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Sunday, October 26, 2014

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Film series continues for Jewish and Muslim 'twins' in Toronto

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Rabbi Debra Landsberg of Temple Emanu-El, left, and Samira Kanji , president of the Noor Cultural Centre, welcome the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims to the Muslim/Jewish Film Series during the Weekend of Twinning of Synagogues and Mosques.

Samira Kanji, Azeezah Kanji, Barbara Landau, and Karen Mock, Special to The CJN

On Jan. 18, Temple Emanu-el and the Noor Cultural Centre, an Islamic educational and cultural organization, will continue their ongoing dialogue through the vehicle of film.

The first film in the Muslim/Jewish series was held in November during the annual Weekend of Twinning of synagogues and mosques, conceived by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) in New York, N.Y., and co-ordinated in Canada by the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM). Since it began in 2008, the twinning program has expanded worldwide to Jewish and Muslim communities who get together to build connections of understanding and friendship.

In November, members of Toronto’s Jewish and Muslim communities gathered at Temple Emanu-el to watch Arranged, a beautiful tale of unlikely friendship based on a true story, in which Rochel – an Orthodox Jewish woman – and Nasira – a conservative Muslim woman – meet as new teachers in a Brooklyn, N.Y., public school. Both are in the process of having their marriages arranged (or more accurately, of being introduced to potential partners by family and community members.) Their similar journeys to betrothal, and their shared experiences as religiously devout women in a secular environment, bring Nasira and Rochel together.

This month, the Jewish/Muslim Film Series continues at the Noor Cultural Centre with an award-winning Lebanese movie, Where Do We Go Now?  which received Ecumenical Special Mention and the Francois Chalais Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (2011), and the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (2011). This humourous and insightful film promises to stimulate a dynamic and fruitful discussion of how neighbours from different faith communities can diffuse tensions through various means, when political strife threatens peace and friendship.

The value of important initiatives such as the Weekend of Twinning and the Jewish/Muslim Film Series lies in their ability to illuminate the commonality of our struggles, diffracted through the prism of our differences. We hope more and more people from our two diverse communities will join us (admission is free) as we continue to find common ground and to deepen our friendships, thereby enhancing our understanding of and commitment to what it means to be Canadian.

Film is a wonderful vehicle for people to start what can be called ‘courageous conversations.’ It is very effective to share a common experience through a film, and then have a frank discussion afterwards.  As Jews and Muslims living in Toronto, we constantly encounter the diversity of religious beliefs and practices within our respective traditions, as well as the diversity between them. Such encounters with difference may be deeply challenging and yet profoundly enriching. Watching Arranged together helped bridge schisms across both interfaith and intra-faith divisions – between Jewish and Muslim, conservative and liberal, Orthodox and Reform – to dispel stereotypes by bringing into focus the humanity of those on the other side of the divide.

It may seem counter-intuitive to describe Arranged as a feminist film, given the popular portrayal of religion as utterly and irredeemably patriarchal. Religious women, Muslim and Jewish, are frequently represented as deluded by some figment of “false consciousness,” generated by their internalization of perniciously patriarchal norms. For example, the image of the oppressed religious woman haunts recent arguments supporting Quebec’s proposed charter of values, with restrictions on religious veiling imagined as freeing (if not saving) Muslim women.

Arranged disrupts the all-too-common-but-simplistic narrative that women’s empowerment necessarily lies in liberation from the shackles of religion.  Some women undoubtedly experience religion as an oppressive imposition. But for many women, religion is an important source of selfhood and belonging, of meaning and guidance. The film beautifully shows how the protagonists navigate multiple systems of norms – family expectations, culture and tradition, religion, liberal feminism, secularism – as they chart the courses of their futures.

As our subsequent discussion revealed, we are all shaped and limited by many influences we don’t necessarily choose, or even consciously perceive: the values of our families and religious communities; societal norms of gender and morality; state laws; popular media; advertising. None of us exercises choice wholly free of conditioning and social constraint.

Samira Kanji and Azeezah Kanji are with Noor Cultural Centre (www.noorculturalcentre.ca). Barbara Landau and Karen Mock represent the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (www.cajmcanada.org), founded in 1996 and organizing the Weekend of Twinning in the GTA since 2008. For more information on the film series and/or to participate in further activities of the CAJM, please check their websites.

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