A location that was once considered on the periphery of Toronto—now, it’s in the middle of the action for many—was where my friend Sara Yacobi-Harris premiered her documentary short called Periphery this past Thursday.
Produced through the organization she founded, No Silence on Race, in conjunction with the Ontario Jewish Archives, the screening was a reason to jaunt from downtown to 4588 Bathurst St., north of Sheppard. The Prosserman JCC recently opened to replace the demolished Bathurst Jewish Community Centre. It’s a sleek new building with state-of-the-art facilities.
And where else but a JCC would getting to a cultural event require riding an escalator past a gym filled with intense exercisers?
Gathered inside the new Leah Posluns Theatre was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen at a Jewish event—a reflection of what followed on the screen and stage.
Sara, herself a Jew of colour (or JOC), built the project around conversations she had with Jews from different backgrounds.
From these interviews, she and Marcus Armstrong—a director of photography and editor—compiled a powerful 27-minute documentary. It’s accompanied by an exhibit featuring photos from Liat Aharoni, which can now be viewed daily in the same building as the theatre.
Each subject had an eloquent story to tell, largely about growing up feeling like they had no place in Canada’s Jewish community, from which they often felt ostracized for looking different. Stories of JOCs in the process of converting to Judaism were also included.
Many times throughout the film, Israel is noted as a place where this isn’t an issue. With its rich tapestry of Jews of all shades and colours, nobody batted an eye when the same individuals went on Birthright, taught ESL classes for a year, or took trips with their families.
I’ve heard similar sentiments from the JOCs in my life—friends and some of my cousins.
The film breaks down stereotypes around what Jewishness “looks like.” But it also highlights and broadens the beauty of this diversity.
Ariella Daniels, one of the 10 subjects profiled in Periphery, is an observant member of Bene Israel. During the question-and-answer session that followed the film, she mentioned how her great-great-grandfather wrote a book (which is very limited in supply! Ariella is now trying to collect them) about this community, even though he only had an elementary school education.
Bene Israel is a term I heard for the first time just a few weeks ago, during a Jewish holiday dinner at my cousin’s home in September. One of the other guests was dating a Jew from India.
She described how Jews fled to India after the destruction of the Second Temple. Thousands of years later, when they began to make contact with other members of the Jewish Diaspora, they discovered two interesting facts:
First, after thousands of years, they retained many similar traditions derived from the Torah.
And yet, there were certain holidays Indian Jews (Chanukah and Purim, to name two) were totally oblivious to because they were so far away that they didn’t even know about the events that occurred in later centuries.
Personally, I’d love to see more Jewish schools include more stories like these into the curriculum, given how a relatively recent graduate like me (if you count 2010 as recent) is only hearing some of them now.
It was also interesting to hear Sara and the interviewees talk about the pros and cons of the term “JOC,” which originated south of the border in feminist academic circles.
In some ways, they find Jews of colour a useful term in helping promote that not all are Ashkenazi. But, on the other hand, it can be very limiting—and bring even greater divisions to the community.
The consensus displayed in the Q&A is that hopefully, one day, these divisions will no longer feel as strong and we can all just be Am Yisra’el.
Amen to that. I’m all in.
Periphery’s photo exhibit is on display from noon to 8 p.m. daily at the Prosserman JCC, Sherman Campus, 4588 Bathurst St. in Toronto, through Nov. 28. Watch the entire documentary below:
What we’re saying on Bonjour Chai
This week on the podcast, we highlighted a story that hits close to home for our new host, David Sklar: organ donation.
When David was 11 years old—23 years ago—he had to get a liver transplant and his father called on many rabbis to find out whether this was considered halakhically correct.
What his parents found were many misconceptions around organ donations in the Jewish community. pikuach nefesh (preservation of human life) overrides any rule in the Torah.
To help us understand more about organ donation and debunk the myths surrounding it, we brought on Robby Berman, the director and founder of the Halachic Organ Donation Society.
We also spoke to Elena Soloman of Toronto, who’s in the process of seeking a kidney donor. Listen to her story on the episode—and I highly suggest you check out her website and help spread the word.
HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai