Jewish Writing in Canada

Posted on April 28, 2009 by Peter Stenberg

Translated by Josh Stenberg

The great emigration of Eastern European Jews between 1870 and 1920 went principally to “America,” a term at the time largely synonymous with the United States. However, it was a phenomenon that certainly left its mark on Canada as well. Many thousands of East European Jewish immigrants settled in the urban centres of Eastern Canada in pursuit of a new life in the new world. Today, Canada’s 350,000 Jews represent the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world.

In the Jewish quarter of Montreal, until recently the beating heart of Canadian Judaism, young Jewish writers heard the stories of their neighbours, families and old friends about an intact religious homeland in Eastern Europe and of its brutal destruction. At the same time they witnessed the often very arduous lives of their parents, while sensing the tremendous opportunity available to their own generation.  The authors set to work on this material, transforming a familiar world into a literary one.  Milestones of Jewish  literature emerged:  A.M. Klein’s (1909-1972) The Second Scroll, Leonard Cohen’s (1934-) The Favourite Game and Flowers for Hitler, Mordecai Richler’s  (1931-2001) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Saint Urbain’s Horseman, Ted Allan’s (1916-1995)Lies My Father Told Me, as well as the poetry of Romanian-born Irving Layton – Israel Lazarovitch  (1912-2006) – among many others. Saul Bellow (1915-2005) also grew up in the Jewish quarter of Lachine, Quebec, just outside Montreal, before moving to Chicago with his family at the age of nine. At the beginning of his largely autobiographical first novel, Dangling Man, he acknowledges his roots:  ” I have lived here for eighteen years, but I am still Canadian, a British subject.”

Alongside these English-language writers were such authors as Rachel Korn, (1898-1982) and  (Chava Rosenfarb (1923-), who were born in Poland and worked in Yiddish.  Francophone authors such as Monique Bosco (1927-), Naïm Kattan (1928-) and Régine Robin (1939-) arrived from Vienna, Baghdad, and Paris respectively.  Thus, for some decades, Montreal represented a centre of Jewish writing second only to New York, the Jewish authors of which constitute one of the main attractions of American literature. Winnipeg, a city settled by Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs and Jews, marks the end of the Canadian east and a bridgehead to its West. There, a secondary outpost of this literature developed, featuring authors such as Miriam Waddington  (1917-2004), Jack Ludwig (1922-) and Adele Wiseman (1928-1992). They told similar stories about Jewish life in the rather harsh world of the Prairies. Jewish writers in Ontario have also gained success, e.g. Norman Levine (1923-2005), a short story specialist, and the novelist Matt Cohen (1942-1999)-though both wrote relatively rarely on Jewish themes-as well as Anne Michaels (1958-), known for her worldwide success, Fugitive Pieces. However, one can hardly speak of a distinctive “Jewish literature” in Toronto, though its Jewish population is today (180 000) twice that of Montreal.

These authors experienced the decline of the world of poor immigrant Jews, a society vanishing in Canada as elsewhere, as the Jews on the whole achieved relative affluence, moving out of the ghettos and into suburbia. Richler’s anti-hero Duddy discovers that more than just generations separate his ambitions from those of his religious grandfather. The old man regards honestly-acquired land in Europe as all but holy, while his grandson Duddy is prepared to stoop to immoral methods to procure ownership of a piece of land in Quebec. But the grandfather is unwilling to accept the ill-gotten property, even as a gift.

Of course these authors have told more than just Jewish stories. Leonard Cohen, along with Bob Dylan, became one of the great troubadours of his times, while Richler worked in London as a screenwriter before turning into the arch-nemesis of Quebec separatists. Layton acted the prophet, while Levine resettled in England and Bellow became an “American”  Nobel laureate. Today, this second generation of immigrants has all but died out. Layton, Richler, Levine, Matt Cohen and Bellow have all passed away in the last ten years.

But the assumption that this signaled the end of Jewish literature in Canada has proven to be premature. Exciting Jewish authors are to be found among the new immigrants from East Central Europe and Southeastern Europe.  Two of these artits, David Albahari, one of the premier authors of ex-Yugoslavia who now lives in Calgary and David Bezmozgis, the prize-winning Toronto author and filmmaker who was born and raised in Latvia, are taking part in Munich’s International Spring Book Festival 2008.  Albahari is the author of many well-known works, especially in Europe, including Götz and Meyer, his classic presentation of the fate of the Jews of Belgrade during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. Bezmozgis’ Natasha and other stories offers a very special kind of Bildungsroman. Consisting of seven short stories, the work demonstrates a sure touch for depicting the tragicomic lives of Russian-speaking immigrants and their bewildered children in Toronto. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on further developments in this area.