A Quiet Miracle

Jewish life has survived and thrived in Canada—against all odds

Historian Allan Levine must be a very brave man. First, writing Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience involved sifting through a massive and widely dispersed mountain of documents, plus interviewing dozens of people, all to create a book deeply wounding to Canadian vanity. We have become fond of contrasting our multicultural tolerance and civility with the bigotry of less happy nations. That is not a theme you can extract from our history, however; Canada’s treatment of its Jewish population often makes for painful reading. We live in a country that disliked and mistreated refugee minorities fleeing oppression long after the Second World War. Multiculturalism is a very new value here.

Canada is now one of the best places in the world to be Jewish, which is not necessarily good news for a historian. There is no central tragedy to shape the narrative line—just a progression of setbacks, defeats, and occasional stunning successes that somehow morphs into mainstream acceptance in recent years. Canada has seen plenty of anti-Semitism, some violence, a few riots—but no pogroms, no concentration camps, no Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Nor does the country’s geography help. This is a big place, with Jews sprinkled from coast to coast. History and geography make it difficult to impose a clear storyline on Jewish history here. The two unifying themes that emerge from Levine’s narrative are oppression from the outside and reaction against it, and the state of Israel, which has replaced religion as the identifying factor for many Canadian Jews. But discrimination has faded, Canadian Jews have largely prospered, and Israel has become a divisive issue. So the shape of Jewish history in Canada is, frankly, squishy.

It is difficult to convey the sheer volume of material that Levine assimilated to write Seeking the Fabled City (the title comes from a poem by Montreal poet A.M. Klein). There is simply so much Jewish history in Canada. The first settlers provide an excellent example. The honour of identification as Canada’s first Jew is generally awarded to either Aaron Hart or Samuel Jacobs in the mid-eighteenth century. But Levine points out that other candidates got here first. A Sephardic Jewish merchant, Joseph de la Penha, claimed Labrador for William of Orange in 1677. (His descendants tried unsuccessfully to regain possession of the territory in the twentieth century.) And Esther Brandeau, at the age of twenty, landed in New France in 1738, disguised as a man. The authorities eventually shipped her back to France, irritated by her refusal to convert to Catholicism. People and themes surface in documents and then disappear. And remember that problem of geography: woe betide the historian whose focus on Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver leads him to omit the Jews of the Maritimes or Alberta.

Levine’s courage runs much deeper. His book acts as a corrective to a myth perpetrated by both the worst anti-Semites and by aspiring Jewish spokesmen: the delusion that Jews form a united, indeed monolithic bloc. It’s an extraordinary misconception, given that Canada’s Jews cover a spectrum that runs from Dave Barrett to Ezra Levant, from Peter C. Newman to Larry Zolf, from Linda Frum to Naomi Klein. Canada has many Jewish communities, and they are not always on the best of terms with each other.

The history here reinforces, repeatedly, a sentiment I first encountered on a birthday card. The card’s front read, “Experts have found that two out of three Jews agree…” The open card finished the sentence: “…on absolutely nothing.” Levine’s chronicle of discrimination against Jews is complemented by the ongoing squabbles among Canada’s Jews themselves. Somewhat to my surprise, the contemporary divisions are less intense than some of the past ones. (I can’t recall a recent occasion in which a rabbi was beaten up over a theological dispute.) Refreshingly, Levine does not pretend that he rises above the fray in a spirit of pure academic detachment. He admits freely to his Zionist ­sympathies and his personal biases. You could use some parts of this book as recruitment material should you ever wish to found a fan club for the National Post’s Barbara Kay.

But no historian has worked harder to play fair. Levine acknowledges that criticism of Israel is not limited to anti-Semites, and that it can be valid, though he does note the paradox of LGBT and environmental activists attacking the only country in the Middle East that would tolerate them. He identifies a useful signal that their motives may be less than pure: the demonization of Israel as a uniquely evil state by protesters who remain silent about China’s treatment of its Uighur population, Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on his own people, or Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen.

It’s a safe bet that Levine’s herculean efforts to achieve balance will not prevent some of his readers from taking offence. For instance, he is careful to note that Quebecers, French or English, “were not necessarily more racist than other Canadians.” But the rest of the book makes it clear that anti-Semitism runs deep in that province’s culture. Many readers will already know about the infamous interns strike at Notre-Dame Hospital in 1934. That’s the year when thirty-one of the hospital’s thirty-two interns walked out to protest against the hospital’s offer of an internship to what they termed a “Hebrew.” As they explained to a journalist, “Catholic patients found it repugnant to be treated by a Jewish doctor.”

The results of the surveys, some recent, that Levine quotes would be adequate proof that Quebecers disproportionately dislike and distrust Jews, but it’s the passages from the press, priests, and politicians that really put the teeth on edge. Worse, not all of these citations come from the distant past. In 1988, La Presse sided with Outremont (then a separate city within Montreal) in its effort to restrict the number of Hasidic synagogues, arguing that the Hasidim are a “bizarre minority, with its men in ‘pigtails,’ all in black like bogeymen, its women and children dressed like onions.”

It’s difficult to imagine words quite that offensive in today’s mainstream English-language press. Still, to follow Levine’s example of even-handed discourse, let me quote from a letter to Ontario premier Leslie Frost in 1950 from a friend, a judge named J.A. McGibbon, as Queen’s Park was discussing a law to abolish discrimination in the sale of property: “I do not want a coon or any Jew squatting beside me, and I know way down in your heart you do not.” To his credit, Frost told his friend he was out of date. Still, historically, intolerance is not unique to Quebec.

Levine is also willing to risk outrage from at least some of Canada’s Jews. Seeking the Fabled City is unlikely to feature on any gift lists for the board of CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, now the self-proclaimed representative of Canada’s Jews and their interests. Levine does a magnificent job of unravelling the machinations that led to its creation and its eventual destruction of the highly respected Canadian Jewish Congress in 2011. He lets each faction speak for itself, but his own unease is obvious.

That section, near the end, illustrates the technique that brings the book’s facts and figures alive. Levine functions like a camera, switching from wide shots to close-ups, as he focuses on people who exemplify or animate the numbers and data. The bibliography lists fifteen pages of printed material, but the following page provides the names of fifty people interviewed over two time periods. The book features stories about familiar figures—Samuel Bronfman, Mordecai Richler, Louis Rasminsky—but also scores of anecdotes about Jewish Canadians who attended Jewish summer camps, tried to farm, organized charitable drives, or just struggled to make a living. It’s a technique that makes the book readable, not just a valuable resource.

There have been histories of Canada’s Jews by Gerald Tulchinsky, Irving Abella, and others. What distinguishes Levine’s work is its comprehensive approach, in both material and attitude. That does mean it may offer more detail than the general reader wants on the founding and schisms of synagogues and charitable institutions, or the ongoing struggles of regular folk against the machers, the big shots who claim a divine right to direct other people’s lives. But some of those details are illuminating for their own sake. The story of Toronto’s brief war over the kosher certification of butchers in the 1920s certainly held my interest.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Seeking the Fabled City is that it was written now. That means that Levine dispels another popular and fallacious stereotype: the belief that Jewish women hold the true power in their communities. Whatever the dynamics of individual families, that has never been true in the spheres of religion and politics. This book shows a recurring pattern: women raised the money for charity, and men decided how to spend it—without consultation. The chapter on this does not read like a gesture to political correctness. I think Levine was genuinely offended by the history of sexism he unearthed.

Fifty years ago, at a very WASP gathering of academics, I overhead a well-upholstered matron ask, “Why are Canadian Jews so much less interesting and creative than American Jews?” At the time, I informed her that I often asked myself the same question about Canadian WASPs.

But now, looking back, I realize what a watershed that question represents. I can’t imagine a university gathering now where a guest could ask such a question, or even assume that no Jews would be present. Levine’s book shows that it is a miracle Canadian Jews managed to accomplish anything, given the myriad obstacles Canada placed to block their progress, success, and assimilation.

If you are a Jew who’s lived in Canada for more than sixty years, you can remember feeling like a not-terribly-welcome guest in your own country. Today, there is a dispute about the size of Canada’s Jewish population, all because Statistics Canada removed “Jewish” from its list of top ethnic ancestral identities in its 2016 long-form census question about “ethnic and cultural origins.” Without that reminder, Canada’s Jewish population suddenly dipped to half of its previous level. Still, that means many Canadian Jews couldn’t be bothered to write the identifying word “Jewish”—which does suggest a certain lack of commitment. This is the story of how that happened.