The question of my identity presented itself on Sunday, September 9, the beginning of the year 5779. This is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year according to the Jewish calendar.
Jews all around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah in different ways: some attend service at their local synagogue, some go about their day like it’s any other Sunday, and all of us dip slices of apples in honey hoping for a “sweet” new year. I have never been to synagogue, outside of my cousins’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and my family doesn't observe the holidays in a religious fashion. We do have commemorative dinners for the high holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, and very abridged seders for Pesach. When my mom and I started reading our traditional prayers off an iPad, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have these prayers memorized by heart. What did my lack of knowledge say about me and my connection to my culture?
This August, I travelled to Israel with an organization called Birthright. According to their website, their vision is “to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.” On this trip, we went to some of the holiest sites in Judaism, such as the Western Wall, and more recent historical sites such as the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, Yad Vashem.
Alongside learning about Jewish history and the background of Israel, I learned about the varying Jewish experiences in Canada through discussion with my fellow tour members. Outside of my own family, the Jewish community feels almost non-existent in Vancouver to me.
I know this isn't actually true. There are just under 30,000 Jews here, and I haven’t necessarily made a genuine effort to be an active participant in this community. Compare this to the Greater Toronto Area, which is home to over 200,000 Jews. This is where the majority of my fellow Birthright participants were from, many of whom knew each other prior to the trip. It was apparent that Judaism was more present in their everyday lives than mine. They all spoke of their memories of Jewish overnight camp, their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and their Hebrew names. I felt a degree of envy for not having these memories to share with anybody. Off the top of my head I can think of only one other Jewish person in my high school class, and I am still jealous that I never had a Bat Mitzvah, which requires years of studying the Torah. I also only have one Jewish parent, which was true for the two other participants from Vancouver on my trip as well.
So while the celebration of Rosh Hashanah back in Vancouver did pose questions about my connection to faith, this celebration of life and renewal also provided me with some answers. In the middle of our Rosh Hashanah dinner I looked around our table and realized that almost half of our dinner party was not Jewish. This observation reminded me of a discussion we had on Birthright. Our tour guide asked our group, “Should all Jewish people live in Israel?” The vast majority of the participants, including myself, answered “no.” My reasoning for this answer has helped put my past insecurities into perspective.
In Vancouver, I’ve met people who have little to no understanding of Jewish culture, and have probably never met a Jewish person other than me. In these moments, I feel proud to be the only Jewish person in the room, an ambassador-of-sorts for my culture. If I lived in Toronto, or was constantly in the company of other Jews, there’s no way to know if I would be any “more” Jewish. In this hypothetical universe, when Judaism is as prevalent in my life as the mountains of my hometown are now, I could forget to pause and reflect on how special my identity is.