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Shavuot Opening Remarks

Celebrating our jewish mixed multitude: opening remarks

Shavuot Opening Remarks 5781 by community member Sarah Waisvisz

Hello dear hevre. Thank you for being here with us via the holy technology of Zoom to honour the holiday of Shavuout with a day of learning. Thanks in advance to all the volunteers who are going to help us run the show, and to our speakers and teachers and participants for sharing of yourselves. Diana Ralph and I are pleased to welcome you to this Zoom “conference.” It is ours collectively and we hope it will be enjoyable and meaningful.

We are gathering today from various locations; I am speaking to you from the traditional, unceded Territory of the Algonquin and Anishinabeg peoples, near where the Kitchissipppi River meets the Rideau River, which I recently learned is called the Pasapkedjiwanong, which means: “the river that passes between the rocks.” I feel very grateful for these two rivers and for how they cradle my daily life. I promise to do my best to be a respectful guest on this land and on these waters.

Shavuot is very much about space and peoplehood: about where we come from and how we got there, wherever here or there may be. It is also about how we are all deeply interrelated with each other, whether by birth or by intention, and how we are all inheritors of the Torah. So too with our Day of Learning: who we are and where we come from is at the heart of all of our events today. 

Let me tell you a story.

One.

I began my remarks with a Land Acknowledgement; this is a testament to my own ongoing process of learning. Until a few years ago I didn’t understand how I fit into the “issue” of Reconciliation. I bristled at the label “settler.” How and why was this about me? I was sympathetic to the needs of Indigenous peoples and I wanted them to be treated decently if not MUCH BETTER by the government, but I thought that the demands of repair and reconciliation were for other people—for “THOSE” Canadians. Other Canadians.

After all: I wasn’t a “real” Canadian. I wasn’t born here. My parents weren’t born here. We didn’t take anyone’s land from them, and neither did any of our ancestors. And furthermore: my maternal grandfather’s people were enslaved Africans and my other relatives who were European were mostly Jews. Thus, through this logic, I determined that I was “immune” to the “issue” of repair because I was the descendant of people who were also victims. The demands of Reconciliation didn’t depend on my behaviour. I was immune to this problem and from its insinuations. It wasn’t about me at all.

But I was wrong about all of this, wasn’t I? I’m ashamed to admit that it was only a few years ago that I figured out just how wrong I was.

Two.

Indigenous scholars remind us that we are all Treaty People and that therefore Indigenous rights are incumbent on all of us. I’m glad to say that I didn’t stay entrenched in my position for long, and that I did some work in learning and unlearning my role and responsibilities as a settler and a guest on this territory. I was able to understand that we are all Treaty People when I realized that I couldn’t agitate for my own rights if someone else’s rights were under attack; I can only be truly free when everyone else is too. We depend on each other. That is what it means to be in relationship.

The process of learning, unlearning, and admitting what we don’t know is what I am asking all of us to do today. I want us to commit to having an open mind and to rededicate ourselves to the truths that are integral to who we are as Jews:

  • We are all made in the image of God and thus we should see the divine in each other.
  • We all have a responsibility to repair the world for the sake of Heaven.
  • Our Jewish peoplehood has always been and will always be a “mixed multitude,” an “erev rav,” that has travelled far and wide, connected and mixed with new cultures and people, developed new traditions and preserved ancient ones.

Our first “father” Avraham and his wife Sarai came from Ur of the Chaldeans to follow their God to Canaan; later, Moses and his non-Israelite wife Tzipporah would lead a mixed multitude out of bondage from Mitzrayim and lay the foundations for a new society born out of the desire to be free. In The Book of Ruth, our traditional text for Shavuot, we learn that a young Moabite woman named Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi back to her home community, and that through the child she had there with one of Naomi’s kinsmen, she became the ancestor of King David.

Three.

There is no one way of being Jewish, is there? How are you Jewish? I am Jewish because I choose to practice my spirituality within a Jewish framework. Some of my ancestors were Jewish. Some were not. Some practiced indigenous African traditions, some were Catholic. Some were Black, some were white. My Jewishness and my Judaism blends all of these histories and tries to honour all of these diverse roots.

I haven’t always found it easy to be multi-racial and multicultural; to have a Polish-sounding name along with perpetually tanned skin; to always be asked “Where are you from … really?” “Why do you look so exotic?” or worse still “What are you?” In Jewish spaces I tend to be assumed to be Sephardic or Mizrahi—the slight there is subtle. I’m miscategorized as something other than the Ashkenazi norm in North America, and often it’s looked down on. But I’m not necessarily made to feel NOT JEWISH like so many of my Black and Asian Jewish friends and colleagues— they face outright racism and suspicion in synagogues and in communities, and this has to stop.

While I have never been asked to leave a synagogue, the slights, questions, and mis-labelling is why I always feel more at home in communities that are multicultural and racially mixed, in communities where my colouring isn’t a surprise. Places like the congregations I have visited in Curacao, New York City, Paris. There I can be read as what I am: Black and White and Jewish. Mixed. An erev rav in one body. In multiracial spaces, when someone asks me where I’m from, it’s only after I speak and my accent or language is revealed as different. In these cases, it’s not my body that is wrong. I feel better in these places. It’s tiring to have to explain yourself all the time, to have to give your credentials or family history or your DNA percentages each time you want to go to shul.

I wish that these intrusive questions would stop. In Jewish spaces, I wish we could learn to assume that if someone is praying with us they are there to pray because it feels right to them – because they are Jewish. It’s fairly simple really. As one of my teachers Yavilah McCoy once said, “Nobody has the right to stand in between me and my God.”

Neither one of us has the right to stand between someone and their God.

Today, let’s try to remember that we are all connected, that we are all interrelated. Not only does damage to one of us damage the collective, but it is incongruent with our roots as a people: we are and have always been an erev rav, ever since we left Egypt to sing a new song and found a new nation. I want Or Haneshamah to be a space where every Jewish person—and all the non-Jewish people in their lives, our lives- a space where we can belong and be celebrated, not in spite of our diversity but because of our diversity … Because that diversity is an intrinsic part of our collective Jewish history and experience. And I want this understanding to extend outwards, so that we become a community for whom Black Lives really do Matter, because Black Lives are our lives too; a community who knows that Reconciliation with Indigenous People is OUR issue because we are interrelated and interconnected.

Please join me today as we learn about and celebrate diversity and multiculturalism within our Jewish community and beyond. And please join me as we try, together, to build a better world: one that is more just, more inclusive, and more free for us all.

Thu, 2 December 2021