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Being An Invisible Minority Makes It Hard To Pass On My Jewish Heritage

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born and raised

It's not easy to raise a Jewish kid when he's half and you're only Jewish, especially when you live in downtown Toronto, far from the Hebrew-heavy neighbourhoods up north.

Of course, it wasn't much easier to raise me despite the fact that my parents, and their parents, and their parents, probably all the way back to Moses, have been Jewish. But there weren't many others where I grew up in White Rock, B.C. In fact, there were so few that we celebrated Christmas so my sister and I wouldn't feel left out and my drama teacher dad even played Santa down at the local community centre. He told me he worked for the big guy.

And one of my strongest childhood memories is six-year-old me standing in the hall outside my grade one class each morning while everyone else recited the Lord's Prayer and Mrs. Yardley read a few Bible chapters. (I must have been listening through the door as I still know all the words.)

The challenge of maintaining a minority culture within Canada -- not allowing it to disappear -- is something this fourth-gen Canadian still feels, especially as I try and pass it on to my fifth-gen son.

I didn't know what being Jewish really was at the time, I just knew it made me different and kids don't like feeling different. So I largely kept it to myself.

That's the weird part of being Jewish. It's like being an invisible minority. Some people hate your people so much that there's a specific terminology but you still have the "privilege" of being able to pass as plain white if you don't bring it up -- which also makes it too easy to abandon your heritage altogether.

Now, this blog is part of HuffPost Canada's ongoing Born and Raised series, though it's a bit of a departure as I'm not a second-gen Canadian. But the challenge of maintaining a minority culture within Canada -- not allowing it to disappear -- is something this fourth-gen Canadian still feels, especially as I try and pass it on to my fifth-gen son.

Three of my four grandparents were born in Canada -- with my zaida, the one my son is named after, arriving via steamship from Paris as a toddler, hence the French name.

They all came to Canada because they were fleeing Russian and Ukrainian pogroms that were burning down Jewish villages, or shtetls. This, it turns out, was fortuitous because it got them out of the way of the Nazis some decades later.

But they weren't Russian, Ukrainian or French. They were Jewish. Maintaining that culture in Montreal was easy for these immigrants because there was a large Jewish community there. Plus, failure to assimilate has been so ingrained that it's the primary reason why post-Diaspora Jews have faced so much animosity over the centuries, and still do.


The last two times I blogged about my cultural background -- "Never Again: A Jewish Take On Anti-Syrian Refugee Sentiment" and "A Jewish Response To Trump Being Called Hitler" -- I wound up with neo-Nazis all up in my Twitter mentions.

The dude whose Twitter avatar was literally a cat with a Hitler mustache -- can't remember if he was the one who said I had a punchable face and threatened to stomp me, I did a lot of blocking that day -- got me curious enough to dig around.

What I found was a shocking number of anonymous anti-Semites and an early intro to the basket of deplorables now being exposed in articles like this one: Alt-Right Leaders: We Aren't Racist, We Just Hate Jews.

But while anti-Semitism may be currently enflamed thanks to Trump, and has obviously been worse, it's never gone away. It's also hatred not based on religion but on ethnicity. The Nuremberg Laws defined us as a person with two or three Jewish grandparents. Belief systems have never had anything to do with it.

The understandable confusion comes from the fact that while, say, Irish Catholics and Arab Muslims use different names for ethnicity and religion, Jews use the same one for both.

This is why I'm Jewish despite not believing in God.

It is also why my seven-year-old son Emile is Jewish, even though technically he's not because I married a lapsed Catholic and old-timey Jewish law passes the bloodline matrilineally because they, too, viewed Jewishness as inherently genetic.

pixel menorah
Our pixel-art Menorah.

I've occasionally faced overt anti-Semitism myself, though the Toronto Police hate crimes report reveals how big of a problem it still is, and why it's so important to not let our Jewishness fade away.

The three most targeted groups since 2006 have been the Jewish community, the Black community and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community. In 2015, the Jewish community, followed by the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community were the most victimized groups.

But when I was a kid I'd often hear incidental slurs, like when people said they got "Jewed out of money" or someone "Jewed them down" when they were bargaining. These weren't aimed at me because people didn't know I was Jewish, so I usually stayed quiet.

I never denied my ethnicity -- though we never went to temple, I did have a bar mitzvah, albeit it was down at Crescent Beach with a borrowed Torah -- but I never did much to maintain it. My parents halfheartedly put me in a Sunday Hebrew school, but my sister and I dropped out after a couple weeks because, well, everyone was speaking Hebrew.

armageddon israel
Me visiting Tel Meggido.

As I grew older my ethnicity became more important as a part of who I am. When I was 20, I went to Israel, though I slept on a kitten-filled rooftop in the Arab Quarter when I was in Jerusalem. But I also travelled to Jericho, where my namesake made the walls come a-tumbling down, and Galilee, and even had a picnic at Armageddon. (The latter is a real place, by the way -- a militarily important hilltop known as Tel Meggido in Hebrew. It's surrounded by fields of Triffid-tall sunflowers as far as the eye can see.)

It wasn't a religious pilgrimage, but it was important for me to see where my people came from, especially as this came at the end of a year I spent studying in France where I'd train about on the weekends, visiting European cities with their "former" Jewish ghettos. (I stayed away from Germany on that trip, though I did visit Dachau some years later.)

Then I became a parent, and also realized the importance of passing on the Jewish heritage that I had been so ambivalent about growing up, especially since he was half-and-half and the other side could maintain itself being part of the vast majority.

Thankfully my mother's cousin Barbara lives in Toronto, so even though most of my family is out west, I have relatives to spend Passover and Rosh Hashanna with. Hanukkah is a silly holiday -- it's only a big deal due to its proximity to Jesus' birthday -- so we do an O.C.-inspired Chrismukkah dinner at our place.

jewish food
All the fixings of a proper Chrismukkah dinner.

Emile knows that he's Jewish, but it's an esoteric concept at his age. He loves eating gefilte fish and searching for the afikomen, hates how long Passover seders take and boasts to his buddies about getting two holidays instead of one in December. I used to do the same.

But because we're an invisible minority, it can easily disappear. Maintaining it requires effort. So my role as a father is to help him see the value in making Jewish history, culture and traditions a part of him -- he can decide on the religious part on his own -- so that he might one day pass it all on to his own child.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at

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