In the early decades of the 20th century, many Canadian Jews who identified with the egalitarian ideals of communism were active in both politics and the labour movement.
These Jewish left-wingers had a rich political, social and cultural history, which Ester Reiter chronicles in a newly released book titled A Future Without Hate or Need: The Promise of the Jewish Left in Canada (Between the Lines, Toronto, 2016).
Reiter, a senior scholar in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University, covers the Canadian Jewish left from its origins in Russian socialism to the cultural and political activism that took root in Canada.
Most of the history in A Future Without Hate or Need focuses on three main Canadian centres – Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.
Reiter delves into the importance of Yiddish as a language that reflected the cultural, historical and political aspirations of the left-wing Jewish movement, which was secular. “Yiddish was the vehicle through which revolutionary sensibilities were learned and maintained… Yiddish was also a way for the community to preserve its history and identity.”
She points out that while the international factions of the Communist party were not interested in preserving Jewish identity, many Jewish communists in North America and Europe adhered to their cultural and historical roots.
In fact, Russian Yiddish writers like Isaac Babel and Peretz Markish were actually supported in Russia under the rule of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Russian Communist party.
Reiter traces the various routes that led people to embrace socialism. Some immigrants, who were Communists in Russia, brought their political ideals with them to Canada and founded political organizations including the Labour League, which later became the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO). Others became radicalized as a result of the poverty they experienced and/or their exposure to the dismal working conditions in factories.
Most of the Jewish left were a community of workers grappling with poverty, according to Reiter. “Conditions in the garment industry, where most Jewish women and many Jewish men found employment, were terrible.” Workers laboured long hours in crowded, unsanitary factories.
She writes that the political activism stemmed from the idealistic conviction that this would lead to social and political change that would benefit others. Jews were well represented in the garment industry as union organizers.
What made their lives bearable was their connection to communities that established cultural, social and educational activities in the late ’20s and early ’30s. “Progressive cultural groups came together to form Jewish workers cultural centres” that fostered artistic and creative expression.
Dance and drama groups, literary circles, orchestras and choirs flourished. The most famous group, the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, became a prominent cultural entity under the leadership of Emil Gertner, the conductor from 1939 to 1960.
Reiter also examines the political friction between the Jewish left and Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which represented the established community at the time. During the Spanish Civil War, left-wing Jewish groups were allied with the anti-fascists, while CJC supported the American and Canadian governments’ espousal of neutrality or inaction against General Francisco Franco, who was allied with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Reiter refers to CJC’s inaction as its “‘Sha-shtil’ policy.”
In 1937, CJC also discouraged participation in the International Conference on Yiddish Culture and the Canadian League against War and Fascism. “It seemed that opposition to anything that included Communists trumped any consideration of a particular issue, no matter how compelling,” Reiter says.
Despite CJC opposition, many Jewish Canadians supported the left, especially during World War II, when the Soviet Union fought alongside the Allies.
She notes that in 1943, prominent Jewish Communists like Joe Gershman and Morris Biderman were actually invited to join CJC, but they were kicked out once the Cold War started.
The rift between the Jewish Communists and CJC widened after Fred Rose, a Jewish Communist who served in Parliament from 1943 to 1945, was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in 1946.
Reiter will be launching her book at the Winchevsky Centre (585 Cranbrooke Ave.) on Oct. 15 at 7:30 PM. To attend, RSVP at 416-789-5522.