By Salima Punjani
On September 10th, visitors to Montreal’s Jewish Public Library had the opportunity to participate in a special learning experience. Rather than offering hardcovers and paperbacks, the library hosted 20 volunteers who offered guests their stories as part of a Human Library event. At these events, participants can sign up to take out ‘human books’ for a period of time, to hear people’s stories and have an opportunity to ask questions.
One of the volunteers offering their story was Ayanaw (Avishalom) Dawit. He spoke of the history of the Ethiopian Jewish community, which was isolated from other Jews until 1800. He expressed the impact this connection, acknowledgement and recognition had on his community, and how it impacted his life. At 17, he came to Montreal to escape military conscription in Ethiopia with the help of Jewish Immigration Aid Services. Though he struggled with loneliness when he first arrived in Montreal, he worked hard to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from Concordia University and is now a proud father of four children.
Dana Bell is another ‘book’ that was on offer at the Jewish Human Library. Bell is a child holocaust survivor and author who survived a harrowing journey escaping Nazi occupation of Poland, being separated from and reunited with her parents and making it through a USSR labour camp. She shared her experiences with isolation from her hometown, family and friends and the trauma it inflicted on her.
We spoke with Karen Biskin and Maria Ressina from the Jewish Public Library to expand on how human libraries help build social connectedness.
What inspired you to organize this event?
We chose to host a Human Library event as an avenue for celebrating the diversity of Jewish Montreal after being inspired by the wonderful work the Human Library Organization has done over the past 17 years. The Human Library Organization has helped libraries and communities throughout the world build events in which the guiding principle is hosting conversations, in which stereotypes are challenged, and open dialogue is encouraged to build positive connections between people.
It was fitting for us to host our event in conjunction with Montreal 375, and we are so grateful for the support of the city in honouring the many powerful stories within the Jewish community of Montreal. We hope that our event offers the opportunity for anyone, Jewish or not, to gain an understanding of another’s world and to help build bridges across the many paths that connect us all.
How do you feel activities like this can work to build social connectedness among people?
A Human Library is unlike attending a lecture or reading an account — it is a face-to-face experience with someone who you would be unlikely to ever get the chance to speak to otherwise. It breaks down barriers and bridges the seemingly formidable gaps between people’s experience to allow them to move away from the notion of the “other”. The person becomes real to participants, they look into the face of someone whose experience is so unlike their own and, they can ask questions, sometimes hard, truthful questions, which can help them to feel connected not only to the individual they’re speaking to but others who have lived similar experiences.
How do you feel this activity helps to overcome social isolation?
Social isolation often stems from a lack of understanding, a projected image of someone’s experience. Levels of religiosity, nationality, language, country of origin, socio-economic class, age, even something as simple as clothing can create boundaries between people. When faced with open dialogue and conversation, many of these assumptions crumble. Our hope is that the Human Library of Jewish Montreal will help some people overcome stereotypes one might have of what it means to be Jewish. For others, it might help reaffirm their own experiences and help them feel less isolated. These kinds of activities can bring us to question our accounts of strangers and to imagine them more complexly, to allow for the possibility that those we meet have inner lives and experiences that are as complex and valuable as our own.
What do you hope people will come away with after taking out a human library book?
We hope that our event offers the opportunity for anyone, Jewish or not, to gain an understanding of another’s world and to help build bridges across the many paths that connect us all.
Thank you to Karen Biskin, Head of Library Services, and Maria Ressina, Head of Community Outreach at the Jewish Human Library for speaking with us. They encourage you to learn more about the library’s history and follow them on Facebook. The event was held in partnership with The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal Holocaust Museum and Museum of Jewish Montreal.