Readers Respond to the "Born in 1968"

From Stephanie in Ottawa, Canada:

Dear Kresel,

I found on your theme about religious freedom in the United States (and I might add, in Canada) very interesting. It is something we are both lucky to have in our own countries, but I'm realizing that it was not always like that. Recently I've read two children's books. (I read a lot of children's books) touching on the topic of Jewish Immigrants to America in the early twentieth century. (The books if you are interested are "Call Me Ruth" by Marilyn Sachs and the other is part of the "Dear America" Scholastic Series "Dreams in the Golden Country: the Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl; New York City 1903 by Kathryn Lasky. In both books, Mother and child(ren) come from Russia to join their fathers who have already immigrated to the United States. In both stories, the mothers are horrified to see that the accomodations and livings their husbands make have them living in poverty. Even worse, the mothers are horrified to see that their husbands have "melted in" to their new American surroundings and have abandoned their traditions. (In both stories the families had started out being Orthodox.) I won't get into the details, but in both stories, the lives the parents had were so difficult (such as needing to work hard for a salary that could barely feed and clothe the family, and needing to "fit in" to American culture, and doing this meant sacrificing their own traditions and observance.) This has made me think that in this land where my own family had come around the same time (some of my family immigrated to the United States before coming to Canada) the surrounding culture made it difficult for them, and many other families to remain observant Jews. Assimilation was easier, and so that is what happened over the generations. That wasn't religious freedom, no matter what the constitutions said.

At my graduation last June, I was faced with a difficulty. Since this as a relatively old University (it can only be called in North America being some 150 odd years old), the ceremony had a certain old formality that my previous University didn't have. Instead of the handshake on being granted my bachelor's at a 60-year-old institution, at the University of Western Ontario, graduates are to kneel in front of the Chancelor to be admitted into their degree. Even though getting my Masters degree was a proud accomplishment, my instinct on reading the protocol was that "I can't do this." After consulting with my rabbi, who confirmed my instincts, I contacted the registrars office and presented my difficulty. Luckily for me, the solution was simple. I was told that if kneeling was a problem, then don't kneel. The Chancelor would be informed ahead of time that some students would not be kneeling for religious reasons. And so, in this secular institution(or maybe I shouldn't call it that because Universities were originally Catholic institutions), I was able to participate and not compromise myself after all. In the speech given by the honorary degree recipient, the speaker mentioned that even fifty years ago, (let alone 100 years ago) many of us graduates would not be able to come to University. We would be disqualified for many reasons: our race, or religion, our gender, our social class, our economic situation and possibly other reasons. Therefore, for many of us representing these groups, this graduation day was very special for us. While I was quite aware of being part of some of these groups (being a woman, Jewish, and if it were a few generations ago, an immigrant, and definitely not part of the right "social class" not to mention financial aspects of an education,) going to University would be very difficult for me, if at all possible in my great-grandparents' generation, and I'm sorry to say, even in my parents' generation. But on that day, it struck me that even if I had managed to graduate University as part of these earlier generations, how likely would it be that the faculty would accommodate me, or any other Jewish student so that we could participate in the graduation ceremony without compromising ourselves? That is religious freedom in a way that my great-grandparents would never have experienced.

Even though I have long thought how lucky I was to be living in Canada for various reasons (democracy, diversitiy etc), I realize that my ideal of what Canada is, (or what it should be) was not always so, and perhaps is not the reality of the ideal I believe in. I'm sure that there are many who don't feel that they are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After September 11, there was vandalism and arson of various Mosques in Canada, and many Moslems felt that they were not being protected against discrimination. Our Prime Minister made it clear that we should not view this war against Islam (And I seem to remember President Bush making a similar statement.) Even so, every so often I come across the sentiment that many from Moslem and / or Middle Eastern backgrounds feel discrimination, and lack of protection. (Possibly more discrimination than lack of protection now, but I'm not exactly sure) I don't know if the Moslem community in the States feel that way, but it is possible.

Still, I want to end on a positive note. In spite of what happened a year ago (which I just couldn't believe then, and have trouble believing now to some degree) I want to believe in my ideal of Canada and what it can be which I suppose is similar to the American ideal. I love my city and country of diversity. I love being proud of who I am, and being free to do so. In response to your statement about your children's freedom to wear yarmulkes, sidelocks, and tzittzits without fear, I am glad for that here too. Although I've often had it drummed into me by my parents to be careful about wearing a necklace with a Chai or Magen David in public, in recent years, I've been trying to battle against their fear of who I'd encounter and their reaction. I've been trying (and hopefully succeeding) to get rid of this fear, if not caution, that was instilled in me since childhood, and all this long before terrorist attacks.) It is simply because I don't believe that my Canadian ideal is simply an ideal.

Kresel responds:


Thank you so much for your letter, and especially your example about not having to kneel at your graduation ceremony.

You are correct that the tolerance we Jews enjoy now was not what our grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. The pressure to work on Shabbos and to become assimilated was far greater and that is why the succeeding generations lost touch with Torah Judaism. The greatest way in which we can recover from that is by returning to Torah observance, and baruch Hashem, many Jews are doing so.

But as far as outward signs of Jewishness attracting anti-Semitism, I will quote something from a seminary friend, "If the Jews do not make kiddush, the anti-Semites will make havdalah. In other words, if we attempt to assimilate to such a degree that we fail to keep the mitzvos which distinguish us as Jews, anti-Semites will rise up and remind us of our differences in a more hateful manner.