TORONTO — Born in Toronto to a Jewish mother and a Black Jamaican father, Sara Yacobi-Harris has been exploring Jewish identity for the last 10 years. While in university, she made the short film “Who is a Jew?” as a thesis project, and in 2020, she co-founded the organization No Silence on Race to help make Canada’s Jewish community more inclusive of those outside the mainstream.
Now, under the auspices of the Ontario Jewish Archives, part of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Yacobi-Harris has directed the cinematic portion of a photographic and film project called “Periphery” that spotlights the often overlooked multi-ethnic and multi-racial pluralism in the local Jewish community. It features the faces and voices of those seeking recognition from their fellow Jews, having faced indifference and a lack of understanding — if not outright discrimination.
“’Periphery’ is contributing to long-overdue conversations in our community and outside it about who Jewish people are and how ethnically diverse we are,” Yacobi-Harris told The Times of Israel during a recent interview. “This project is about re-imaging Jewish life and Jewish identity in ways that allow members of the Jewish community to truly self-actualize.”
Over the past several months, people entering the Prosserman Jewish Community Center (JCC) on the Sherman Campus encountered the just-concluded “Periphery” photo exhibition off the main lobby. It consisted of large color portraits of people not typically associated with Jewish life in Canada.
With their intersecting social identities, the 10 men and women in the photos broaden the usual concept of Jewish identity. Together, their biracial/multiethnic backgrounds include Black/African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American descent.
The intro panel described the photos, taken by Toronto photographer Liat Aharoni, as “representing a range of experiences from isolation, belonging, racism and unity and equity within the Jewish community.”
Quotes beneath each portrait added context, making the images more evocative. The words of Asha Allen-Silverstein, whose father is Jewish and mother Black, reflect the aim of “Periphery”: “As a community, let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about mixed Jews. Let’s talk about not denying people their identities. Let’s talk about inclusiveness.”
The exhibition, which ended in late March, will be viewable online, as will the accompanying documentary film, both of which will now become part of the permanent collection of the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA).
Those appearing in the exhibition come to life in the 27-minute film, addressing what’s clearly a sensitive topic for the interviewees, reflecting different underrepresented minorities in the community,
Actor Nobu Adilman labels himself “Jewpanese,” as his father is Canadian Jewish and his mother Japanese. “What makes a Jew?” he asks. “What do you have to know to be a Jew? As a Jewish community, let’s challenge the idea of what it means to be Jewish and dispel this myth that there’s one way to be Jewish.”
Like others in the film, Sarah Aklilu is mindful of her roots.
“My identity is Jewish, Ethiopian and Canadian,” she says. “Growing up, my Jewish identity has always been questioned: ‘Are you Jewish?’ It made me really question who I am throughout my life. I know I’m Jewish and I feel like I don’t have to explain that I am.”
Periphery came about as the OJA sought to broaden its holdings to better reflect the community it serves.
“As an archive, we like to be as representative as possible of the breadth of the Jewish community,” says Donna Bernardo‑Ceriz, the project’s instigator and managing director, who isn’t Jewish herself.
Bernardo-Ceriz has been working at the OJA since 2007.
“After assessing where the gaps are in our collections and what sort of voices weren’t being captured, we saw that the Sephardic, LGBTQ+, ultra-Orthodox communities and Jews of Color weren’t well-represented in our holdings. In recent years, we’ve been trying to address some of those gaps. The absence of Jews of Color in the archives was problematic and something that needed to be addressed,” she says.
Two years ago, the OJA’s plan to focus on Jews of Color took on a greater urgency and relevance due to events in the United States.
“We had always intended to reach out and start collecting their stories to archive,” Bernardo‑Ceriz says. “But in 2020, with what was happening in the world around anti-Black racism, prompted by the murder of George Floyd, many organizations in North America were addressing the crisis head-on, including No Silence on Race in the Jewish community. It had formed to address the experiences of Jews of Color within the community.”
Bernardo‑Ceriz reached out to Yacobi-Harris after hearing her speak about the work of No Silence on Race at a meeting of the Downtown Jewish Community Council.
“I thought this was a really great group to partner with,” says Bernardo‑Ceriz. “They were making inroads in the Jewish community, they had a message we wanted to amplify and they could help us with our initiatives to collect the records of the multiracial, multi-ethnic Jewish community.”
She pitched the idea of a photo exhibition to Yacobi-Harris as a way to encourage people to donate their materials to the OJA and for its programming side to reflect these stories to the community. Yacobi-Harris welcomed the collaboration but suggested adding the film component to tell individual stories through sit-down interviews.
Yacobi-Harris’s personal experience growing up in Toronto’s Jewish community informed her involvement with the project.
“I was in and out of Jewish life but it was an interesting mixed bag of experiences,” she says. “It was isolating not to see people that looked like you. I got a lot of questions, such as, ‘How are you Jewish? Which of your parents is Jewish? Why are you here?’ A lot of these questions lead to microaggressions, a lot of questioning and challenging of my Jewishness and my Jewish identity.”
In early 2021, after receiving funding from the UJA’s Kultura Collective, Yacobi-Harris assembled a creative team and engaged people underrepresented in the community to be photographed and filmed. In addition to Black Jews, she included multiethnic Jews, a Jew by choice and a gay immigrant couple from Brazil. The fact Toronto was under lockdown due to COVID made everything more challenging as on-location social distancing and wearing masks affected shooting portraits and filming interviews.
“On top of COVID protocols, I was concerned about making people feel safe to tell their story, even if it’s not a pretty story and there are aspects that might be more challenging for them to speak about,” says Yacobi-Harris. “I asked myself, ‘How do we make our participants feel we will handle their story and their experiences respectfully, with care and love and with a desire to bring more awareness to these issues in our community?’”
The film delivers on that score.
Ariella Daniels’s parents, who are Jews from India, told their children while raising them in Toronto that their background presented potential challenges.
“My parents had two uncomfortable conversations with us,” says Daniels on camera. “One was about antisemitism. The other was about the discrimination we may face as being a person of color in the Jewish community.”
Asha Allen-Silverstein is equally candid.
“If you look Black, which I do, you go through life as a Black person,” she says matter-of-factly. “People don’t look at me and think I’m Jewish. Never. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. So for a long time, I chose just to be Black. There are times when I feel like an imposter because I don’t embody what people expect you to look like or be like [as a Jew]. When you show up to a situation, you know they’re going to instantly question or almost disregard your [Jewish] identity a lot of the time.”
As someone who is converting to Judaism, dancer Maxine Lee Ewaschuk appears in the film from a different perspective, having no Jewish background and Irish, Polish, Ukrainian and Korean roots.
“Can I say I’m Jewish?” she asks. “When can I say I’m Jewish? Is it ever OK to say I’m Jewish before I complete conversion, even if I’m functioning very Jewishly in my day-to-day life? Sometimes I say I’m a Jew in progress, and that feels pretty comfortable.”
Collectively, those featured in “Periphery” present a call to action to Toronto’s Jewish community for education about Jewish ethnic diversity and greater inclusiveness.
“If we don’t include the entire range of what’s possible in the Jewish community, we’re missing out on so much,” says Allen-Silverstein. “Let people in. Let’s not be so closed ranks so that people actually have a sense of what the Jewish Diaspora is.”
Daniel Sourani, whose parents are from Baghdad and who identifies himself on camera as a “proud, gay, Iraqi Jew,” also advocates for more assertiveness.
“If you’re out there feeling on the periphery, raise your hand and find a spot for your voice to be heard,” he says. “No one should be thinking I have to either conform to what’s out there already or just be quiet. I don’t think that’s how we’re going to remain strong as a Jewish community.”
In many ways, the Jewish community’s increased sensitivity to the issue of diversity, inclusion and equity among Jews reflects a similar phenomenon in Canadian society at large, in which there’s greater recognition and accommodation of minorities of all kinds, from the disabled to immigrants and transgender people.
Yacobi-Harris, who’s now working on the film’s distribution and submitting it to film festivals, is also developing a curriculum around “Periphery” with the OJA to be used as an educational resource in Jewish and non-Jewish schools in North America to make young people more aware and accepting of minorities than many of their parents were.
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