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Canadian Literature


A.M. *Klein (1909–1972), the founding father of Canadian-Jewish literature, grew up in Montreal, the birthplace of that body of writing. A polyglot and autodidact, Klein absorbed his Hebrew and Yiddish heritages, as well as traditional English literature, Joycean modernism, and French-Canadian influences within the province of Quebec. These streams make their way into his novel, The Second Scroll, and his last collection of poetry, The Rocking Chair, where he combines Jewish and French traditions, moving away from his earlier archaic style and Hebraic subject matter toward modernism in contemporary Quebec. The five short chapters of The Second Scroll are loosely structured on the Five Books of Moses, and are followed by five talmudic glosses in the form of poetry, a play, and an artistic essay. The narrator searches for his Uncle Melech Davidson, a messianic figure, throughout the Diaspora and Zion. Surrounded by a group of Yiddish writers such as J.J. *Segal (1896–1954), Melech *Ravitch (1893–1976), Jacob *Zipper (1900–1973), Ida *Maze (1893–1962), and Rochl *Korn (1898–1982), Klein participated in intellectual activities at the Jewish Public Library, wrote for the Kanader Adler, and became editor of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. Eventually this multilingual spokesman turned silent for the last 17 years of his life

Klein mentored Irving *Layton (1912– ), who gave voice to his teacher's silence throughout the second half of the 20th century. Layton developed an outspoken Nietzschean persona, and as a fierce prophet he excoriated the materialism of Jews around him and the smugness of Canadian conservatism, dominated by an Anglo-Saxon elite. Layton's poetry in turn influenced his friend Leonard *Cohen (1934– ), who began writing poetry in Montreal before turning to a career in singing and song writing. To Layton's prophetic mode, Cohen added his own secular, ironic priestly role. Cohen's two novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers, move from a realistic, autobiographical portrait of the artist coming of age in Montreal to a mythological, postmodern recreation of indigenous history combined with contemporary Quebec politics. Seymour *Mayne (1944– ) and David Solway (1941– have carried on Klein's tradition in their own verse.

While these poets are sympathetic towards Klein, the fiction of Mordecai *Richler (1931–2001) is more critical. Richler viewed Klein as a sentimental, old-fashioned poet who sold out his true vocation by becoming a speechwriter for Sam *Bronfman, the head of Seagram's Whisky. In his epic novel Solomon Gursky Was Here, Richler sets up a figure of Klein within the Bronfman whisky dynasty. Like Layton, Richler relies heavily upon satire to denounce parvenu Jews and staid Canadian Christians. From his energetic breakthrough novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to the more cosmopolitan St. Urbain's Horseman (which uses a quest motif similar to Klein's in The Second Scroll), Richler comes closest to the achievement of Bellow, Malamud, and Philip Roth in the United States. For most of these Montreal writers, New York remained a cultural Mecca, and their writing often mediated between a progressive American outlook and a more conservative British heritage in Canada. These writers draw upon their European roots, while making it new in ways that differed from the American mainstream. Montreal's French and Yiddish strains remained unique in North America throughout the 20th century with literary translations contributing to the cross-fertilization of this singular polyglot culture.

If the Jewish immigrant energy in Montreal has passed its heyday, nevertheless a number of younger writers have accommodated to the shifting French-speaking majority. The experimental fiction of Robert Majzels (1950– ) translates French into English, and the contemporary Jewish scene into his Quebec milieu. His first novel, Hellman's Scrapbook, features the letters of an institutionalized son to his parents who are Holocaust survivors. Superimposed on these letters are French newspaper clippings that disorient the reader alongside the patient. His second novel, Apikoros Sleuth, is written in talmudic format, with Hebrew letters at the center of the page surrounded by different columnar narratives and commentary about a mystery in Montreal. His radical style challenges our preconceptions about the act of reading, while simultaneously borrowing from his Hebrew heritage. In a similar vein, La Québécoite (trans. The Wanderer) of Régine Robin (1939– ) flows between French and Yiddish signs and narratives integral to Montreal. Her work straddles the French writings of Monique *Bosco (1927– ) and Naim *Kattan (1928– ), and the Yiddish fiction of Yehuda *Elberg (1912–2003), and Chava *Rosenfarb (1923– ).

If Montreal has traditionally been the center of Canadian-Jewish literature, then Winnipeg stands as the second most important contributor to this body of writing. Instead of any significant French influence, Winnipeg's Jewish writers – Jack Ludwig (1922– ), Miriam *Waddington (1912–2004), and Adele *Wiseman (1928–1992) – were influenced by Yiddish socialist ideals at the Peretz School, Ukrainian neighbors, and an open prairie suggesting unlimited horizons. Ludwig's novels move from the particulars of Winnipeg's Jewish north end towards a Whitmanesque embracing of America. Wiseman's first novel, The Sacrifice, chronicles the immigrant situation within three generations of the same family against a biblical backdrop. The tragic circumstances of her first novel turn comic in her second novel, Crackpot, a bizarre account of a young Jewish prostitute who comes of age in Winnipeg. Miriam Waddington's poetry deals with social and political causes, while some of her critical writing has focused on A.M. Klein and other Yiddish writers.

Further west, one finds the isolated prairie examples of the poetry of Eli *Mandel (1922–1992) and the fiction of Henry *Kreisel (1922–1991). Although Mandel's early poetry dealt with Greek mythology, he turned increasingly to Hebraic roots, exploring gravesites in his native Saskatchewan, looking for communities that have virtually disappeared beneath prairie bedrock. Both Mandel and Kreisel have paid homage to A.M. Klein. Kreisel's short story, "The Almost Meeting," recounts a failed encounter between Kreisel and Klein. Kreisel's first transatlantic novel, The Rich Man, portrays the return of a son to his Austrian family on the eve of World War II. His second novel, The Betrayal, deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust as it impinges on innocent lives in Edmonton.

Now that the high point of immigrant writing in Montreal and the west has receded, some Ontario writers have emerged to pave the way toward a new ethos reflective of Toronto's multicultural scene. Norman *Levine (1923– ), a senior Ottawa short story writer, spent much of his adult life in England, portraying both the artistic community in rural Britain as well as his Jewish origins in Ottawa. Matt *Cohen (1942–1999) wrote several novels about rural Ontario before turning to Jewish themes in his later fiction. Cohen has outlined his position of alienation with regard to the Jewish establishment on the one hand, and a dominant Ontario Presbyterian culture on the other. Marginalized by both groups, Cohen sought to identify with Sephardic Jewish history. Younger writers such as Cary Fagan (1957– ) and Norman Ravvin (1963– ) have confronted similar obstacles trying to portray Canadian-Jewish subjects in their fiction. The experimental fiction of Helen Weinzweig (1915– ) has added to the panorama of perspectives.

Younger writers have taken a variety of approaches in their fiction. Lilian Nattel (1956– ), who, like a number of other authors, moved from Montreal to Toronto partly in response to Quebec's nationalist, separatist political agenda, uses magic realism in her historical fiction set in Poland (The River Midnight) and England (The Singing Fire) a century ago. The short stories of J.J. Steinfeld (1946– ) deal obsessively and surrealistically with the Holocaust. Anne *Michaels (1958– ) has turned from poetry to her internationally acclaimed first novel, Fugitive Pieces, a highly poetic and metaphoric work of fiction where the protagonist survives the Holocaust by escaping from Poland and spending the war years hidden on a Greek island before leaving for Toronto at the end of the war. Michael Redhill (1966– ), another Toronto poet who has turned to fiction, writes about Martin Sloane, half-Irish, half-Jewish, who leaves Ireland to join part of his family in Montreal. More steeped in Jewish roots, Aryeh Lev Stollman's fiction combines science, fantasy, realism, Jewish learning, and history, originating in Windsor, Ontario, but radiating outward from the Canadian border to Europe. The leftist plays of Jason *Sherman (1962– ) have been critical of violence in Israel, as Sherman explores his ambivalent reactions as a Jew in the Diaspora. Also leftwing in her ideology, Edeet Ravel (1955– ) has set her novels in Israel. David Bezmozgis (1973– ) is the youngest of the new breed of short story writers in Toronto. His debut collection, Natasha, portrays the recently arrived Russian community in the northern suburbs of Toronto. In poetry, Kenneth Sherman (1950– ), Robyn Sarah (1949– ), Rhea Tregebov (1953– ), and Susan Glickman (1953– ) combine regionalism, nostalgia, and the Canadian landscape. Overshadowed by the titans of American-Jewish literature, Jewish writers in Canada have written through a northern absence to arrive at a quieter, different place – from Klein's exile to the Diaspora's edge.


C.L. Fuks (Fox), ed, Hundert Yor Yidishe un Hebreyishe Literatur in Kanade (1982); I. Robinson et al., An Everday Miracle: Yiddish Culture in Montreal (1990); E. Orenstein, in: M. Weinfeld et al., The Canadian Jewish Mosaic (1981), 293–313.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.