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Leah Gazan (being interviewed by the JP&N in July)

By BERNIE BELLAN

Posted Oct. 22, 2019 This story was originally posted in July. We offer it again to give readers a better idea just how intriguing Leah Gazan's background is - and how she is also proud of her Jewish identity.
Have you heard of Julian Edelman? He’s a receiver for the New England Patriots and was voted this year’s Super Bowl Most Outstanding Player.
He is also commonly referred to as the best “Jewish” football player in the National Football League. On top of all that, Edelman is not afraid to hide the fact he’s Jewish. He wears a Star of David and always refers to himself as Jewish.

 

 

 


Except that he’s not. He was raised Christian and only his great-grandfather was Jewish. (See a longer story about Edelman on opposite page.)
Still, if Julian Edelman wants to identify as Jewish – and apparently he very much does so, who am I to quibble over a small matter such as – well, really, he’s not Jewish – unless you are willing to accept that anyone who says they’re Jewish – at least in part, is Jewish as far as they’re concerned?

I’ve been writing about Jewish identity ever since I took over as editor of this paper. Quite a few times I’ve written that the actual number of Jews in Winnipeg is a lot fewer than what the Jewish Federation had been saying was the case. Then, to make things worse, the most recent census conducted by StatsCan (in 2016) said that only a little more than 8,000 respondents in Winnipeg said they were Jewish. (Yes, I know many individuals have a problem with the methodology used in that census.)

The reason I bring all this up is that recently I had a fascinating conversation with Leah Gazan, who is the NDP candidate in the Federal riding of Winnipeg Centre (currently held by Liberal Robert Falcon-Ouellette).
When Leah Gazan won the nomination the story that appeared in the Free Press the next day had this tantalizing bit of information: Leah’s father was a Holocaust survivor.
That would make her at least half-Jewish, right? But the story in the Free Press also noted that “Gazan is a former University of Winnipeg instructor and human rights activist, as well as a member of Wood Mountain Lakota Nation in Saskatchewan.”

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, but a member of Lakota Nation? I just had to find out more about this person. I attempted to email Leah at her election office (using an email address I had found for her), but never heard back, so I assumed she wasn’t interested in being interviewed by this paper.
It turns out I was quite wrong. I happened to meet Leah at the Gay Pride parade in early June and when I told her who I was and that I had attempted to contact her, she apologized for not having known about the email I had sent and expressed eagerness to talk with me about her Jewish ancestry. (I never did find out what happened with that original email.)
As it was, we arranged to meet at the Tallest Poppy on Tuesday, June 25. (The owner of the Tallest Poppy, Talia Syrie, by the way, is also part Jewish). Also joining us was Romeo Saganash, who is Leah Gazan’s partner, also the NDP Member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik –Eeyou, and a member of the Cree Nation.
I was curious to know about Leah’s father – how he survived the Holocaust and to what extent, if any, did he identify as Jewish? I also wanted to know how Leah came to be a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation.
What ensued was quite an interesting conversation during which Leah explained to me how she came to fully identify as a Native woman even though, as she explained, not only was her father a Holocaust survivor, her mother was half Chinese (Sadly, both parents died in 2007, Leah told me.)
Somewhat ironically perhaps, as we were talking – and eating, the conversation turned to food. Leah did say that she loves Jewish food, that she makes great “latkes” “matzo ball soup” and “kugel”. Later, after I had turned the microphone off, Leah added that one of her best dishes is “brisket” – and she proceeded to give me her recipe which, unfortunately, I can’t remember, but it sounded tantalizing.

As far as I was concerned though, Leah’s delight in being able to prepare quintessentially Jewish dishes and her interest in attending Passover seders and Chanukah parties only served to reinforce the view that I’ve held for quite some time: that trying to establish what defines someone as “Jewish” is constantly shifting.
Leah’s father, whose name was Albert, was born in The Hague in 1938, she explained. When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Leah’s grandparents decided to put Albert into hiding and he was shunted about among different families during the war.
Leah’s grandparents also survived. “My grandfather was in the Dutch army,” she said. Her grandmother managed to survive by hiding “in a mental institution until they (the Nazis) started rounding up people with mental health issues and shipping them off to concentration camps”, which is where her grandmother did, in fact, end up.

When I pressed Leah for more details as to what happened to her grandparents and father during the war, she admitted that she just didn’t know much about what happened, saying that “the turmoil was so deep that my family actually never spoke about it” (something that would be quite familiar to many other children of Holocaust survivors).
“My dad wasn’t allowed to see family photos,” Leah added. “They (her grandparents) put them all away. It was just too painful.”
Leah speculated that one of the reasons no one in her family wanted to talk about their experiences during the war was that her grandfather “felt a lot of guilt” over what happened to her grandmother (being put into a hospital with mentally ill patients). Then again, she’s not really sure why no one would talk about what happened.
Leah did say though that during the course of the war, her grandfather assumed that her grandmother was dead. “He actually had a girlfriend during the war,” she noted. When the war came to an end, her grandfather found her father first, and only later did he reconnect with her grandmother. Again – how it all came about, she wasn’t sure.
After the war however, her grandparents, along with her father, came to Canada, settling first in Fort Frances, later in Winnipeg. Albert who eventually became a prominent psychologist, moved to Saskatchewan when he was quite young, which is where he met Leah’s mother, Marjorie.

Leah's parent - the late Marjorie & Albert Gazan

Interestingly, Leah says that both her parents were “survivors”. Her father, as already noted, was a Holocaust survivor, while her mother, she said, was a “child welfare survivor”. They both went on to attain Masters Degrees; her father actually had three different degrees: Masters Degrees in Psychology and Social Work, along with a teaching degree, while her mother had a Masters Degree in Social Work. In addition, “she was also a psychiatric nurse,” Leah noted.
Leah was born in Thompson – in 1971. Later, her parents moved to Vancouver, eventually returning to Thompson, then Selkirk. When Leah was seven the family moved to Winnipeg, which is where she has lived ever since.
Her own career path has seen Leah become an instructor, first at Red River College, most recently at the University of Winnipeg, where she has taught “in the Faculty of Education” and “Indigenous Studies”. Prior to that, she noted, she “was President of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg” for a number of years. Leah has also been active in a variety of Native organizations.

While we did talk about her commitment to social justice and her strong ties to the residents of Winnipeg Centre which, she noted, is one of “the three poorest ridings in all of Canada”, I wanted to return to asking her about how she has come to so strongly identify as a Native woman.
“Because my father’s family – my family, was killed in the Holocaust,” Leah explained, “and you learn your culture through your family and your community…it’s almost like you grieve something you never had.”

I did point out to Leah, however, that within Reform Judaism, Jewish lineage can descend through the father, as well as the mother. So, I said to her, “Welcome to the tribe.”
“Thank you,” she laughed, but then on a more serious note, Leah added that, even though she’s not involved with the Jewish community, “I’m really proud of my Jewish heritage.”
“I try to connect in funny ways,” she added. “Like, I make the best matzo ball soup…and I make the best latkes in the world.”
At that point I couldn’t resist suggesting that Leah ought to brand her latkes “Lakota Latkes”.
“I learned that from my Lakota mom,” she explained. “She made sure I had a clear sense of my identity. She also taught me how to make kugel,” Leah added.

My final question to Leah went like this: “We have two known Jewish candidates for sure who will be running in the next Federal election in Winnipeg: Jim Carr and Marty Morantz. If they both lose – and you win, can we say that we still have a Jewish Member of Parliament from Winnipeg?”
“Absolutely,” Leah answered. “You can say you have a Jewish, Lakota, Chinese woman representing Winnipeg Centre.”
“You check off a lot of the right boxes,” I responded. “I won’t ask you about your sexual orientation, although I did meet you at the Gay Pride Parade. You’re not going to come out now, are you – and check off another box?”
“No, I’m not,” Leah said – “not today,” she said laughingly.
“You could say you’re ‘fluid’,” I suggested. And – seriously, Leah Gazan presents a clear example of how being Canadian these days often involves an amalgam of different identities. How each of us comes to identify one way or another is often quite a subjective experience. What this blending of identities portends for Jewish identity, however, is not at all clear. What we do know is that there are a great many individuals out there who have some Jewish ancestry – and, while they may not identify primarily as Jews, they are aware of their Jewish heritage. If they choose to identify as Jews, to one degree or another or perhaps when they so choose, as much as others may have difficulty with that, that is the way it is in Canada in 2019.

 

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