Intersectional Jews, Strangers, and Our Tribe
People naturally gravitate toward those who hold some commonality with their past, whether they look back with nostalgia or not. I was born and grew up in Canada and so when I meet a Canadian I feel something in common. There are aspects about growing up Canadian that Canadians share at a visceral level – perhaps something about what makes us laugh, our use of language particularities (eh?), shared memories of major political events we lived through (remember the FLQ and the war Measures Act?). Of course, some of that would necessarily pertain to my generation and older as younger people do not remember when a French teacher was arrested in Vancouver and when the kidnappers/murderers found asylum in Cuba. They can read it in the history books, but me and my age-mates — we lived it.
I do not share a similar sense of commonality with Americans of my generation, even though some non-North-Americans claim there is little difference between Canadians and Americans except in our accents. We did all live through the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban missile crisis and more — but we Canadians were bystanders to these American dramas. While we would certainly experience the fallout from them, we were not at the eye of the storm.
When I meet someone who studied at any of my alma maters, the Universities of Guelph, Manitoba, Toronto, Carleton, Reading, I feel a shared cultural history for the map of campus and many of the faculty could be recalled in stories beginning with: “Do you remember when X?” Or: “Is Y still there?”
But the deepest visceral connection is with fellow Jews, members of the tribe. Something reverberates within upon meeting another Jew (and I accept the fact that not all Jews feel the same about this). There is just a feeling that arises from deep inside. Perhaps, before common tribal membership has been openly acknowledged, not wanting to take the chance of being wrong, nothing is said until I may remark that I am from Israel, or the other person hints at being Jewish and then: “I thought you were Jewish! Me too.” is either blurted out or just left unsaid, but the conversation takes on a tone as if we have known each other for eons. And this is a connection that over-rides language barriers, national citizenship, sexual orientation, skin colour, professional affiliation, and any number of other intersectionalities that may otherwise define us. Of course, this is more strongly felt with some individuals and less so with others.
I cannot help but marvel at the persistence of this phenomenon. Over thousands of years of Diaspora and separate life paths our mosaics of communities have taken, a Jew remains a Jew whether secular or Ultra-Orthodox. Were Canada to be overtaken and Canadians dispersed to all corners of the globe, were Germans or French or Vietnamese — would their peoplehoods endure as ours has? Does such an example exist about which I am sadly ignorant?
Is this visceral connection because of the antisemitism that we have all directly or not-so-directly experienced through the ages and that seems to have become part of our DNA? Is it because we were (supposedly) all together at Mount Sinai when Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments and we agreed to accept the Torah? I do not know — all I know is that something is there that binds us together at a level beyond the ability of words to explain. Looking into the eyes of a stranger, if that stranger is a fellow Jew, there is a spark of recognition and it is as if, at a deeper level where it matters most, this stranger is experienced as a fellow traveller, a member of the tribe, not really a stranger after all.