Taking Root:
The Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community

by Gerald J. Tulchinsky,
367 pages,
ISBN: 0874516099

Antisemitism in Canada:
History & Interpretation

by Alan T. Davies,
312 pages,
ISBN: 0889202214

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Nothing Short of Chilling
by Joel Yanofsky

EARLY IN the New Year swastikas were spray-painted on seven synagogues in the Montreal area. Scrawled on the walls of one of the buildings was an old Nazi slogan: Juden Raus, or "Jew Out." While this sort of vandalism is rare in this province and this country, it's hardly unheard of. What is unheard of is the fact that all of these acts took place on the same day. They weren't random; they were carefully planned.

One of the synagogues was just a few blocks from MY home; and while I am, I confess, one of those Jews who doesn't think all that much about being Jewish, lately that's started to change. With the economy stubbornly refusing to recover and hope in the future practically nonexistent, people are looking around for someone to blame for their problems. Jews are a convenient target. They always have been.

That's why these two new books that explore the Canadian Jewish experience couldn't have arrived at a more opportune time. As Alan Davies, a professor of religion at the University of Toronto, explains in his introduction to Antisernitism in Canada, "antisemitism must be brought under microscopic inspection for the sake of the collective good" because "it is an 'early warning system' of dangerous currents in the body politic, much as canaries once warned miners of poisonous fumes in coal mines."

As Davies also explains, Antisemitism in Canada is not intended to be "a comprehensive history" of hatred and prejudice in this country. Nevertheless, this collection of scholarly essays does cover a lot of territory - from Quebec to the West, and from pre-Confederation Canada to the 1985 Deschenes Commission on Nazi war criminals.

Although there are lots of things here that many readers will already be acquainted with - the virulence of anti-Semitic rhetoric and feeling in Quebec up until the end of the Second World War, and the tragic official record on immigration during the war - there are surprises, too. I'd never heard of Goldwin Smith (1823-1910), for example. One of the leading Canadian thinkers of his time, he was also "one of the most prominent (Jewhaters) of his day in the English-speaking world." While he may be largely forgotten now, he had an enduring influence on his students, including a future prime minister, Mackenzie King.

One of the most compelling selections in the book is Davies's own essay on "The Keegstra Affair." In addition to providing a thoughtful profile of James Keegstra's Manichean character "haunted, like so many others of his generation by the mystery of evil, [he] was apparently in search of some form of absolute reassurance" - Davies includes excerpts from essays (spelling mistakes and all) written by Keegstra's impressionable students. They are nothing short of chilling.

Because of its subject matter, Davies's book is inevitably narrow in focus. Gerald Tutchinsky, a history professor at Queen's University, provides a broader, more threedimensional view of Canadian Jewish history in Taking Root. Tulchinsky's book covers the period from 1768 - the founding of the first synagogue in Montreal - up until the end of the First World War. It is exhaustively and meticulously researched, "drawing on letters, synagogue records, diaries, newspapers, biographies and archives."

There are times, in fact, when the book is too meticulous, when it gets bogged down in demographics, population statistics, and repetitive anecdotes. However Taking Root does make an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the contrasts between the identity and character of American and Canadian Jewishness.

For example, Canadian Jews had to work collectively for civil rights in a way that was not required in the United States. As Tulchinsky says, "If the Canadian Jewish community has been much more effectively governed in national organizations than American Jewry, this is largely attributable to the fact that Canadian Jewry has felt more threatened." Most important of all, Taking Root demonstrates that the difference between the American and Canadian experience is a fundamental one:

Canadian Jewish history is a subject in its own right, not a branch or pale reflection of the Jewish experience in the United States. In the United States, Irving Berlin wrote 'God Bless America;' in Canada the quintessential Jewish literary figure, Abraham Moses Klein, wrote poems of anguish expressing longing for redemption of the Jewish soul lost in the sea of modernity...

The more things change, it seems, the more they don't. To be a Canadian Jew today means facing up to many of the same issues that concerned Klein, and which my grandparents had to face when they came to this country from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. They struggled with questions of identity how do you retain your Jewishness in a new land? - and assimilation: what does it mean to be a Canadian? In other words, questions I'm still asking myself.


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