Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A Letter From Montreal: Tears at the Seder

A lot of people cry at Seders. Some cry for innocuous reasons, because they opened a jar of horseradish a bit too quickly, and the fumes have caused an outburst of tears. Others cry because they have lost a loved one in the previous year, and the empty seat at the seder is too overwhelming. I know of a holocaust survivor who cries bittersweet tears at her seder, unable to believe that she has lived to see her children and grandchildren surrounding her at the holiday feast.

This year, the Jews of Montreal had reason to cry at their seders as well. One of the community’s elementary schools, United Talmud Torah (UTT), was firebombed on the night before Passover. The resulting fire gutted the children’s library, burning nearly 5,000 books. As I arrived at the school the following day, I found the staff in tears, overwhelmed by this hate crime.

I cried as well; the sight was too overwhelming. Burnt books of course, are a frightening reminder of the old Anti-Semitism of Europe. Even worse was the sight of a children’s library in ashes. What sort of twisted hatred motivates someone to venture out at 2 in the morning and burn The Amazing Octopus, Curious George, and a teddy bear?

With the tears come fears. Even though this is considered a relatively “unsophisticated” attack, the fact that the bombers left a note signed “Les Brigades de Sheikh Yassin” is bound to raise Jewish anxiety in a city with a substantial Arab and Muslim population. (The note’s promise to escalate future attacks doesn’t help either). The perception that Canadian immigration policy prior to 9/11 was far too lax is also a cause for concern. And it was another reminder that all too often anti-Semitism masquerades as “mere” anti-Zionism.

But with tears of sadness, come a few tears of joy. On the following day a news conference was held at the school. It included the Mayor of Montreal, Montreal’s police chief, and three ministers from the Quebec and Canadian governments. All of them vigorously condemned the attacks. The Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin, plans on visiting the school in the near future. Clearly, this is no replay of Germany in the 1930’s.

In addition, our community can take personal pride in some of the ministers at the press conference. Lawrence Bergman, a fixture in the Montreal Jewish community (and a former synagogue President), is the Quebec Minister of Revenue. Irwin Cotler, the Canadian Minister of Justice (and a member of our synagogue), is an internationally renowned Jewish leader. Cotler, in particular, was able to speak very movingly about the attack because he is a UTT alumnus. This press conference was eloquent testimony to how well Jews have integrated into the Canadian mainstream.

There was also ample evidence of a community energized to respond. An impromptu rally held that day at the school brought out several hundred people at a moment’s notice. Everyone I meet is ready to help in the rebuilding. At issue is Jewish pride, and there seems to plenty to go around. A sign at the impromptu rally best expresses the community’s feelings: "You can burn our books, but you can't burn our spirits."

Yes, this year, the Jews of Montreal had tears in their eyes at the seder. But they were bittersweet tears, tears that expressed a mixture of pain and pride. Irwin Cotler put it best in a television interview. He said that at the seder, we say that “in every generation they rise up against us”. This, he said, is testimony to the enduring hatred of anti-Semitism. But he pointed out that this section is something more positive as well: it is eloquent testimony to the enduring nature of the Jew.

I entered the building with tears of sadness, overwhelmed by this awful hate crime. I left with tears of joy, with the realization that despite all, “am yisrael chai”, the Jewish people continue to endure and thrive.

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