Skip to content

Victoria’s Jewish community explores how its history holds similiarities with local First Nations’

Richard Kool will discuss his research into the history of the Shepardim Jewish people
The Congregation Emanu-El synagogue in downtown Victoria will host a talk this week that recalls aspects of Jewish history, some that mirror the experiences of local First Nations. (File photo)

A Victoria historian from the Jewish community says there are significant similarities between his community and local First Nations.

Richard Kool is a professor of environment and sustainability at Royal Roads University and the director of the Victoria Jewish Cemetery. In an upcoming presentation at the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, Kool will discuss his research into the history of his ancestors, Southern European –or Shepardim Jews– who migrated from Spain and Portugal to Amsterdam and eventually the rest of the world. He will also explore how their history matches those of the Lekwungen peoples.

ALSO READ: Jewish film, culture celebrated during annual festival

“Really, the Amsterdam Jewish community all begins with Catholics,” Kool said.

At the end of the 15th century Judaism was banned across Europe, and people could convert to Catholicism, leave or be killed.

ALSO READ: Federation represents diversity of Jewish life in Greater Victoria

Many Jewish people from Southern Europe “converted” to Catholicism, but kept small parts of their culture within their families.

By the early part of the 17th century, many of these people moved to the Netherlands where they were allowed to practice any religion, and established a large Portuguese-Jewish community that built what was then the largest Synagogue in the world.

“They had to change their names from Christian ones to rediscover a Jewish name, and to reintegrate into their cultures,” Kool explained. “Luckily, there were Rabbis in Southern Europe that had not been forced to convert, and they were able to explain traditions and help maintain the language.”

Even after all of this migration many of his own ancestors did not survive the horrendous waves of the Holocaust. Kool pointed out a photo from his mother’s family which showed 22 people; only one survived.

This, Kool argues, mirrors the cultural genocide seen by local First Nations.

“They suffered three or four generations without their culture, their language was lost, and while people maintained tradition in some ways there was no written culture to preserve things,” Kool said.

“While Jews could call on others to tell them what they’ve lost, the Coast Salish don’t have a refuge in a safe place to tell them how to do it… I don’t think many really appreciate how difficult it is to reconstruct an identity.”

Kool said that the Congregation Emanu-El has tried to pay homage to the local peoples in several ways, including a prayer that’s been used for over 20 years at the beginning of each Shabbat that recognizes local First Nations and their presence.

“We just got new prayer books, too, that specifically recognize the Lekwugen people and not just a generic term,” Kool said.

Throughout the past several decades, Rabbis and First Nations leaders have met for various reasons, and Kool said it was neat to see both cultures introduce themselves with their “inside names and outside names,” or Anglicized names and heritage names.

At Congregation Emanu-El, the Torah script is enclosed by a curtain with an eagle on it, something local leaders also noted as an important spiritual entity.

ALSO READ: Victoria synagogue restores 300-year-old scrolls

“Heck, you could even make a joke about how we both like smoked salmon,” Kool laughed.

Kool’s presentation will run at the Congregation Emanu-El at 1461 Blanshard St. on Nov. 25 at 2:00 p.m. All are welcome and admission is by donation.

Send a Tweet: @NicoleCrescenzi

Like us on Facebook