Awhile back, friends invited me to a writers group. Although I told them that I wasn’t quite the right fit for the group, they convinced me to go.
The meeting was nearby. I enjoyed walking on a cold, dark and starry night. Yet, the meeting’s “gatekeeper” told me that I wasn’t eligible for their future gatherings, as I didn’t (yet) write or edit in their genre. Instead, she invited me to another writers event in October. (I’m not on the social media lists for these types of things, as I tend to focus on writing deadlines and my household – and I’m introverted.)
The event, titled Diaspora Dialogues, took place on a Friday and Saturday. Although it might been possible for me to attend some parts of it, I saw only one gathering that interested me. Called Vulnerability and the Public Space, it boasted a live podcast, but it was held on Saturday afternoon. As someone who writes on religious issues in the public sphere, it seemed relevant. However, I saw no way that I could pull off attending – Saturday is a family day for us. After we go to services, I’m often feeding everyone a big lunch and playing with kids afterwards. (In an ideal world, we’d even take a nap!) To go, I’d have to have given up my day off and commit to attending on Shabbat.
This “diaspora” event, which seemed designed for Canadians of colour, was scheduled at a time when Muslims might be busy (Friday afternoon) and on Shabbat, when Jewish families might be busy with family or synagogue or both. It wasn’t inclusive of religious diversity. It excluded any person who might be both religiously observant and a Canadian minority.
Even the event’s title puzzled me, as the first dictionary definition for diaspora usually references the historical dispersal of the Jewish people outside of Israel. The “scattering of a people outside their original country to other places” is a secondary definition. So, OK, this was a secondary use of the definition, fine.
I resolved my personal conflict. I emailed one of the organizers to point out the discrepancy. Although I write about vulnerable religious issues, often in the public space, I wouldn’t be able to attend this “diaspora” event, as its timing excluded Canadian religious minorities. No matter, though, perhaps I could access the podcast online later? Where, I asked her, could I locate the podcast link?
I received no reply. The podcast never appeared online.
We celebrate our religious freedom on Chanukah. It’s the chance to rededicate our spaces to Jewish practice. However, the holiday’s origins are a tale of struggle between minorities and the majority: Jewish assimilationists, religious fundamentalists and the Seleucid empire’s religious majority (aka the Greeks, or the Assyrians). We remind ourselves of this in each generation – we can’t take religious freedom or Jewish practice for granted.
There has been a huge rise in antisemitic activity. Identifiable Jews or Israelis are now often targeted, assaulted and harassed throughout the world.
A far more subtle and insidious change has also happened in terms of Jewish identity. Now, U.S. President Donald Trump has decided, via presidential order, to define Jewish students as an ethnic or racialized “national”group that, theoretically, can’t be discriminated against. Yet, the definition alone is a worrying precedent.
Take a look around you at any Chanukah event. We’re not one race by any (purely artificial and historic) definitions. We aren’t one homogenous ethnic group, even if we might have been thousands of years ago. Just ask those who argue about doughnuts versus latkes or other holiday foods. What or who defines us? We’re now facing new identity definitions – as delineated from the outside.
We are a diaspora religious minority group that evolves and changes. We haven’t disappeared despite changing definitions.
Chanukah’s a minor holiday on our calendar. It celebrates clinging to our freedoms in a dark world. It relies on a subtle understanding that not all discrimination is based on racism. It implies that religious, ethnic or racial background alone doesn’t solely define someone’s minority status.
A true acknowledgement and respect for religious freedom is one that practises intersectionality instead.
What is intersectionality? Our identities – racial, sexual, class, gender, religion, nationality, etc. – are complex and changing. We are each the result of several roads, always under construction, that meet in one huge intersection.
As Jewish North Americans, living in the Diaspora, we’re more than one ethnicity, gender or race. Together, we celebrate our tradition and identity as a triumph over adversity. We just may have to celebrate with an understanding that we’re no longer included in some folks’ definition of diaspora and, hence, excluded from the narrative. Heck, I cannot even access the podcast about the narrative!
Wishing you a very happy, inclusive Chanukah from my family to yours. Have a great winter break, one where you feel included! May it be full of light, joy and peace.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.