I have never experienced antisemitism. My problem has been that Ashkenazi Jews have failed to acknowledge and recognize me as a Jew.
In 2009, the Indian-Jewish community in Toronto celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Congregation BINA (Bene Israel North America), the first and only Indian-Jewish prayer congregation in Toronto. Founded in 1979 by thirty-five to fifty Indian-Jewish families, it now has 250 to 300 member families, residing primarily in Toronto, but also in Kingston, Hamilton, Montreal, and New York. BINA serves members of all three Indian-Jewish communities: namely, the Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, and Baghdadi Jews who were originally from Iraq but who settled in British-ruled India in the eighteenth century. Leadership has now passed from the hands of Indian-Jewish immigrants to their Canadian-born children. The founders established BINA — and it continues to function — in response to exclusion by the Ashkenazi-dominated Toronto Jewish community and its members.
Changes to Canadian immigration policy in 1962 allowed for the settlement of nonwhite immigrants in Canada. During the 1960s and 1970s, Canada became an attractive place of settlement for Indian Jews who were English-speaking, highly educated and professional, since the Canadian economy was seeking large numbers of skilled and professional workers. The first wave of Indian-Jewish immigrants started arriving in Toronto between 1964 and 1980 and quickly attained socioeconomic stability. Soon after, Indian Jews sought to join their Jewish coreligionists by participating in Toronto’s Jewish community, but they faced rejection by Canadian Jews who questioned the Jewish identity of Indian Jews. In the view of Toronto’s Indian Jews, their Ashkenazi co-religionists, who are considered white ethnic “others” in the Canadian context, have been unable to accept that one might be both South Asian and Jewish. The Ashkenazi majority holds these racialized identities in binary opposition: Jews are white and of European origins; Indians are Hindu or Muslim. Ashkenazi Jews are further confused when Indian Jews follow Indian cultural norms by wearing traditional Indian dress, preparing and eating kosher versions of Indian foods, and speaking Indian languages. Homogenous and essentialist claims of an “authentic” Jewish identity serve to exclude diverse Jewish identities and realities that reflect different social, historical, geographic, economic, and cultural contexts.
The establishment of Congregation BINA demonstrates how the Indian-Jewish community has resisted the hegemonic Toronto Jewish community’s essentialist construction of the authentic Jew as an Ashkenazi Jewish identity of Eastern European origin and culture. To demonstrate this, I focus on the experiences of Indian Jews within the Toronto Jewish community and its institutions, as well as on the establishment of Congregation BINA. The research for this study is based on sixteen in-depth, open-ended interviews, including seven interviews with Indian-Jewish community leaders — four of whom were co-founders of the congregation, as well as the past president, the current president, and one board member, and nine other Indian Jews — about their experiences within the Toronto Jewish community. The interview participants ranged in age from 29 years to 74 years, and included some Indian Jews who had immigrated to Canada as adults and some who were born and raised in Toronto. Of the sixteen respondents, nine were women and seven were men. Community leaders consisted of both men and women. I have assigned aliases to all of the interview subjects. I also used community materials, including the Canadian Jewish News, files of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada, and Congregation BINA newsletters. In addition, I attended Congregation BINA for prayer services on the High Holidays in 2002, 2003, and 2004 in order to understand the role of the congregation in the lives of its members.
Throughout this article, I use the term “Indian Jews” as a broad term to refer to the diverse Indian-Jewish communities who settled in Canada, since all of the respondents interviewed call themselves “Indian Jews,” with distinct and specific cultural, historical, regional, and linguistic identities of being Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, or Baghdadi Jews. The term “Mizrahim” (literally, “Easterners”), which is used in the Israeli context to refer to all non-Ashkenazi Jews, was never used by any respondent in this study. Of course, these three...