As a teenager in the United States, I was in a public high school marching band. My parents worked to make sure our family was together for an early Friday night Shabbat dinner, even when football games were on Friday night. We did a careful balancing act of observance and negotiation. I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble – and I did – but, in order to do that, I also had to commit to marching band. Sometimes, during the High Holidays, it was a precarious compromise.
One week, there was a Friday night without a football game. My parents planned to have a “normal” Shabbat dinner and attend services as a family. My band director had us all in a line formation on the field. He asked if we could substitute a practice during that time. He said, if you had a conflict, to step out of line and explain.
In front of the whole marching band, I had to step out of line. I spoke as loudly as I could (just short of shouting) so that the director and his assistants could hear me in the stands. I said my parents expected me at Friday night dinner at home, and to attend services. I needed to go. This was a religious obligation I’d been skipping for band. In true teenage bluntness, I noted that he wasn’t proposing an alternate rehearsal on Sunday morning instead, was he?
There was silence, and the band director nodded and said, “Right, no rehearsal Friday night.” While I recovered, shaking, I was set upon by other band members. A couple of non-Jewish friends supported me and mentioned how brave I’d been. To my surprise, the few other Jewish members – all slightly less observant than my family – weren’t so kind. They were angry at me for being “too Jewish” and drawing attention to them, too.
This experience came to mind when I read the news last month. The Canadian federal election is scheduled for Oct. 21 and this date conflicts with Shemini Atzeret. An Orthodox Jewish candidate in Ontario, Chani Aryeh-Bain, and another Orthodox activist, Ira Walfish, brought up this concern a year ago – in August 2018. It was ignored.
The advance polling dates are also problematic because they fall on Shabbat and Sukkot. Yes, there are ways for observant Jews to vote, despite these scheduling conflicts. However, this schedule interferes with the Orthodox candidate’s ability to campaign, as well as affecting her entire community in Toronto’s Eglinton-Lawrence riding.
Shemini Atzeret is not a big deal observance for many of us, and one news article demonstrates this by proclaiming it is the “Orthodox” Jewish community that has an issue. However, I was first struck by this candidate’s bravery in confronting this issue. That admiration was reinforced by the thousands of comments at the bottom of the article.
Some would say these comments are downright antisemitic, but I saw the majority of them as ignorant. There were many who derided religion, commented specifically on Judaism, and even one believing Christian who bemoaned how Canada had become a heathen country. (Say what?!)
In some ways, we are lucky in Canada. Our children can go to public or private schools in which they can experience Jewish community, culture and religious practices. We can relish the rich diversity of our particular community, as well as maintain our citizenship on equal footing with other Canadians. However, this opportunity to isolate ourselves comes at a cost.
When we separate ourselves, we lose the opportunity for everyday interactions with non-Jewish Canadians. The informal education that comes from attending school, sports, work and social activities with all kinds of people is invaluable. While I found it a burden to be the token Jew in my school classroom, it gave me a great chance to educate myself and explain our holidays and our traditions. Most of my classmates and bandmates knew about Judaism because they knew me.
Many get upset about ignorance or intolerance. That’s understandable, but I was taught that basic education makes a big difference. When a church or organization asked for someone to speak about Passover or Chanukah or Jewish practice, my family stepped up. I was the kid explaining the seder to the Methodists, or the sole Jewish teenager who invited all her friends to Shabbat dinner each week. My parents had an open door policy and a lot of extra dessert for whomever came over on a Friday night.
We’re lucky to live in a country that celebrates diversity. However, we should offer educational outreach whenever it’s helpful, so that we can live in peace with our neighbours. We can explain why there are obstacles to voting or campaigning in the middle of the fall holiday season, and why this is an issue. Also, instead of forcing some of us to feel uncomfortable and “too Jewish,” we can embrace each other as “Am Echad,” “One People.”
Even though the election date will not change, the situation is a learning moment for us as Jews and Canadians.
Reggae may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I end this as I began it, with music. If we’re truly one people, with “one love, one heart,’” we should love all of our Jewish community. We stand up for what we need both to practise Judaism and our voting rights, as each of us sees fit. In Bob Marley’s religious (but not Jewish) words, “Let’s get together, and feel all right.”
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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.