Memory, Displacement, and Politicized Prejudice
- Michael Marrus (Editor), Derek J. Penslar (Editor), and Janice Gross Stein (Editor)
Contemporary Antisemitism, Canada and the World. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Greenstein (Editor)
Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada: An Anthology. University of Nebraska Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Menkis (Editor) and Norman Ravvin (Editor)
The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Melina Baum Singer
In Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, Michael Greenstein brings together a compelling selection of short story, chapter, and essay excerpts by Jewish writers from the early 1960s to the present day. The critical and popular heavy hitters are here: Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, Miriam Waddington, and Anne Michaels. But so are lesser known writers, Naïm Kattan, Chava Rosenfarb, and Judith Kalman, who among many others deserve wider recognition for their work. From the irreverent satire of Richler to the philosophical musings of Michaels, the range of cultural and linguistic affiliations as well as social and political identifications broadens the perception of what constitutes Jewish writing in Canada. Although the book primarily includes work written in English, the Introduction and the accompanying biographical information on each writer emphasize the selections translated from Yiddish and French as well as referencing the varied national and cultural communities from which they draw their imaginings. Yet what connects these writers is not only their attention to memory and displacement and prejudice and assimilation, but also their responsiveness to the push-pull inherent in the politics of place for diasporic individuals and communities.
The Introduction is a useful place for scholars and students to begin looking for material in the Jewish or ethnic minority canon in Canada. Contextualizing the selections by place—Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto—Greenstein tracks the historic trajectory of Jewish writing that begins with A.M. Klein. He also refers to many contemporary writers who are not featured in the book but whose work is worth further investigation. As the book is called Jewish Writing, a reader would expect to find various genres represented. But other than an essay excerpt from David Solway’s “Framing Layton,” only fiction is included. The Introduction does not clarify this point, even though it does reference poetry from Klein, Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, and Leonard Cohen and a dramatic work from Jason Sherman, whose inclusion would have added another dimension to the book’s emphasis on place as his play Reading Hebron examines Jewish identity in light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The focus on fiction is understandable on one level, as the most well-known Jewish writing in Canada inhabits this genre. Nevertheless, it would seem fair to say that the editor has assembled narratives that ultimately reveal specificities about Jewish experiences and histories, specificities often best revealed through fiction. Although the excerpts from Régine Robin and Robert Majzels’ fabulous writing pull on the boundaries of the novel and offer something other than narrative realism, only one page of Majzels’s Apikoros Sleuth is presented. Experimental, language-based, and anti-realist Jewish writing is evidently not the main interest here. Although I recommend this book as a notable introduction, I would have liked to see Adeena Karasick’s, Stuart Ross’, and Joe Rosenblatt’s work among many others included in this attempt to publicize contemporary Jewish Writing. And by extension, I would have liked to see more selections that move beyond sociological perspectives of Jews and Jewish communities in Canada, the central way the book frames the selections.
In The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader, Richard Menkis and Norman Ravvin collect papers written since the early 1990s on a range of subjects, including literary, religious, historical, and sociological studies. The book situates the array of work currently produced in the broadly conceived field of Jewish Studies. In the Introduction, Menkis cultural themes and outlines key differences in Canadian Jewish communities. The papers echo this last point through their exploration of internal struggles within Canadian Jewish communities. This focus is productive insofar as it implicitly contests the popular perception that Jews represent a homogenous diasporic collective while also examining the forces that continue to bind Canadian Jews together, forces that mirror some of the concerns of Greenstine’s book.
Among the many papers guaranteed to be thought-provoking to a wide range of scholars and students, the following deserve particular attention for bringing new perspectives to Jewish Studies: Menkis’ study of “the historical treatment” of Jews in New France as a problematic search to validate Jewish settler roots; Rebecca Margolis’ examination of attempts to establish a Yom Kippur Ball as an expression of the intersection of Jewish radicalism, left-wing anarchism, and mass migration from Eastern Europe; Howard Adelman’s look at the 1993 conflict in Toronto around the representation of Black characters in Show Boat as a way to understand Jewish and Black relations in Canada; and Norman Ravvin’s two insightful papers on Matt Cohen’s and Eli Mandel’s writing and struggles with the Canadian literary establishment are among many papers guaranteed to be thought-provoking to a wide-range of scholars and students.Many insightful papers intersect with gender studies, an area of minority studies that still demands greater attention.
In Contemporary Antisemitism, Canada and the World, editors Derek J. Penslar, Michael R. Marrus, and Janice Gross Stein trace expressions and practices of what constitutes antisemitism today, both in relation and in opposition to the past. The book acknowledges that since the 1960s a vast body of work has been produced on the subject, but it also points out that the work primarily treats antisemitism as historical phenomenon, relegating it to the dustbin of history. From bomb attacks in Istanbul, to physical and verbal assaults in France, to vandalism in Ontario, mounting evidence suggests that the 40-year historic decline in antisemitism is over. This book argues that current manifestations need to be taken seriously and that nuanced and multi-faceted analysis of it must be given room in academic discussions. Ranging from Canadian and International scholars of Jewish Studies in the fields of history, sociology, and political science to Canadian political and non-Jewish judicial and legal leaders, the authors point to 2000 as a significant turning point, a point where antisemitism emerged from marginal subterranean discussions and violently entered into mainstream visibility. This is a timely collection of papers, well worth reading.
Including Derek J. Penslar’s thoughtful Introduction, which argues for a renewed understanding of hate-crimes against Jews and Jewish spaces as “politicized prejudice,” and Brian Mulroney’s surprisingly personal foreword, which among others things looks at Canada’s “shameful immigration policies toward Jews,” many papers are useful for tracing the history of antisemitism and the various ideologies (political, economic, racial, and religious) folded within it from a Western discourse linked to fears about “ruthless capitalism, revolutionary communism, [and] avant-garde artistic modernity” to the current globalized discourse. The papers point out that the word antisemitism emerged from Enlightenment categories of race and processes of racialization; in earlier times prejudice toward Jews took form largely from religious ideologies. Among most significant papers are those that debate the relation between antisemitism and antizionism, as all the papers view the Israeli-Palestinian struggle for territory is both the source and justification for recent crimes and suspicion toward Jews globally.
While sharing the belief that civil and legitimate critiques of Israeli policies are not in themselves antisemitic, the papers agree that the line between Israelis and Jews has recently collapsed, thus opening the door to Jews around the world being held responsible for what occurs as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The papers however differ quite significantly in their perceptions and interpretations of the discursive relations between antisemitism and antizionism and more often than not challenge each other’s arguments. Todd M. Endelman argues that many Western European critiques of Israel are embedded with stereotypes about Jews in line with past antisemitism as well as revealing anxiety about Jewish sovereignty; Penslar suggests that the establishment of Israel has fundamentally changed the dynamics of antisemitism as Israelis are not national minority subjects but “empowered actors”; Mark Tessler points out that anti-Israel sentiment in the Middle East does not reveal traditional Western perceptions and biases toward Jews, but rather stems from the belief that “Israel’s creation did an injustice to the Palestinians.” In turn, Morton Weinfeld’s paper draws out the problematics of measuring antisemitism in Canada, where Jews have a high standard of living but increasingly feel insecure and “attacked for their perceived power and suspect loyalties.” One oversight the book arguably makes is the absence of a paper dealing with the current interest in the influence of “Jewish neocons” in America. The question is, as always, whether or not specific comments and discussions reveal prejudice toward Jews or are merely making note of the fact that Jews are involved. A tricky question to say the least. Judith Butler’s recent Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence and Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today offer other views on the broad topic.
All three books under review showcase the diversity of writing and criticism, to reveal the range within the category of “Jewish.” I find particularly powerful the urging in Contemporary Antisemitism that Jewish scholars need not be the only people to speak about antisemitism today. Alternatively, this insistence necessitates that non-Jews be open to thinking about and addressing what has become a very real concern for Jewish communities around the world.
- Elemental Voices by Robert Lecker
Books reviewed: Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry by Susan McMaster and Modern Canadian Poets by Evan Jones and Todd Swift
- BC Lit in Extra Innings by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: The Fed Anthology by Susan Musgrave and Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 by Claude Boisvert
- Records of the Past and Future by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust by Jeffrey Shandler and Citizenship in Transformation in Canada by Yvonne M. Hébert
- Anthologizing a Woman's Life by Sarah King
Books reviewed: The Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women by Denise Chong
- The Taste of the Past by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America by Hasia R. Diner and Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory by David E. Sutton
MLA: Singer, Melina Baum. Memory, Displacement, and Politicized Prejudice. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 110 - 113)
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