From Bob Chodos: Francophone interest in Quebec Jews
19 July 2011

Sympathetic interest among francophone Quebecers in the Jewish community in their midst is a recent phenomenon, dating only to the 1980s. Three new books in French indicate that this interest is not only continuing but has reached a certain level of maturity.

Front cover of Montreal Yiddish newspaper, 1914.

The importance of Pierre Anctil to this development can hardly be overstated. One of the new books is a collection of his essays, a second (Jean-François Nadeau’s) is dedicated to him and the third (Malcolm Reid’s) contains his endorsement on the inside back cover. For Anctil, who teaches history at the University of Ottawa, Quebec’s Jewish community represents an espace charnière, a pivotal space between English and French. Anctil is interested in the Jewish community on its own terms and for its own sake. But he is also interested in the ways in which Quebec history looks different when the Jews are taken into account.

The 11 essays in Trajectoires juives au Québec were published in a variety of places over a period of about a decade, and cover a variety of topics: the tiny Jewish community that existed in Quebec before 1850; René Lévesque’s relationship with the Jewish community (which was a template for his relationship with all of Quebec’s “cultural communities”); the art collector Max Stern, who came to Montreal after fleeing Germany in the 1930s; a comparison of language policies in Quebec and Israel. But Anctil devotes the most space, and the most passion, to Yiddish writing in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. He is sufficiently engaged by this literature that he became fluent in Yiddish himself, starting with a course at McGill (he also learned Hebrew). A sense of the excitement of discovery pervades the three chapters devoted to this topic:

When a francophone – that is, someone outside Jewish culture – comes to the realization that a large body of Yiddish literature existed in Montreal from the dawn of the 20th century on, the appropriate reaction is one of utter amazement. This vast corpus in a nonofficial language has remained so completely outside the Quebec majority’s sphere of cultural perception that a French-language reader who even skims its surface will be first surprised, then astonished. After all, how could there have been another fully developed literary tradition in Montreal besides the French and the English, possessing its own writing, publishing and distribution networks, without participants in the two dominant traditions detecting even the faintest echo?

A Montreal that had this literary tradition is a different Montreal, a richer, more complex Montreal, than the one Anctil had previously known existed. The Yiddish writers saw Montreal through another set of eyes, and created a literary language to evoke Montreal at a time when most francophone writers were still celebrating the virtues of the countryside. Furthermore, they wrote about new ideas, socialist ideas, that would remain marginal in francophone Quebec for another generation.

Jewish Montreal’s literary tradition continued, but not in Yiddish. After the Second World War, Yiddish began to fade as a spoken and written language among Montreal Jews. The newer writers – the ones who were prominent or rising when I was growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s – drew on their Yiddish predecessors but wrote in English, increasingly the common language of the community (with the exception of the French-speaking Jews from North Africa who began to arrive in large numbers in the late 1950s). It is striking to me, and humbling, that even though my grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Montreal Jews, the literature that Anctil writes about is accessible to me only through his pioneering translations into French.

One of the reasons for the decline of Yiddish was the adoption of Hebrew as the official language of the new state of Israel in 1948 and the accompanying sense that Hebrew was the language of the Jewish future while Yiddish was a language of the past. And yet 50 years earlier Hebrew had been strictly a religious and academic language, and its transformation into a language that could serve as the medium of expression for all the functions of a modern society took place only through conscious and sometimes heroic effort and government support. In this way it bears comparison with the French of Quebec – a comparison that Anctil is well positioned to make. He looks both at language legislation in the two societies and at the role language plays in the respective nationalist movements, pointing out differences but concluding that these are outweighed by the similarities.

As is inevitable in a collection of essays from different sources, there is some repetition from one essay to another, and a degree of unevenness in the quality. But on the whole, Trajectoires juives provides an excellent introduction to the work of this boundary-crossing scholar. The Montreal Jewish community that he describes from the outside is fully recognizable as the one that I experienced from the inside.

One of the characteristics of that community was a deep suspicion of Quebec’s francophone majority – which Anctil alludes to in his essay on René Lévesque, who while maintaining a cordial dialogue with Jewish community leaders was unable to evoke any sympathy in the community for his project of a sovereign Quebec. For my parents, and other Montreal Jews of the postwar period, fascist marches in the streets of Montreal in the 1930s were a vivid memory. In arguing against their wayward son’s sympathy for Quebec nationalism, my parents would seek to scare me by raising the spectre of Adrien Arcand, the leader of the movement that organized those marches.

As becomes clear in Jean-François Nadeau’s Adrien Arcand: Führer canadien, the first full-scale biography of the fascist leader, Arcand was every bit as ferocious an anti-Semite as my parents imagined. But despite the noise he made, he was also a thoroughly marginal figure in his own society. Arcand liked to give wildly exaggerated estimates of his support, and he was able to establish ties with at least some elements within mainstream right-wing political parties – the federal Conservative Party, Social Credit and, especially, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale. And yet, Nadeau estimates, at his peak in the late 1930s Arcand probably had no more than 1,000 core supporters.

The son of a union organizer and left-wing activist, Adrien Arcand became a journalist and was fired by La Presse in 1929 for organizing a union, an experience that left him bitter. He started his own satirical newspaper, Le Goglu, which over time took on a distinct right-wing and anti-Semitic slant. After Le Goglu folded for financial reasons, he earned his living as editor of L’Illustration Nouvelle, a tabloid published by a scion of La Presse’s founding family who had lost control of the paper in a power struggle and (up to a point) shared Arcand’s right-wing political sympathies. Meanwhile, he devoted himself increasingly to his political activities as head of the Parti National Social Chrétien, which became the National Unity Party after it merged with a number of fascist organizations elsewhere in Canada.

The authorities took his bluster seriously enough that, after war broke out, they interned him and held him for more than five years (1940?45). After he was released, he lived simply in the village of Lanoraie northeast of Montreal on contributions from his supporters and, until his death in 1967, continued his voracious reading and correspondence with ideological soulmates around the world, making speeches and giving interviews and always saying that the National Unity Party would resume its activities when the time was ripe, which, of course, it never was.

Two characteristics of Arcand’s ideology contributed to his marginal status. First of all, Arcand and his supporters differed from the rest of the Quebec far right in their use of the swastika as a symbol and unqualified admiration of Hitler. Other groups admired Mussolini (whom the historian Paul Johnson characterized as possibly the most admired statesman in the world in the early 1930s) but thought Hitler went a bit too far. Related to this was Arcand’s obsessive anti-Semitism, which had a very different tone from the more casual Catholic anti-Judaism of the groups that took their inspiration from Lionel Groulx (although my parents could be forgiven for lumping them all together). For Arcand, the Jews were an all-purpose explanation for everything that was wrong with the world. After the war, he seriously entertained the idea that all the world’s Jews should be deported to Madagascar, and forbidden to leave on penalty of death. He was also an early and consistent Holocaust denier, and was an influence on the young Ernst Zündel, who met Arcand soon after his arrival in Canada.

In addition, unlike most of the rest of the Quebec far right, Arcand was strongly opposed to Quebec nationalism. Instead he was a Canadian nationalist and a monarchist who took pride in Canada’s membership in the British Empire. Needless to say, his loyalties were strained when Britain declared war on his beloved Nazi Germany in 1939. Arcand thought this was a tragic mistake on the part of Britain, which instead should be allied with Hitler against Communist Russia.

Jean-François Nadeau is both an academic (he has a doctorate in history and taught at Laurentian University) and a journalist who has been the editor of the cultural pages of Le Devoir for the last eight years. In some ways, his writing combines the strengths of both disciplines: the book is accessible without being superficial. And while Nadeau has (to put it mildly) no sympathy for his political views, Arcand comes across not as a monster or an ideological caricature but as a recognizable human being. There are also some interesting digressions: into the celebrated French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (who shared Arcand’s obsessive anti-Semitism and visited him in Montreal in 1938), the change in attitudes toward fascism after the war, and the contours of the 1930s Quebec far right as a whole and the lines of filiation that tied it to the 1960s Quebec left, which weren’t quite what my parents imagined but were there nonetheless (for example, Walter O’Leary, the leading light in a 1930s right-wing nationalist group based on the ideas of Lionel Groulx called the Jeunesses Patriotes, emerged in the 1960s as a militant in the socialist wing of the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale).

Somewhere near the opposite pole from Adrien Arcand in my parents’ esteem was Leonard Cohen. Even within Jewish Montreal’s formidable coterie of literary lions, Cohen stood out. He was not a curmudgeon like Irving Layton, nor did he air Jewish dirty laundry in front of the goyim like Mordecai Richler. And while my parents warmly admired A.M. Klein, their admiration was mixed with deep sadness at the depression that curbed Klein’s literary output in the last two decades of his life.

The Leonard Cohen of whom my parents spoke so highly was the young poet and novelist and not the internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter he would later become. This is also the Leonard Cohen whom Malcolm Reid evokes in his memoir Deep café.

In his own way, Malcolm Reid is as intrepid a boundary-crosser as Pierre Anctil. From an English-speaking Ottawa family, he came to Montreal in 1957 as an undergraduate at McGill, where he spent a large part of his time in the office of the McGill Daily. Over the course of the next decade or so, he discovered journalism, the delights of what he calls Bohemian Montreal and the Quebec nationalist movement, especially the group around the journal Parti Pris, which would be the subject of his first book, The Shouting Signpainters: A Literary and Political Account of Quebec Revolutionary Nationalism (New York: Monthly Review Press/Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972). It was later reissued in French as Notre parti est pris: Un jeune reporter chez les écrivains révolutionnaires du Québec, 1963?1970 (Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009). Coming to McGill and the Daily from an English-speaking family in the Montreal suburbs, I underwent a not dissimilar series of discoveries a few years later.

When I first met him, in 1969, he was the Quebec City correspondent of the Toronto Globe and Mail. He quit the Globe a couple of years later, but has remained in Quebec City to this day, thoroughly immersed in the city’s francophone political and cultural life but also interpreting this life in English to readers in the rest of Canada, through a variety of publications including Inroads (“Two Deaths, Two Mournings,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2010, pp. 118?23).

During his Montreal years Reid also discovered the poetry of Leonard Cohen. Cohen wasn’t especially political, and he certainly wasn’t a Quebec nationalist, but he was, as Reid writes, “part of the scene.” He was a poet who spoke to Reid and other young people of the time, just as he would later speak to much larger audiences through his music.

It was, initially, not Cohen but the realization that many of his friends in the peace movement at McGill were Jewish that initially piqued Reid’s curiosity about Jewish Montreal. He didn’t go as far as Anctil in learning Hebrew or Yiddish, but he did study books on the Hebrew alphabet in the Jewish Public Library and drew the letters ? those strange letters that Anctil says were part of what made Yiddish culture so impenetrable to the French and English mainstream ? on cards that he brought home to show his brother. He continues,

At the library, I also found documents on the era of Yiddish culture in Montreal, before the war. To what extent were these the roots of my young Jewish friends? I wondered. Few of them appeared to speak Yiddish. They were characterized more by the facility, humour and rhythm of their English.

With this introduction, Reid recognized the deep rootedness in and love of Jewish culture in Cohen’s poetry, especially his second book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961):

Out of the land of heaven

Down comes the warm Sabbath sun

Into the spice-box of earth.

At the end of Deep café, Reid and his wife Réjeanne are living in a flat in west-end Montreal in the summer of 1967 when their upstairs neighbour, a theatre student named Patrick, bounds up to his flat with a package in his hands. The package turns out to contain a phonograph record, and a few minutes later the strains of Cohen’s “Suzanne” float down through the ceiling. This is the Leonard Cohen that the world would come to know.

Leonard Cohen is the Montreal Jewish community’s gift to the world. As I come from that same community (we even share common great-great-grandparents somewhere back in the mid-19th century), it is easy to see why I would feel drawn to him. But being drawn to Leonard Cohen does not seem to require geographical or cultural affinity. From a friend from England who kept threatening to call Cohen over the course of a surreal evening in Montreal in 1967 to another from British Columbia who found him “better than ever” during his 2008 world tour to a third from the Ottawa Valley who referred to him as a “priest” in a recent lunch conversation, I have kept finding people with no such affinity who feel at least as deep a connection to him as I do. He is one of those rare artists whose appeal transcends cultures and generations. In Deep café, Malcolm Reid brings to life that appeal in its early days, along with a 1960s Montreal whose reference points only partly overlap with those of his francophone readers.

The relationship between Quebec’s Jews and the francophone majority has known some rocky times; the life of Adrien Arcand is only one part of that story. But there is a more positive story as well, from the work of Canadian Jewish Congress archivist David Rome (1910?1996) and his collaboration with Father Jacques Langlais, leading to their jointly authored 1986 book Jews and French Quebecers: Two Hundred Years of Shared History (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986; it was originally published in French by Fides in Montreal, also in 1986), to the Montreal Yiddish Theatre’s landmark 1992 production of Die Shvegerens, the Yiddish translation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Sœurs, to the thunderous ovation that greeted the Yiddish Theatre’s founder, Dora Wasserman, when she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Académie Québécoise du Théâtre at Montreal’s Monument-National in 1997. These three books are evidence that this story is continuing, while the one represented by Adrien Arcand is of another time.

Pierre Anctil, Trajectoires juives au Québec. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010. 231 pages.

Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand: Führer canadien. Montreal: Lux Éditeur, 2010. 404 pages. Forthcoming in English

Malcolm Reid, Deep café: Une jeunesse avec la poésie de Leonard Cohen. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010. 161 pages.

Bob Chodos

Bob Chodos is managing editor of Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion. He grew up in Montreal, where he attended Adath Israel Academy and McGill University, and now lives in New Hamburg, Ontario. His books include Quebec and the American Dream (1991, with Eric Hamovitch), and he is also a translator of Quebec nonfiction into English, most recently the biography of Adrien Arcand reviewed in this article.

This article first appeared in the Canadian Journal of Opinion Inroads 29; it appears here by permission.

More Articles