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Renewing Our Days:
Montreal Jews in the Twentieth Century


160 pages,
ISBN: 1550650629


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History Pending
by Michael Greenstein

Perhaps the most curious feature of Canadian-Jewish literature is its tale of two cities-Montreal and Winnipeg-while Toronto, by comparison, with the largest Jewish population in Canada, suffers a failure of the imagination. By far the richest cultural contribution has come from Montreal with its valuable past but questionable future. Yet, as the editors state at the beginning of this volume, Montreal Jewry in the twentieth century has yet to find its definitive historian, and although the essays in this collection fill some of the lacunae, they fall short of redressing the absence of any kind of definitive history. Missing in Canada is a literary historian of the stature of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, or any number of New York intellectuals who have charted the journey across the Atlantic to Manhattan via Brooklyn.
The introduction offers an overview of three of the major writers-A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, and Mordecai Richler-but omits Leonard Cohen. Then the first essay deals with the history of kashrut or the dietary laws in Montreal surrounding Bylaw 828 from 1922 to 1924. Since Layton and Richler have satirized some of these observances, one wonders how they would view this chapter in the history of Montreal Jewry. How central was Bylaw 828 to the identity of Montreal's Jews in this century, and how does it account for the uniqueness of the smoked meat and spicy tales from their ghetto? More important is an essay outlining the attempts at rapprochement between Jews and French Canadians. David Rome, Naim Kattan, and the Cercle Juif de Langue Franšaise were instrumental in improving the relationship between these two solitudes.
William Shaffir's portrait of Hasidic Jews in Montreal suffers from sociological jargon such as "identity maintenance" and "boundary-maintaining mechanisms", which reduces humanity to mechanics. Another essay sketches the adaptation of Moroccan Jews to Montreal life, indicating a shift from an aging Ashkenazic (Eastern European) community to the more recently arrived Francophone Sephardic community that feels threatened not by language but by nationalistic forces. The final sociological essay describes a bat mitzvah ceremony or female rite of passage in an Orthodox synagogue. Like the discussion of kashrut, this essay raises the question of the centrality of Orthodox laws and customs to the larger community. While secular writers would undoubtedly object to this parochial focus, these depictions nevertheless present a colourful mosaic inside a diversified community. What outsiders may not realize is that there may be as many solitudes within the Jewish community as without, yet external pressures have forced some coherence among Montreal's Jews.
The book concludes with three literary essays. Rachel Brenner traces A. M. Klein's humanism in his last collection of poems, The Rocking Chair. Michael Benazon surveys the extensive body of fiction written by Montreal Jews, but by far the best writing in the volume is reserved for the last: Mervin Butovsky's supple essay on Irving Layton's persona, politics, and poetry. One wishes for the voices of Ruth Wisse and Sacvan Bercovitch, two Montrealers now at Harvard.
Another piece that is missing here is a detailed consideration of the Bronfman family's contribution to Montreal's culture, and specifically Sam Bronfman's relationship with A. M. Klein. For this, we may look to Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here. Until Montreal Jewry finds its definitive historian, the patchwork quilt of Renewing our Days will have to do.
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