This year the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah, falls on September 21(sunset on September 20), coinciding with the Autumn Equinox. I had intended to write something on July 1, Canada’s 150th (official) birthday — but summer drifted away from me, and also I had mixed feelings about the 150th, as the Indigenous peoples have been in Canada so many more thousands of years longer than that. This past July was the 38th year since my immigration to Canada, and I continue to be glad and grateful for being here, to a country that has been warm and welcoming to me, as a person, a mother, a writer, and a Jew — and which has a sense of community (our Health Care system is a prime example), regard for the environment (trying to do better), and is working, now, at dealing with the racist and colonial elements in our past: the Residential schools, 60s scoop, and continuing poor treatment of Indigenous peoples; the Komagata-Maru incident (1914), the rejection of the ship St. Louis, with refugees from Germany (1939), and similar incidents with immigrants, before the open-hearted welcome of the Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s and the current welcoming of Syrian refugees.
The Komagata Maru incident, you ask? This happened in Vancouver in 1914, when a Japanese ship with 376 Sikh would-be immigrants was detained for two months in the harbour and ultimately sent back to India, after the people on board suffered from hunger, thirst, and denial of their rights to enter this country because of government policies to “keep Canada white” and fear of “the other.” (one of the campaign slogans for Trump’s election was, “put the white back in White House. It takes a long time for racist ideas to change.) No matter who the “other” is, we need to recognize their humanity, and take away the false labels.
The Komagata Maru Incident is is also the title of a play by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock, now on stage at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, in a beautifully-staged production, bringing our history to life for a wider, modern audience. The play, which has one character on this ship singing in the Punjabi language, taught me about this incident and also includes references to Indigenous culture. And it made me think of the St. Louis a generation later — another instance in which people needing help were sent back to a dangerous “homeland”, under the kind of “none is too many” thinking which ultimately hurts and destroys a country.
Emil Fackenheim, the noted Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, and Holocaust scholar, who was Rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, 1943-48 (after he came to Canada as a refugee, fleeing Nazism), gave a radio address soon after the war, in which he urged people not to “quieten their consciences” because of the false but loud demands of power and influence (and greed), and to accept and take in refugees because of their human needs and problem, not because of what they can (or cannot) do for the richer, more powerful country they seek to enter.
I am writing this on a sunny, warm day in south-west Ontario. Golden leaves are on the trees and falling to the ground, purple and yellow wildflowers are blooming on the side of the road. In the midst of this, I am aware and mindful of all the devastation and destruction and suffering nature has caused in the past few weeks in “other” places — hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and throughout the Caribbean, earthquakes in Mexico, fires in British Columbia, and western U.S. And the devastation of wars and hostilities around the world. On this Rosh Hashanah morning, I wish my relatives, friends, and all the world a sweet, happy, healthy, peaceful, and loving New Year. There is a Jewish concept, “Tikkun Olam,” saving the world — and also the realization that we cannot do everything, but we can at least do something rather than nothing, in our own life, our own family, our own community. If each of us does what we can, in our own way, we help create the changes we want to see in the world. Shalom!