Modah Ani. Those were the first two Hebrew words I learned this summer when I embarked on the journey of a lifetime. I never expected that the Miles Nadal JCC’s Queer Jewish Incubator would impact me so deeply. They’ve helped me fill the metaphorical hole in my heart that’s been growing since childhood. Throughout my five months in the incubator I found what had been missing: my connection to Judaism.
Though I was born into a wonderful Jewish family in Tkaronto, or Toronto, I was not raised in a practicing home. My father immigrated to Tkaronto from Poland due to rising rates of antisemitism, and my mother, being the daughter of a Hungarian immigrant who’s entire family was lost in the Holocaust, wanted to protect me rather than risk passing on the deep wounds and trauma they incurred over the years.
While growing up I quickly discovered passions for singing and music, painting, theatre, gardening, and telling corny jokes (to name a few), an emptiness lingered. For years it left me feeling as though I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t understand my place in the world because I knew nothing about my culture, where I was from, or who my ancestors were. I didn’t even know their names. Last year, in an attempt to connect to my Jewish identity, I hosted little gratitude nights on Friday evenings to try to recreate something like Shabbat, but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything right. I didn’t know any blessings, or how to light the neirot; I didn’t have a Jewish community to learn from. I felt lost.
Just as I began to wonder if I would ever feel whole, a magical day arrived when, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, I was invited to join the first ever Queer Jewish Incubator in Tkaronto. The incubator was described as a gathering space for queer Jewish folks in the Greater Toronto Area looking to nurture their identities as visionaries, storytellers, guides, weavers, and disrupters. While my relationship with my own identity has been confusing, I have always felt grounded in the fact that I am an artist, investigator, and storyteller. Art guides me through all the aspects of my life and I was hopeful about entering a space where I could use that art to build a relationship with my identity as a queer Jew. Though with hope came anxiety. Aside from the typical struggle of trying to put together the perfect application, I worried that I wasn’t enough to be in a Jewish space. That could not have been further from the truth.
I remember the first time I met Cara Gold, the incubator’s indelible facilitator. I sat in front of my computer anxiously waiting for the appropriate number of minutes to log on to the Zoom meeting early. When I signed on, I was greeted with one of the kindest faces I’d ever encountered. As we got to know each other I described how disconnected I felt from my Jewish identity. Even though she was faced with the tomato-red complexion of a crying 20-year-old she had never met before, Cara was supportive and welcoming. She immediately sent me resources for ancestral healing.
My peers in this group are some of the coolest and wisest people I have ever known. They are kind, generous, intelligent, and hilarious. My days are brighter whenever I get to spend time with them. The space we created together through this process has been one of exploration and excitement, but also one of tenderness and support. It has been a place where we can sit in all the aspects of queer Jewish life from the joys to the fears to the conflicts to the devastations. I have officially cried—tears of joy, sadness, and anxiety—through every incubator meeting, but I never felt judged.
The support I’ve had this summer also reached outside of the cohort. We were each encouraged to and aided in finding a mentor for our explorations. Since I had no connections in Tkaronto’s Jewish community Cara jumped to the rescue and helped me find someone.
One day, I received an email from her telling me about Aviva Chernick, a “really kind, thoughtful, intentional, grounded and creative person” who would make a wonderful hevruta for me. Let me tell you, those adjectives just skim the surface in describing who Aviva is.
From the moment we met on the patio of a coffee shop, I knew Cara was right. As I sat in tears with Aviva, she held my hand and reassured me it was all going to be okay. We both quickly realized this was about so much more than just my project. This was the seedling of my relationship with Judaism and connection with the divine. I was lucky enough to have the best person by my side to help me tend to it. Our initial conversation focused on what my first connections to Judaism could look like. After telling her about my “gratitude nights” she introduced me to the phrase Modah Ani—I am grateful. Those words are at the heart of my identity.
In June I attended Pride Shabbat, which was largely organized by Cara, and featured Aviva as one of the prayer leaders. I ran into one of my peers from the incubator and we sat in the front row. This was the first Shabbat service I attended and it was transformative. Even though I didn’t know any of the melodies or the words, I felt at home. After Aviva lit the neirot and recited the blessing in Ladino, she came over to me while we were all singing and wrapped her arm under mine and held my hand. I don’t know how or why, but at that moment it felt like my ancestors were squeezing my hand through hers. It was magical.
The following week she invited me over for dinner and taught me the bracha for the neirot as well as the words and a melody for the prayer Modah Ani, which I have sung every morning since. It is one of the best parts of my day; I can’t imagine getting out of bed without it.
Modah Ani has also helped me discover and tend to my relationship with the divine. I’ve always believed that something exists somewhere in the universe but I had no idea how to view or access that relationship. Starting my day with singing and meditating on the words of Modah Ani has opened a whole world of connection I never knew existed. Having an embodied way of expressing gratitude has helped me figure out exactly who and what I’m grateful for and what I believe in.
Through all of this exploration, I’ve been hard at work on my project for the incubator. It went through many initial ideas, but eventually settled into a multimedia (filmed interviews and paintings) series investigating the connections between Judaism and land. How can we as Jews (especially those of us who are settlers) give back to the land that we’re on in ways that are culturally connected and significant to us? I’ve had the privilege to interview some amazing folks about their relationships to both Judaism and environmental care.
I first spoke with Tiferet Nashman, one of the co-directors at Shoresh, a Jewish environmental and educational organization. When I asked Tiferet about her “changing and deepening” relationship to Judaism, she credited her family. They prioritized Jewish holidays, culture, and tradition, and in her family “there’s always been a lot of acceptance and openness to that [Judaism] looking many different ways.”
As someone who is diving deeply into the creation of my own Jewish practice, I’m inspired by Tiferet’s words and exploration. It’s exciting to know that my relationship to Judaism can be whatever I need it to be—and that will make it perfect.
When I asked Tiferet for one intention she has for continuing to integrate her Jewish identity with caring for the land, she said that “the project of being connected to the land is something you can live out in so many ways.” She is proof it is possible from the spoons she carves to the hides she tans and to the raspberries she eats from her backyard.
“Sap Rising” by Shira Bodnar.
Another one of the people who graced me with their knowledge is Ellis Goldstein, who also works with Shoresh, specifically as an outdoor Jewish educator for young people. They touched on the importance of shmita by sharing that it is an “extremely important practice and reminder for us in contemporary times where we’re so focused on efficiency and productivity.” Because of the ways that our society functions, the idea of a full year of rest for the land feels impossible. Ellis suggested, however, that if we provide society with supports in place to plan for shmita, we would be able to create a more sustainable relationship with the earth. Their thoughts make me wonder how we can better engage with mutual aid in Jewish communities.
As I was first brainstorming questions for the interviews, I thought back to one of our incubator meetings. We were led through an anti-oppression workshop facilitated by Kavita Bissoondial, one of the team members at Shoreline Collectives.
Kavita put a question out into the space that was brought to her by her colleague Erica Pulfer: “How has the land contributed to your projects? How does it contribute to your existence and well-being on this land?” That question stuck with me, and I knew it was something I wanted to investigate as I explore my own relationships with the land I live on and benefit from.
Sterling Stutz, who is starting a PhD focusing on how intergenerational trauma impacts the way Ashkenazi folks understand themselves as settlers in Canada, offered a response when I asked her this question. She expressed that many Jews who have come to Canada from Eastern Europe have lived through a history of being forcibly relocated, denied land, and denied citizenship. “The idea of sort of arriving here on this land . . . is really like ‘Okay now we have safety, we have safety under the Canadian state’ and when I think of that, I think of sort of shifting the idea of who you’re seeking safety from.” As someone whose family settled here seeking safety after those same lifetimes of denial and relocation—Sterling’s thoughts inspire even more urgency for me to support the Indigenous Nations whose lands I live on.
“Ease” by Shira Bodnar.
“Renewal” by Shira Bodnar.
“Law of the Land” by Shira Bodnar.
Interviewing Tiferet, Ellis, and Sterling taught me an incredible amount—I have new ways to deepen my relationships with the land that I live on, and expand my knowledge and connection to Jewish tradition—which is exactly what I hoped for when I first envisioned this project. They have opened up more avenues of inspiration for my explorations and give me hope for what the future of our planet is going to look like.
I tend to get overwhelmed thinking about the future and right now I happen to be in a place where my future feels very uncertain. Aviva and Cara can attest I’ve been an overwhelmed mess. That being said, I am a lucky, supported, overwhelmed mess, because of the beautiful community I have found myself in through this incubator. I am Jewish. I have always been Jewish. But there is something so special about being Jewish in community. I will be forever grateful for the people I have the privilege to call mine. Modah Ani.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein with paintings by Shira Bodnar.
Shira Bodnar (she/her) is a queer, Jewish arist based in Tkaronto. She has found joy and life through her artistic explorations in many mediums: music, painting, writing, and performance. Shira focuses her work through the lenses of compassion, wisdom, and time, which are values she holds closely in her personal life. Being passionate about the sharing of knowledge, Shira also spends some of her time teaching singing classes to young people (through which she learns a lot from them too). Her current explorations are focused on the relationships between Judaism and land, and how we can take good (and Jewish) care of this beautiful earth.