“ Well, How Can You be Jewish and European?”: Indian Jewish Experiences in the Toronto Jewish Community and the Creation of Congregation Bina

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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...

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While the majority of North American Jews identify as racially white and Ashkenazi (European), this quantitative fact sidesteps the qualitative reality of their hegemonic social positioning. Reflecting the prevailing culture in which they live, dominant Jewish communities and institutions are inadequately aware of Jews who do not identify as white and of the need to share time, space and power with them. Personal narratives by Jews of colour excerpted from blogs, online communities and Jewish niche magazines are used to illustrate their experiences, in particular their treatment by other Jews and their exclusion from Jewish spaces where white Ashkenazi Jewishness is dominant. Theories of critical whiteness and of ethnic identity are used to consider Jewish racial heterogeneity and to urge the forging of alliances as imagined by some of the narrators.
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This article explores the North African Jewish community's establishment of Or Haemet Sephardic School as a response to the forced “Ashkenazification” of Sephardic students in the Orthodox Jewish day school system. The establishment of the school signifies the North African Jewish community's refusal and resistance to an essentialist Jewish identity as reflective solely of Ashkenazi identity, culture, and ways of being. The author argues that homogenous and exclusive claims of authentic Jewish identity marginalize diverse realities of Jewish experiences and identities that reflect different social, historical, geographic, economic, and cultural contexts.
This essay examines the paradoxical effects on Arab Jews of their two, rival essentialist nationalisms-Jewish and Arab. It shows how the Eurocentric concept of a single "Jewish History" cut non-Ashkenazi Jews off from their origins, even while the Zionist idea that Arabness and Jewishness are mutually exclusive gradually came to be shared by Arab nationalist discourse. The emergence of a new, hybrid identity of Mizrahim, as a product both of Israel's assimilationist policy and of resistance to it, is discussed. Finally, the author proposes an interdisciplinary framework-Mizrahi studies-as a way of going beyond hegemonic Zionist discourses while at the same time making a strong link to the Palestinian issue.
Jewish attacks on Palestinians are usually presented by the Israeli government as the acts of marginal figures rather than evidence of a pervasive climate of racism central to Israeli society. To explore this claim, the author argues we must examine the discourse on cultural difference that pervades Israeli society, rather than the “official” discourse on racism (framed as it is in a Holocaust trope). This discourse illuminates the Israeli version of the “new racism” in which cultural difference serves to generate structural inequalities in society. The article traces the development of cultural‐ism in the educational system and states that recent programs to “educate for democracy” demonstrate the ways in which, as in Europe and the U.S., notions of democracy and the state are being manipulated to preserve a racialized status quo in the face of challenges by subordinate groups.
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Bene Israel Immigration and Its Social-Cultural Background
  • Saul Joel
Saul Joel, "Bene Israel Immigration and Its Social-Cultural Background," 100-117;
The Jewish Communities of India, 252. 14. Sheldon Kirshner, "minority Within a minority: India's Jews Face Racial Prejudice
  • Nathan Katz
  • Joan G Roland
Nathan Katz, Who are the Jews of India?, 88-89, 124-125, 158-159; and Joan G. Roland, The Jewish Communities of India, 252. 14. Sheldon Kirshner, "minority Within a minority: India's Jews Face Racial Prejudice,"
Overview of Canadian Jewry Sarah Taieb-Carlen, "monocultural Education in a Pluralist Environment: Ashkenazi Curricula in Toronto Jewish Educational InstitutionsThe North African Jews in Toronto Today: Assimilation or Survival
  • Canadian Jewish
  • News Weinfeld
  • Randal F Schnoor
  • David S Koffman Sarah Taieb-Carlen
Canadian Jewish News, April 21, 1978, 15. 15. morton Weinfeld, Randal F. Schnoor, and david S. Koffman, "Overview of Canadian Jewry," in American Jewish Year Book 2012, eds. Arnold dashefsky and Ira Sheskin (dordrecht, Germany: Springer, 2013), 61. 16. Sarah Taieb-Carlen, "monocultural Education in a Pluralist Environment: Ashkenazi Curricula in Toronto Jewish Educational Institutions," Canadian Ethnic Studies. 24(3)(1992):75-86; and Sarah Taieb-Carlen, "The North African Jews in Toronto Today: Assimilation or Survival," in From Iberia to Diaspora: Studies in Sephardic History and Culture, eds. Yedida K. Stillman and Norman A. Stillman (Boston, mass.: Brill Academic Publishers, 1999), 151-154.
The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, 85-94; see also Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America
  • Harold Troper
and Harold Troper, The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, 85-94; see also Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America, 33-35;