The best-known portraits of early Canadian Jewish life appeared in the 1950s, in A.M. Klein’s novel The Second Scroll and Mordecai Richler’s first notable work, Son of a Smaller Hero. Richler’s novel, published in 1955, is set in the early ’50s while Klein’s novel opens, autobiographically, in the years following the Soviet Revolution and leaps forward to the Declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. These are archetypal novels of Montreal life, of the experience of the Jewish Canadian minority at a time when it had not fully entered the mainstream.
Klein, more than Richler, bridges the experience of Jewish life in eastern Europe with North American possibilities. But for all its awareness of Jewish history and religious culture, a noticeable absence in The Second Scroll is Yiddish. The novel is celebrated as a proto-multicultural portrait, but Klein does Jewish life in the ’30s and ’40s without confronting the role of the language spoken by many Jews at the time.
Richler’s early work makes use of Yiddish as a tool of insult – it provides the right words to tell others to drop dead. In Richler’s view it was a language relied upon by hopelessly nostalgic poets who wrote “yearning” odes to “fields and forests” in faraway Poland.
Readers must look beyond these books to gain a sense of the importance of Yiddish to the generations of Canadian Jews who lived before and after World War II.
An unusual and useful portrait of those years is offered in Michael Mandel’s The Jewish Hour: The Golden Age of a Toronto Radio Show and Newspaper.
Mandel’s book combines memoir, substantial archival research, and social history to depict Toronto Jewish life between 1936 and the early ’60s. Mandel focuses his attention on Jewish Hour radio shows that ran throughout this period, as well as on the Toronto-based Kanader Nayes, the Yiddish newspaper that supported these shows. Mandel’s father was a popular player on Jewish Hours as well as in theatre shows.
The archival work undertaken for The Jewish Hour focuses not only on Yiddish media outlets – which were plentiful in the years Mandel covers – but on the way these outlets reflected political, social and broader cultural trends in Canadian Jewish life.
The Kanader Nayes wore its political stripes proudly, editorializing in favour of a liberal but staunchly anti-communist stance. Columns addressed local elections (Toronto communist organizer J.B. Salsberg was a perennial candidate), while the newspaper offered its view of events in the United States, in Europe and in pre-state Palestine.
The cultural ferment brewing in Toronto in the ’30s and ’40s, now largely forgotten, was sustained by local impresarios and performers as well as by international acts. Theatres in the Spadina and Dundas area screened Polish Yiddish films alongside American-made titles. American Yiddish theatre and concert productions competed with cantorial performances and comedy acts.
Political organizations, including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, mounted amateur theatre at the Royal Alexandra, while the Labour Lyceum on Spadina hosted political royalty of the stature of Red Emma Goldman.
The Jewish Hour is well stocked with reproductions of photographs, full page spreads, even advertisements from the Kanader Nayes, which illustrate how political, cultural and everyday life was lived in Yiddish. Mandel is scrupulous about translating these artefacts for the non-Yiddish reader, and the tableau on offer is rich: in the ’30s there were greetings from Toronto mayor Jimmy Simpson, surely his Yiddish debut; there are ads for money-transfer to European relatives, alongside promotions for steamship travel to Soviet Russia. In wartime, calls appear in support of Canadian Red Cross relief activities in Europe. In 1945, the Polish-born American Yiddish writer Joseph Opatoshu came to speak at the Victory on Spadina about “The Future of Jews in Poland.”
Like any depiction of the life of Yiddish in North America, The Jewish Hour ends on a sour note. The Kanader Nayes routinely devoted editorials to the decline of Yiddish in official and cultural circles. An Israeli independence celebration at Massey Hall presented a “whole evening” in which one heard not “one word of Yiddish.” A “stranger would have felt,” the editorial complains, “that, in Toronto, Yiddish is a dead language.”
Michael Mandel’s father died suddenly in 1953. Not so long after this the Kanader Nayes lost its longtime editor and ceased publishing. But the census numbers from the early ’50s tell an interesting tale. Half of Canada’s roughly 200,000 Jews at mid-century continued to claim Yiddish as their “first language learned and still understood.”
Still, the lived atmosphere of Jewish life in Yiddish would evaporate in the coming years. Klein and Richler depict this moment, but in their novels the scene is transposed, for readability and simplicity, into English. The Jewish Hour immerses its readers in the full swing of Canadian Yiddish life, and the trip back in time is good fun.