Unearthing Fresh Voices

  • Ruth Panofsky (Editor)
    The New Spice Box: Canadian Jewish Writing, Volume 1. New Jewish Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The Spice Box: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Writing was released in 1981. Edited by Gerri Sinclair and Morris Wolfe, it was one of the earliest anthologies of its kind. Now, in The New Spice Box, designed as both a tribute and a companion publication, editor Ruth Panofsky has amassed an array of writings, many resonant and engaging, that includes voices and works seldom included in framing the scope of Canadian Jewish literature. Among the standout texts is the opening short story—“My Mother’s Luck,” by Helen Weinzweig—with its vivacious first-person narration, animated conjuring of a Jewish woman’s life in early-twentieth-century Europe, and evocation of how serendipity, courage, and spontaneity led her to a new life in little-known Toronto. “Who Knows You Here,” a poignant essay by Kenneth Sherman, similarly sketches the loss and gains that the author’s grandfather experienced leaving the penury of the shtetl for Canada’s mix of opportunity and anomie. Other notable texts include J. J. Steinfeld’s “The Idea of Assassination, Toronto, 1973,” a memoir of his fellow student’s plan to murder a neo-Nazi, and Goldie Morgentaler’s “My Mother’s Very Special Relationship,” about her mother’s lifelong friendship with a British soldier who participated in her liberation from Bergen-Belsen. The collection also boasts ample poetry. “The Liberation” by Sharon Nelson, “Provincial Olive” by Malca Litovitz, “Yom Kippur 1998” by Ronna Bloom, and “Vidui” by Robyn Sarah are among the most compelling poems.

A worry could arise that anthologizing lesser-known writers might signal a tendentious agenda to promote works more for their Jewish Canadian hue than for their artistic achievement. Echoes of this type of concern were raised in a 2002-2003 exchange (published in Parchment magazine and later in Books in Canada) between Glen Rotchin and Harold Heft, who debated the calibre of Jewish Canadian literature since the heyday of the Montreal titans: A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Mordecai Richler. Heft griped that too much recent literature was humbug about “Old Country” nostalgia and Bubbe’s chicken soup. Yet this collection offers prose that is largely “fresh and relevant, profound and lasting,” as Panofsky intended. Some of the collection’s poetry, however, is strained in this way, its Jewish timbre not limited to chicken soup specifically, but still inadequately convincing.

Uniting the works in this first volume of The New Spice Box is a connection, in some way, to the Holocaust. Nearly three decades ago, historian Franklin Bialystok argued that Holocaust identification is a predominant constituent of the Canadian Jewish identity. Because of the historical enormity of the Holocaust and the relatively high proportion of survivors who immigrated to Canada, the prevalence of Holocaust-related works in Jewish Canadian literature is expected. But that all of these writings have this particular cohesive element, possibly signifying a somewhat attenuated communal identity, is disquieting. However, this is only the first volume, and Panofsky’s introduction notes that the second volume will showcase Jewish Canadian writers from even more geographically diverse origins, and, presumably, texts that reflect different loci of experience and a varied, evolving Jewish Canadian literary consciousness.

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