MONTREAL — Emily Lam, left, is 24, Asian-Canadian and from Peterborough, Ont. People are taken aback when she greets them in Yiddish.
But they are downright gobsmacked when they find out she devotes her life to the research of klezmer music, and not the kind that has moved into the mainstream, but the authentic variety that was brought to Canada by eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.
In fact, this soft-spoken young woman may be the leading authority on klezmer music in Montreal between 1924 and 1970, simply because no other academic attention has been given to the subject.
The normally demure Lam becomes excited when she talks about this little-examined piece of Canadian Jewish history.
Lam was among the presenters at the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies annual conference held in Montreal from May 30 to June 1, where she discussed her 30-page paper, People Didn’t Call It Klezmer: Klezmer Music in Jewish Montreal, 1924-1970, during the public session held at the Jewish Public Library (JPL).
It’s the fruit of three years’ work, the last two of which has been as an independent researcher.
The library was a fitting venue because it is at the JPL archives that Lam began her field research and where her scholarly interest, lit at the University of Ottawa, was kindled by legendary JPL archivist Eiran Harris, who possesses an unrivalled knowledge of Montreal Judaica, particularly its more obscure aspects.
Lam is the daughter of Vietnamese “boat people” who settled in Canada in the late 1970s. Her first language is Cantonese. She had no connection to anything Jewish, other than friends, and had never even heard of the Yiddish language, let alone culture.
Her interest, Lam insists, was not because she could relate her family’s immigrant experience to that of eastern European Jews to Canada. “I don’t know exactly how to answer [why she is so interested] – for a while I was over-intellectualizing it, but really it is just something I enjoyed so much,” she said in an interview.
Lam was nearing completion of an undergraduate degree in political science and history at the University of Ottawa when she spotted a course on Canadian Yiddish history being given by Rebecca Margolis. On a whim, she signed up for it.
“I had taken so many classes on European and Latin American history that I thought this would be something new,” Lam said.
New, it certainly was, but she soon caught the enthusiasm of Margolis – a young Yiddishist whom Lam calls her mentor – for the vibrant immigrant Jewish world that took root in Montreal.
For her final project, Lam, with the guidance of Margolis, zeroed in on klezmer music, partly because she had been an arts and culture reporter for the student newspaper and radio, and partly because nobody else appeared to have looked into its history in Canada.
Plenty has been written about the import of klezmer to the United States, and Lam boned up on such experts as Hankus Nefsky and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. She also took an intensive Yiddish course, and now speaks, reads and writes the language.
She soon realized that not only wasn’t there a Canadian equivalent to their research, but also no documentation of klezmer music exists here: no recordings, no tunebooks, no radio archives. “These musicians had become invisible. It was as if these musicians had never existed,” Lam said.
Margolis pointed her in the direction of Harris. It was sound advice. Harris not only shared his knowledge of how klezmer music was transplanted to Montreal, but also introduced her to Hyman (Blackie) Herman, whose father, Israel, was one of the early klezmer musicians in Montreal and who continued the tradition himself.
The year 1924 was when Herman immigrated to Montreal from Poland, and 1970 is the year he ended his career as a professional musician.
Harris, Herman and his associate, another professional Jewish musician of the era, Bill Taylor, were the main interviewees for her paper.
The title of her paper, People Didn’t Call It Klezmer, was inspired by her interviewees’ assertion that the term to them at the time meant a Jewish musician from the Old World, such as Herman or his contemporary Joey Kane. No one who had not known the experience of being a Jew in Europe would presume to call themselves a klezmer. They didn’t even think of klezmer as a musical genre.
Nevertheless, the younger Herman, who led his own orchestra for 14 years, and many others did play “klezmer” music at weddings, clubs and hotels. The style was popular with Montreal Jewish audiences and to a certain extent the general public, as Herman and Taylor recall the music being broadcast on radio and played at non-Jewish events.
After graduating in 2008, Lam decided to carry on her research without any intention of continuing her formal education. She had been coming to Montreal every weekend and moved here in September of that year.
Without benefit of any funding and while making a living at freelance writing and odd jobs, she delves everydeeper into a culture she likely would never heard of. She has even started learning Hebrew.
“I have a ferocious passion for it. I feel really lucky that I found something I enjoy so much… It’s something I want to pursue for the rest of my life,” she said.
Lam is grateful for the support she has received from almost everyone after they have gotten over their initial surprise that she could be so interested. “I guess it helps that I’m so wide-eyed and star-struck,” she said.
Today, she lives in Outremont and tries to speak Yiddish to her chassidic neighbours, especially the children. “They don’t say much back. They just look at me, but that’s OK, I understand it’s weird or strange to them,” she said.
This September, she will begin graduate school in Jewish studies. She hasn’t decided whether at McGill University or Concordia University.
Her goal is to track down other old-time Canadian klezmer musicians or those who listened to them to record their oral testimonies. Her work has taken on a sense of urgency, as she knows the living witnesses are becoming fewer.
Lam also continues to search for that elusive recording or even sheet music that would reveal the sound and repertoire of klezmer music in Canada before the 1980s, bringing to life what she can only now imagine.