My Jewish Story

by | Oct 10, 2019 | Jewish Life at UofT | 0 comments

By Tyler Samuels

My story is no different from many Jewish stories. However, there is one difference in my story. I am a Jew of Colour (JOC). You may wonder what makes that different from any other Jew. Or, you may think that divides us. Both are true in different ways.

As a JOC, I am a Jew but also a very visible minority. Being a black man in a world of Black Lives Matter and disproportionate police violence against us is challenging. Yet, as Jews, we require the police to protect our shuls and other Jewish-themed areas from antisemitism. Most Jews don’t think about it, but anytime I go to shul, or the JCC, or even Hillel I fear I will be stopped by police or security and asked what I’m doing there.

For those of us who have faced this situation, we sometimes avoid coming to these places out of fear of not being accepted. I know countless JOC who have stopped coming to Jewish spaces due to stares, snide comments, and feeling unwanted. I have always felt this way. On top of the antisemitism I have faced in my life, it seems impossible to remain Jewish!  I had a rabbi tell me that one couldn’t be Black and Jewish; I would have to pick one and stick with it. I have been called Kushi. Someone asked me if I was Ethiopian, and when told no, proceeded to ask “Then how are you Jewish?”. These experiences have made me stronger–toughened the proverbial skin, but like daggers, they sting and hurt with each stab wound. We must do better if we want to bring more equality.

One of my favorite Biblical passages is Deuteronomy 16:19-20: “You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

“Justice, justice shall you pursue” is something I take seriously, and is a line I believe all Jews should take seriously. How can we preach equality but not spread that equality to our fellow Jews that are marginalized? When Jews of Colour get asked “How did you become Jewish?” or are asked at a shul event to get the garbage can, because other Jews think we’re the custodian, we are not achieving this ideal.

I want to acknowledge that some JOC will never face this type of discrimination and have only positive stories; these stories should not be ignored or discounted. I hope for a time when Jews of Colour know that there is a future for us within the Jewish community, that we will find beloved community. For white-passing Jews, I hope these stories teach how to treat Jews that are not like them–who are different and proud to be different. I would much rather fight antisemitism with my community than fight fellow Jews to accept me as any other Jew.

I am proud to be a Jew, and nothing will change that. I can face slurs by other Jews; I can face not being accepted; I can face all of that. However, others cannot, and we lose them. We lose them because we fail to adapt, we lose them because we fail to accept, and we lose them because we lack empathy for the heartbreaking experiences of many Jews of Colour. I have been angry for a long time at the Jewish community, angry because I sought acceptance that would prove my Jewishness to everyone. But I know who I am and what I am, And that is my story.

Tyler Samuels is a Jamaican Jew and a student at the University of Toronto Scarborough studying Political Science and History.

Interested in connecting with fellow Jews of Colour? Hillel is starting a Jews of Colour group. Contact Rabbi Julia for more information.

Parshat Vayeshev

Parshat Vayeshev

In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, Jacob’s familial conflicts continue in future generations with the stories of Joseph and Tamar. For Joseph, this is a sequence of seemingly disastrous events through which G-d’s favor continues to protect him. Of Jacob’s thirteen children, Joseph was his most cherished, and he makes this quite clear to his other sons. Between this and Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams that seem to show him ruling over his brothers, they grow increasingly jealous and wary of him, eventually leading to them selling him for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph continues to be favored by G-d in Egypt and is successful both in the household where he works and even after being thrown into prison, falsely accused by his master’s wife after he rejects her advances. In prison, he continues interpreting dreams including that of the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, and asks him to speak favorably to the Pharaoh after being freed from prison. While Joseph faces continued struggles in this parsha from both his family and community, his hard work and service to those around him is rewarded by G-d even as he is met with ongoing injustices.

The secondary narrative of Vayeshev is of Tamar, Jacob’s grand-daughter in law, who also receives a series of familial catastrophes. Tamar is the wife of Er, son of Judah, son of Jacob. When Er dies, and leaves Tamar childless, the proper protocol of yibbum, where a brother-in-law is meant to marry the wife of his deceased brother, is not carried out by Judah’s son Onan. Therefore G-d kills Onan as well. Fearing the death of his third son, Shelah, Judah delays the possibility of Tamar’s marriage to him, and she is left in limbo for years. Without anyone to marry Tamar and provide her with the expected familial and socioeconomic support she should be entitled to, she is stuck as a childless widow and unable to move on. With this in mind, she takes action by carrying out a deception of Judah to become pregnant by him, posing as a sex worker and disguising herself with a veil. When it becomes clear she is pregnant, the townspeople, including Judah, label her a harlot and call for her death until she proves that Judah was the father and that he refused her the proper marriage to Shelah. Tamar’s endeavors lead to her birthing twins, successfully reasserting her lineage and status, and her deception is praised, both outspokenly by Judah and implicitly by the text, when it is revealed that she is “righteous” and not a “harlot”. 

This week’s parsha is centered around justice and accountability. In a world where women have little agency and recourse over their socioeconomic status or family status, where men can be legally enslaved and imprisoned without trial, where the voices of the powerful are taken more seriously than the words of the oppressed, Tamar and Joseph act resourcefully and with G-d’s favor are able to seek a better outcome for themselves despite the extremely difficult situations that they find themselves in. We too can be inspired by Tamar and Joseph’s courage in our daily lives as we face systems of oppression or work as allies – for women’s rights, anti-carceral justice, anti-poverty work, an end to family violence and more. And we can also learn from Judah’s ability to admit when he was wrong, recanting his callous words against her and praising Tamar for her righteousness, as a tzaddikah. The ability to do better, to learn and grow, and to support our communities is always available to us, no matter what point we are coming from. Parsha Vayeshev may show some of the worst traits of familial rivalry and letdowns, but it also provides us with exceptionally courageous figures we can look to.

Written by Nelson Morgan

My Four Years at Hillel

My Four Years at Hillel

One of my first memories as a UofT student was attending the annual Clubs Fair during Orientation Week. I knew UofT was a big school, but Clubs Fair showed me just how big it really was. All of Front Campus (UofT’s giant greenspace) was filled with representatives of every club you can possibly imagine eagerly trying to recruit nervous first years like me. I didn’t know where to start. As a Jewish high school graduate, I heard of Hillel and thought that it would be a good table to approach first.

Little did I know that my decision that day to take some free swag and add my name to a list would lead me to the warm and welcoming community that is Hillel UofT. Over the years, I joined the Frosh Committee, became a Hillel Student Leader, learned more about Judaism and Israel, and attended Shabbat dinners. I hosted a Lunch & Learn, facilitated an event with a bestselling author, took a day trip to Ottawa to eat lunch with the President of Israel, and ate countless Allen’s Table kosher dinners! Although these experiences were all really memorable, my favourite part of Hillel is actually not a formal event. My favourite part of Hillel was being able to walk into the Wolfond Centre at any time of day and immediately have someone to say hi to. On a campus as big as UofT, knowing that there was a place with friendly people (and lots of free food) who could listen to my complaints about my schoolwork made my time at UofT a lot better.

Like everything else, the pandemic has caused my Hillel experience in the past year to be very different, but Hillel’s warm and welcoming environment endured. Whether it was physically distanced hangouts in the park, weekly Talmud & Tea classes on Zoom, listening to interesting speakers, or just catching with our awesome Hillel staff, I was able to feel a part of the Hillel community even during these difficult times.

At UofT, your university experience ends exactly where it starts: on Front Campus. Twice a year, back when I would attend classes in person, I would see the giant white convocation tent that took up almost half the field. Although I am definitely sad that I won’t be at a ceremony in Convocation Hall and I’ll never get to see the inside of that tent, I am truly grateful for the university experience that I did get to have and for me, that experience would truly not have been the same if it wasn’t for Hillel.

  • David Polisuk, Hillel UofT
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