed Sephardic Jews, after the Hebrew word for Spain, indicating that they were of Spanish or Portuguese origin. These Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, and many migrated to North Africa. There, large Jewish communities developed in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, along with other countries throughout the Middle East. Most of these communities later immigrated to Israel. However most Algerian Jews moved first to France and now Montreal has a substantial population of Sephardic Jews who are Francophone and immigrated in the 1960’s. Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews developed some different customs, foods, and slight variations in religious practice.

Besides the above two groups, there were some other Jewish communities that developed separately and without much contact with other Jews until quite recent times. Chief among these are the Bene Israel from India, and the Beta Israel (sometimes called Falashas) from Ethiopia. Both groups have in large part relocated to Israel, with the Ethiopians having been rescued and airlifted to Israel in 1984. While Canada has few Ethiopian Jews, there are a number from India.

The most recent Jewish immigration to Canada has been that of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Many of these immigrants are highly educated, but the Communist State had prevented them from learning about, and practising, Jewish religion and customs.

In Canada, Jewish religious congregations generally belong to one of three movements – Orthodox, being the most conservative in its adherence to traditional laws and practices; Conservative, a movement of cautious modernism; and Reform, which attempts to reform traditional Judaism away from traditional practices and address current ethical concerns. But even within these three groups, there is considerable diversity. For example, the Orthodox encompass modern Orthodox who participate widely in general society, but also the Hasidim, a movement of religious revivalism, which separates itself from modern culture, and whose adherents are recognized by their conservative dress, with the males having long beards, long black coats and black hats.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail the philosophies and practices of these various groups within Judaism. Instead, it is hoped that this brief survey will help the reader to appreciate that there is indeed a great diversity within Judaism, both as to ethnic origin and customs and as to religious observances and practices. However, most Jews accept that despite the diversity there is a common bond. Whether that bond will loosen in the absence of external threats is something that remains to be seen. In any event, the Jews of Canada, being one component part of Canadian Multiculturalism, are themselves a mosaic of multiculturalism. There is a lesson here, for as we view the Canadian mosaic we shall all try not to stereotype any of the ethnoracial or cultural groups that make up this mosaic.

From Passover to Shavuot
Jewish Spring Holiday
Vol 3 # 2 1994

In early Spring, Jews celebrate the holiday of Passover, the festival of freedom. This holiday commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt at the time of Moses, about 3300 years ago. For over two centuries the Jews were slaves in Egypt. The story of Passover is recounted in the book of Exodus, one of the Five Books of Moses which are the major part of the Hebrew Bible. We are told of the suffering of the slaves, the Divine mission entrusted to Moses and his brother Aaron, their efforts to secure the release of their people from an unyielding Egyptian Pharoah, the series of divinely ordained catastrophes that eventually caused Pharoah’s change of heart, and the escape into the desert where, after years of wandering, they returned to the land of Israel.

The holiday lasts for eight days. During that time it is forbidden to eat bread, or any food products made from grains that have begun the “leavening” process caused by contact with water for a certain period of time. Instead, we eat matzah, an unleavened bread, somewhat like a cracker. This reminds us that the Biblical Jews left Egypt in haste without having had the time to let their bread rise.

On the first two evenings of Passover, Jews eat a ceremonial meal called Seder. Certain foods are eaten which have symbolic significance. For example, we eat bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness endured by the Israelites during their slavery. The youngest child at the meal asks “The Four Questions”, starting off with the words, “why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”. The leader of the Seder then recites a lengthy answer to these questions. The answer stresses that it was G-d who brought the Israelites out of their slavery. Not only did G-d create the universe; He continues to play a role in the universe He created.

Seven weeks later at Mount Sinai the Jews were given The Ten Commandments, and so important is the lesson of Passover that the first of the Ten Commandments opens with a reference to it. The giving of The Ten Commandments is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot following seven weeks after Passover. The Ten Commandments do not constitute the entire Torah – or Five Books of Moses – which consists of 613 commandments, but they are considered its foundation. They are also considered a moral code which influenced many future civilizations in their prohibitions of murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, idol worship, coveting that which is your neighbour’s, and their positive commandments of monotheism, Sabbath observance and respect for parents.

The days between Passover and Shavuot have on many occasions in Jewish history been a period of misfortune. This period of seven weeks is marked by a counting off of the days each evening. Due to the sad historical memories, it is a period of semi-mourning and no weddings are celebrated. One of the saddest days that falls in this period is Yom Hashoa or Holocaust Day, to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Following soon after Holocaust Day, however, and forming something of a counterpoint, is Yom Haatzmaut, or Israel Independence Day, commemorating the establishment of the Jewish state after almost two thousand years of exile, suffering and persecution.

Hopefully, the reader now has some appreciation of the Jewish holidays of spring. From Passover to Shavuot, we, Jews, celebrate our freedom, but acknowledge G-d’s role in our history and confirm that our freedom is tempered by the obligation to live under the guidance of divinely inspired laws, the giving of which was remembered at Shavuot. Passover, Holocaust Day, Independence Day, and Shavuot all raise profound questions about G-d’s role in human history. The fact that people freed at Passover then accepted the obligations of the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Shavuot illustrates the basic theme of these holidays