Challah in the City

Two new novels explore the Jewish experience in Montreal.

Between 1971 and 1981, 15,000 Jews left Montreal. Since then the population has declined by another 10,000. Relocation is a major adjustment, even between cities in the same country, so it is unlikely that the loss of Montreal as an inspiration and setting for Canadian Jewish fiction was a prominent concern while people dismantled and rebuilt their lives. When a community dwindles, its ability to incubate talent diminishes with it, so chances were reduced that new Jewish Montreal writers would emerge to follow A.M. Klein, Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton or Leonard Cohen.

A glance at the list of fiction winners of the Canadian Jewish Book Awards since 1987 confirms this—Anne Michaels, Morley Torgov, David Bezmosgis and Aryeh Lev Stollman each came from other Jewish communities, although such Montrealers as Nancy Richler and, most recently, Nora Gold appear on the list. Even so, diasporas have long memories and novels set in Montreal by relocated Montreal authors have been appearing again. These included Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth by Edeet Ravel and The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler (shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012). Both novels look back at the post-war period in which these authors grew up.

The publication in 2015 of two novels by Jewish writers set in contemporary Montreal suggests that the community is once again generating writers who set work in their hometown. The Book of Faith, by Elaine Kalman Naves, describes a year in the lives of characters who would be peers of The Imposter Bride’s narrator, Ruth Kramer. Sigal Samuel, the author of The Mystics of Mile End, is a millennial whose parents are contemporaries of the characters in The Book of Faith.

Although The Book of Faith and The Mystics of Mile End portray different Montreal neighbourhoods, different demographic cohorts and different phases of life, they share three themes: the gap that friendship fills when family fails, the place that Judaism holds in complex lives and the unique nature of relationships with survivors of the Holocaust.

Straddling the end of the previous millennium and the beginning of this one, The Book of Faith depicts a middle-aged community discovering that life can be seriously destabilized just when it is supposed to arrive at a period of comfortable coasting. It opens at the funeral of the beloved community leader Faith Rabinovitch, whose accidental death in her early fifties has reduced the inseparable trio of girlfriends known as the Three Graces to a bereaved duo. The intricately meshed community connected by its membership in Congregation Emunath, the reconstructionist synagogue of which Faith was the president, faces the challenges you would expect of a financially secure, educated, largely liberal-minded network of professionals, academics and business proprietors: life-threatening health crisis, grey divorce, romantic fiascos, elder care for demented parents, deteriorating homes and facilities, and psychoanalysis interminable. Noticeable by their absence are problematic children—not a learning disability, personality disorder or attention deficit among them—a surprising state of affairs for a highly diagnosed generation.

The Three Graces’ lives are supplied with joys and sorrows in almost equal measure. Faith, for example, feels her life is “nearly perfect,” the qualifier being that the mother who regards Faith as her reward for surviving the Holocaust has been in a progressing state of dementia for a decade. (The mother exemplifies what has become apparent in recent studies, that victims of severe early trauma experience earlier cognitive decline than their peers.) Erica, a successful author and literary critic who retrieved her Jewish identity after untangling the evasions resorted to by her Hungarian parents during and after the Holocaust, now faces cancer without support from the husband who left her for another woman. Even the financially secure, locally born, bred and doted-on Rhoda had her adolescence shattered by her mother’s indiscreet infidelity and the imposition of too much information about her parents’ intimate relationship.

But the Three Graces feel that their longstanding friendship more than compensates for their minor shortfalls. In constant contact, in person or in cyberspace, they update each other on professional, emotional, social, familial and communal vicissitudes and exchange bitchy gossip with great gusto. Imagine middle age, middle class Jewish variants of Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends, and you have the flavour of their bond.

Just as New York is essential to the friendships in Sex and the City, Montreal is central to the Three Graces, who watched many of their peers leave town when they were young adults. A large percentage of the 15,000 Jews who left Montreal were university students who might have gone to McGill or Concordia as previous generations did, but moved away instead. Kalman Naves does not make an overt point of why these friends remained in Montreal, but the place of the painful histories of their European parents in these women’s minds is a poignant, shared feature of their continued residence in Montreal. After the horrific rupture in their parents’ lives, these women would not consider leaving them behind or uprooting them with another relocation.

Deepening the shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over their lives is the manipulation by the mega-wealthy survivor Melly Darwin, who dangles a major donation before Congregation Emunath on the condition that Erica write his biography. After the arduous uncovering of her own family’s obscured truth, Erica has to immerse herself in Darwin’s horrific story, which forces her to put their different histories into an obscene relative scale of suffering.

But Melly Darwin was dragging her into the thick of it now … forcing her to grapple with a new disloyal thought: no matter what her parents had endured in forced labor and hiding, in harrowing escapes and privation … no matter how shattering their war had been, it was tame compared to Melly’s.

When Erica’s research uncovers details concerning Melly’s sister’s death that he would rather not acknowledge, and her first draft lacks the unalloyed heroism Darwin had in mind, he breaks the contract, withholds Erica’s fee and redirects his donation to another congregation. That this mighty entrepreneur’s ego is too fragile to withstand any investigation of the reality of his history indicates the shaky psychic foundation on which this community’s life is built. This makes the death of Faith Rabinovitch all the more devastating. Not only tragically premature, but it also strikes a community already suspended above an abyss of horrific prior loss.

The fifty-something protagonists of The Book of Faith all have children, but their concerns focus on their parents more than their offspring. The parents in The Mystics of Mile End, who are their peers, show little awareness of either generation.

The residents of Montreal’s mature middle class neighbourhood referred to as the West End, where The Book of Faith is located, seem to be a different breed from the types who call the more artistic, hip and multicultural neighbourhood Mile End their home. When Lev and Samara Meyer’s father David was a “lonely geeky teenager” reacting to his family’s resolutely secular rationalism, he entered a yeshiva located in Mile End, seeking “miracles … prepared to sacrifice anything—intellectual integrity included—on the altar of that great need.” By the time his children were seven and ten years old, securely baking challah with their pious mother Miriam each week, the certainty of his faith had crumbled. The volcanic eruptions over religious practice that threatened the formerly harmonious marriage were abruptly terminated when a car hit Miriam, leaving her children minus a mother, a religious modus vivendi and much of a father. Having transferred from yeshiva to graduate school as a passionate devotee of Gershom Scholem (“to read Scholem was to run along a razor blade, its sweet edge cutting into me again and again”) and an even more passionate seducer of his female students, David Meyer mostly leaves his children to their own devices.

Samara and Lev fill this parental vacuum with friends who are equally neglected in different ways. Lev’s brainiac classmate Alex is a latchkey kid of a divorced working mother and a relocated father, and Samara’s childhood playmate and subsequent lover Jenny has fared no better in an intact family: “As a child she’d gone unnoticed by both her parents: Judy, a bossy and busy lawyer, and Ira, a kind but weak and no less busy dean.” This thumbnail sketch of the power couple as parents says a lot about how millennials feel about their upbringing.

The friendships of these four quasi-orphans, seeded in childhood, intertwine like vigorous vines that become grafted into one plant. Alex and Lev team up on their science project, learn binary code, peer into their neighbours’ homes on Alex’s telescope and win the science fair. While visiting Lev, Alex shows Samara how to find meaningful patterns in the chaos of sounds that come from the dishwasher, beginning a cryptic and ultimately critical dialogue between them that lasts into adulthood. Unsupervised cooks of their own meals, Lev and Samara concoct such delicacies as pizza topped with Nibs and gummy bears. Adolescent Samara and Jenny progress from painting watercolours on paper to painting each other’s bodies. Alex carries a torch for Samara, not able to see that she and Jenny have a physical connection. As their erotic urges develop it is no wonder that these friends become each other’s first objects of desire; there are no parents onto whom they can project their fledgling yearnings.

After a middle-age heart attack, when his children are in their early twenties, David Meyer prematurely resumes running against his physician’s advice, seeking relief from guilty feelings about his neglect of his children and his professional commitments with a dose of masochistic exercise. Racing around Mile End in a murderous heat wave, he notices how disparate the residents of the neighbourhood are:

For once the neighborhood was quiet. The young professionals had already left for work; the twisting staircases they’d painted in lively purples and greens and oranges were free of the bicycles that usually lay propped against the rails. In their various yeshivas, the Hasids were gathered for morning prayers … a lone figure squatting on a lawn under a majestic old oak tree: Katz … a religious nut … suffering from some mental affliction … the ignored manqué of a yeshiva world that should have been his birthright.

The deranged Hasid and the vehemently alienated professor of religion are at opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum within which Lev and Samara try to find a sustainable religious stance. To attract her father’s attention, Samara secretly prepares for her bat mitzvah, studying with her next-door neighbour Chaim Glassman, a deeply learned and mathematically brilliant Holocaust survivor who can teach bible, commentary and homiletic tales with facility, but is perplexed by the meaning of King Lear. When her father’s response is rage, Samara’s brief period of Jewish practice ends, until David Meyer’s second fatal heart attack. Discovering her father’s draft study of the kabbalah in his posthumous papers, she attempts to master the mystical text in a series of nearly fatal delusional enactments. Lev, who has returned to Hasidism, inspired by the expression of faith he sees in his mother’s photograph, faces his own religious crisis after his father’s death. Comfort does not come from Jewish custom or community, but from emotional and physical contact with his father’s Québécois girlfriend. Watching his friends deteriorate, Alex appeals to Glassman to teach him kabbalah even though he is not Jewish, in order to understand Samara’s crazed project. Glassman agrees so he can extract instruction on the meaning of King Lear as they study. As the religious Jew grapples with a secular masterpiece and a gentile tackles a sacred Jewish text, they each develop new understandings of the abandonment and confusion with which they struggle. This prepares them to rescue Samara when she cracks as violently as Lear did on the heath.

Glassman cultivates a quiet world of study and thought, unlike the world of the Holocaust survivors in The Book of Faith, who rebuild their lives by starting families and businesses. Steadfastly devoted to his mathematically gifted wife, who spends her days reciting formulae under her breath while baking rugelach, he studies texts, teaches at an after-school religious program, and coaches bar and bat mitzvah candidates. His stoic endurance of pain is combined with an excruciating awareness of the cost of such a distant stance. This deep experience of radical aloneness allows him to reach Samara during her most distraught agony. Pleading with her in her deranged state, he exhorts her to choose life, adapting the command from Deuteronomy that he understands can be almost impossible to obey. As The Mystics of Mile End draws to a close, a new dialogue between Samara and Glassman is just beginning. Each generation catalyzes recovery in the other one, but the one in the middle is utterly absent.

Simply put, these two books show that it is a very different thing to be a child of a survivor than to be a young neighbour. Many Canadian fiction writers have described the transformative impact of coming in contact with Holocaust survivors at a variety of stages in a variety of relationships. The Far Euphrates, by Aryeh Lev Stollman, is about the devastating effect of a child’s premature exposure to an atrocity inflicted on a survivor in his parents’ circle of friends. A nonagenarian WASP is transformed by her encounter with a Holocaust survivor in her retirement residence in The Other Sister by Lola Tostevin. Adele Wiseman’s unique heroine, Hoda, the Winnipeg Jewish whore, in Crackpot, forms her first lasting bond with Lazar, the survivor who appeals to her to “Help me, Hodaleh. I will not ask you to feel it or share it. Just be with me.” It is not surprising that this theme has dominated Canadian Jewish fiction since the end of the Holocaust.

These Canadian Jewish writers are trying to understand the torturous but unavoidable dilemma the survivors face in trying to form an authentic relationship with people who will never truly grasp what they endured as well as what the response to survivors ought to be. Sigal Samuel’s portrait of Chaim Glassman, who sincerely cares about the children in his orbit, while also wanting to tell them the story of how he got the particular numbers tattooed on his arm, shows that even as the writers get younger and the survivors get older, the challenge of mutual understanding continues.