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Jewish Studies Take Off, North of the Border

‘Thirty years ago, the Jewish community of Canada was not a subject for winning tenure at a university,” said Ira Robinson, professor of Judaic studies at Montreal’s Concordia University. Now, all over Canada, scholarly journals, academic conferences, university institutes and endowed professorships are cropping up around a subject that might have seemed parochial a generation ago: Canadian Jewish Studies.

The University of Ottawa’s new Vered Program in Jewish Canadian Studies will enroll the first undergraduates in its minor this fall, and its first major publication, the bilingual “Traduire le Montreal Yiddish” (“New Readings in Yiddish Montreal”), will be put out by the university’s press next year. Toronto’s York University has an endowed chair for the study of Canadian Jewry. And the largest program of the lot, Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, has an endowed chair, 10 graduate students and a visiting-scholars program, and has already published four books, including “Canadian Jewish Studies Reader” from 2004 and, most recently, an English translation of the 1948 Yiddish novel “The Rich Man,” by Montreal writer Henry Kreisel.

Scholars across North America have taken note. Editors of the English-language international journal Jewish History recently entered into an agreement with Concordia’s Robinson and Richard Menkis of the University of British Columbia to edit a special issue on Canada, Robinson told the Forward. This publication comes in addition to the journal Canadian Jewish Studies, which has a circulation of some 200 academics and is published annually by the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies.

“There is increasing interest from Canadian Jews, who have finally attained the realization that we are interesting,” said Steven Lapidus, a graduate student at Concordia who is studying the development of the Orthodox rabbinate in Montreal. “We have long underplayed our appeal.”

Canadian Jewish Studies is a wide-ranging field. Typically, programs are interdisciplinary — built of shared appointments with professors in subjects such as history, religion, Canadian studies, literature and languages — and undergraduate courses are cross-listed. Professor Norman Ravvin, for instance, Concordia’s chair of Canadian Jewish studies, will teach a religious-studies class this spring titled “The Canadian Jewish Experience: Jewish Identity and Religious Life in Canada,” while University of Ottawa professor Seymour Mayne will teach a course in the Canadian Studies department called “Jewish Canadian Writers: The Making of a Tradition.”

The unique experience of Canadian Jews is rooted in the unique history of the country itself. Where America imagines itself as a melting pot, Canada’s immigrant mythology is that of a mosaic. “There’s no uniformity, no single approach to Canada,” University of Ottawa professor of history Pierre Anctil told the Forward; compared to the United States, “it’s a much more decentralized and multiple country.” Therefore, when Jews first started to immigrate to Canada in large numbers at the start of the 20th century, there was not as much of an emphasis on assimilation as there was in the United States.

Because Canada was a British colony, “Canadian Jews adopted, at the beginning of their history, a British vision of Judaism — which meant Orthodox,” Anctil told the Forward. In concert with the “mosaic” approach to difference, these Orthodox roots have caused Canada’s Jews to “remain more Jewish, more attracted to their own tradition,” said Anctil. “There is less intermarriage, more attachment to the community and to a Jewish education for the children.” Indeed, more than one-third of Jewish school-age children in Montreal attend Jewish day schools, compared to 12% in the United States.

If newly arrived Canadians’ vision of Judaism was British, their surroundings were often French; Jewish history in Canada straddles the country’s most distinctive cultural and linguistic divide. For most of the community’s history, Montreal was the capital of Canadian Jewish life. But the passage in 1980 of the “language laws” — which established French as the sole official language of Quebec, and coincided with the rise of the nationalist secession movement — caused many Jews to feel unwelcome and prompted a mass migration westward, to Toronto. The Jewish population of Montreal fell by almost 20%. Today, some 200,000 of Canada’s 350,000 Jews live in Toronto; 100,000 remain in Montreal, and 50,000 live elsewhere.

Canada has the sixth-largest population of Jews in the world, according to the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. Still, the absolute number of Canadian Jews is relatively small, which means that many students of Canadian Jewish Studies are not Jewish themselves. Anctil — who is not Jewish — says that this should not be surprising. Because Jewish immigrants were the first non-Christians to immigrate to Canada in large numbers, “to study Jews is to study the level of tolerance that Canadian society had toward people of different origins,” he said. “We cannot do a sound and valid history of Canada without doing the Jewish component.”

Furthermore, said Anctil, Jews have had much in common with French Canadians, particularly since Jewish life was centered in Quebec for so long. “One minority meets another minority, and there’s quite a lot to be learned,” he said. “The way that Jews have preserved their heritage is of interest to Francophones as well.”

Canadian Jewish history may date from more than a century ago, but the evolution of an academic field related to it is a more recent development. According to Concordia’s Robinson, “through the 1960s, the Canadian Jewish community was largely a community of immigrants or immigrants’ children.” It’s only recently, he said, that “it’s developed a much stronger sense of itself as its own community, and has a bit more of the perspective that allows it to examine itself.”

Many historians point to the 1983 book “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948,” by historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper, as the first example of a truly singular Jewish Canadian scholarship. “It created a real splash within the Canadian academic community,” said Robinson. “This is one of the major signposts in this process.”

Shortly thereafter, with the passage of two Multiculturalism Acts, in 1988 and 1991, the Government of Canada made multiculturalism official policy. This moment, says Concordia’s Ravvin, marked “a shift in interest and willingness of universities, and also donors, that comes from the sense of Canada as a multiethnic place.” Some of the initiatives that followed, such as federal support for “ethnic university chairs,” provided funds for programs such as Concordia’s and York’s; both were established in 1997. Ottawa’s Anctil also points to the fact that “many of the Jewish communities have a strong ability to preserve and organize themselves. That’s a strong reason why we have these programs now, because they’re being supported by Jews — financially, and also in terms of [recognizing their] importance.”

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