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