There are only about 14 million Jews in the world – representing just 0.2 per cent of the global population. Yet, despite our miniscule size, it never ceases to amaze me how many of my Jewish friends are utterly shocked and repulsed by the “ignorance” of their non-Jewish peers when they receive a barrage of blank stares and questions when they drop words like “Rosh Hashanah” or “Yom Kippur” in conversation.
“How have they never heard of a Shabbat dinner?” asked one of my exasperated colleagues.
Well, my answer to that question is quite simple: there aren’t many Shabbat dinners being hosted in Pickering, Ontario. Not everyone has grown up in places like Toronto or Montreal, where they may have been exposed to our culture.
But, let’s back up for a moment and address the real issue at hand. If your gentile friends are ignorant for not knowing about Shabbat dinners and the origins of the matzo ball soup they enjoy every cold season, then let’s step back and be consistent by addressing our own ignorance.
Fellow Jewish students, I challenge you to name three major holidays or theological tenets of other faiths. And don’t cite Christmas or Ramadan as your answers. In fact, don’t cite any Islamic or Christian holidays because the followers of those religions number in the billions. Let’s even the playing field.
When was the last time you wished your Hindu friend a happy Diwali? When was the last time you wished your Sikh friends a happy Vaisakhi? Not only are there more Sikhs and Hindus than there are Jews in Canada, but there are significantly more of them in the world. Let’s also not forget our Buddhist friends, who barely outnumber us in Canada, but who significantly outnumber us when it comes to the global population. They have numerous holidays of importance you should know about including Vesaka, Magha Puja and Loy Madhu Pujaja.
By the way, that last one doesn’t exist, not that most of us would know – because most of us are ignorant about other religions! I jest, of course. It’s not necessarily ignorant to not be a walking encyclopedia of global religions, but it is ignorant to assume that other people should know much about ours.
The point is that some people have been reacting in the wrong way to others’ lack of knowledge about Judaism. Instead of showing shock and displeasure that your new frosh buddy didn’t know Scarlett Johansson is Jewish, use the opportunity to educate him or her about our religion, culture and heritage. And, then, use that as an opportunity to educate yourself. Ask him or her to tell you about his or her religion, culture and heritage. On campus, you have the opportunity to meet people from walks of life you most likely haven’t been exposed to before. It’s a two-way street, so make the most of it.
In fact, on campus, you get to become an ambassador for Judaism. After all, for many people on campus, you may well be the first Jew they’ve ever met.
How do you want your new peer to walk away from the conversation? You have the chance to truly connect with others and educate them. And, sometimes, in the case of those who come from parts of the world that may be rife with anti-Semitism, you have the ability to shatter prejudices.
I know that’s a lot of pressure. You didn’t sign up to be an unofficial spokesperson for Judaism – and you don’t have to be. You don’t have control over what people think and it’s not necessarily your job to influence them. But you do have control of how you think and how you conduct yourself.
So, ultimately, when you email your professor to inform him or her that you have to defer your exam due to Passover, don’t shake your head in disbelief when they ask to check with the Student Equity office to see if that holiday actually exists. Instead, just sit back, relax, and think about how lucky you are to live in a country where everyone can be different together.