Lessons from the Kosher Section

My mother looked exhausted as we entered our local No Frills.

Even though I was nine years old at the time, I knew her fatigue was the result of a sleepless night followed by a 10-hour shift at a bakery on Bathurst Street. She had her hand on my shoulder steering me through crowds of shoppers and towards the Kosher poultry section at the back of the store.

“Yoni, look for the expiry date”, she asked in Amharic, handing me a package of chicken thighs.

As I ran my finger down the label, a Jewish woman approached us from a few stalls over. She wore a kind smile, politely pardoned her interruption, and asked, “you do know this is Kosher chicken, right?”

My mother paused. It was as if she needed time to craft a response that would turn this unprompted interaction into a teachable moment. I readied myself, expecting her to launch into a public lecture on our Ethiopian-Jewish heritage, including details on our strict observance of Kashrut.

Instead, she turned towards the woman, mustered a smile of her own, and replied, “of course, it’s our Shabbat favourite.”

Looking back, this encounter was the first time I felt as if my Blackness detracted from my Jewishness. For me, as an Ethiopian Jew, the two are inextricably linked—I cannot be one without the other.

My parents have always told me that the early days were the most difficult.

However, they had something that not all immigrants were afforded upon arrival—a sense of community. A Ukrainian Jewish couple, befriended my parents and supported them. Whether it was helping them find a synagogue, or inviting our growing family for memorable Passover Seders—members of the Jewish community undoubtedly eased the process of integration by taking those first steps alongside my parents.

I know that Jewish communities across Canada are aware of the diversity that exists throughout the Jewish world. However, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we take the initiative to see, hear, and acknowledge diverse Jewish voices in our communities. Let us learn to extend the same openness and understanding my parents were given by this couple and her family, to everyone. We must practice the multiculturalism that we preach.

This is why it’s important to promote diversity and inclusion in Jewish spaces in Canada. In order to initiate change in our understanding of who is a Jew and where a Jew can come from, we need to begin by teaching a more holistic approach to Jewish history. One that encompasses the vibrant Jewish cultures and traditions from São Paulo to Yemen, Santiago to Morocco and everywhere in between.

If we neglect the richness of our diversity it will undoubtedly continue to foster the same thinking that the woman at No Frills exhibited all those years ago. Looking like everyone else should not be a prerequisite to feeling welcomed.

As No Silence on Race, a movement born out of the necessity for racial inclusivity in Canadian Jewish spaces, writes in its June 2020 Open Letter to the community, “the ground is shifting beneath us in ways that are undeniable and it is incumbent on each of us to play a role in shaping our collective future. When we honour our commitment to each other as Jews, our communities will reflect the beauty and diversity that truly exists within our culture.”

We have come quite far as a community, but there is more to be done. So let’s get to work.

Photo is courtesy of Yoni Belete. The people photographed are his parents. 

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