My name is Zane Caplansky. "Zane" is, in fact, an Arab name. It means "good", or "strong" or "beautiful" depending on the context. Caplansky is a name I gave myself. I was born Zane Caplan but legally changed my name, restoring it to its ancestral glory when I opened my deli business six years ago. I changed the spelling from Caplanski to Caplansky just because I thought it looked better.
The reasons why my great-grandfather Benjamin Caplanski changed his name are lost in time. My belief is that it was an attempt to fit in better with Canadian society. I have a photo of him wearing a straw bowler hat and a wool suit. The epitome of: "be Yiddish, look British." In changing my name back, I made a statement about not needing to fit in. I embrace my Jewish name and my Jewish identity. I am a proud Jewish man who is part of a family that has contributed to this city and this country for well over 100 years.
My business is Jewish too. I own and operate Caplansky's Delicatessen on College Street. In the logo, if you look closely, you'll see a little Star of David for an apostrophe in my name. My menu features some Yiddish terms and I refer to my Jewish heritage on the cover of my menu. There are mezuzot on the doors. We close for the High Holidays. I own a deli truck named after my beloved Nana: "Thunderin' Thelma." I sponsor a softball team "The Bad News Jews", Mount Sinai Hospital and have proudly supported The Toronto Jewish Film Festival as well as countless other community groups and initiatives.
Six months ago I decided to sponsor the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival. Until that time I didn't even know such a thing existed. I was volunteering with "Action Against Hunger" and met someone who mentioned The TPFF to me. "Gee," I said "I'd like to sponsor that."
One of the great joys of running a restaurant is that on most days, it feels like a room full of storytellers sharing their experiences over a great meal. This festival seemed to me to be another forum for storytelling. It is often said that the conflict between Jews and Palestinians is one of a conflicting narrative. I don't know if that's true, but I have to believe that a starting place for peace is a place where we can both share and listen to one another's stories.
The truth is, I didn't screen the content of the films because I didn't make the decision to sponsor this festival to support any one perspective. I sponsored it as a small and humble effort to break down barriers so that both Jews and Palestinians care share each others stories. There was no ulterior motive here -- lets just get together over good food and share stories.
I've been incredibly encouraged by the volume of positive response that I've received as a result of the unexpected media attention. I've also been personally wounded and disappointed by accusations of being a "self-hating Jew" and other horrible accusations. While I have tried to keep focused on the incredibly encouraging feedback, I have to ask: If we, as a Jewish community are unable to speak kindly and compassionately amongst ourselves, even when we disagree with each other, how can we ever hope to make peace with our enemies?
I have little interest in engaging in conversation about who is at fault in this conflict, in polarized and heated accusations, nor do I propose that I have any solutions to the terrible suffering on both sides during this war. But what I do know is that the "us" and "them" perspective is getting us nowhere. And my sponsorship of the festival was my effort to think of ourselves as a collective "us" -- those of us who just want peace.
My favourite night in the deli is the Second night of Passover. I host two Seders that night where we tell the story, pray for freedom for the oppressed and feast together. The two Seders always sell out and they are always a mix of Jews and Gentiles. The love in that room sustains me all year round. When I'm down or upset or stressed or whatever I try to think of everyone singing Deyenu.
Of course, I recognize that timing is everything. Thus, the current state of turmoil in Israel makes my sponsorship of a free screening of "Laila's Birthday" in Christie Pits Park on August 8th newsworthy. We are taking our deli truck to that park and donating the profits to the festival. I know my Nana would be proud.
My Nana taught me that food, like life itself, is best enjoyed as a shared experience. My motivation was and will continue to be fostering peace and understanding. It's a small gesture. All I wanted to do was demonstrate cross-cultural support and foster understanding.
I love being a Jew with an Arab name. I love that I restored my ancestral name and don't feel the need to fit in because I'm fine just as I am. I love celebrating Jewish food, culture and traditions in my deli. And I love when new deli customers ask me what Matzo Ball soup is. "It's Jewish penicillin," I say. "Whether you've got a broken arm or a broken heart, a bowl of my soup will make you feel better." And as humble of a contribution as that may be during these incredibly difficult times, it's something that I'm very proud of and feel immense gratitude to my Jewish heritage for giving to me.
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