Born This Way

Badass women have played heroic roles in many tales of Jewish survival.

Watching the United Jewish Appeal’s community briefing on Zoom, it comes to me. We’ve got this. We, humanity’s tiny contingent of Jews, come from resilient stock. Our ancestors were survivors, if not of the Holocaust then of one of the other mass culls that have kept our numbers to a mere 16 million and scattered us around the globe.

Any of us who are here today are because some ancestor escaped by the skin of their teeth. We are the descendants of the wily ones, the quick thinkers, the ones who were tough, resourceful and smart, the ones who got away.

Survival is written in our DNA, just as impending doom is etched deep into our cultural psyche. Every year at Passover, we recite the words:

Bechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu
In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us

Still, most of us were not expecting the sudden spike of Jew hate. Could not have imagined. And so fast. Unbelievable. We repeat it over and over. What is happening is unbelievable.

But is it?

Not anymore. Modern times may have lulled us into imagining we were safe, but we are awake now. Generational memory has kicked in. We know how this goes, we’ve seen it before.

Our experience with antisemitism is millennia deep. Through the ages we have tried every strategy imaginable. What can our ancestors’ experience teach us about surviving today’s terror?

A framed photo of my father’s beloved bubbe hung in our dining room throughout my childhood, her ancient face lined and wrinkled, her head covered by a thick scarf loosely knotted under her chin. Three squat candles stand lit in tall silver holders and she is using her hands to draw their light and warmth toward her as she recites the Shabbos blessings. You’d never guess this old woman was a badass. Badass women have played heroic roles in many tales of Jewish survival. In the late 1800s, my great grandmother raised her children in Chernobyl — in what was, to her mind, Russia. Antisemitism was on the rise, as it is here in Canada today. Jews were pushed out of trades they’d plied for generations and blamed for all of society’s woes. Violence was a given. But as my grandfather told it, when the Cossacks showed up at their house, the town’s non-Jewish mayor did too. He pointed out two windows for the marauders to break and then shooed them away before they did further damage. Then, I imagine my great grandmother presenting the mayor with a bottle of her homemade schnapps. She made booze out back. Supplied the whole town, including the mayor. Our family was saved by a backyard still.

Coincidentally, the community leaders on today’s UJA briefing are talking about the importance of building relationships with elected representatives. Politicians, they tell us, are more apt to act on your behalf if they’ve known you for a while. Hopefully, you’ve heeded this advice and made friends in high places before the marauders arrive at your door. But if the violent masses are already breaking in, a little hospitality might help.

My friend, Sharon, told me a story about a European Jewish community in the late 1800s. When they learned that a pogrom was about to descend upon them, the women hurried to their kitchens. They prepared a huge feast and set it out on tables that blocked the streets where Jews lived. A full belly can dull the urge to torment Jews.

Almost two centuries later, Rachel Edri, shared a recipe for her lifesaving cookies on TikTok. A diabetic, Edri doesn’t eat her own homemade cookies. When Hamas terrorists burst into her home in Ofakim, Israel on October the 7th, she reasoned that hungry people are angry people. She treated the terrorists like guests, offering food, drink and cheerful conversation. Even the best chocolate chip cookie recipe or the strongest homemade vodka is at best a delay tactic. After a 20 hour ordeal, rescuers finally arrived. One of the now well-fed terrorists grabbed Edri by her neck, brandished a grenade and threatened to kill her.

At the turn of the last century, government officials offered Jews about as much protection as they do in Canada in 2024, which is to say next to none. Ordinary people weren’t standing up to protect them either. It didn’t take long for Eastern European Jews to realize that they were going to have to take defensive action to protect their own.

Youth, workers, students, Hebrew teachers and artisans began to organize themselves into self-defence groups. In some communities they collected money to buy guns. In Yekaterinoslav, the iron smith topped poles with iron spikes. In Balta, the Jewish self-defence unit developed a secret communication system using shofars.

No shofar necessary these days; now we have WhatsApp, Facebook, group chats and Zoom. Today, the UJA is calling for volunteers to patrol Toronto’s day schools. To stand tall and confident as little children dash from their parents’ cars for the safety of their schools. To cast a stoney gaze across the urban landscape, alert for hostile forces. To look out for our own here in Toronto in 2024 as we did in Odessa in a century earlier.

We have no choice but to stand up for ourselves, to speak out. We know how this escalates; the progress of antisemitism is etched into the most ancient of our neural pathways.

History has taught us that there is no point in hiding. It didn’t help Ann Frank. Even in the face of hate directed at them for nothing more than being Jews, my great grandmother kept right on lighting Shabbos candles. We feel it today; cruelty, lies, violent protests — they don’t make us abandon who we are. The world’s vitriol transforms us from Jewish to proud Star of David-wearing Jews. Hate doesn’t make us want to turn away, it calls us back to our very core.

Which brings us to another important survival strategy; recognizing when its time to pack the kids and the matzo into the minivan and high tail it for the Red Sea. Thanks to the still, my father’s father’s family got passports and got out. They made it North America in 1911.

My mother’s father came from what was, to his mind, Romania. Same time frame, same climate of Jew hate. In the streets, angry men shouted “Away with the Jews to Palestine.”

With no work and no food, the members of an amateur Yiddish theatre troupe in Barlad, Romania saw only one solution to their plight: America. But with no money to pay for travel, their only choice was to leave on fus — Yiddish for foot. Thus the Fusgeyer movement was born.

The plan — to walk across Europe — sounded crazy. The Barlad Fusgeyers formed themselves into committees to plan every aspect of their trek. One account compared the level of organization to a parliamentary government. Seventy-five men and three women signed on for the trek. They slept in fields and put on shows to raise money. Everywhere they went, Jews greeted them with open arms, fed them, clothed them, gave them money and wine. The Fusgeyers marched across Romania to the Hungarian border. From there, Jewish charity carried them through Budapest, Vienna, Rotterdam, London, Liverpool and onto ships bound for the Americas.

That group from Barlad inspired others. They also sent back detailed instructions so they could follow in their fus-steps. Check out the passenger lists for ships arriving in Quebec City, Montreal and Halifax in the early 1900s to see page after page of Romanian arrivals. 

Cooperation, community, organization. It got a lot of Jews out of Romania and it’s happening here in Toronto. The UJA staff tell us that institutions from all corners of the Jewish community are collaborating, productively, harmoniously, supportively. Whatever differences there may have been have evaporated. Now there is cooperation. It’s remarkable, but not unprecedented. This is precendented.

When my grandfather talked about his mother, the still and Cossacks, he did not convey the fear he — then a young child — must have felt. Instead, Grandpa portrayed the violent men who came to attack his family as buffoons. He used the same sly grin and cadence he used to tell his favourite joke.

That joke was about a Jew and the priest trying to convince him to convert. When the priest organizes a boycott of his store, the Jew finally caves and agrees to to the conversion. The priest takes some holy water, sprinkles it on his head, intoning “Jew Jew be a Christian.” The Jew thinks he’s home-free, but now the priest has a new demand. He expects to be invited to dinner. The Jew caves to this demand too. When the priest arrives for Friday night dinner he sees a chicken on the table. Spluttering with shock, the priest informs the Jew that on Fridays fish must be served. Without skipping a beat, the Jew dips his fingers into a glass, flicks some water droplets at the bird and intones “Chicken, chicken, be a fish.”

Grandpa couched his warning about the futility of assimilation in a joke. Like Purim, the tenor of the tale contrasts with its meaning. In the joke, assimilation seems like a practical choice made for survival. But after the  the holy water has been sprinkled and the words spoken, the Jew is not sufficiently transformed for either the priest or for Haman. Is it possible to transform a Jew into something that haters won’t hate? This month in honour of Ramadan, Toronto’s non-Jewish mayor, Olivia Chow, invited guests to an Iftar dinner in City Hall’s Council Chamber. She even donned a head covering out of respect for her guests. They, in turn, disrupted the event screaming their demands that Chow denounce Israel, shouting over her as she repeated again and again that she had called for a ceasefire months earlier.

Many of those driving the current wave of hate don’t want Jews to adopt their customs. They just want us dead. This valuable tidbit is passed from generation to generation with jokes, silly skits and masquerade parties. Assimilation as a survival strategy is not something to take seriously.

A sense of humour and a positive attitude may be the greatest survival strategies in the Jewish arsenal. The Fusgeyers were faced with a vile and untenable situation. As in Toronto and so many other places around the world today, Jewish businesses were boycotted and vandalized, cultural and religious symbols defaced and destroyed. But these young people rejected the victim card and led with optimism and Jewish pride instead. They marched in formation under a banner of blue and white. They were greeted as heroes by cheering crowds. They inspired many others and in so doing, saved many lives.

Humanity persists in showing us the worst it has to offer. We survive. We do it with wit, ingenuity and strength, with determination, resilience and pride. We do it together.

L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim
Next year in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Jill Golick is a Canadian screenwriter and digital creator. She is currently writing a book about her brain.
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