Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homeless Memorial & Rally for Egypt: From Local to Global

Two Saturdays, in a row. Two events. Different causes affecting different parts of the world.

On January 22, I attended the Edmonton Homeless Memorial Remembrance Celebration. In its sixth year, the event seeks to honour the memories of people who have died in the past year as a direct result of having no home. Sadly, the number of people who are being honoured as doubled since the first event. This year, we remembered 57 people who died in 2010 (and this is a conservative estimate, as these are people whose identities have been confirmed by family members and social agencies). The memorial took place at Boyle Street Community Services - just a stone's throw away from the proposed downtown arena. In fact, there are numerous service organizations in that area. I can only hope and pray that the City honour its commitment to fight homelessness and poverty and not sell out to huge land developers. Here are photos from the event and a video featuring speakers and music.

It has been a week of revolution in Egypt, and yesterday cities around the world rallied for the people there who are being tortured and killed under the Mubarak regime. A rally was put together in Edmonton by a group of grassroots citizens, and despite the short notice and bitter cold, the turnout was excellent. Here is a video of some of the passionate chanting, and some photos.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Perspective From Afghanistan

The local peace movement, in which I am actively involved, has been calling for Canadian troops to be brought home from Afghanistan pretty much since the war began. We say that Western forces have never been able to impart its values upon this ancient culture, and that we are looking at the country through the ethnocentric view of our own perspective. Further, we consider the current leadership in Afghanistan to be nothing more than a puppet regime featuring an unelected "president" and his warlord buddies.

But what do I know? After all, I have never been to Afghanistan. And neither have the people who constantly criticized my views. I have never even had a conversation with someone from that country.

Until today.

We've been hit with a deep freeze in Edmonton, featuring extremely cold temperatures and snow that comes up to my waist at some points. As a result, I have been taking more taxi cabs than usual. This afternoon, I almost could have made the bus, but opted for the quicker travel time a cab would provide, and hopped into the first one that was lined up outside of the hotel where I was having coffee.

The driver, it turned out after a few minutes of polite conversation, came from Afghanistan with his young family seven years ago. I decided to take a chance, and ask him the question I have always wanted to directly ask someone from over there: what do you think of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

His responses filled the rest of our 20 minute journey, and offered some profound insights from someone who knows that country first hand.

"Canada doesn't really have a choice than to be over there, because the US got involved and they are just following along," he said first. That Canada is simply following the US's marching orders is something we peace folks have been saying for a while.

What came next was another eye-opener for those who say we peace people have no clue. "The US does not want peace. No one over there believes that. If you ask an average person over there, most will say they do not want the US there and they do not trust the US. Everything in Afghanistan is about money and nothing happens without the knowledge of outside international forces."

He admitted that he hates the Taliban (in fact, this was the main reason he moved his family to Canada), but that he grieves for everyone who is being killed in Afghanistan be they from the US, Canada, or the Taliban because all of them are pawns by regimes (China, Russia, the US) who are making money off of the war. He also said that he is grateful for the good things being done by Canadian forces, but kept repeating how the "war" is all about money and that he is tired of people who know nothing about Afghanistan and its people saying what should be done over there.

So there you have it: an Afghan ex-pat says that we're there to follow the US under false pretenses, and that the people of Afghanistan do not want foreign occupying forces in their country. I plan to speak to this at the next peace rally. In the meantime: bring the troops home now!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Finding Shalom - An Artistic Journey

My grandmother wanted to go to college, or so the story goes. I have never asked her myself. Of course, since women did not do that back then, she held her dreams inside and desired my mother to attend post-secondary education.

Which she did, but not the kind of which my grandma hoped. My mother trained as a legal secretary, in hopes of snagging a nice, rich, Jewish lawyer. She got my father instead. He was an elementary teacher in a ghetto school who was pursuing his doctoral studies in the evening.

For the first six years of their marriage, they lived in my mother’s parents’ duplex. Then, when he earned the right to put ‘Dr.’ in front of his name, my father found the position that moved him and my mom from their close community of Brooklyn, New York, to the wilds of Edmonton, Alberta.

‘Culture shock’ probably did not begin to describe the change. Being an Orthodox Jew, my father soon realized he was no longer in walking distance of the nearest synagogue. There were two kosher butchers, each purveying their own brand of inedible delights. My mother, who enjoyed television, was dismayed to discover only four channels at her disposal – one of them in French.

Moving back home after my father amassed enough of a C.V. to get a position at another university, preferably one in the East, was definitely a consideration. However, the digestive disturbances which plagued my mother en route to their new home turned out to be more than food poisoning or a touch of the flu. It was my older brother.

The 1960’s turned into the 1970’s, and a few years later I was born. The family was settled. My mother, forever doting and over-protective, was concerned about problems back home and decided it was best to stay put.

For a variety of complicated reasons, my brother and I never attended the local Jewish day school. I was the mystery of my elementary classes; the girl who always got to miss school to celebrate exotic holidays. The one who could never go out on Friday night; the one who had to turn down invitations to birthday parties because she could not eat the food being served. Still, I never resented who I was until the kids from the Talmud Torah, which only went up to grade six in those days, joined us in junior high and treated me as an outcast. On top of that, I was daily being stalked, verbally harassed, and beaten by a Lithuanian Jewish boy who came up to my shoulders.

Things were not much better with my non-Jewish classmates, even though it felt easier and more gratifying to use my experiences as a source of rebellion with my parents, who had done their best to raise my brother and I with their customs and traditions. I could no longer relate to the meanings that were behind all that we did as part of our heritage.

I turned to my few friends, my painting, my writing, my music. I wrote songs almost every day, and swirled colours of tempera on paper. My father gave me an old camera of his, and I started combing the neighbourhood, looking for subjects to photograph. The trees and the birds and the flowers became my best friends.

Eventually, junior high came to an end. A bad case of chicken pox made me miss my graduation. To this day, the group photo of the grade nine class of 1988 hangs on the wall in the school, without me. But I still have most of those photographs, those paintings and songs, and the scars from which my art flows.

Modern Proverbs

Written by me during a bout of great cynicism.

Mothers don’t know everything;
Teachers know even less.

Poems do not have to rhyme,
Though if they do it’s not a crime.

Rabbis, pastors, priests, and preachers
Are not God, nor may they speak for Him.

The pain of loneliness stings less
Than the trauma of heartbreak.

Play hard to get,
And get nothing.

If I can’t miss what I don’t have
Why do I still long for it?

Only thank God for things you really
Think He would want the credit.

Music is in all things, all sounds,
All vibrations of voice, earth, air.

Books have the safest covers
To be between.

That said, life is meant to be lived,
Not only read about.

Trust is earned;
So is respect.

Own your mistakes;
Don’t blame others for your failings.

We may grow older and wiser
But discover there is more we don’t know.

Many long to travel abroad,
But how many have explored every nook of their own city?

Friday, January 07, 2011

When You're Strange - A View from the Inside

Several of my friends on Twitter have committed to a monthly blogging schedule based on a specific theme. January's theme is racism and/or discrimination. At first I felt this was a topic to which I could add no real insight. After all, I am not a member of a visible minority, and as such have never encountered racism. I am Jewish, but have been fortunate enough not to have had to deal with anti-Semitism, at least not overtly.

This got me thinking that when racism or discrimination is the topic on the table, we often think of it in terms of what members of one group does to another. There is always some sort of cultural, religious, or racism differentiation. However, my own experiences have shown that discrimination can happen within the same ethnic group.

I grew up in a fairly traditional Orthodox Jewish home. As a result, it was always assumed that when my brother and I became of school age, we would attend the local Talmud Torah day school. As my older brother approached the time to register for grade one, it became evident this would not be the case. In those days, there was no transportation provided for children who needed a ride, despite my parents being told otherwise. My father, a professor at the University of Alberta, taught 8 a.m. classes and would not have been able to drive my brother to school every day. My parents desperately tried to work out car-pooling and ride share agreements with other Jewish families in our area, but to no avail.

Finally, it was time to register my brother for school. My parents enrolled him in the public school a couple of blocks away, and that is where he and then I attended for our elementary and junior high years. I was the only Jewish child in my class for the first six years of my school career, and I never felt strange. I knew I had customs and traditions that were different from the other kids, but it did not bother me at that time. My father often came to my classroom to make presentations about the Jewish holidays and share some ethnic food treats. At the same time, I enjoyed taking part in Christmas decorating and concerts. Yes, there were a few things I had to skip, like birthday parties on Saturdays (the Sabbath) and the annual hamburger barbecue (I ate no non-kosher meat at that time), but to put it in the vernacular, it was all good.

Then came junior high.

The Talmud Torah only went up to grade six back then. It was a feeder school for the school I attended, so when junior high came around so did a lot of Jewish kids. I was very excited that for the first time I would get to hang out with other people of my tribe. I would finally have Jewish friends! Or so I thought.

It broke my heart when the other Jewish kids would not accept me because I did not go to their school. They would not even believe that I was really Jewish. The irony is that I was still religiously observant at that time, while they obviously weren't given their dietary and weekend habits. I was severely taunted verbally by many of them, and physically by one in particular. I was an outsider in my own cultural group.

To this day, I still feel somewhat like an outsider in the Jewish community. I do have some Jewish friends and am involved in a few community activities, but I don't really consider the Jewish community to be mine. The community is very small and homogeneous, and when you are someone who has views that don't fit with the mainstream, you really stick out. It is almost as if one's Jewish identity is determined by outside forces like what school you went to, what family you're from, how much money you have, and your political beliefs.

While I still bear some of the scars of my youth, I have come to terms with myself and my identity. Developing the courage to stand up in the face of adversity I believe is one reason I became a social activist. It is why I cringe when I see others (either here or abroad) mistreated by a system, a nation, or a paradigm of thought. This has led me down some interesting and unusual paths both as a Jew and in general. Pressure and heat, when applied correctly, can create newness and beauty. If faced with a choice of an easy route or a struggle, I choose the struggle.

Related Posts:
Blog Group Topic #1: Racism/Discrimination/Stereotypes by @lindork
Discrimination and Helplessness by @JenBanksYEG
The Double Meaning by @TamaraStecyk
Racism, would it cease to exist without...? by @sirthinks
It's Not Me, It's You by @Joanna_Farley