Serving Winnipeg's Jewish Community Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google BookmarksSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn Youtube

By JOANNE SEIFF When Bernie Bellan asked me if I might write for this paper, he suggested writing about the Jewish newcomer experience in Winnipeg. Upon reflection, I realized that this experience is as individual as the newcomers themselves.

Unlike the first waves of Jewish immigration to Manitoba, Jewish immigrants today aren’t primarily from Eastern Europe. We aren’t all Ashkenazic, or Yiddish speakers, or Caucasian. While some might move here to be closer to family or friends, others move with absolutely no connections.
Newcomers who take a big leap and move to another country have something in common, despite first appearances. We may not speak the same language, have the same religious customs, wear similar clothing or share physical commonalities. Even so, we try to see the world the way Caleb and Joshua did. Who, you ask? You know, those guys from the Torah. It’s in this week’s parsha (portion), Sh’lach Lecha, Numbers 13:1 -15:41 You can read it here:
Here’s a recap. Moses sends out 12  spies to check out the Land of Israel and report. He wants to know about who lives there and what the land looks like. Most of the spies report that the people who live there are giants. Joshua and Caleb offer a more positive report: a land of milk and honey. G-d wants to wipe out the Children of Israel, but Moses intervenes. As punishment, all those who left Egypt can’t enter Israel, except for Joshua and Caleb. Moses explains the mitzvot of setting aside challah, observing Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of tzitzit. (those knotted fringes on a Tallit). This summary came, in part, from
It’s daunting to leave friends and family, familiar landscapes and weather, and to head to a new country. Most who consider it would respond exactly the way the other spies did. That new place is scary! The people are enormous! It can’t be done.
I’ll never forget people’s reactions when we were leaving Kentucky, where my husband was a professor, to move to Winnipeg. When hearing we were moving to a cold place that they’d never heard of, the kindest response was “Better you than me!” More than one person asked why we would consider it at all.
Immigrants, like Joshua and Caleb, look on the bright side. We try to see opportunity and interesting challenges where others might see impossible difficulties. That said, no place is perfect. Change is hard. It’s easy to feel discouraged, lonely or depressed. That’s normal, and no person in his/her right mind would think -40 temperatures are an easy adjustment! Even so, I’m not over the novelty of getting to stand on top of a wintertime river. It blows my mind every time. Plus, getting outside gives me a chance to wonder at the natural world…and it reminds me that unlike my time living in upstate New York, (Ithaca and Buffalo), there just isn’t that much snow here. Sometimes experiencing a new climate reminds us that it could be a heck of a lot worse!
Yet, the most interesting part of this parsha is the end. I’m reminded of when I was completely overwhelmed as a kid. I’d be crying and miserable. My mother would sit me down at a table with paper and pencil and make me write a list. Top on the list would be “wash your face” and “go to the bathroom.” Then she’d help me formulate a To Do list of what had to be accomplished. At the end of the list, I’d be calm enough to go to the bathroom and wash my face – thus crossing two things off the list right away. Whew. I was getting somewhere.
The Divine narrator of this parsha does the same thing. This parsha gives Israelites a “to do” list. Challah, Shabbat, welcoming strangers, and tzitzit are concrete tasks, grounding, specific activities that make the overwhelming tasks of moving to a new land more manageable.
The metaphors of uprooting oneself, leaving everything behind to go far away are some of the most alarming and overwhelming ones I can think about. Yet, each time I face a big move to a new place, the first thing I do is make a list and a plan. Like physically touching one’s tzitzit to remind of us the 613 mitzvot (commandments,) I can do something hands-on to remind me what to do to make the transition better.
Immigrants encounter new experiences and adventures. We share something vital in common. We know how to pack one box at a time, fill out the paperwork, call the utility companies, and make a life for ourselves somewhere new. It’s both frightening and possible, one thing at a time.
It’s important to realize that those of us who have been here for a while look a lot like giants to newcomers. It’s our responsibility to be friendly, welcoming giants.
Historically, Jews are experts at immigration. We tame the wilderness, the anxiety of upheaval, through the To Do list and being open to new challenges. We might not all make our own challah, wear tzitzit or be Shomer Shabbat, but everyone can welcome a stranger or carve out a moment to rest on Saturdays…and most people can take on new, stimulating challenges, even if they aren’t moving to a new country.
Start with sitting down. Try making a list.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.

Add comment

Security code