The toughest thing about being Jewish, I told the World Religion Day gathering, is getting your hat to stay on.
And sure enough, about ten minutes later, the black and gold yarmulke (skullcap) I bought in Jerusalem went sliding off the back of my head. A fellow panelist kindly offered me a bobby pin – an option adopted by many male synagogue congregants – but I’m stubborn about relying on any technical assistance to keep my traditional lid intact.
Some people express surprise when they learn that I celebrate my Jewish heritage as well as my Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee ancestry. That puzzles me; I think it’s a bonus to have more than one set of values and traditions to respect and try to observe.
If you believe in only one Creator – a sentiment shared by the representatives of North Bay’s Baha’i, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, Native, and Christian communities who attended this annual event – your value system isn’t really much different than anyone else’s.
The drastic divides that appear to exist between different global communities when you watch the evening news would lead you to believe that it’s impossible to get Muslims and Jews, or Catholics and Protestants under the same roof without a donnybrook erupting. But here were 100 of us in the local Elks Hall, of all creeds and colours, and nary a fistfight to be seen. (There was some jockeying for position around the buffet table, but nothing approaching serious warfare.)
It only requires two politicians to start a global conflict, but the only elected personage at World Religion Day was the city’s mayor, who read a civic proclamation, said what a great place North Bay is because it isn’t homogenized -- or words to that effect – and posed for a bunch of photos.
Being in a room filled with people who are proud to publicly say they hold personal spiritual beliefs is a rare occurrence in 2008. After all, just because a church’s pews are all filled doesn’t mean everyone who drops a dollar into the collection plate is right with their Lord. As Bob Dylan sings, all the wars in history seem to have been fought by armies who believe they have God on their side.
In fact the more we learn about people who are supposed to be different from us, the more we often discover how much alike we truly are. I was seated beside Saad Ahmed Khan, a 13-year-old student from W. J. Fricker elementary school, who was chosen to represent the city’s Muslim community. I told him how much I envied his knitted ceremonial skullcap, which seemed to have better adhesive properties than mine.
After the Grade 8 student spoke eloquently about his pride in Islam, his brother passed out videos, pocket-sized English translations of the Qur’an, and pamphlets titled “Status of Women in Islam” and “Hijab: Unveiling the Mystery” – topics that have made Canadian Muslims the subject of a lot of misunderstanding and racist commentary.
Each presenter had the opportunity to distribute or display information about their religion or spiritual beliefs on tables set up along the hall’s side walls. Marie Stevens, who devoted her eight-minute time allowance to a gentle message about the importance of love in everyone’s life, didn’t just display sacred Anishinaabe medicines – she handed out stalks of sage to anyone who wanted them.
Members of the 50-family Sons of Jacob Jewish community supplied some visual aids, including a shofar, the ram’s horn blown to signify Rosh Hashanah – the new year – which Jews have celebrated 5768 times.
Since community service is an important aspect of any faith, I chose to use my eight minutes to talk about how Jewish contributions have helped make the world a better place. Everyone is familiar with names like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk, but I wanted to mention the huge Jewish influence in other areas like the entertainment industry – after all, it was Irving Berlin who wrote “White Christmas.”
And if wealth is part of the Jewish stereotype, then philanthropy should be mentioned in the same breath. No identifiable group makes more charitable contributions than world Jewry. It’s almost impossible to visit a hospital or university in North America without seeing a plaque commemorating the support of members of the local Jewish community. Herb Brown, respected elder of the small Sons of Jacob congregation, was instrumental in the establishing of a university and expanded hospital services in North Bay.
Eva Black, an Anglican who referred to herself as the event’s “token Christian” -- the kind lady who offered to loan me a bobby pin -- expressed a similar philosophy in a different way. To her being religious or spiritual is about what you do, not what you say or purport to believe.
A few weeks later I heard a Catholic theologian on radio defining spirituality as “leading a life that gives weight to your words”, a sentiment that has also been expressed as “practicing what you preach”, or “walking the talk.”
The commentator also said that Western society is reducing citizens to customers, and that too many communities are defining themselves by who their enemies are.
The powerful – politicians, businessmen, journalists – are far better at telling us what they don’t like or believe in, than in what they stand for, an emphasis that is not conducive to instilling citizens with hope for a better future.
I’d like to see more leaders for whom I’d be proud to take off my hat – instead of it just accidentally slipping off my head.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.