Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

The existential sadness of hamentashen

I learned recently that there’s a Norwegian phrase, oppe og ikke gråte, that roughly translates to “up and not crying,” and for many Canadian Jews who are continuing to go about their lives in the last couple of weeks, the Norwegians say it best. This weekend marks the holiday of Purim, when we’re all supposed to gather communally to celebrate the destruction of an ancient foe, Haman, and eat, drink and be merry. But for Jews the world over, the question of how one celebrates the destruction of Haman when a contemporary enemy, Hamas, remains is a pressing one – and for Canadian Jews, events of the past number of weeks make it even harder to celebrate. Celebrate what? One of the old adages about Jewish history and Jewish food is “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” – but that rings far more hollow this year, when attempts to destroy the Jewish community are alive and well. And I don’t just mean the Jewish community in Israel. Even here in Canada, we have precious little to celebrate.

I’m writing a book right now on Jewish history through food, and I’m currently writing a vignette about Purim celebrations around the world. The story of our food is the story of ourselves, and one of the most fascinating elements about Purim in the Middle East was how it was celebrated annually with exclusively vegetarian foods. Jews would gather around tables filled with hearty legume-filled dishes, inspired by how Queen Esther ate a vegetarian diet in Achashverus’ palace as a way of maintaining her secret Jewish identity. A few weeks ago, I found this a quaint and interesting piece of Jewish history, not nearly as exciting at the prospect of baking Iraqi “Haman’s fingers” and Italian “Chiacchiere” this year with my kids instead of the same old Hamentashen.

How ironic that I now have to wonder whether or not the Canadian Jewish community is going to be seeing unprecedented rates of forced-vegetarianism in the near future. I learned, from Eric Grossman’s excellent article, that Canada is on the verge of effectively outlawing shechting, the process of kosher slaughtering. In an attempt to bring all contemporary slaughtering up to animal ethical codes, the Jewish prescription that an animal must be in good-health and otherwise undamaged before slaughter – a system that was created to be the most humane, as it is done in a way that the animal will lose consciousness instantly – means that kosher slaughtering will effectively be disallowed, since you cannot stun-gun an animal in advance. There are loopholes that allow halal slaughtering, which is otherwise quite similar, to continue, but despite repeated attempts to demonstrate the science to CFIA, those loopholes have not been extended to the Jewish community. Per Eric Grossman, perhaps odd in a country where seal clubbing is still permissible.

Historically, the attempt to end kosher slaughtering is a canary in the coal mine for Jewish rights in a country. In Europe, it was always the first step of many. We’re a community of about 500,000 – and what, those of us who keep kosher are just expected to all become vegetarians? In an era when traditional food sources and food histories are celebrated, the Jewish one is apparently the exception. Maybe if we disguise kosher abattoirs as seal-clubbing sites, that’ll do the trick.

And then yesterday, the Jewish community was dealt another blow of the double-standard variety. The NDP was joined by a number of Liberal leaders in putting forth a non-binding motion ceasing military aid to Israel on the basis of its “occupation” of Gaza, in addition to a watered-down version of the NDP motion to unilaterally declare a recognition of a Palestinian state. I’m going to be honest with you, I, too, seek the creation of a Palestinian state. I personally think it’s the only way to peace and security for both peoples. The issue being, of course, that Israel doesn’t occupy Gaza and hasn’t for 17 years, and immediately upon Israel’s pull out of the region, it became a hotbed of terrorism. That blockade that everyone loves to blame for said terror? Created by Egypt and Israel in response to it.

So, yes, of course I want a Palestinian state, but considering the long history of Palestinian leadership’s refusal to live side-by-side, how does Canada intend to ensure that Israelis aren’t living through October 7 after October 7? Particularly when parts of the West Bank are mere kilometers from the airport? I think what the Canadian government has shown, for the umpteenth time of late, is how little it cares about its Jewish citizens. After all, haven’t you just given terrorist organizations a how-to manual? Embed yourself in a local population, ensuring only civilians die? Check. Commit 17 years of atrocities, leading up to a barbaric massacre, and wait for the world to give you a reward for doing so? Check. Steal all of the food from your civilians, terrorize them into silence, and make it so that a G7 country actually claps themselves on the back for supporting a known terrorist organization that they recognize thus? Check. Sorry terrorist groups around the world who are attempting to learn from this playbook: unless you’re Islamic fundamentalists attacking Israel, this isn’t likely to garner you any points. Military actions to eradicate you are unlikely to merit much of a response. I remember seeing Justin Trudeau speak to the Jewish community mere weeks after October 7th, where he reiterated his long-standing commitment to Israel’s self-defense. His hypocrisy is staggering.

And so here Canadian Jews stand, on the precipice of a holiday of joy. This weekend we are supposed to gather in community and read Megillat Esther, drink until we can’t recognize who is friend or foe, and help each other to create meaningful community food experiences. When the name of Haman is read in the Megillah, we’re supposed to jeer so loud that one cannot hear his name. But no amount of noisemakers can blot out the existential fears of today. When a similarly-named enemy is far from relegated to the past, and instead, stands in front of us in all of their wisdom. For yes, Hamas is wise. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And even though I’m not a religious person, at no other time has God’s face felt more hidden, as it is in the story of Purim.

I know that we are supposed to take from it that miracles are possible on earth without the direct intervention of God, but as a Canadian Jew today, it is the miracle under threat. That we have a Jewish state, after 2,000 years of exile and destruction. That we have comfortable lives in North America. That we are free to practice our religion and be one of a myriad of nations, after generations of trauma and tragedy. All of that is being threatened today. It feels, this year, like any celebrations will be perfunctory. I can barely even bring myself to order the groceries to make the cookies that, mere weeks ago, I was so excited to introduce my kids to. I can hardly imagine celebrating through the tears. But for all of us that will meet for Purim this weekend, who don’t feel that they can genuinely express the happiness required, may I suggest an alternative to “chag sameach” – “up and not crying” works great.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.