People of PEC would like to begin by expressing such immense gratitude for the courage and wisdom of a young woman to put pen to paper and articulate her experiences and feelings in such a remarkable and powerful way. And to her father Lenny Epstein, who had the courage to publish this. The feelings he must be experiencing as a father and a public figure are innumerable to imagine. We applaud your tenacity to shed light on these issues. And we are sorry this has been your experience.
People of PEC is honoured to share these powerful words here today.
“My daughter Talia wrote the piece below and I want to share it with you on social media because it’s too long for the newspaper. I see a lot of anti-outsider comments on this platform and I think it’s important we ask ourselves what kind of County we want. Is this a place where you can be “County and ________” (eg. Not white, Jewish, Muslim, etc). How can our future generations avoid the pitfalls of racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc. Are we failing our kids?” ~Lenny Epstein
Here it is:
“If you and all your little jew friends are offended, kick rocks and leave The County.” – direct quote of message sent to me.
Like it or Leave it. It’s a narrative that is tied into the very spirit of Prince Edward County. A sense of community so dangerously strong that any question of it is shunned. A sense of pride connected to who has been here the longest. Whose grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents owned what land when. It’s a game locals love to play. Who grew up with whom. Whose parents knew whose cousin in elementary school. Everyone, even if not connected by blood, is part of a huge family who would go to any lengths to protect each other.
And on the outside of that circle of fierce loyalty are all the people who struggle to align their identities with those that are displayed in our friends and neighbors. We try to relate to the conversations about our neighborhoods and community that date back hundreds of years, before our ancestors even stepped foot on Candian soil.
So many amazing and unique people welcomed us when we moved here, and so many more grew close to us and appreciate our presence to this day. But when I make a move to question that huge family unit, even some of those people turn. After all, “we are an old community, not a new one”. Starting school in PEC in grade 7, after being homeschooled and protected for 3 years since moving here from Kingston, was a massive wakeup call. Within months no one was speaking to me. I focused on schoolwork and accepted that my social life would be non existent for the time being. I started to notice people joking and talking about the history I realized I had no part of.
My history was different. It took place in different countries, under different circumstances, and with different outcomes. Then I started hearing my peers talking about things I did know, but not in ways I knew. I would be called over to a classmate’s desk, only to be greeted by an image of Anne Frank, with the heading: “One Time At Camp We Got So Baked, Anne Frankly, It Was Awesome.” My classmates would giggle as they watched me waiting for a reaction. Time and again I would be summoned to people’s computers, to be greeted by whatever gem came up after a google search for “jew jokes”.
One indoor recess while playing cards with the other girls in my class the girl next to me turned towards me and stuck something to my shirt. Everyone laughed as I glanced down and saw a huge yellow six pointed star made of construction paper and adorned with the word “JEW” written in marker. Those years in elementary school cemented the idea in my mind that the county was not my home. It was only a home to those who had always called it home. Who actually belonged. At 12 years old I would stay up late making plans for my dream house in Toronto or Ottawa. So excited to leave the county and everything it stood for. I hated it here. Then I started high school and things changed.
People didn’t stop googling ‘jew jokes’ or sticking six pointed stars to my person. And they started doing new things: drawing swastikas on my belongings, throwing coins at my feet in the halls, and addressing me as Jew instead of you. But I also had friends. Some of the people who laughed during those indoor recesses at My elementary school, turned into the best people in my life. People I now call my best friends and would trust with my life. People who stuck with me through so much. They gave me reasons to stay in the county, to try to build a home here.
So I started to look at the things I would change about the County if I could. The things that could be better about a pretty awesome place. My attention was brought to a local business with a name that sounded eerily similar to language used in the Nazi propaganda of WWII to describe the eradication of the Jews- The Final Solution. I talked to some friends about it and decided to reach out to the owner of the business via email. I never got a response. I posted my feelings about the situation to my instagram story, expecting backlash to the degree I experienced regularly, but was blown away by a display of fear and loyalty I never dreamed possible.
I was met with a stream of comments, including those quotes already mentioned, and many others, some examples of which are: “no wonder the County ain’t the County no more. It’s people like you that wreck it”, “we aren’t Toronto, we are the County. Get that through your thick skull”, ”I’ll just let you carry on destroying what was our beautiful County”, “the County is fine the way it is. Dont like it, leave”, “I have problems with people trying to change stuff”, “discrimination doesn’t just happen to Jews”, “you’re just too f*cking dumb”, “the new generation is so sensative”, “it’s only you guys that have twisted the words”, “if you don’t like it, move away”, “you’re a real f*cking c*nt”, “I can’t listen to you, I don’t want to lose that many brain cells”, “grow tf up”, “Nobody needs you shoving those beliefs down their throat”, “you’re a joke, bud”. It was a variety of comments from a variety of people, but seemed to boil down well into one simple message, courtesy of a girl I knew of from school, but had never spoken to. “It would be better if you left”.
So I wanted to ask the residents of PEC something very important. Do we as a community want to be a place that drives people away when they bring attention to our flaws? Or do we want to welcome that criticism as an opportunity to make our home a home to anyone else who might want to join us? Prince Edward County is a beautiful place. It is full of beautiful compassionate people. It is full of people who are so admirably connected and caring. It is and always will be my home, and home to other Jews and other minorities.
This is a chance for all of us to broaden our horizons and learn about things and people we might never have had the chance to. I know that the County is capable of being the most amazing place on earth, and it hurts to see that potential not being reached. It hurts to think the magnificent sense of community the County has built over the centuries is being expressed at the expense of other people. No, my great great great grandparents weren’t loyalists, farming the same fields that are still being farmed today along some gravel backroad. I wasn’t even born here. But that doesn’t mean that the County isn’t my home. It is. And I am beyond proud to call it such.
Now when I think about my future, it’s here. I want to have a career here, and raise a family here. Let my children experience the strength and love of the County while also being able to be proud of their own history. I want them to have a home in a County that lets them be proudly Jewish and proudly PEC. why is it that we have built a place where being both is a challenge?
On September 30 and October 1, 2019, millions of Jewish people around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish new year. Families around the globe will gather around their tables and dip apples in honey to bring in a sweet new year and celebrate how far the world has come. I hope all of Prince Edward County can join me in taking that first step, because what better time to build a place built on tradition but open to change than a whole new year. ~~Talia
People of PEC read this last night and was absolutely blown away by the experiences this young lady had to share. Hopefully this has inspired thoughtfulness and reflection. Hopefully it has sparked a conversation that is desperately needed. And hopefully a bridge can be built that will begin to inspire a change here within the shores of our beautiful island community.
Thank you Talia and Lenny.