Passover is coming. Its themes of freedom from oppression, the Exodus and Jewish identity stories are ready for the telling.
More Jewish people participate in Passover than many other holidays. A 2013 Pew Research study indicated that 70% of Americans who identified as Jewish attended a seder in the year, far more than any other Jewish practice, such as fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles or attending synagogue services.
This statistic rings true for me, even though it’s a decade after the survey. I’ve hosted or attended many seders over the years where Jewish relatives or acquaintances turn up even if they’ve long since abandoned any other Jewish ritual. Some of these people hesitated to call themselves Jewish, even though they were raised Jewish or weren’t actively something else. How we identify is a complicated topic. It’s one I explore when I write a bio at the end of an article or introduce myself to someone at an event. As you might expect, the description provided by a writer is a shape-shifting event. I don’t advertise my religious identity in some publications. In others, I might mention where I graduated from university or what I write about.
I’ve told stories for a long time. Identifying as a writer came not long after. When the opportunity arose for me to go to the Young Writers’ Workshop at the University of Virginia as a teenager, at 13 or 14 years old, I was thrilled. I grew up in Virginia and Charlottesville wasn’t far away. My parents dropped me off. I stayed at the dorms. Mostly, I had a great experience and enjoyed myself. However, it was also the stage for some antisemitic moments that I haven’t forgotten.
I’d volunteered to set up chairs for a poetry reading, since a charismatic blond, older teen was also on the committee. Soon after arriving, he proceeded to tell antisemitic jokes, one after another. I silently kept setting out chairs as others crowded around, snickering. They snuck looks at me as I worked, ignoring him. That was the last time I chose the same committee as he did.
When this kind of bullying hate happens, oftentimes, the advice includes “Ignore it! His hate says more about him than it does about you.” That was little consolation for me. Despite the friends I made and all the learning experiences I had at that camp, it was also the source of several hate-filled moments. Later, I visited a camp friend at her home. I sat with her in the back of the family car. Her dad (much older than her mother) made languid conversation as he applauded Henry Ford’s union-busting and antisemitism. Then, he stopped to speak to “the boy” (a middle-aged, distinguished Black man) who managed his farmland. It was another moment I couldn’t erase from my memory, as my family believes strongly in unions and civil rights.
On Passover, we celebrate our identity and our journey, as if we, too, had been slaves in the land of Egypt. We use a story that shapes Jewish identity to help us coalesce into a grateful, free people. We discuss standing up for what we believe when it matters, the way Moses did.
All this came to mind when I took a research survey online. I agreed long ago to participate in occasional research surveys so that Canadian academics or government offices can learn how “ordinary Canadians” feel about things. This particular survey seemed to be about workplace psychological health. At the beginning, the authors gave their names, contact information and other details. By the end, lulled into complacency by harmless questions, I got to this question, which was something like: “We know that race is a cultural construct and isn’t genetic, but some people suffer on account of their race nevertheless. Please let us know how you identify for the purposes of this survey.”
What followed was a long list of categories, including “White, European descent” or “Middle Eastern, Arab” and various other categories, which you can probably imagine from your own survey experiences. I was stymied. In the past, I’d likely have ticked off “White, European descent” because, although my family has lived in the United States for the last 110 to 200 years, the places they came from were European. Yet, as anyone who has studied Jewish history knows, Europeans didn’t consider Jews to be in the same category as they were. Many centuries before the Second World War, Jews were being expelled from parts of Europe, murdered, raped and charged large extra taxes just to remain in some areas. The same can be said about much of the Middle East, where Jewish people have lived for millennia. Jews were heavily taxed, forced to wear identifying garments and had to cope with all sorts of other restrictions if they wanted to live as dhimmis, “under the protection of” Islam. Even in Virginia in the 1970s, Jews weren’t always considered “white.” We weren’t eligible for memberships in some social settings.
With current rising antisemitism, many slurs against Jews are conflated with issues surrounding Israel, our historic homeland. The Jewish population in Israel is in fact mixed, with Jews of all colours or races. Some Israelis are from families who have always lived in Israel. Also, yes, immigrants from all over the world have sought refuge by returning to Israel. Yet the antisemitic, race-driven comments online suggest that only white settlers from Europe “colonized” Israel.
That leaves a person with few options when the survey is about to “time out” online. One could just pretend and say “White/European” or “Indigenous” or “Middle Eastern,” “Asian,” “African,” or whatever one’s skin tone is. There’s often a “prefer not to say” category, which is a safe spot some choose. It offers anonymity, but it muddies the waters a bit for some research studies. This time, there was an “Other” category. Since the survey was aimed at an academic audience and anonymous, I checked off “Other” and in the box, I wrote Jewish, with a brief note that said, “In a time of rising antisemitism, please don’t leave us out.”
Was this the right thing to do? I won’t ever know. The Canadian Jewish population is very small. We’re only a little more than 1% of the population, based on recent Census numbers. Even so, if we are to tell our own story – the Exodus from Egypt, or the story of Jewish identity, we should have the chance to do so. Many people don’t feel safe enough to self-identify as Jewish. I certainly know the relief of blending in as “other.” Sometimes in risky surroundings, I feel safer with my nondescript last name and features that could be Greek or French but aren’t identifiably Jewish. We all have to decide when to tell our stories. Some seek freedom through erasing their ethnoreligious identities. Others relish the freedom that comes from proclaiming their “otherness” as Jewish.
I don’t have the answers here. I’m still wondering which survey boxes to tick off myself. In any case, have a wonderful Passover, with a delicious, meaningful seder where you can explore your identities, stories and life journey to freedom.
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.