A minority of one

March 2019
Ben Shragge

Greater Boston, where I now live, has approximately 62 times the number of Jews as Hamilton, where I grew up. To put it another way, 0.7 per cent of Hamilton’s population is Jewish, while 7 per cent of Boston’s population is Jewish. 

Outside of Israel (and a few outliers like the all-Jewish town of Krasnaya Sloboda in Azerbaijan), Jews are everywhere a minority. But there are different degrees of minority.

In Hamilton, I was usually the only Jew in my public school class. I was often the first Jew my friends had ever met. I was the one kid sitting silent while everyone else sang Christmas carols. Of the Jews in other grades, most were my siblings. There’s being part of a minority community, and then there’s being alone.

I’m still impressed that in Boston, there are circles of Jews unaware of each other’s existence. There are minorities of a minority—Russian Jews, Israeli Jews, gay Jews, social justice Jews—greater in number than all the Jews in Hamilton. Youth organizations can hold competing events on the same night, and there’s enough critical mass for both to have a high turnout.

Critical mass is a key term for any minority. After 9/11 brought that country into the news, I was struck by a story about the last two Jews in Afghanistan, neither of whom spoke to each other. Two Jewish men, incommunicado, living in an Islamic theocracy in Central Asia: barring some incredible proselytizing, that is the definition of a minority below critical mass.

Older Jews use the continuity argument to pressure the young to maintain Jewish traditions and marry each other — if you don’t, this argument goes, Jews will disappear, and the sacrifices of your ancestors will have been in vain.
But Jews in general are well above critical mass. We’re not the Yezidis (numbering about a million, indigenous to Mesopotamia, persecuted by the Islamic State) or the Samaritans (numbering about eight hundred, descendants of ancient Israelites, prone to genetic disease). The success of Israel, a concentration of more than six million Jews living in an indelibly Jewish context, guarantees continuity.

Beyond Israel, Jewish life will never sink to Afghan status in places like New York, Boston, and Toronto, because there are enough Jews there for Jewish life to continue. Some will immigrate, some will emigrate; some will marry in, some will marry out; some will join, some will abstain. The net result might be more or less Jews than before, but on balance there’ll be a critical mass. It’s the places below critical mass, but above two old men living under the Taliban, where continuity is a question.

Hamilton is clearly not Kabul, but it’s also clearly not Boston. A top university and health system, plus the overpriced unlivability of Toronto, will ensure a steady influx of diverse professionals into Hamilton, Jews included. And Jewish Hamilton certainly has strong institutions and dedicated individuals. But are those individuals enough to form a critical mass, especially among the young? Because, as much as we love and respect our elders, a young person’s life is shaped by peers, not by dedicated sixty-somethings.

I know what it’s like to attend after-school Hebrew classes, and be the only kid in your grade to show up. I know what it’s like to grow up in a kosher home, and then have lunch in a school where nobody even knows what kosher means. I know that in those circumstances, something has to give, and it’s going to be separating meat and dairy, because being a minority of one is unsustainable. We’re social animals, after all.

But I will say something positive about growing up as an absolute minority. You can live a shallow Jewish life in Thornhill, miming along to ritual without thought or intention. You can do so because of social pressure flowing in the opposite direction: from a majority minority. You can do so because everyone around you is doing it, not out of any passion or conviction or reflection. Continuity then becomes inertia, a passive going through the motions.

That’s not possible in a place like Hamilton. If you’re being taught and pressured to do what nobody around you is doing, you’re going to ask a lot of questions, and struggle with it, and maybe ultimately stop doing it. But whether you end up embracing or rejecting tradition, you’ll be doing so consciously in a way that makes you a deeper and stronger person for the struggle.

Maybe that absolute minority experience is truer to the Hebrew meaning of Israel, “struggle with God.” Then again, maybe life is struggle enough.

Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the Hamilton Jewish News. He currently resides in Boston.