Column: The making of a cultural mosaic

A report out of  Ontario last week that Toronto’s Jewish community is on edge after a trio of hooded men snapped pictures of a synagogue and yelled threats at its members is unsettling, to say the least.

And it’s yet another sign that a country which prides itself on being a cultural mosaic — where widely varying pieces fit together to create a picture greater than the sum of its parts (rather than a melting pot, where everyone is expected to blend in)  — still has a way to go to live up to that claim.

God and the afterlife weren’t topics of general conversation in my house when I was a child, so my first experience with religious intolerance came as a bit of a shock.

I was seven.

I remember being outside during recess  and having a conversation with one of my  classmates — another little girl — as we walked through a wooded area along the edge of the elementary school grounds.

It was a while ago, I’ll admit, and so I can’t recall how the conversation began or the exact path it took. But I remember clearly where it ended up.

The little girl informed me, with all the certainty in the world, that if I didn’t believe exactly what she believed, I would be thrown into a fiery furnace.

I was terrified.

In my childish mind’s eye, I pictured flames leaping out of a giant heat register — the rectangular metal kind, with the little wheel that lets you ajust the amount of heat blowing out of a hole in the floor.

It was the only frame of reference I had for a furnace at that point in my young life.

Up to then, my chief experience with the vents was the pleasant sensation of sitting and leaning against a wall, allowing the warm air to blow up my back.

Imagine the horror of discovering this was to be the instrument of my agonizing torture one day.

When the bell rang, I ran back  to my classroom and shared with a group of my classmates what the girl had told me.

Their retribution was swift and, by primary students’ standards, vicious.

They turned on the poor, unsuspecting girl, pelting her with insults and calling her names that made no sense to me at the time. I only knew that what was happening to her was somehow my fault.

And, while I felt terrible, it also kind of seemed like fair payback for scaring me the way she did.

I later came to understand that her family’s faith was one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of mainstream Christianity and that made her a target.

More than that, I won’t say, because it doesn’t really matter.

At such a young age, she was no doubt just repeating information she’d picked up at home, and so were they.

No wonder then, that we’re having so much trouble as a society, moving from a place of fear and mistrust to one where we get that different doesn’t equal threatening.

A mosaic, however grand its scale, is neither interesting nor beautiful if its tiles are all identical.

No question, religious intolerance is less overt now than it was when I first encountered it in the 1970s — especially in public.

But it doesn’t hurt to remember that even comments made in the privacy of one’s own home are being heard and absorbed  — often by someone with a mind that is as impressionable as it is undiscerning.