Rabbis & Their Community: Studies in the Eastern European Orthodox Rabbinate in Montreal, 1896-1930
By Ira Robinson
University of Calgary Press, 200 pages, $34.95.
On a wintry Friday afternoon, at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, I was taking leave of my father, who, in the last year of his life, was recovering from a severe bout of pneumonia. “Tate,” I told him, “I have to go buy food for Shabbos before the stores close.” He smiled and waved me off, but not before instructing me, “Be sure to get the chickens from Rabbi Cohen, not from that shtunk, Rosenberg.” I had no idea what he was talking about, until I remembered that my 92-year-old father had become severely disoriented and therefore often seemed to be shuttling to and from his childhood years. Thanks to my own interests in the history of Montreal’s Jewish community, his instruction suddenly made perfect sense: My father was repeating to me precisely what his Russian mother likely would tell him Friday afternoons in the 1920s, upon sending him off to fetch the Shabbos chickens — namely, that the only place where he was to buy fowl was a shop under the supervision of the Litvak “chief rabbi” of Montreal, Zvi Hirsh Cohen — who enjoyed the official endorsement of the city’s Vaad Ha’Ir, or Jewish community council — and to avoid the butcher shops endorsed by his nemesis, the Polish Hasidic kabbbalist and dissident “chief rabbi” of Montreal, Yudel Rosenberg.
The story of the colorful early 20th-century Eastern European immigrant rabbis of Montreal, with a particular focus on their battles for control over the surprisingly lucrative supervision of the city’s kosher meat and poultry industry, is the central subject of Ira Robinson’s fascinating new book, “Rabbis & Their Community: Studies in the Eastern European Orthodox Rabbinate in Montreal, 1896-1930.” Robinson’s thin book offers neither a comprehensive history of Montreal Jewry in the early 20th century nor complete biographical studies of the rabbis he introduces. But its significance far transcends these limitations, for one important reason: With very few exceptions, American and Canadian Jewish historiography has, until now, hardly taken any account of the immense contributions of the hundreds of Eastern European immigrant rabbis who settled in communities across the continent. Even the most comprehensive histories of American Jewry completely ignore these sages, oblivious to their considerable role in founding essential Jewish communal institutions, to say nothing of their prodigious and scholarly publications.
This neglect is partially the result of an anti-religious bias that has long dominated American Jewish historiography, which has preferred to focus more on Jewish bankers, labor leaders, artists, mobsters and comedians than on rabbis and theologians. But it is also a symptom of the scholarly and linguistic limitations of the majority of American Jewish historians. An appreciation of the lives and works of these Eastern European immigrant rabbis requires not only a mastery of Yiddish and Hebrew — the languages in which they wrote — but also a facility with the unique, Aramaic-inflected style of rabbinical literature, both of which remain rare in the ranks of historians of American Jewry. The result has been that some of the most remarkable personalities of North American Jewish history have been utterly forgotten. Regardless of his limited focus on one community, Robinson takes an important step toward correcting this record, thereby presenting a methodological model for the study of Jewish life and thought in America.
Among Montreal’s most celebrated Jewish sons are poet and balladeer Leonard Cohen and novelist Mordecai Richler, whose respective books and albums line the shelves of so many contemporary Jewish homes. What remain almost entirely obscure, however, are the remarkable lives of these artists’ ancestors. As it happens, Cohen is the grandnephew of Zvi Hirsh Cohen and the late Richler was the maternal grandson of Rosenberg.
Rosenberg has been rescued from obscurity only most recently, with the publication of the English translation of his Yiddish book, “The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague” (see review by Mindy Aloff in these pages, October 5), and the revelation that the famous legend about the Golem of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague was actually Rosenberg’s fictional invention. But all the other Montreal rabbis discussed by Robinson, a longtime professor of religious studies at Montreal’s Concordia University, are entirely forgotten. Such obscurity is the fate of almost every member of the North American rabbinate, until the post-World War II era.
That these rabbis were condemned to posthumous obscurity, while unfortunate, comes as no surprise, given the manifold indignities that characterized their lives in the New World. Such rabbis as Cohen, Simon Glazer and Rosenberg, each of whom is the subject of a separate chapter in Robinson’s book, were in fact the lucky few. Unlike the large majority of immigrant rabbis from Russia, Poland and Lithuania, many of whom were great scholars with impressive publications, at least they had the opportunity to use their rabbinical credentials professionally, even if their livelihoods still had very little to do with their broad talmudic erudition and almost everything to do with their willingness to be lenient in approving dead cows, sheep and chickens for consumption by the Jewish masses.
In the period dealt with by Robinson, very few immigrant rabbis were able to find respectable rabbinical positions: The Orthodox synagogues in that era rarely could afford to pay a rabbi a decent living wage, there were precious few yeshivas where they might teach and almost no American Jews had any interest in, or understanding of, these men’s talmudic scholarship. An entire generation of rabbis whose talmudic learning easily exceeded that of the vast majority of today’s well-paid congregational rabbis were forced to become tallit and tefillin salesmen, schnorrers for Lithuanian yeshivas, private bar mitzvah tutors, Yiddish newspaper and cigarette vendors, lottery ticket salesmen and — in the best-case scenarios and assuming they had both the training and the physical stamina for the gruesome work — shokhtim (ritual slaughterers). As Robinson reminds us, even the greatest master of Jewish law in American history, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was initially offered nothing better than a slaughterer’s position upon arriving in New York in 1936.
The degradation felt by many of these prewar Eastern European immigrant rabbis in Montreal and similar North American cities naturally resulted in tremendous bitterness that often expressed itself in truly toxic ways. Robinson, who has spent years researching the archives and personal papers of Montreal’s Rabbis, displays a fine eye for the darkly humorous, even macabre, nature of the bitter animosity that characterized the “professional” relationships of an entire generation of rabbis. Indeed, he cites some shocking expressions of intra-rabbinic hostility. At the center of some of the bitterest exchanges was Glazer, Rosenberg’s predecessor in the chicken-fights (literally) with Cohen, and the rabbis and slaughterers associated with him. Among Cohen’s associates was the rabbi of Quebec City, Hyman Cresthol, who lashed out against Glazer for denying him a position as a slaughterer in Montreal: “Prostitutes do makeup for one another. How much more so should disciples of the sages [do the same]!”
As for the fortunate few rabbis who, like Cohen, Glazer and Rosenberg, did land proper rabbinical positions, they were overwhelmed with all kinds of ecclesiastical and clerical work that is today divided up among many rabbis from a variety of Jewish agencies and these rabbis’ personal assistants. In that regard, Robinson cites an astonishing letter written by Cohen to his daughter in upstate New York, in which Cohen manages to summarize all the sources of his bitterness in what has to be the longest version of the favorite Jewish guilt-schlepping standard, “You never write, you never visit, you never call”:
“Why haven’t you written in such a long time? Why are you so busy? Your lulavim haven’t been lost. You don’t have to build a sukkah. You have no sermons to deliver, no weddings to officiate, no divorces to finalize, no halakhic questions to answer, no slaughterers to examine, no butchers to warn, no Talmud Torah to build, no agunot to permit, no articles to write, no prisons to travel to, no hospitals to visit, no din torahs to adjudicate, no hard luck stories to hear, no marital harmony to remake, to mourners to comfort, no sick to visit, no dreams to interpret… no positions of sandek to accept, no correspondence with the entire world… no six glasses of tea to drink each day, no Glazer’s mockery and accusations to swallow, no judges to see, no Governor General to meet, no school question to settle, no immigrants to facilitate, no Sunday Laws to fight, no immigration officers to write, no classes to lead, no pushkes (charity boxes) to allow, no cash to send to Yeshivas, no checks to write, no bills to pay… and more and more.”
The final two chapters of the book steer away from the biographies of Montreal’s rabbis and toward focus on the singular achievements — both communal and literary — of Hirsh Wolofsky, arguably the most multifaceted and energetic Jewish leader in the city’s history. Aside from being the indefatigable longtime editor of the city’s daily Yiddish paper, Der Keneder Odler (The Canadian Eagle), Wolofsky was the architect of the aforementioned Vaad Ha’Ir, a communitywide institution that largely determined the singular unity of Montreal’s Jewish community. Wolofsky’s great achievement was creating an institution whose mission, while primarily supervising kashrut in the city, was cast so broadly that its charitable funds supported the widest imaginable array of Jewish institutions, for the Montreal Yeshiva and Rabbinical Court of Justice to the city’s secular Yiddishist and Zionist schools. Robinson displays a fine eye for the darkly humorous, even macabre, nature of the bitter animosity that characterized the “professional” relationships of an entire generation of rabbis.
Aside from some lacunae in the endnotes, the only serious shortcoming of Robinson’s book is its brevity, as each chapter ends leaving the reader hungry for more. In the introduction, Robinson explains that the chapters in this book are the incidental result of his primary research project: an authoritative biography of Rosenberg. This collection of delightful and insightful studies certainly succeeds in whetting readers’ appetites for that much-anticipated volume.
Allan Nadler, former rabbi of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, is a professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.