Saturday, September 14, 2013

Strangers In A Strange Land...

In terms of Chagim, this is my favorite time of year.  With Yom Kippur right behind us, there is a feeling of cleanliness, purity and hope.  We try to make our way through this new year with our best foot forward, focusing on the first mitzvah that comes to mind.  Almost immediately after breaking the fast, you can hear the banging of hammers, the squeak of ladders as thousands of sukkot miraculously appear throughout the country overnight.  The weather is just starting to cool down and there's something nice about eating outdoors with family and friends.  
Growing up, I loved making new artwork to hang in the sukkah and I remember going with my dad to choose the Arba Minim in the days leading up to Sukkot.  Going to shul, he'd often let me hold the lulav or the etrog box on Sukkot morning.  As a young girl growing up in Toronto, I think I was rather oblivious to what we Jews must have looked like to our non-Jewish neighbors.  Unlike the rest of the Jewish holidays (except for Purim) most of our customs and rituals are practiced indoors.  We're not conducting our seder in the public park and we are not blowing our shofar in the city square.  And while we customarily place our chanukiyot by the front window of our house, it's still within our private property.  But Sukkot is different.  I can just imagine Tony, the Italian neighbor telling his wife, "Maria, they're at it again!  Building that crazy wood hut in the backyard.  Have they read the weather forecast?  Do they realize that those branches on top are NOT going to keep out the rain?" I can all but see Tony running out of the house to his car with his coffee thermos in one hand, briefcase in the other, late for work and seeing his neighbors leaving the house holding tall tree branches and silver boxes.  (I can only imagine the look on his face if he peeked into shul that day and saw all them men waving those tree branches around while holding a lemon in their other hand....)
This past summer, on our way home from Tobermory, we detoured through St. Jacobs, so we could show the kids what Mennonite people looked like.  They were completely fascinated, especially when we stopped at a Mennonite farm to buy some fresh peaches and cream corn.  The farmer's wife, in full Mennonite dress, invited us to follow her into the fields where she proceeded to yank fresh ears of corn off the stalks for us to take home.  Nava couldn't take enough photos of them, their odd way of dressing, their horse and buggies and their hats and suspenders, and I realized that they are not so different than us.  They are a curiosity - much like we are to non-Jews around us.  
I remember my father telling me the story of their Sukkah-drama when they first lived in an apartment building on Rockford Road.  It was a large apartment building with no sukkah balconies - stuck with the conundrum of what to do about building a sukkah, my father came up with what he thought was a genius idea.  Every apartment came with a parking space, so he moved the car and erected a Sukkah with the exact dimensions of a small sedan.  There were complaints from some of the residents and the super told my dad that his hut had to come down irregardless of his religious needs.  If I remember the story correctly, my father smartly delayed the matter and maneuvered and manipulated the situation until agreeing to finally take it down - by then, Sukkot was already over.
I'm going to go off on a tangent for a minute, but I promise to tie everything up soon with a nice neat bow.  
For those of you who know me, I do not wear a wig but choose to cover my hair with a triangle bandana instead.  I have tons of them in different colors and fabrics and use them much as someone else would use a belt, a necklace or some other accessory, matching it to my outfit.  Here in Israel, I don't stand out at all.  Rather, I fit in pretty well.  Although there are plenty of Jewish women in Israel who don't cover their hair, there are tons of us who do and the industry is a strong one.  There are vendors everywhere selling all kinds of hair coverings from beaded embellished bandanas, to Indian printed cotton scarves, to hats in every imaginable color and yes, even wigs.  In Israel, I never feel self conscious, or that I stand out different from everyone else.  While in Toronto this past summer, I went to Yorkdale Mall and almost every shop assistant made some sort of comment as I walked into their shop.  "Interesting scarf!" or "your headscarf is really colorful" or "you've got great hair, why are you hiding it?"  Some of the women's expressions were sincere but one or two of them said one thing but were thinking another.  Like a cartoon character with a thought bubble over their head, I could almost read their thoughts: "Hey Miss, I think you've misplaced your flock of sheep..."
Directly related to this subject is the latest shocking news out of Canada.  Quebec's Parti Québécois has come up with the most ridiculous and in my humble opinion, racist, "values charter" that it hopes will become law in the near future.  It will be by far the most comprehensive set of rules governing the wearing of religious symbols in North America.  This law would give the government the power to remove daycare workers, police officers, health care staff, judges and civil servants (though not, ironically enough, elected officials) from their positions, if they stubbornly insist on wearing their head coverings or “conspicuous” religious symbols.  These head coverings or "conspicuous" religious symbols include turbans, kaffiyeh and yes, yarmulkas.
Now this is where it all comes together: around 40 years have passed between my father's "parking space sukkah" and the Parti Québécois proposed "values charter".  With all the technological, human and medical advances that have been made in the last 40 years, you'd think that they'd have made significant advances in religious tolerance as well.  Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case.  And I don't think it's going to get any better.  I think that more and more events like these will continue to happen and I think they're meant to happen.  In a way, it's meant to remind all our fellow Jews in the diaspora that they will forever be strangers in a strange land.  In Galut, you will always be that curiosity, the one who is different, the one who stands out.
But there is a land not too far away (over an ocean and a mountain range or two..) where you are not a curiosity.  Where you can build not just one sukkah, but two - one to eat in and one to sleep in.  And you can wear whatever you want on your head no matter the color or size.  Even to work.  After all, chances are that your boss is wearing one too....

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