Uncovering a Poet

  • Pierre Anctil
    Jacob-Isaac Segal (1896-1954) : un poète yiddish de Montréal et son milieu. Presses de l'Université Laval
Reviewed by Rebecca Margolis

Une ruelle subsiste à Montréal
Qui un jour fut au cœur de la cité.
Des murs gris, marqués de brûlures jaunâtres
Une chapelle en démanche, abandonnée de Dieu.

Thus begins Pierre Anctil’s French rendition of a Yiddish poem by Montreal poet J. I. Segal titled “Altmontreal,” which appeared in his final book of verse published in 1955. As Anctil points out, Segal was a pioneer in portraying the urban environment of Montreal, far ahead of his French Canadian literary counterparts.

As Canada’s most renowned Yiddish poet and a celebrated figure in Jewish let- ters, a full-length study of J. I. Segal is long overdue. There exist essays and an unpublished MA thesis about Segal by Adam Fuerstenberg and Shari Cooper Friedman, respectively, and he is discussed by numer- ous scholars of Yiddish culture in Canada, and yet this is the first monograph to appear that focuses specifically on Segal. As a long-time translator of Segal and author of numerous studies of Jewish immigrant life in Quebec, Pierre Anctil is well positioned to undertake just such a study, in particular one that combines an account of Segal’s life with excerpts of his writing in translation.

This book offers a significant contribution to our knowledge of Segal’s life and writing. Anctil has combed two primary repository archives of Segal’s papers in Montreal and draws on Segal’s voluminous correspond- ence with many individuals prominent in the local Yiddish cultural milieu as well as farther afield. He has exhaustively pieced together the details of Segal’s life, from his family lineage through his death. He intersperses the text with his original trans- lations of numerous poems from Segal’s multiple books of poetry. The volume is richly illustrated with photographs, many of them from the private collection of the Segal family.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the study occurs in the concluding chapter, where Anctil discusses Segal’s foray into French-Canadian cultural circles through the medium of translation just as inter- cultural dialogue was becoming a facet of Quebec intellectual life in the 1950s. In 1953, one of Segal’s poems was read in French translation by local Jewish cultural activist David Rome on a radio program about Montreal’s Jewish Public library hosted by “nul autre que René Levesque” (329). Anctil, who has been closely involved with this type of intercultural rapprochement over the last decades, presents Segal as a pioneering fig- ure within Quebecois-Jewish dialogue. This offers a brief but fascinating episode in the history of Yiddish letters as well as wider Quebec cultural life.

Although the work makes use of few secondary sources in either the footnotes or the bibliography, the extensive primary source material offered by this encyclopedic work will be of great value to those who seek to undertake a scholarly analysis that situates Segal within the wider context of Yiddish letters in Canada as well as internationally. This reviewer hopes that this study inspires further interest in, and study and translation of, J. I. Segal. With a volu- minous corpus of writing and a fascinating life story that encapsulates so many facets of Eastern European Jewish immigrant experiences, it seems that this will simply be a matter of time.

This review “Uncovering a Poet” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 131-32.

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