By BERNIE BELLAN
When it comes to writing about spiritual matters, I like to leave that field open to others. I especially enjoy reading Joanne Seiff’s columns, as not only does she write beautifully, Joanne always tries to find something different to say about subjects that might have been covered innumerable times before by other writers in this paper.
Joanne’s commentaries on that week’s parshah always offer a thoughtful perspective that make them interesting to read, even for someone who would not consider him or herself religious.
But it’s in Joanne’s consistent decrying the difficulty she and her family have had in being welcomed by long-time members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community that I find she has struck a particularly resonant note. As someone who grew up in Winnipeg, it’s more difficult for me to judge the degree to which Joanne’s criticisms of our community for not being as welcoming to newcomers as it should be are truly accurate or not.
But, I’ve heard similar observations from others who are also relatively new to our community. I’ve also heard that it’s different in other Canadian cities, where there’s either a much larger Jewish population, such as Toronto, or where so many other members of that city’s Jewish community are also relatively recent arrivals, such as Vancouver, Calgary or Ottawa.
That is why, when I listened to a terrific interview conducted by Shaarey Zedek Congregation member Chris Yaren with Dr. Ron Wolfson, who will be here from April 28-30 (an excerpt of which appears in this issue beginning on page 12), I was struck by how similar Wolfson’s observations about Jewish synagogues were to what Joanne Seiff has been writing about.
In truth, Joanne has been asked whether she could obtain permission from me to cover one of the talks that Wolfson will be delivering at the Shaarey Zedek when he is here, as Joanne’s writing on similar subjects have clearly struck a chord with some members of Shaarey Zedek. I gladly told Joanne to do that, as she has written before about the influence that Wolfson’s books have had on her own writing.
Yet, as I’ve read Joanne’s criticisms of the established Jewish community here for not being welcoming enough to newcomers, the thought occurred to me that, while she certainly has a valid point, Winnipeg’s Jewish community being unfriendlier than other Jewish communities might be rooted in history.
The majority of Winnipeg Jews are descended from Eastern European immigrants. There was also a large influx of Holocaust survivors following the Second World War. (See Myron Love’s article on page 3 for an elaboration of this point.) The children of those immigrants, especially the baby boomers, came of age together, formed friendships and familial relationships, and often watched as their own children left Winnipeg at the same time. From the 1960s on there wasn’t much of an infusion of new blood into our community, save for some academics and doctors who came here from places like South Africa, the U.S. or Israel. So, the homogeneity of our community has also been one of its drawbacks, in contrast with other communities.
Yet, when newcomers from South Africa or Israel arrived here they tended to congregate with other immigrants from their own countries – which was not at all surprising. Amer-icans, on the other hand, as are Joanne Seiff and her husband, came from a country that has had a free and easy relationship with welcoming newcomers. Joanne has written that she and her husband have been used to living in various cities in the U.S. where finding acceptance in a synagogue was not all that difficult. At the same time though, until quite recently, Jews in Winnipeg, whether they were longtime members of the community or newcomers, tended to choose to live in areas that were close to synagogues or Jewish schools. At least then, the goal was to try and become part of a larger community – whether or not that goal was realized.
As synagogue attendance has waned, however – and there aren’t that many synagogues here from which to choose, the notion of forming close relationships with other synagogue members has become increasingly difficult for newcomers. So too, has attendance at Jewish schools declined considerably over the years. In some ways it’s a chicken and egg situation. Do people stop going to synagogue and sending their children to a Jewish school because they don’t find other congregants and parents of school children friendly or do synagogues and schools stop being the friendly places they used to be (and I think it’s fair to say that was the case in Winnipeg in years past) simply because there are so many fewer people going to synagogue of sending their children to a Jewish school?
The question whether Winnipeg is an unfriendly city was put into more crystal form for me even further during a conversation I had with another newcomer to this city, in this case, an Israeli by the name of Roie Rozin. (You can read my story on page 8 about the Rozin family and their hockey playing son, Guy, whose desire to play hockey in Canada is the reason the Rozins came here all the way from Israel.)
When I asked Roie whether he had gotten to know some of the other Israelis who have come to Winnipeg in recent years, his answer was an emphatic “no,” saying that those other Israelis are Russian Israelis and they keep to themselves.
That came as quite a surprise to me. I would have thought that having a common denominator, such as coming from the same country and speaking Hebrew, would be sufficient to lead to the formation of friendships, but that isn’t the case, at least according to Roie Rozin. Anecdotally, I have to admit that I’ve heard the same observation about Russian Israelis from many others. Look, let’s be fair about this though: The families that have been coming here primarily under the Provincial Nominee Program have been coming here for two principal reasons: To better themselves economically, and so that their children will not have to go into the Israeli army. Integrating into the established Jewish community is not a priority for them, although as I discovered during the course of my researching just how many newcomers are sending their children to Jewish camps (which I wrote about in the March 29 issue), there is still a sense of Jewish identity that many of those newcomers would like to preserve, no matter how tenuous that identity might be.
Still , the notion that there is a considerable gap between Russian Israelis and what I would refer to as “Sabra” Israelis would tend to indicate just how complicated Jewish identity is in the 21st century. If coming from the same country (in this case, Israel) and speaking the same language isn’t reason enough to lead to friendships being formed, then one has to wonder just how disparate our Jewish community is going to become as we move forward, even with an infusion of new immigrants?
Upon reflection, while I was very interested in hearing what Ron Wolfson had to say during his interview with Chris Yaren, and am looking forward to hearing him again when he’s here on April 28-30, I wonder how much his message will truly resonate with our community? Kudos to the Shaarey Zedek, however, for inviting the entire community to come hear Wolfson, especially Jewish organizations, which will have the opportunity to meet with him in a special meeting on April 30, but I wonder whether there will be any long-lasting effects from Wolfson’s appearing here?
But, I’ll leave it to Joanne Seiff in future issues to comment more about whether our Jewish community will have become more inclusive as her perspective on that issue is much more important than mine.
Speaking of synagogues, by now many people are no doubt aware that Rabbi Larry Lander will be leaving his position as rabbi at the Etz Chayim come July. Although we were made aware of this before the news was even made public, we decided against doing a major story on this, as Rabbi Lander’s decision to leave Winnipeg was made entirely for personal reasons, we are told. Out of respect for his privacy we decided against delving into the story further.
On one final – hopefully humourous note, I happened to run into Free Press music reviewer (and occasional contributor to this paper as well) Holly Harris, at one of the performances of Dirty Dancing at the Concert Hall. She told me that she was there to review the show.
I joked to Holly that, given some of the themes in the show, including a Jewish daughter’s alienation from her father, along with her romance with a non-Jew, perhaps someone could come up with a mash-up of Dirty Dancing and Fiddler on the Roof and call it Dirty Fiddling.
In an exchange of emails the next day Holly told me that she thought I had a great idea and came up with a few ideas of her own for song titles in this new show, including: “If I Were a Dirty Man”, (“If I Were a Rich Man” – is there anyone reading this who wouldn’t get that one? )“Kvetch to me” (instead of “Cry to Me” in Dirty Dancing” and, “Hey! Bubbie!!” (instead of “Hey Baby” in Dirty Dancing). There’s also a song titled “Do You Love Me?” in Dirty Dancing – doesn’t that remind you of a line from “Sunrise Sunset”? The possibilities of a mash-up are endless!