Quebecois Chronicler of Continent's First Jews
A French-language tome by a hard-line Quebec separatist doesn’t seem like a typical candidate for a Canadian Jewish Book Award. But in June, Denis Vaugeois’s “Les Premiers Juifs d’Amérique” won the 2012 prize for history, crowning what the Montreal Gazette called the historian’s ”55-year quest” to rescue the story of Quebec’s pioneering Hart family ”from the dustbin of history.”
Now, Montreal publisher Baraka has released an English-language translation, “The First Jews of North America.” An exhaustive illustrated history of Quebec’s pioneering Hart family, the book has generated praise and some controversy; Vaugeois himself gained notoriety as the sovereignty hardliner who quit politics in 1985 “to protest the party’s decision to put independence on the back burner,” as the Gazette wrote. The Arty Semite caught up with Vaugeois in Montreal by email. His publisher translated responses from the French.
Michael Kaminer: In the course of researching your book, what surprised you the most about the Harts, or about Quebec at that time?
Denis Vaugeois: Aaron Hart arrived in Montreal with British troops in 1760. In just 40 years he became a very rich man indeed. I had to explain how. Obviously I was loath to put his success down to the fact that he was Jewish. It didn’t take long for me to work out that he was a supplier to British troops who paid cash — the only cash coming into the colony — and that Canadiens had paper money that France was taking a long time to honor, even in part. And so Aaron Hart acquired a great many things for next to nothing. He was one of the few potential buyers to be able to put his money where his mouth was. In other words, France was the main reason he became so rich, that and the change of regime following the conquest by British troops.
What legacy did the Harts leave, to Jewish life and to broader civic life in Quebec?
The most important part of their legacy played out with the second generation, thanks to Ezekiel and Benjamin. Little is known about Benjamin’s role. Unlike his father, who was Ashkenazi, he grew closer to the Montreal synagogue — Sherith Israel — and breathed new life into it with the help of Moses-Judah Hays and Isaac Valentine. I talk about it at length in the book. At the same time, Benjamin had started to see the new Jewish immigrants (Germans, Poles, etc.) as foreigners. He gave them a hard time, and this led to them starting up their own congregation: Shaar Hashomayim. The two synagogues still exist today in Montreal.
The Gazette questioned your assertion that there was no anti-Semitism in Quebec at the time the Hart family was growing. How would you respond? And if that’s the case, when did that start changing?
The word Jew was unheard of in Quebec at that time: notaries didn’t know how to spell it, Aaron wrote “Jues” instead of “Jews.” The word wasn’t used at all, except when Ezekiel became an elected member of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada. English members of the House like Jonathan Sewell considered that a Jew should not be allowed to sit in a British Parliament. The Canadiens delved into their books to understand why not. There had been no Jews in New France. They only knew them through the Bible. In Trois-Rivières, the very best Catholic French-Canadian families married their children off to the third generation of the Hart family.
A form of anti-Semitism appeared at the start of the 20th century and first became apparent among the English Canadians who felt overrun. Their reflex was to defend themselves, to try to keep the Jews out of their social clubs and off certain boards, to impose quotas, etc. Jewish immigrants wanted to have their children schooled in English, the language of the continent, the language of upward mobility. A journalist at the Kanader Adler, Israel Medresh, wrote around the 1930s to 1940s of the welcome French Canadians had reserved for the Jews.
For readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, how challenging was daily life for a Jewish family in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in the 18th and early 19th century?
The main problem was finding someone Jewish to marry. Many first-generation Jewish men married French Canadians. Which didn’t stop them going to Sherith Israel. In Trois-Rivières, the Hart family practiced kashrut as far as it was possible. They went on to have their own cemetery. In the 19th century, Trois-Rivières got its own synagogue.
The Jewish Tribune wrote you’d never even met a Jewish person until university. What’s your personal connection to the Harts, their story, and Jewish history?
At the start, the Hart family interested me aside from the fact that they were Jewish. The family’s Jewish character revealed itself to me gradually. I had a dizzying amount of information tracing back 100 years of history of an important family spread across North America. That was my motivation. Finally, as a historian, I have no time for political barriers. That’s clear in each of my books. As a publisher, I began to be interested in the Jewish community, just like I was interested in immigrants in general, or Aboriginals.
If you had to analyze the “state of the union” of Jews in Quebec today, how would you characterize it?
Very few people refer to others as Jews. Quebecers talk about Jews whenever the Israel question comes up or if there is debate surrounding the Jewish schools that are subsidized by the state in return for following the official curriculum. The large Hasidic community in Montreal is also occasionally in the news.
You were a Quebec cabinet minister and a member of the Parti québécois. How would you characterize the party’s modern legacy with regards to relations with Jews in the province?
The founder of the Parti québécois, René Lévesque, was a former war correspondent with the American army and he experienced the horrors of World War II for himself. He had a special place in his heart for the victims of the Holocaust. He was aware that Jews were nervous about all forms of nationalism and constantly sought to reassure them. Another Parti Québécois leader, Lucien Bouchard, was personally close to the Jewish community and it is even said that his two sons were in part educated by Jewish institutions.
The fact that Herbert Marx wrote the foreword to my book shows that the former parliamentarian continued to respect his former political adversaries, of which I was one.
In general, the Jews of Montreal prefer to call themselves Montrealers rather than Quebecers or Canadians. Their unease with Quebec is largely down to the province’s language laws. Aside from that, I don’t think there have been many places in the world where Jews have had such a rich history.
If there is a problem, it is that they are not sufficiently interested in their own history. It is up to them to make sure Moses-Judah Hays, William Raphaël, and Sigismond Mohr are familiar names. In a sense, it’s a shame that I have had to write so many Jewish biographies for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography myself.