Jewish Writing | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jewish Writing

Yiddish and Hebrew writing began to appear in Canada before WWI when large numbers of Jews arrived after fleeing pogroms in tsarist Russia. In 1851 there were barely 450 JEWS in Canada; in 1901 there were almost 17 000, and suddenly there was a Yiddish reading public.

Jewish Writing

 Jewish Writing in Canada is characterized by linguistic and thematic influences derived from successive waves of immigration, and it appears mainly in Yiddish, Hebrew, English and French. Some Jewish writers work in other languages, such as German and Hungarian, reflecting the countries of their origin. Jewish concerns have also been treated by non-Jewish authors; eg, Gwethalyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven (1944) deals with intermarriage and anti-Semitism, Philip Child's Day of Wrath (1945) is concerned with Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany, and Yves THÉRIAULT's Aaron (1954) concentrates on the rejection of orthodoxy and the question of assimilation.

Yiddish and Hebrew writing began to appear in Canada before WWI when large numbers of Jews arrived after fleeing pogroms in tsarist Russia. In 1851 there were barely 450 JEWS in Canada; in 1901 there were almost 17 000, and suddenly there was a Yiddish reading public. By 1931 there were about 156 000 - mainly in Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg - of whom 95% claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue. Yiddish was at its crest 1930-45, being used by Jewish communal institutions, 3 daily newspapers and numerous journals. For another decade Yiddish was bolstered by the influx of Holocaust survivors, including famous writers such as Melech Ravitch (1893-1976) and Rochl Korn (1898-1982), who continued the "internationalism" of Yiddish literature in Canada begun 1912 by the great Yiddish-Hebrew author Reuben Brainin (1862-1939) when he was editor of the Montréal Yiddish daily Kanader Adler.

Unlike most immigrant groups, Jews brought writers who tended to write with a "foreign" perspective for a worldwide public. Early in the 1920s, J.I. Segal (1896-1954) led a group of poets who were raised or began writing in Canada. Most notable of these were A.S. Shkolnikov (1896-1962), A. Almi (1892-1963), Ida Maze : (pseudonym for Ida Massey, 1893-1963) and Sholem Shtern (b 1907). Together, they established Montréal as a centre of Yiddish creativity. The most distinctly Canadian is Shtern, whose 2-volume epic In Kanada (1960; 1963) narratively describes the Jewish immigrant experience in Canada. With Shabtai Perl (1906-76) and 3 noteworthy Toronto "native" poets - Abraham Nisnevitch (1886-1955), Shimon Nepom (1882-1939) and Judica (Yehudit Zik, 1898-1979) - Shtern belongs to a group loosely called "proletarian" because of Marxist influences.

The writers who arrived after WWII intensified the "international" tendency; and their influence, and that of the Holocaust, became dominant. Korn's dark but strangely undespairing poetry has been translated by Seymour Mayne and others in Generations (1982), and the "Auschwitz" poems of Joseph Rogel (b 1911) have appeared in English and French as well as Yiddish. Novelists Yehuda Elberg (b 1912) and Chava Rosenfarb (b 1923) are known worldwide for their description of Jewish life in Poland before and during WWII. In Toronto fabulist Peretz Miransky (b 1908), lyricist Simcha Simchovitch (b 1921), and poet and critic Itzchak Goldkorn (b 1911) are also recognized for Holocaust writing. Two younger survivors, Jack Kuper (b 1932) in Child of the Holocaust (1973) and Abraham Boyarsky (b 1942) in Shreiber (1982), have written in English about wartime experience. Most mainstream Jewish writers publishing in English, such as Eli MANDEL, Irving LAYTON and Phyllis GOTLIEB have also attempted to deal artistically with the tragedy.

The use of Yiddish declined in Canada as succeeding generations turned to English; recent arrivals from Arab countries, Israel and Russia know no Yiddish. Iraqi-born Naim KATTAN writes in French about acculturation in his novels Adieu Babylone (1975, trans Farewell Babylon, 1976) and Les Fruits arrachés (1977, trans Paris Interlude, 1979), and in the collection The Neighbour and Other Stories (1982); he is perhaps the most important Jewish writer in French Canada. Michel Solomon (b 1919 in Romania) is also widely known in Québec for his memoirs Magadan (1971) and Mon Calvaire roumain (1976), and his novel Eden retrouvée (1980).

Most of those writing in Hebrew were usually also Yiddish writers, the exception being authors of religious works. Until WWI Yiddish was widely regarded as too vulgar for serious literature. Later it had to compete with the Zionist revival of Hebrew. Thus, most of the rabbinic sages who settled here - such as world-renowned Rabbi Judah Rosenberg, grandfather of Mordecai RICHLER - wrote mainly in Hebrew, although Rabbi Rosenberg also published several books on legends in Yiddish. The only poet composing exclusively in Hebrew is Miriam Schneid (b 1924), but poet and educator Isaiah Rabinovitch (1904-72) and novelist Joshua Altman (1898-1980) also wrote in Hebrew.

Jewish writers publishing in English in Canada share certain concerns with their immigrant predecessors: immigrant acculturation, the Holocaust, Zionism and the birth of the state of Israel, and fear of assimilation. Thus, nostalgia for the vanished traditions of European Jewish life, dominant in the work of Segal and the early Yiddish writers, reappears in A.M. KLEIN's attempt to synthesize Jewish culture and English language. His shock at the collapse of European Jewry during the Nazi ascendancy produced the first Canadian Holocaust poetry in Hath Not a Jew (1940) and in the bitter hyperbole of his satire The Hitleriad (1944), and scenes of Jewish wartime suffering in The Second Scroll (1951), his powerful, symbolic Zionist novel.

Klein is thus a pivotal figure; others followed his example. Although Mandel, Layton, Miriam WADDINGTON, Joseph ROSENBLATT and Leonard COHEN represent some of the most important influences of mainstream Canadian poetry, they also reflect in various ways their Jewish heritage, eg, in Cohen's darkly satiric Flowers for Hitler (1964) and his Death of a Lady's Man (1978), in which he attempts to blend romantic and Holocaust visions. Layton's poetry, especially after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, has become increasingly concerned with Jewish, rather than artistic, alienation and with anxiety over Israel's survival. Among novelists these concerns surface in The Sacrifice (1956) by Adele WISEMAN, in The Rich Man (1948) and The Betrayal (1964) by Henry KREISEL, and in Mordecai Richler's fiction, particularly THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1959) and St Urbain's Horseman (1971). The shorter fiction of Jack Ludwig and Norman LEVINE also reflects facets of the Jewish experience in Canada, as do the plays of Leonard Angel, Sharon POLLOCK, Ted Allan and Beverley SIMONS.

Canada's Jewish population is predominantly urban, but its concentration in a few major cities has not led to a marked regionalism in Jewish writing. The eastern Ontario novels of Matt COHEN are an exception, and Richler's St Urbain Street can be seen as an urban "region" akin to Hugh GARNER's Cabbagetown or Ethel Wilson's Vancouver. Even the radicalism of playwrights Rick SALUTIN and Janis Rapoport, while it has its own form of regionalism, is actually in the tradition of Yiddish socialist writing. In their concern over identity, Canadian Jewish writers are related to their American counterparts and reflect the international orientation of their immigrant predecessors. Through the unique linguistic and cultural experience of its authors, Jewish writing continues to enrich the Canadian identity.