Review of Book on Yiddish Culture in Montreal 1905-1945

Rebecca Margolis, Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945. Montreal et al.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7735-3812-2
Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil is an engagingly written narrative of the history of Yiddish institutions in Montreal in the first half of the twentieth century, the heyday of Yiddish culture in Canada. For many decades, Yiddish served as the lingua franca of the Jewish diaspora, spoken by over eleven million people worldwide in 1939. Most speakers lived in Eastern Europe and many of them died in the Holocaust; the survivors dispersed across the globe and had to adopt Hebrew, English, or other languages of their new homes. Today, there are only some 350,000 Yiddish-speaking people worldwide. It is perhaps no wonder then that most people see Yiddish as a quaint language and culture. Thus, it is easy to forget that, as Rebecca Margolis argues, “for a period of several decades Yiddish culture thrived as a distinct expression of modern Jewish identity” (xiv). Although not as important as New York, Montreal served as one of the hubs in a “transnational ‘Yiddishland’” (xv).
Margolis begins her history in 1905, because after the failed Russian Revolution of that year, immigration of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews to Canada increased dramatically, swelling the Jewish working class of Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg and feeding the demand of the newly emerging garment industry for cheap labour. By 1931, a politically and culturally active, Yiddish-speaking population of over 150,000 shaped Canada’s urban centres. Although focusing on Montreal, each chapter positions the local story of Montreal in a larger transnational context, showing origins and links to Eastern Europe and other centres in North America.
The book concentrates on cultural community institutions – the main Yiddish newspaper, bookstores, libraries, journals, and books as well as schools and theatre – rather than philanthropic, social, or political organizations. These cultural institutions served two functions: “to acclimatize the local Eastern European immigrant community to its adopted home in Canada and to maintain and foster a distinctive cultural life” (39). This is an important point, because often these two functions are seen as mutually exclusive. Even nowadays, there is a general fear that immigrants resist integration if they continue to speak their mother tongue and maintain elements of their culture. But as much recent migration historiography has demonstrated, quite the opposite is true. Creating such cultural bonds provides relatively safe spaces for newcomers in often precarious situations, and it is from the relative safety of their neighbourhoods that they can venture into the host society’s other neighbourhoods and cultures.
These two functions are delineated in the successive chapters. The Adler, Montreal’s main Yiddish newspaper, was founded in 1907 and published as a daily from 1908 to the 1960s. Although it folded in the 1980s, for most of its existence it had turned a profit. The Adler was “the backbone of the city’s cultural Yiddish life” (39). It was the major vehicle for creating a “shared consciousness” (43). It achieved its success because it successfully met the needs and expectations of everyone in a diverse Jewish community, from workers via business people to intellectuals, from socialists to conservatives. The paper also raised funds for other institutions, reached out to readers across Canada, and rallied its readership in its fight against anti-Semitism. We learn a lot in this chapter about the publishers, editors, and writers and the content of the paper; unfortunately, we do not get a sense of how readers actually responded to and used the paper.
Other literary activities included the promotion of Yiddish literacy through bookstores, cultural organizations, and libraries, especially the Jewish Public Library that opened in 1914. Local poets and other writers were integral to building a strong literary community that could draw on the ever precarious local publications, literary journals, informal reading circles, mentorship systems, and a fledgling book publishing industry. In everyday life, the small group of Montreal Yiddish writers were united despite differences: “While shared backgrounds and socio-economic realities did not necessarily result in shared politics or ideologies of Jewish culture, the ideological schisms in the Canadian literary community were played out largely within the pages of local literary journals” (83). Consensus, community, and continuity reigned supreme. Although “most of Montreal’s literati were working-class immigrants,” they were backward-looking toward the Old Country and conservative in their writing. But they were also connected to the Yiddish world through the Public Library, which hosted guest speakers from Europe and North America.
A strong secular Jewish school system developed in Montreal on the eve of the First World War within and at the forefront of a larger transnational movement, and in response to the Christian denominational French-Catholic and English-Protestant school system in Quebec. Montreal’s secular Jewish schools thrived despite their clashes over nationalist and left-wing ideologies, and despite significant language attrition from the 1930s onward. Indeed, the emphasis on Yiddish language and culture played a significant role in producing a new generation of Yiddish writers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these schools constituted “one of the world’s very few networks of Jewish day schools outside of the Ultra-Orthodox world where Yiddish forms a compulsory component of the curriculum” (124).
The development of Yiddish theatre diverged from the development of other institutions. From the late 19th century to the Great Depression, most theatre productions were imported from New York. It was only after the Second World War that Montreal saw the beginnings of locally produced plays.
As Canada’s closed its doors to immigrants with the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 and implemented cold-hearted, anti-Semitic policies that barred refugees from Hitler Germany, and as younger generations preferred to speak English or French, the number of Yiddish-speakers in Canada declined significantly during the 1930s and 1940s. The decline of Yiddish culture accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century. And yet, Montreal continues to be a focal point of Yiddish culture in the world.

Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil
is a story of harmony rather than conflict, community rather than individualism, and consensus rather than radicalism. One wonders at times whether the author fell victim to the powerful myth of a golden age. In much of this cultural conservatism, it is at times difficult to see the modernity of Jewish/Yiddish identity that Margolis posits at the beginning of her study. An analysis of gender and class relations and a sharper eye toward the pressures of anti-Semitism may have extracted further experiences of precariousness and conflict from the documents. Nevertheless, this is an engaging narrative that contributes greatly to the history of immigration and our knowledge of Canada’s ethnic groups.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg


Review of Book on Migration, Remittances, and Development

Teófilo Altamirano Rúa, Migration, Remittances, and Development in Times of Crisis. Lima: United Nations Population Fund, 2010. ISBN 978-612-45732-2-4
The book is available online:
This book by Peruvian migration scholar Teófilo Altamirano Rúa is a global survey of internal and international migration and development in the early 21st century, particularly under the conditions of the global financial crisis of 2008. Although global in approach, Altamirano focuses on migrations within, away from, and into Latin American countries. Case studies emerge mostly from his fieldwork in Peru and the Peruvian diaspora. The major receiving regions he considers are North America and the European Union. At the centre of his study is the role of remittances in the human development of sending societies.
Remittances, the author argues, are the most important immediate result of international migrations. They are intricately linked: “There will be remittances as long as emigration exists” (30). Indeed, monetary remittances play a major role in the economies of those developing nations that see many of their people emigrate. “Globally, in underdeveloped countries,” Alamirano writes, “revenues from remittances are exceeded only by those from oil exports” (78). Remittances contribute greatly to the economies of several Central American and Caribbean countries: In 2006, they made up 36.9 per cent of the GDP of Haiti, 31 per cent of the GDP of Guyana, and 26.2 per cent of the GDP of Honduras; in El Salvador, they accounted for 18.1 per cent, and in Nicaragua for 17.7 per cent. In the larger South American economies, remittances, although numerically high, play a smaller role (ch. 1.7). In the Philippines, Mexico, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and many other African countries “remittances total more than government social spending, private investment and international co-operation” (67).
Next to monetary remittances, there are also diverse non-monetary remittances in the form of material gifts to relatives and friends as well as “new virtual networks” created by science and technology professionals from around the world. Such networks, including, for example, Chinese Scientists and Academics Abroad, the Latin American Studies Association, and the Peruvian American Medical Society, constitute “knowledge remittances” or “cultural remittances” that cannot be measured or quantified but which nevertheless contribute to the sending and receiving societies’ economies and cultures and benefit their elites (70). Similarly, material gifts in some cultures may take on symbolic meanings that transcend their monetary value and contribute to people’s subjective well-being. Remittances are not the same all over the world, Altamirano explains, but rather shaped by diverse cultural and rural origins that inscribe different values and meanings in monetary and non-monetary remittances.
At the macro-economic level, remittances may have a smaller or greater impact on a country’s GDP. At the meso-level of the community and the micro-level of the individual household, remittances may have an even greater impact. Next to personal household remittances, the author describes collective remittances handled by various “Transnational Communities” – migrant groups’ organizations such as Mexicans’ Hometown Associations in Canada and the United States, that support the development of their hometowns in Mexico. Collective remittances, Altamirano argues, decrease poverty at the meso-level, because they create jobs for the poor and stimulate consumption. Although collective remittances can empower communities, they must nevertheless be supported by state intervention in order to be successful (86-87,142).
Within remittances lies a potential for human development that has not been sufficiently tapped. Remittances should be more effectively used for human development in emigration countries. They are also a healthier form of supporting human development: “Remittances can be sustainable, because they are generated not by the government, political parties or rich nations, but by the sacrifice of the migrants themselves” (78). The author describes a number of programs developed in sending societies that make remittances an integral part of their development policies. For example, in Peru, in a region where many families receive regular remittance payments, the Huancayo Municipal Savings Bank offers a line-of-credit for an investment in establishing a small business (102-107). The Mexican 3×1 program matches each dollar that Hometown Associations send in support of local development with three dollars from different government levels (107-114). The author discusses both the pros and cons of such programs, but generally agrees with the supporters; yet, he also emphasizes that “migration and remittances alone do not create human development” (150).
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg