Being Jewish in Multicultural Canada

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"TEXT1746","Canadian Speeches: Volume 14, #05, November/December, 2000.","AVIE BENNETT.","Chancellor, York University, and Chairman, McClelland & Stewart.","Being Jewish in multicultural Canada.","Race relations. Jews.", "Growing up Jewish in the anti-Semitic Canada of a few decades ago imbued Avie Bennett with a lifelong sense of being "other." That sense of identity remains important, but in a Canada that is now perhaps the world's most multicultural nation where "others" can share fully in the opportunities, rewards, and recognition. Mr. Bennett has been named the 2000 Negev Dinner Honouree by the Jewish National Fund of Toronto. Proceeds from the dinner are earmarked for development of recreational sites on Mount Saul, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Speech to the 2000 Negev Dinner Tribute, Toronto, November 26. Edited for publication."," It was the wife of another Canadian of some note who made the comment that probably sums up this evening as well as anything else. Mayron Pearson, who was married to a guy they called Mike, once said, "Behind every great man is a surprised woman." In that spirit, I must report Bev's [Mr. Bennett's wife of 50 years, Beverly] reaction when I told her of the great honour I was being accorded. "Why you?" she asked. "You're not even a good Jew."

Well, that gave me pause, I must say, and it led to a great deal of soul searching about what being Jewish has meant to my life. In some ways, I can understand what Bev was getting at: I observe the high holidays in my own way, with walks in the park, but I'm not a member of a synagogue, and I haven't been as active in the life and work of the Jewish community as many others.

But when I look back on my life, I realize that being Jewish has defined my life since I was old enough to be aware of it.

I grew up in a family that was deeply involved in the Toronto Jewish community. My father, in addition to writing a regular column in the Jewish press, was president of the central region of the Canadian Jewish Congress; my mother was president of Ontario Hadassah and of ORT.

Some of my most pleasurable memories are of walking with my grandfather Saul -- after whom I named my first-born, Paul -- to synagogue on the high holidays. I was very close to my grandfather, which is one reason I am so pleased that the recreational area in my honour will be on Mount Saul.

My association with the Jewish National Fund began early, when I was only a boy and a Jewish homeland was only a dream. I remember well those blue and white collection boxes on my parents' mantle, into which I dutifully contributed part of my allowance so that trees could be planted in the desert.

Our house was the centre of a great deal of activity and discussion, especially on Friday nights, when we opened our doors to any visitors who wanted to join us -- be they Jewish intellectuals visiting from New York, London or Palestine, say, or, during the war, a Jewish soldier from another part of the country. As is usual in gatherings of this sort, the conversation was lively, and there were usually at least a couple more passionately held opinions being expressed then there were people to express them.

It was when I went to school that I first became aware of being "other," of being different. I learned that there were people who didn't like me simply because I was Jewish. You'll understand how ancient I am when I explain to you that when I was in grade one at Forest Hill Public School, I was one of only three Jews in the class, and we were made to understand that we were unwelcome interlopers into what was then a vast WASP enclave. And I was the target of every bully on the block from day one.

Stark terror aside, there were times when it was just not fun being Jewish. Coming, as I did, from a kosher household, I remember being extremely envious of my friends when we went skating a Varsity Stadium because they got to eat hot dogs and I didn't . …