The second International Yiddish Theater Festival, an elaborate ten-day fete whose program ranges from carnavalesque performances to academic symposia, just wrapped up last week in Montreal. What is especially surprising about this young and very youthful celebration of what most Jews today consider the vernacular of the elderly and the Hasidim, is that Montreal is a city with a Jewish population of less than 80,000 (of whom almost 30,000 are non-Ashkenazim). Toronto, Canada's largest city, now has a Jewish population well more than twice that of Montreal's.
The immediate explanation for the venue is that Montreal remains the only city in the world with a Yiddish theatrical company that actually owns its permanent stage. The Montreal troupe itself is able to recruit Yiddish-literate performers from the only remaining Jewish day school system in North America in which Yiddish is a mandatory part of the curriculum. But such explanations are akin to the classical Yiddish penchant for answering one question with another. The deep question is why any such Yiddish institutions have survived in Montreal at all, given that they have disappeared almost completely in New York, once the world's greatest center of Yiddish culture, as well more than a dozen smaller American Jewish communities. The historical answer to this question is expertly provided by Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil, a new volume on the subject by Canadian Jewish historian Rebecca Margolis.
Margolis's detailed and engaging exploration of this bittersweet topic offers a fascinating contrast between the trajectories of Montreal and New York. Montreal emerged quietly as a relatively minor satellite of Yiddish culture in the initial years of massive east European Jewish migration to North America, from the 1880s through the First World War. Simultaneously, Yiddish culture in New York was exploding—during this period it would become the major center of Yiddish literary, journalistic, musical, and theatrical activity, eclipsing even Warsaw and Vilna. In chapters devoted to Montreal's Yiddish press, literati, secular schools, theater, and finally the unique Yiddishe Folks-Bibliotek ("Jewish People's Library," known today as the Jewish Public Library), Margolis meticulously documents the slow but steady growth of Yiddish cultural institutions in Montreal.
But Margolis's book is more than a record of a historical trajectory. It also offers a cogent explanation as to why Yiddish has managed to survive in Montreal in a manner unparalleled in far larger Jewish communities. One rather obvious explanation lies in the fact that Montreal Jews, educated in the English Protestant school system, always constituted a minority within a minority in a diverse, already bilingual Quebec. More interestingly, immigration to Montreal remained a small trickle until 1924, when the United States' Johnson-Reed Immigration Act set severe quotas on the numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Canada was a natural second choice for the tens of thousands who could not enter the United States, and this later wave, arriving after the Soviet revolution, constituted a more sober, less radicalized group than the fiery Yiddish socialists and communists who had flooded New York in the previous three decades.
By far the most significant factor distinguishing the Yiddishists of Montreal was their adoption of some form of Jewish nationalism. The two competing Yiddish day schools were both led by passionate Zionists affiliated with the socialist Zionist organization, even as they differed as to the proper balance between Hebrew and Yiddish in the curriculum (the Yiddisher Folkshule stressed the importance of the former; the Peretz Shule insisted on the primacy of the latter). By way of contrast, no Yiddish schools in New York included Hebrew in their curriculum or dared fly the flag of Jewish Palestine (and later Israel) on the masts of its building. Both of Montreal's Yiddish schools did.
The Jewish Public Library was the first and only communal public library in North America whose main commitment was to promote Yiddish literary culture (though it also actively built Hebrew, English and French collections over the years). As for the Yiddish press, Montreal's Yiddish reading community was only large enough to support a single daily Yiddish newspaper (Der Kenneder Odler) which could in turn not afford to espouse any particular Jewish sub-ideology exclusively. Its editors over more than a half-century, the venerable scholars Max Wolofsky and Israel Rabinovitch, both assembled editorial staffs representing the full gamut of Jewish thought, from various radical ideologues to Orthodox rabbis.
While Margolis emphasizes the main difference between the New York and Montreal Yiddishist communities as being the latter's commitment to communal consensus and moderation, she ironically fails utterly to do justice to the institutions and personalities of the mainstream Jewish community. This is particularly evident in her treatment of the Yiddish secular schools: While she refers, rather misleadingly, to the establishment, in the late 19th-century, of Sunday and weekday-afternoon "Talmud Torahs" that supplemented the Protestant English day schools attended by the city's Jewish students, she never mentions the fact that by 1930 the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal, the city's largest Hebrew day school, had 1300 students, a number that dwarfed the few hundred in both of the city's Yiddish schools combined. She also nowhere mentions the emergence of synagogue-sponsored day schools committed to Ivrit b'Ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) pedagogy.
Such omissions would not be so egregious were it not for the fact that these schools were united in many ways: they all joined the Montreal Association of Jewish Day Schools; they received common support from the Canadian Jewish Congress and even from the city's Orthodox rabbinical council; and their students played against each other in—what else?—a Jewish day school hockey league, the only one of its kind in the world. Similarly, when discussing the Yiddish summer camps in the Laurentian mountains just north of Montreal, she fails even to allude to the existence of some dozen other Jewish camps, mostly Zionist, including the Hebrew-speaking Machaneh Massad which still thrives while its American counterparts have long ago disappeared.
But when it comes to most matters Hebraic, Margolis grapples in the dark. She makes embarrassing errors—particularly in the rare instances when she refers to rabbinics (such as her reference to the six-part code of rabbinic law as the "five-volume Mishna"). The Yiddish community was unique because of its integration with the general Jewish community, its Zionism, and its collaboration and congeniality with Montreal's many Hebrew writers, cultural activists, and educators. Margolis's omission of these figures gives the reader the impression of a community in isolation. She never acknowledges that, for all its unique strengths and unusual endurance, the Yiddishist sector of Montreal's Jewish community was always a small—one might even say a fringe—element.
There is thus an essential contradiction between Margolis's general observations regarding the cohesiveness of the Jewish community in Montreal, and her own strange failure so much as to mention the many Hebraic, Zionist, and Orthodox counterparts to her primary subjects. While she does briefly treat some of the city's most celebrated Anglo-Jewish authors, from A.M. Klein to Mordecai Richler, she strangely omits the fact that Klein was thoroughly versed in both Hebrew and Yiddish, reviewed dozens of books in both Jewish languages (particularly those by local writers), and was one of the first and most important translators of the poetry of Hayim Nahman Bialik. Klein's felicity in Yiddish and Hebrew set him apart from his American cohorts in precisely the same manner that Montreal's Jewish institutions continue to distinguish themselves to this day.
In that connection, it is hard not to read some deliberateness into Margolis's repeated references to the self-image of Yiddish writers, educators, journalists, and intellectuals of Montreal as belonging to a "transnational Yiddish community." The ascription of transnationalism to figures from the late 19th- and early 20th-century is by definition problematic, as the concept itself is of very recent vintage—an innovation of the relatively new field of Diaspora Studies. In the case of Montreal's Yiddishists, it is simply inaccurate since, as Margolis herself demonstrates throughout her study, the uniqueness of these figures—as well as the longevity of Yiddish culture in the city—derives from their strong affiliation with Zionism and the state of Israel. That there was an international fellowship shared by Yiddishists in Warsaw, Vilna, New York and Montreal in the early 20th-century is evident. But it is equally clear that there was nothing "transnational" about these Yiddishists' sense of identity. When they named their schools and library "folk" institutions, the only nation they had in mind was the Jewish one. And that is why, after all the more radical Jewish ideologies and institutions have been swept away, they have proudly endured. And that is why, like its two predecessors, the third International Yiddish Theater Festival will be held in Montreal.
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.
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