Tag Archives: canada

The Rise of Jews in the True North

By Scott Fox

Last week, Canada’s Consul General came to talk at my school (Carleton College in Minnesota) about the importance of the United States’ relationship with Canada. But what actually came across was a recruitment speech for joining our Northern neighbor. To tell the truth, I was nearly convinced as he mentioned the country’s comparatively low national unemployment (around six percent), government-provided healthcare for all and its drive for new immigrants.

I’m not the only American looking to Canada for a brighter future. In 2007, the number of American citizens moving to Canada reached its highest rate in 30 years—and the numbers have only been climbing since.

But what does Canada offer Jews? If you’re a Canada-curious American Jew thinking of heading North, don’t worry aboot the lack of Canadian yiddishkeit. Even though they’re usually overlooked, Canadian Jews have a rich culture and history in North America just like their American counterparts. In fact, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, only standing behind the United States, Israel and France.

Around 375,000 Jews live in Canada—just over one percent of the national population—and are concentrated in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas. And according to writer Jonathan Rosenblum, 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel—twice the rate of American Jews.

Canadian Jews experienced a somewhat parallel history as their American counterparts. Jews first came to Canada in large numbers between 1880 and 1930 from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Montreal, but rising Jewish immigration also led to rising anti-Semitism. The city’s French Catholic leadership supported discrimination against Jews in housing and employment, and a homegrown French Nazi movement also flourished in the 1930s. However, after World War II, anti-Semitism declined, and during the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s, most Jews left for Toronto due to their strong opposition to the movement.

In the realm of entertainment, Jews have been as prolific in Canada as in the United States. Recording artist and actor Drake, one of Canada’s biggest stars, identifies as Jewish, attended Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah. “My mother is Jewish and we have great Jewish dinners on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.

The most popular sitcom in Canadian history was “King of Kensington,” which starred the late Al Waxman, who was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Leonard Cohen, whose grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the Canuck answer to Bob Dylan. And of course the greatest Canadian entertainer of all is Jewish William Shatner.

And much of what we consider American-Jewish humor is actually Canadian-Jewish. Lome Michaels, Eugene Levy and Seth Rogen are among other funny makers who grew up in Canada. Rogen, whose parents met at an Israeli kibbutz, was born in Vancouver and got his start by performing stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs. His early jokes usually revolved around his Jewish upbringing. His hit film, Superbad, was co-written with Evan Goldberg, a friend Rogen met in bar mitzvah class. In another movie, Funny People, Rogen even wears a “Super Jew” t-shirt that has the Superman “S” inside a Star of David. Canadian literature also has its own major Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, a foulmouthed version of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth wrapped into Tim Horton’s pancake.

Becoming Canadian wouldn’t even mean shifting your taste buds that much. Like American Jews, Canadian Jews love deli food, but with French-inspired touches. Montreal-style bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and have a larger hole than traditional New York bagels. Deli meat is also smoked Montreal-style with less sugar and more peppercorns and coriander than American salted, cured meats.

Hearing about the exciting world of Canadian Jewry almost makes me want to say, “Next year in Mississauga!” But I don’t think I can handle the Montreal-style bagel.

No Take Backs

By Steven Philp

There are times when “reclaiming”—politically redefining a word or symbol—goes a little too far. On Sunday, July 3 members of a small, but growing, religious sect called the International Raelian Movement (IRM) set up shop at Pride Toronto 2011 to raise awareness about their organization, featuring a rather curious juxtaposition in their official logo: a star of David intertwined with a swastika. This is not the first time that their chosen symbol has caused controversy; as detailed in an article from Trinity College, over its 35-year history the IRM has faced criticism from both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for resurrecting the swastika. After a brief hiatus from incorporating the swastika in to their symbolism—supposedly out of concern for its negative association with the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) Party—in 2007 the leader of IRM announced that they would permanently revive the original logo. Over the past four years IRM has engaged in a campaign to “take it back.” According to an article posted by the Toronto Sun, when IRM was denied a position in the Pride Toronto parade—which serves as a celebration of the Canadian LGBTQ community—it set up a booth near the festivities, to “remove the negativity attached to [the swastika].”

“For religions like Jainism and Buddhism, the swastika represented luck, well-being, harmony and peace,” explained Diane Brisebois, a spokesperson for IRM, to the Toronto Sun. “When people think of the swastika, they immediately think of the Nazis and we want to change that.” Although she was disappointed that the organization was not allowed to participate in the parade—understandable, considering the Nazi position toward the LGBTQ community—she mentioned plans for a rival parade next year that would reclaim the swastika. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, spokesperson Brigitte Boisselier claimed that its historical origin in “many peaceful religious groups, especially in Asia” gives historical reason to reclaim the symbol. Indeed the swastika is still used among practitioners of several Eastern faith traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Its earliest archaeological records date it to 2500 B.C.E. in the Indus Valley, before it spread across South and East Asia. Using the symbol may be tone-deaf in the West, but an argument can be made that in some places it is regarded as an auspicious symbol.

Yet why the Star of David? Apparently the IRM is not only fond of borrowing symbols from the Jewish tradition, but several words as well. The organization—whose non-theist faith Raelism has been compared to Scientology—was founded in 1974 after French-born Claude Vorilhon (now called Rael) encountered a being named Yahweh while walking in the woods. Through conversations with Yahweh, Vorilhon learned that human beings are the end result of scientific experiments conducted by extraterrestrial beings called Elohim. Small in stature, individuals from this species have been mistaken for angels, cherubim or divine spirits by human eyes. Over time the Elohim have contacted select human beings to carry their messages; these include people like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and other faith leaders. This, he claims, has created a succession of religions, starting with older traditions like Judaism. Vorilhon was given their final message through Yahweh, to pacify the earth so that we may be welcomed in to the fold of the Elohim. This includes establishing a global government, formed around a meritocracy of intellect and the tenets of voluntarism; this is to say, the intelligent rule, while adherents conduct themselves as they see fit.

Over the years, the IRM endorsed attention-getting practices such as human cloning, their liberal consideration of sexuality, and—of course—their logo. Yet concerning the latter, the group says intertwining two opposing symbols was not done to step on toes, but rather speak to their core beliefs. As Boisselier explained, by combining juxtaposed elements the logo speaks to “the infinity of time.” Their claim to borrowing from preceding traditions to build the “ultimate faith,” seems circumspect, considering they do not incorporate iconography from any other religious group.

Their attempt to “take back” the swastika does raise interesting questions concerning what cultural signifiers—visual or verbal—can be reclaimed, and by whom. Instances of minority groups reappropriating symbols used by the Nazi Party are few and far between. Perhaps the only prominent example of such a shift is the use of the pink triangle by the LGBTQ community, now a prominent symbol at pride parades, on gay-friendly businesses, or LGBTQ monuments. The pink triangle, or rosa winkel, marked prisoners detained for suspected or confirmed homosexuality; it was part of a larger system of triangular badges used to identify concentration camp victims, of which the Star of David (two interposed yellow triangles) was part.  Yet in the case of the pink triangle, it was the minority community in question that “reclaimed” the symbol. The fact that the swastika has maintained its negative symbolism through modern Neo-Nazi organizations makes it especially inappropriate for an organization with no connection to reclaim it. Although we can acknowledge the positive sentiment behind the desire to redefine the swastika for Western audiences, it seems that—for some symbols—there are no take backs.

Montreal Bagels Do It Better

by Lily Hoffman Simon

The Mile End neighborhood in Montreal was the heart of the Canadian Jewish immigrant community. The region brought bagels and smoked meat to Canada and beyond, giving new life to Jewish food. The legacy of this Montreal Jewish community is now hitting New York, with the opening of Mile End, a delicatessen in Brooklyn based on the renowned Jewish cuisine of Montreal. The opening of this deli is more than just a tribute to Jewish Canadian roots, however—it also reflects the tendency to turn elements of Diaspora culture into trendy, consumable commodities.

Mile End, the restaurant, is a hot topic among North American Jewry, inspiring mentions in Tablet magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. The Montreal community is excited as well, claiming that the restaurant’s opening marks the validation of the long-asserted opinion that Montreal bagels really are superior to the fluffier Southern alternatives. The deli acknowledges the supremacy of Montreal cuisine and illuminates the essential contributions of the Jewish community to North American culture. It is no news that Jewish pride is based on food, but to what extent? And to what extent is the American recognition of Jewish culture based on the ability to consume culture?

American society is based on consumption and an emphasis on a supposed multi-culturalism. In order to maintain distinct cultural practices in a society that tends towards assimilation, groups are forced to turn their respective cultures into something others around them can understand; overwhelmingly, this happens through the commodification of cultural elements. This makes sense—if North America is based on consumption and capitalism, a cultural experience needs to be something people feel is attractive enough to invest in, which tends to mean buying.  People can bop around in global food markets and stores, producing a sense of cosmopolitanism and international connection through exposure to different kinds of dress and cuisine. The opening of the Mile End deli contributes to this pattern by transforming the traditional Jewish experience of eating smoked meat into a trendy experience. The Mile End neighborhood itself is undergoing the same kind of cultural commodification. The area is now one of the hippest, multi-ethnic regions in Montreal. The roots of Jewish Montreal, culture, and cuisine are slowly being appropriated by consumption-driven cosmopolitanism.

The same logic goes for the way Jews experience other cultures. Take the example of eating Chinese food on Christmas. This North American Jewish tradition offered poor Eastern European immigrants the opportunity to feel worldly not through the mass extravaganza of spending that surrounds Christmas, but instead through cultural (and literal) consumption of exotic Oriental food. Not surprisingly, Mile End restaurant is going to be serving Chinese food this Christmas.

Jewish food has played a huge role in Jewish cultural development, making it a perfect gateway for non-Jews who wish to experience something Jewish. But a Jewish experience and understanding goes deeper than simply eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Experiencing a culture should include a deeper understanding of where it came from and how a particular cultural element developed, among other things. A connection to a culture and its true continuity cannot come only from consumption. It must come from real engagement with and understanding of a culture, and how it evolved. Mile End restaurant is perpetuating a superficial connection to Judaism, which has a necessary place—but that alone is not enough for Jewish continuity.