by Bob Chodos
Sympathetic interest among francophone Quebecers in the Jewish community in their midst is recent; it dates from the 1980s. Three new books in French indicate that this interest is not only continuing but has reached a certain level of maturity.
The importance of Pierre Anctil to this development can hardly be overstated. One of the new books is a collection of his essays, a second (Jean-François Nadeau’s) is dedicated to him and the third (Malcolm Reid’s) contains his endorsement on the inside back cover. For Anctil, who teaches history at the University of Ottawa, Quebec’s Jewish community represents an espace charnière, a pivotal space between English and French. Anctil is interested in the Jewish community on its own terms and for its own sake. But he is also interested in the ways in which Quebec history looks different when the Jews are taken into account.
The 11 essays in Trajectoires juives were published in a variety of places over a period of about a decade, and cover a variety of topics: the tiny Jewish community that existed in Quebec before 1850; René Lévesque’s relationship with the Jewish community (which was a template for his relationship with all of Quebec’s “cultural communities”); the art collector Max Stern, who came to Montreal after fleeing Germany in the 1930s; a comparison of language policies in Quebec and Israel. But Anctil devotes the most space, and the most passion, to Yiddish writing in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. He is sufficiently engaged by this literature that he became fluent in Yiddish himself, starting with a course at McGill (he also learned Hebrew). A sense of the excitement of discovery pervades the three chapters devoted to this topic:
When a francophone – that is, someone outside Jewish culture – comes to the realization that a large body of Yiddish literature existed in Montreal from the dawn of the 20th century on, the appropriate reaction is one of utter amazement. This vast corpus in a nonofficial language has remained so completely outside the Quebec majority’s sphere of cultural perception that a French-language reader who even skims its surface will be first surprised, then astonished. After all, how could there have been another fully developed literary tradition in Montreal besides the French and the English, possessing its own writing, publishing and distribution networks, without participants in the two dominant traditions detecting even the faintest echo?
A Montreal that had this literary tradition is a different, richer, more complex Montreal than the one Anctil had previously known. The Yiddish writers saw Montreal through another set of eyes, and created a literary language to evoke Montreal at a time when most francophone writers were still celebrating the virtues of the countryside. Furthermore, they wrote about new ideas, socialist ideas that would remain marginal in francophone Quebec for another generation.