Living in the midst of a realtime plague during Passover has felt biblical. What is God trying to tell us, I wonder. It's a bright and sunny Sunday, April 27 (and by the way, a day hailed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as imbued with the spirit of a rising deity) as I head up the stairs of a nondescript College Street building. I am surprised to find a little piece of heaven just down the hall.Along with about a hundred others, I'm making my way to A Just Peace Community Mimouna, the first public one of its kind in Toronto. The Mimouna is a Jewish tradition from Morocco, where Jews and Muslims lived together from the founding of Islam until the mass Jewish exodus in the 1950s. Traditionally, Moroccan Jews marked the end of Passover by opening their homes to family, friends and neighbours - Jews and Arabs of all faiths - in a celebration of common friendship.
Food is the essence of this gathering. But what makes it transcend the realm of earthly delight into the heavenly is that, like the second annual Just Peace Seder the previous weekend put on by the same group of volunteers, the cooking and organizing have all been done by a group of Palestinians and Jews together. They're seeking something so obvious and yet so remote: to bind their communities together in pleasure instead of mutual pain.
Peace seems so simple here.
It was Kathy Wazana's son Richard's idea to extend their family Passover and Mimouna tradition into a fund-raiser and community-builder for Palestinians and Jews who have been working on developing a dialogue in Toronto for more than a decade.
Intense and wiry, with sun-kissed skin and strong dark hair laced with grey, the elder Wazana darts nervously around the room as it fills. Wearing her Moroccan heritage like a crown, she is manically regal in her long, loose layers of sand-coloured cottons. Her political stripes go way back, but it was her adult exploration of the culture she left when she was 10 that led her to become interested in food and cooking. What she discovered was "the role that food played in Jewish-Arab relations in Morocco and the way Moroccan Jewish cooking grew out of that interdependent relationship."
The tables, dressed in white, are laden with exotic and familiar sweets. Dates, both simple and stuffed, pools of honey and fresh green almonds sitting on beds of fresh mint are interspersed with sweet couscous mixed with dried apricots, raisins and nuts and dozens more delectables. The sweet and savoury disteeya triangles stuffed with chicken, saffron and almonds, and the homemade roti-like moffleta - eaten with honey - are some of the authentic Mimouna mainstays that have been fussed over on the tables of treats.
Kathy Wazana only returned to the city in early winter after a four-month stint in Jerusalem and Href, a town outside Nablus. While there, she spent October involved in protecting Palestinians from settler gunfire while they tried to harvest their olives. And that was just October. With a background in equity issues and communications, Wazana is now obviously deeply engaged in pursuing her own creative edge through involvement with the Jewish-Arab world.
She's excited that next year the community Seder's Hagaddah will be rewritten in a thoroughly shared way with her Palestinian co-producers.
The cost to Wazana of this courageous alliance, as well as to many others in the room, is strained relations with extended family. A small victory is the presence here today of Wazana's less-than-lukewarm sister.
She introduces her "pro-Israeli sister" to one of her partners in cooking and preparing, former Canadian Arab Federation director Jehad Aliweiwi. Wazana knows her sis will take from the encounter what she will.
Aliweiwi's round softness is mirrored in his gentle way with words. "I lived the first 20 years of my life in Hebron, so my only encounter and experience and familiarity with Jews came in two forms - settlers and soldiers." He explains this to show how profound his experience is of this community crossover. "It is somewhat of a drastic reworking of my psychology, a form of psychological breakthrough. But also it's a healing. It takes a lot, and I'm very fortunate to be here in Toronto. Unfortunately, we can't bring every Palestinian and every Israeli to Toronto to experience that."
His family dilemma is different. Or is it?
"My family (in Hebron) is supportive of me and my work," he says. "But they probably don't understand the true nature of the dialogue between Arabs and Jews that has been going on here for so many years. Not having the opportunity to do that there is somewhat of an odd thing. They don't object to it, but I don't make a point of talking about it when things are particularly tough there.
"I talk to my parents and they tell me, 'We have curfew and the tank is parked right outside.' Up until October I had three brothers in jail. This is my regular life," he says, "and I am thoroughly and fully involved in it."
Speaking of working on the Seder and Mimouna, he says, "This wasn't an intellectual exercise, some ideal thing. No, it's real. And I think it brings me closer and closer to probably someday ending that particular reality that my parents live in.'
Beyond the eating and the good conversation, there aren't a lot of speeches. A poem in four languages - English, French, Hebrew, Arabic - a few words from the organizers, plus a guest appearance by Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. Chow does a great job at summing up the power of food and festivity with a mother-in-law story even though she's probably never been to the Catskills.
She notes how when she first brought Layton home, he had to bridge the cultural divide between their backgrounds by eating his way into the heart of her family.
Peace is a challenge not only for the mind. There is an appetite for violence that lives in the body, and I'm thinking it must be satiated in the body.
Every plague is a wake-up call. I personally think God is asking Toronto to foster the kind of dialogue that is created by events like the Mimouna.
This is a unique city with communities from both sides of every human conflict on this earth. My theory is that here in Toronto it would be pleasing to God if we strive to out the devil from the details and become leaders in feasting and chatting compassionately across our many divides.