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2. Politics and Religion in a Montreal Communist Jewish Childhood

2. Politics and Religion in a Montreal Communist Jewish Childhood
Nit zuch mich vu die mirten grinen
Gefinst mich dortn nit mein shatz;
Vu lebens velkn bei mashinen
Dortn is mein ruhe platz.
(Don't look for me where myrtles blossom
You will not find me there my love:
Where lives are withered by machines
That is my place of rest.)
Morris Rosenfeld “Mein Ruhe Platz” in
Let's Sing the Songs of the People

I consider myself very Jewish but I do not believe in the God of the Old Testament. Some people more especially some gentiles find that strange. One purpose of what follows is to demonstrate how one might be very Jewish yet cut off from the Jewish religion.

I was brought up to be both Jewish and antireligious and I remain very Jewish and pretty godless though not as godless as my parents intended and expected me to be—not as godless indeed as they took for granted that I would be. My mother influenced my outlook and my development more than my father did and I'll begin by saying something about her.1
She was born in Kharkov in the Ukraine in 1912 to areligious Jewish parents of ample means: her father was a successful timber merchant. When my mother was exactly five years old the Bolshevik Revolution occurred. My grandfather's business continued to provide well for the family during the 1920s in the period of the New Economic Policy2 which was a form of compromise between socialist aspiration and capitalist reality. My mother was consequently quite well-heeled with plenty to lose but she nevertheless developed across the course of the 1920s in schools and in youth organizations a full-hearted commitment to the Bolshevik cause. She took this commitment with her to Canada in 1930 by which time the New Economic Policy had given way to a regime that was less amenable to bourgeois existence and my mother's parents had therefore decided to emigrate. As a result my mother left the Soviet Union and settled in Montreal not because she wanted to certainly not because she had any objection to the Soviet Union but because she did not want to be separated from her emigrating parents and sister.
In Montreal my mother who spoke no English and at eighteen lacked an advanced education tumbled down the class ladder to a proletarian position. She took employment as a sewing-machine operator in a garment factory. Before long she met my father a dress cutter who like by mother had no use for the Jewish religion but who unlike her had an impeceably proletarian pedigree (his father was a poor tailor from Lithuania) and no secondary education.
My parents’ courtship unrolled in the context of long hours of factory work struggles often in the face of police violence to build unionism in the garment trade and summer weekends at the country camp some forty miles from town that was set up by and for left-wing Jewish workers. My parents married in 1936 and I their first-born appeared in 1941.
My mother was proud to be—to have become—working class and through the Thirties and Forties and until 1958 she was an active member of the Canadian Communist Party. My father belonged to the United Jewish People's Order most of whose members were antireligious anti-Zionist and strongly pro-Soviet. He did not join the Communist Party itself not because he had ideological reservations but because his personality was not conductive to party membership. Members of the Communist Party were expected to express themselves with confidence and with regularity at branch meetings and my father was an unusually reticent man with little disposition to self-expression.
Because of my parents’ convictions I was raised in a militantly antireligious home (not just areligious or nonreligious but antireligious). As far as I know my father never underwent the bar-mítzvah or confirmation that in his day was de rigueur even in the majority of atheist Jewish households and my mother's background was certainly free of belief. And my upbringing was as intensely political as it was antireligious. My first school which was run by the United Jewish People's Order and which I entered in 1945 was named after Morris Winchewsky a Jewish proletarian poet. At Morris Winchewsky we learned standard primary-school things in the mornings from noncommunist gentile women teachers;3 but in the afternoons the language of instruction was Yiddish and we were taught Jewish (and other) history and Yiddish language and literature by left-wing Jews and Jewesses whose first and main language was Yiddish. The education we got from them even when they narrated Old Testament stories was suffused with vernacular Marxist seasoning—nothing heavy or pedantic just good Yiddish revolutionary common sense. Our report cards were folded down the middle with English subjects on the left side and Yiddish on the right because of the different directions in which the two languages are written. One of the Yiddish subjects was “Geschichte fun Klassen Kamf” (History of Class Struggle) at which I am pleased to note I scored a straight aleph in 1949.
At Morris Winchewsky and in our homes we had secular versions of the principal Jewish holidays: our own kind of Chánnukah4 our own kind of Párim our own kind of Passover. The stories attaching to those holidays were generalized without strain into a grand message of resistance to all oppression so that our Passover was as much about the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising as it was about liberation from Egypt. Our parents and grandparents attended special evenings at which politically scarlet Yiddish themes were celebrated by their kínder and aíniklach in songs and narrations and plays. We felt proud as we performed we knew we were the apples of our elders’ eyes; and they shepped nachas they glowed with satisfaction as they watched us.
I entered Morris Winchewsky School in April 1945 as the Second World War was coming to a close. It was the sunset after a long day of harmony between Western capitalist democracy and Soviet communism. If you want to know how strong that harmony was at the popular level—as opposed to at the level at which statesmen operate—try to get hold of a copy of the special edition of the American magazine Life which appeared sometime in 1943 and which was the best advertisement of the soviet Union that anyone has ever produced. Shining young faces in well-equipped classrooms heroic feats of industrialization prodigious works of art and music and so on. Life magazine did it better than homemade Soviet propaganda ever could.
In the Morris Winchewsky School we believed profoundly both in democracy and in communism and we did not separate the two—for we knew that communism would be tyranny unless the people controlled how the state steered society and we thought that democracy would be only formal without the full citizen enfranchisement that required communist equality.
As Jewish children growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust the Nazi destruction filled us with fury and sorrow. Nazism was a great fierce black cloud in our minds and we thought of anti-Nazism as implying democracy and therefore communism and we therefore thought of Jewish people as natural communists; the many left-wing Yiddish songs we were taught to sing confirmed those ideological linkages. Nor was it eccentric of us in that particular time and place to put Yíddishkeit and leftism together. To illustrate that let me point out that the area of Montreal in which I lived at whose geographic center the Morris Winchewsky School stood elected a Communist Party member the Polish-Canadian Jew Fred Rose to the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa in 1943.
So in our childhood consciousness being jewish being anti-Nazi being democratic and being communist all went together. All tyranny was the same whether it was the tyranny of Pharaoh or of Antiochus Epiphanes or of Nebuchadnezzar or of Hitler or of J. Edgar Hoover.5 And if the Winchewsky School training had not sufficed to keep that ideological package well wrapped up there was also in July and August Camp Kinderland6 forty miles from Montreal where Yíddishkeit and leftism flourished together among the fir trees and the mosquitoes.
This ideologically enclosed existence was brought to an end one Friday in the early summer of 1952. It was I remember a day of glorious sunshine. On that sunny day the Anti-Subversive (or as it was commonly known the Red) Squad of the Province of Quebec Provincial Police raided the Morris Winchewsky School and turned it inside out in a search for incriminating left-wing literature. We were in the school when the raiders came but whatever happened in other classes the raid was not frightening for those of us who were then in Lérerin Asher's charge because having left the room for a moment in response to the knock on the door Mrs. Asher soon returned clapped her hands with simulated exuberance and announced in English: “Children the Board of Health is inspecting the school and you can all go home early.” So we gaily scurried down the stairs and lurking at the entrance were four men each of them tall and very fat all of them eyes down and looking sheepish.
In the event no compromising materials were found since the school had been careful to keep itself clean but a parallel raid on the premises of the school's sponsoring organization the United Jewish People's Order did expose pamphlets and the like. These UJPO premises were consequently padlocked by the police and the organization was denied access to the building within the terms of a Quebec law known as the Padlock Law which was later struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.7 And although Morris Winchewsky itself was permitted to remain open the raids caused enough parents to withdraw their children from the school to make its further full-time operation impractical.
Accordingly we were cast forth as far as our formal schooling was concerned into the big wide noncommunist world. But some of us—and I now eleven was one of them—departed with a rock-firm attachment to the principles it had been a major purpose of Morris Winchewsky to instill in us and with full and joyous confidence that the Soviet Union was implementing those principles.
The first blow to that confidence fell in June 1956 when the U.S. State Department published the text of a speech discrediting Stalin that Nikita Khrushchev had delivered four months earlier at a closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The party in Quebec was stunned by (what were called) the “Khrushchev revelations” and its top six leaders resigned their memberships in September 1956. The six Quebec party leaders were dismayed by what Khrushchev had said because it implied that they had conducted their political lives (and therefore their lives) under a massive illusion. But the Quebec leaders also felt dismayed for the further reason that national (that is Toronto) Communist Party leaders who were fraternal delegates at the Twentieth Congress had concealed Khrushchev's secret de-Stalinisation speech when reporting back to the Canadian party.8 The six Montreal-based Quebec leaders felt betrayed by the national leadership and once they had left the membership of the party in Montreal felt not only like its erstwhile local leadership betrayed by Moscow and by Toronto but also abandoned by six admired and much-loved comrades whose departure was accompanied by no explanatory statement who called no meeting to share their burden with the membership who just went without saying good-bye.
In an atmosphere of confusion and distress high-tension meetings of an unstructured kind and open to all party members were held in the remaining months of 1956 at the premises of the Beaver Outing Club9 which was a recreational society sponsored by the party. As leader of the younger teenage portion of the Quebec Division of the Communist party youth organization (which was called the NFLY the letters standing for “National Federation of Labour Youth”)10 I sat agog at those meetings a silent witness of a little piece of history in the making. I watched the Quebec party split into two groups: hardliners and softliners. While willing (just) to repudiate Stalin the hardliners were for minimal change in the party's mode of work while the softliners had an appetite for reconstruction and renovation.11 The hardliners called themselves “Marxists” and their opponents “revisionists” and the latter called themselves “the New” and the others “the Old” (or sometimes the “dogmatists”). My mother was enthusiastically New as were the other members of the party branch she chaired: the line of fracture in the party was running between rather than within branches.
After eighteen more months of factional dispute a convention was called to elect a new executive for the still leaderless Quebec Communist Party. Two high functionaries came from Toronto where the party was far less wracked to supervise accreditation of delegates to a Quebec electroal convention. The sympathy of the men from Toronto was with the hardliners and they ensured that duly selected representatives of “New” party branches were denied their right to vote on spurious technical grounds. I believe—but here my recollection is somewhat hazy—that this was the trick the Toronto supervisors pulled: they delayed dispatching to New branches the forms on which delegates’ names were to be inscribed so that when those forms were filled in and returned they could be declared invalid for having arrived too late. Through that or some comparable form of manipulation the convention was made to produce a uniformly Old executive and in the aftermath those of the New persuasion my mother included gradually fell away from the party: they had in effect been disenfranchised. Six or seven years later when my mother taxed one of the Toronto emissaries a personal friend with the role he had played in the misconstruction of the 1958 convention I heard him say: “Bella in politics you sometimes have to do things that are not pleasant.”
A year or so before the 1958 convention the leader of the Quebec division of the National Federation of Labour Youth resigned in disillusionment (to become an academic anthropologist) and the Quebec NFLY just collapsed—so fast that I would not have been able to leave it had I wanted to. Nor would I have wanted to leave it then: my mother after all was at the time still a committed party member. I felt morosely that the NFLY was leaving me.
In September 1957 with the NFLY gone and me too young for a party that was anyway growing too Old for me I entered McGill University a convinced Marxist with no suitable organization to belong to and I joined (and soon became the president of) the thoroughly tame Socialist Society which was all that McGill then had to offer.
Through the rest of the Fifties and into the early Sixties I was what some would have called a “fellow traveler.” The party rapidly became too rigid for me to consider submitting myself anew to its authority but I remained basically pro-Soviet. Seeds of doubt had been sown and I knew that there was much over there that deserved to be criticized yet I still believed that the Soviet Union was a socialist country struggling toward community and equality and amply meriting every leftist's allegiance. (Thorough disillusion with the Soviet Union came only later when I was in my twenties as a result of personal travels—to Hungary in 1962 and to Czechoslovakia in 1964—and public events; see note 11 above. By the time I first visited the Soviet Union itself in 1972 I expected and found little that was inspiring.)
I have thus far said quite a bit about politics in my childhood but very little about religion. In order to redress that imbalance I want to go back to 1952 which was the year my friends and I were forced to leave the Morris Winchewsky School.
I did not proclaim my communist beliefs in the state primary school called Alfred Joyce in which at the age of eleven I came to be installed or in Strathcona Academy the secondary school to which I progressed a year later I did not publicly expose my red connections because those years were the apex of the Cold War McCarthy period and I did not have the guts to lay bare my leftism and my persisting allegiance to communism and to the Soviet Union and now to China an allegiance which was practiced within various Komsomol-type organizations. When I was twelve I made a speech before an audience of a couple of thousand at the Canadian Peace Congress in Toronto; it was duly reported with a photograph of me at the podium in various low-circulation journals and I was proud of all that but I would not have known how to cope if my classmates had learned about it. Later as teenagers my comrades and I did quite scary things like secretly carrying newspapers and leaflets in our bicycle baskets for delivery at sympathetic destinations. When doing so we were always wary when we saw policemen who would not have approved of our activity and who knew how to rough people up without leaving a mark. (McCarthyism was less insidious and more brutal in its Quebec manifestation than it was in the United States. Fewer people lost their jobs but more people were beaten in police stations.) I think I might have preferred to be beaten up just a little bit than to face classmates who knew what I was doing.
For geographic reasons 90 percent of those classmates were Jewish; we had only three gentiles in a class of twenty-six. This was so even though Montreal was only 6 percent Jewish at the time and even though Jews were not a majority where I lived. Let me explain why my schools were predominantly Jewish as far as pupil intake was concerned while being 100 percent lily-white goy on the teaching side.
Alfred Joyce and Strathcona Academy were run under the authority of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. Until 1998 all state schools in Montreal were run either by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal or by the Catholic School Board of Greater Montreal and none were run by both. (The phrase “Greater Montreal” by the way does not mean “greater than some other city”—such as maybe Toronto; it means “greater than Montreal in a merely narrow sense of ‘Montreal.’”)
Now in the catchment area of these schools where I lived there were very few Protestants. Almost everybody was either a believing or a non-believing Jew or a French Canadian Roman Catholic. The French Canadian Roman Catholic children who formed the majority in the area went to French Catholic schools run by the Catholic School Board of Greater Montreal and the majority of Jewish children—those that is who did not go to privately funded Jewish schools—went to English Protestant schools.
It was for several reasons that we Jews did not go to the French Catholic Schools. A major reason is that we would have hated to go to them. First of all we would then have been educated in French and English was for most of us our mother tongue and for all of us the language to be favored as between French and English because English being more North American was more modern and because the French were many of them pretty openly anti-Semitic. Plenty of English Protestants were also anti-Semitic but because they were more genteel and better groomed their anti-Semitism was less open and anyway they mostly lived in a faraway and cleaner part of town. (Let me give you an example of genteel anti-Semitism. Many English-speaking hotels and clubs bore discreet signs near their entrances which said “Restricted Clientele.” Nonwhites and Jews were to take note of that. But we were never kicked out of such places (which would have been ungenteel) because in that era none of us would have tried to get in.)
So one reason why we did not go to the French Catholic schools is that we did not want to be educated in a language that we dispreferred and whose speakers were hostile to us. And a second reason was that we disliked the Catholic religion more than we disliked the Protestant one. Once again it was more associated with anti-Semitism in our minds: we all knew about the Spanish Inquisition and about the pope's inaction on the holocaust. But also Catholicism seemed more freaky than Protestantism and more oppressive in its rules and rituals and liturgy. We thought of Protestantism as rather bland and empty and unthreatening and anyway with less blood on its hands and on its altars. Finally a third reason why we did not go to the French Catholic schools was that we weren't allowed to. Unless you were Catholic you couldn't enroll in those schools. The Protestants by contrast let non-Protestants in as long as they were not Catholics. Or maybe the Catholics didn't let the Protestants let Catholics in. But whichever way it went Catholics weren't allowed to go to Protestant Schools only Catholics could go to Catholic schools and all non-Catholics went to Protestant Schools. So we Jews went to Protestant Schools.
The fact that my classmates were mostly Jewish—mostly indeed Jewish boys (for the schools were mixed-sex but individual classes were not)—meant that it was not only my communism that I had to conceal. I also had to conceal or anyway I thought I had to conceal and I did conceal the fact that I was not preparing for a bar-mítzvah. I would have been mortified to admit then that I was out of step on that one. It was relatively easy to hide this shaming fact in the first of my post-Winchewsky school years because I was six months to a year younger than my classmates since I had entered school early because Morris Winchewsky being private was able to admit children ahead of the normally required age. But everyone knew after April 1954 that I had passed my thirteenth birthday and now I could not avoid the bar-mítzvah issue.
So I lied. I said that I had had a bar-mítzvah. That always caused the boys to ask where I'd had my bar-mítzvah which shul. Since “which shul” was a matter of keen interest and a false answer to it could and would be exposed within five minutes I lied that the rabbi had come to our apartment. I can't remember whether I got challenged to name the rabbi but I seemed to get away with my lie. It provoked more puzzlement than disbelief.
There was a grain of truth in the lie that a rabbi had conducted a barmitzvah for me in our apartment. The grain of truth was that a kind of bar-mitzvah did occur in our apartment on or around my thirteenth birthday. It was attended by dozens of my parents’ communist Jewish friends and instead of dávening I recited a Yiddish short story by sholem Aleichem called “Berel Isaac.” How could I have explained such unusual goings-on to my conventionally Jewish classmates? How could I have justified substituting such goings-on for the standard procedure?
Two years later when I was fifteen and still active in communist organizations the truth about me emerged because it was disclosed to someone by an incautious or disloyal friend. The news raced through the school: “Cohen's a Commie! Cohen's a Commie!” (Those were the words that were used.) For a few days I felt embattled up against it and I do not recall how I coped initially with the “revelation.” But after those few days I came to realize that far from being condemning my schoolmates were for the most part intrigued and impressed and after that incident I wore my ideological colors on my sleeve with no sense of heroism since I was conscious of how sheepishly I had hidden those colors before I learned that there was promotional mileage to be got from flourishing them.
So I belonged to two Jewish worlds one forthrightly antireligious and anti-Zionist save for the brief interlude when Israel had Stalin's blessing and the other—the mainstream Jewish world to which I belonged (or better in which faute de mieux I was present and I functioned)—mildly religious more or less reflectively Zionist and heartily anti-Soviet. My ideologically significant life was pursued within the first world and I managed a different existence with a substantial measure of self-concealment from the age of eleven to the age of fifteen within the margins of the second.
In my teens my summers were spent at the children's camp—Kinderland—to which I have already referred. That camp underwent two metamorphoses in the 1950s. In 1953 it passed out of the control of the United Jewish People's Order and it came to be run by the Communist Party's Beaver Outing Club. The camp's name was therefore changed from “Kinderland” to “Beaver Camp.” And now instead of being 95 percent Jewish it was only about 60 percent so with much of the remaining 40 percent being composed of Ukrainian kids whose parents belonged to the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians a pro-Soviet organization which played for left-wing Ukrainians the role that the UJPO played for us Jews. There were also some pure-white Anglo-Saxon kids and a few French-Canadians. The first lines of the Beaver Camp song made out that the camp's ethnic mix was more balanced than it actually was. They ran as follows:
French and English
Slav and Jewish
Junior Beavers All…
When in 1956 in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin's crimes the Communist Party of Quebec collapsed Beaver Camp collapsed with it. The land on which the camp was sited reverted to the United Jewish People's Order and Camp Kinderland was revived but now it was a very pale pink by the standards of its crimson past. I worked at Kinderland as a counselor in the summers of 1958 and 1959 but I had conflicts with the camp director which meant that I didn't return in 1960. One reason he and I quarreled was that he'd been to the Soviet Union and knew it was a disaster whereas I still thought otherwise and taught the kids otherwise. But we also couldn't get along because he was self-loving and dictatorial and I was too headstrong and too self-important to subordinate myself to such a person. So the summer of 1960 found me for the first time at a mainstream Jewish non-communist children's camp which was called Wooden Acres and which was run by the B'nai Brith (a Jewish charity organization similar to the Rotary Club). This was to be my first full-scale engagement within the authority of a noncommunist Jewish organization and it led to my closest encounter ever with the Jewish religion.
At this point I was nineteen I'd never laid eyes on tefillen I'd hardly ever been in a synagogue—perhaps twice with my father's father at Simchas Torah and on two further occasions when each of my two male Montreal cousins who were brothers celebrated their bar-mítzvahs. These cousins came from an unbelieving family and they too had attended Morris Winchewsky but although their mother had been in the Communist Party their Dad was now becoming a macher in the B'nai Brith so bar-mítzvahs were de rigueur. I remember sitting in the synagogue and contemning the hypocrisy of undergoing a bar-mítzvah when you don't believe in God. I wouldn't call that hypocrisy now. Now I'm older and I believe in preserving tradition.
Anyway off I went at nineteen to the B'nai Brith charity camp to take charge of six recently bar-mítzvah'ed fourteen-year-old boys. Also at the camp was a young orthodox rabbi from New York called Josh Tarsis. Josh decided to run a morning minyan which is to say a prayer group of ten or more men ten men being the quorum required for heavy-duty praying in orthodox Judaism. My six boys formed its core; Josh was the seventh; the camp meshkiách or food inspector or dietary warden was the eighth; I forget who was the ninth—and there they stuck one under par until my boys succeeded without much difficulty because I had a lot of affection for them in nagging me into joining them as the magic Number Ten. So I got up early and ignorantly and awkwardly I wrapped the tefillen around my arm and my head and I tried my best to read the Hebrew prayers which were alien to me cast in a language that felt somewhat goyish because it was not Yiddish. (Very little Hebrew had been taught at Morris Winchewsky; and because it was the language of religion I didn't like it much and therefore didn't study it conscientiously.)
Participating in the minyan and also (for I did this too) carrying a prayer book around with me and reading it that summer in isolated moments of privacy—all that was a kind of quiet rebellion against my parents’ excessive antireligiousness. For it occurred to me then that so much of humanity high and low had believed in religion that it could not be just the pile of garbage that my parents thought it was. One had to take seriously the fact that people whom one had to take seriously had taken and took religion seriously. That by no means showed that religion was right-headed if only because plenty of other people whom one also had to take seriously rejected it. I still thought as I still indeed think that the onus is on religious belief to vindicate itself since it appears to claim for itself a form of knowledge which is different from what everyone—that is religious and irreligious people alike—thinks of as forms of knowledge but I did become (and I have remained) more respectful of religion as such and I was intrigued by and somewhat attracted to religious Judaism in particular although I was also shocked by the content of some of the bróches in the prayer book. But getting up very early in the morning was a drag and my command over the Hebrew prayers wasn't progressing so after a couple of weeks I quit the minyan. This dismayed my six kids since my departure destroyed the minyan but I was unmoved by their disapproval because I had told them at the outset that it would be a limited-term engagement and also because the camp had a good twenty-five bar-mítzvah'ed men many of whom professed belief and any of whom could have served as the tenth that they needed I felt contemptuous that a camp teeming with bar-mítzvah'ed men relied on me who was probably not mínyan-eligible anyway (since I had not been bar-mítzvah'ed) to complete a mínyan.
My attitude to that mainstream noncommunist Jewish world was profoundly ambivalent. I was drawn toward it and repelled by it at the same time. On the one hand its citizens and I were of one substance from one history connected together with one still-recent rending tragedy. On the other hand they rejected my beliefs and their beliefs for me were unheroic and conformist lacking in courage and adventure.
At Beaver Camp our song had been full of all that internationalist inspirational “French and English Slav and Jewish” stuff and we sang with conviction that “children of our mighty country hate the thought of war” By contrast the Wooden Acres camp song was ideologically bland: “Round the campfire brightly blazing” and so on. But every evening before dinner we would gather all 250 or 300 of us outside the dining hall to sing “Hatikvah” which is the Israeli national anthem with music by Bedrřch Smetana. That beautiful hymn whose words were translated for me rocked me hard and the solemnity and feeling with which it was sung made me somewhat anti-anti-Zionist just as that same summer I was becoming anti-antireligious. Then having completed “Hatikvah” we would file into the dining hall to stand at our places and wait to say the bróche first in Hebrew and then in English with hand on head; and I was enchanted by the idea of the Lord bringing forth bread from the earth. I must have been a very impressionable young man because a few words in a song or a prayer could stir me a lot and unsettle my deeply fixed convictions.
It's amazing how what goes on in your head can differ from what goes on in your heart without your head knowing about it. Despite the appealing strains of “Hatikvah” I remained if not anti-then at least non-Zionist by conviction. But when the June 1967 (or “Six-Day”) war broke out and it looked at first or was made to look at first as though Israel might be destroyed everything in my being strained toward Jerusalem and there was in me a powerful urge to go there and do whatever I could to help—an urge I did not pursue if only because our first-born child was then just seven months old.
I am still not a Zionist but a Jew does not have to be a Zionist to feel strongly implicated in Israel's fate. I have no use for the Israeli state as such12 just as I have no use for any other state but I care disproportionately about the fate of the Jewish people there. I do not have the indifference to the Jews of Israel which is felt or faked by many Jewish leftists. I feel a strong identification not so much with Israel as such but certainly with its Jewish population and I care about their safety and about their deeds. When Americans kill Vietnamese when Indonesians kill East Timorese when Soviets mow down Czechs when Serbs murder Bosnians I am angry frustrated and sad. But when Israelis under whatever provocation blow up houses and kill men women and children in the occupied territories there is blood on my own hands and I weep with shame.
Why do I feel so Jewish?
A large part of the answer to that question is implied by what I have already said: so much of Jewish tradition albeit of only one stream in Jewish tradition was pumped into my soul in childhood. But another thing that has certainly helped me to feel Jewish is anti-Semitism. Jean-Paul Sartre exaggerated when he said in his essay on the Jewish question that it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew. But who could deny that the anti-Semite reinforces the Jew's sense that he is Jewish?
Kids like me experienced anti-Semitism in two forms. On the one hand in a coarse form and on the other hand in a form that was not exactly subtle but let us say more clean-shaven. The coarse kind of anti-Semitism came from some of the French-Canadian working-class people with whom we lived cheek by jowl. I don't know how many of them harbored it in their hearts but it certainly sometimes came out of some of their mouths such as those of certain rough French-Canadian kids who at least once or twice called me “maudit Juif” as I made my way to school along the sidewalk. When I heard “maudit Juif” (“damn Jew”) I walked swiftly on eyes averted from the name-caller and probably most of those at whom such epithets were hurled did the same. But there did exist a more or less organized West-Side-Story-type Jewish gang called “the Lords” which so I believe conducted gladiatorial contests against French-Canadian gangs and although I do not know how much of what we heard about the Jewish gang's exploits was myth and I never saw them in action I was glad that such a gang was in business. In any case the “maudit Juif” name-calling didn't happen very often—not anyway in my immediate experience; but it doesn't have to happen a lot for it to be a preoccupation as you walk along the streets where it sometimes happens.
The well-bred variety of anti-Semitism was projected at us by some of the schoolteachers in our high school Strathcona Academy. Strathcona was named after the Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal a one-time High Commissioner of Canada to Great Britain and at an earlier stage in his life the man who had built the Canadian Pacific Railway. He had not built it single-handedly but when the line being laid from the east met the line being laid from the west he had driven in the final spike which was made of gold.
As I've already said the great majority of the pupils at Strathcona Academy were Jewish. Something on the order of 90 percent were Jewish the residual 10 percent being formed out of Greeks Syrians a French Huguenot or two and a very few Protestants whose native language was English. The teachers by contrast every last man-Jack and woman-Jill of them from the principal down to the raw recruits were pure-white Protestants of British extraction. Elsewhere in the city there were Jewish teachers teaching Jewish kids under the auspices of the Protestant School Board but it was a principle or anyway a policy at Strathcona Academy that no Jews were to be hired. I suppose Jews were so overrepresented among the pupil intake that they thought it would needlessly tilt things even further away from Protestantness if they took in Jewish teachers as well.
The fact that 90 percent of us were Jewish and almost none of us were Protestant did not prevent the school from laying little bits of Protestant religious observance on us. We said the Lord's Prayer every morning; I sometimes very quietly recited a Yiddish parody version of it invented by Irving Zucker (who is now a distinguished professor at Berkeley specializing in reproductive physiology). And every Christmastime we assembled to sing carols and to listen to some nárishkeit intoned by a local elergyman. The extraordinary thing—and this tells you much about the North American 1950s—is that in my secure recollection and that of my friends not a single one of us ever voiced even a mild squeak of protest against this incongruous imposition. We were only too glad not to be subjected to the weirder stuff that would surely have been thrust upon us if we'd been at a Catholic school.
Few teachers ever adverted to this curious ethnic divide between teachers and taught. But one of them Mr. Herbert Jordan was uninhibited about it. Jordan taught us two subjects: “Guidance” (which is called “Careers” in Britain) and English literature. In his capacity as teacher of Guidance Mr. Jordan from time to time warned us with relish that since we were Jewish—he blankly ignored the three non-Jews in our thirty-strong class when making such warnings—we would gain admission to McGill University only if we scored rather better in our examinations than the minimum required for non-Jews: that was McGill's policy.
Now to go to Mcgill was a widespread hope and expectation in our class. (I was once traveling on a bus on Sherbrooke Street and as it passed the Roddick Gates where McGill University begins a little Jewish boy asked his mother “What's that?” “That's McGill that's where you're gonna be a doctor” she replied in a European accent.) Anyway we did want to go to McGill and one could imagine someone telling us about the special threshold at McGill for Jews matter-of-factly or even in a tone of compassion and anger; but Jordan would rehearse this piece of information with a certain satisfaction in a spirit of: Don't get too big for your boots; you may be clever but you are Jewish after all. And once again we never protested against this display.
I should say as a footnote at this point that McGill's delicate discrimination policy (don't prohibit Jews but make sure that only the smarter ones come) had I think come to an end before Herbert Jordan was still ignorantly admonishing us in the aforementioned terms. A massively wealthy Montreal Jewish family the Samuel Bronfman family (which owned among other things Seagrams Distilleries) had by then so I believe poured a lot of money into McGill's coffers on the understanding that McGill would reciprocate by lifting its numerus clausus and I duly did.
I say that we did not protest against Jordan yet we did have contempt for him. But if you think that all we had for him was contempt then you do not understand what sort of contempt we had and you do not understand what it is to be on the receiving end of ethnic discrimination. We did have contempt but we also had respect because men like Jordan were on top; they were the official people who ran things and who made things go like they were supposed to go. They didn't get called “maudi Juif” as they walked home from school. They didn't—even their parents didn't—speak with more or less strong European accents. They were the bright clean white people not underhanded-clever and street-smart and sly like we were but full of a spotless surface virtue.13
When I look back I find it remarkable that my respect for Jordan was so robust despite my contempt for him and despite the many opportunities he created for me to withdraw my respect. Thus for example in his manifestation not as Guidance teacher but as teacher of English literature Jordan many times told us that there were only seven kinds of plot in all works of fiction and he added with Christian pride that all seven plots were to be found in the Bible. I found this claim both fascinating and incredible and there was also inside me when I heard it a protophilosophical stirring about what exactly the criteria of identity would be for plot types what the criteria were for saying this story has the same plot as that different one and so forth.
Now whenever Jordan made this claim he'd illustrate it by saying that is for example the plot based on the return of the prodigal son. But that was the only example he ever gave. So because I found Jordan's claim baffling I one day gathered my courage and I went to him after class and I asked him—because I really wanted to know the answer I wasn's Just trying to trip him up—what the other six plots were. I suppose it was my intention to then see if I could find a counterexample a truly different eighth type of plot. What was my surprise and disappointment when a somewhat embarrassed Jordan (I have to say that his embarrassment wasn't as great as it should have been) replied with little hesitation that he couldn't quite remember any of the other six plots. He's look up the point in a book he had at home and get back to me on this
Now that should have undermined my respect for Jordan but it didn't even though he never came back with a single one of the six missing plots and I of course never reminded him of his undischarged obligation. This shows how a member of a despised minority can continue to have a kind of deference toward the man in charge even when the man has proved himself to be an empty windbag. And because you have a kind of deference to him and therefore to his views you have a kind of deference to his view that Jews are not quite human or that they have all too many of the less agreeable human characteristics and that doesn't help you to respect yourself. Which shows that Sartre was onto something in his essay “On the Jewish Question” even if he exaggerated the point characteristic Gallic excess.
When I left high school and entered McGill I found myself for the first time among classmates who were mostly not Jewish but the Jewish minority at McGill was sufficiently large for most of my immediate associates to be Jewish since it was to Jews that I gravitated. Four years later I passed on to Oxford for graduate study and there things were different: I was finally in a non-Jewish world. There were of course plenty of Jews both at Oxford and in Britain more generally but it was months if not a couple of years before I could identify them when they did not bear names like Birnbaum or Goldstein because these British Jews looked and behaved differently from the Montreal Jews that I knew inside-out. It took me a while to get the gestalt into which these alien Jews fitted.
It seemed to me that British Jews were on the whole both more assimilated and more religious than the recently postimmigrant Jews of Canada. The British Jews belonged to an older community dating back to Victorian times. Because they had settled generations ago and because they were less Slav and more Germanic I did not feel immediately drawn to them; their life experience was very different from mine along the dimensions that mattered to me. There was little heritage of leftwing Jewishness or Yíddishkeit within their ranks not much of the Russian Bund in their backgrounds and they carried themselves with a confidence which betrayed lack of anxiety about anti-Semitism. The present chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks said on the radio in January 1994 that he could not recall a single experience of anti-Semitism in Britain when he was a child (whereas he added there are plenty of manifestations of anti-Semitism in Britain now). Perhaps their lack of anxiety about anti-Semitism helped to make British Jews both more assimilated and more religious: lack of anti-Semitism means you do not have to give up your religion to be part of the wider society.
I was confused about British Jews. I could not find my feet with them Years later around 1980 I was recruited somewhat accidentally to the National Yad Vashem14 Committee of the United Kingdom which operates under the auspices of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. There I sat with businessmen and rabbis sharing with them a desire to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust but so divided from them in outlook and attitude that this (for me uncustomary) engagement with mainline British Jewry was to last just a couple of years. And I have not had the energy to liaise with the small Jewish socialist organization that exists in Britain. For me now my Jewishness is a private thing. It no longer has I much connection with my leftism which remains public on a modest scale.
So much on the particular ways that I feel Jewish. But feelings (more less) aside in what sense am I Jewish?
A person who practices the Jewish religion is clearly a Jew: practicing the religion is a sufficient condition of being Jewish. But it is not also a necessary condition. I am Jewish not because I practice the religion but because I descend from the people who practiced that religion (and still do). That is clearly a way of being Jewish. But it is being Jewish in a derived or secondary way even if it is consistent with feeling no less Jewish no less connected with the historical people than an orthodox Jew dose.
We learned a lot of true things at Morris Winchewsky but a lot of false ones too. Setting aside all the false things we learned about Soviet communism the biggest falsehood was the idea that religion was not central to being Jewish. They made us think that just as some Frenchmen or Italians were religious and some not so some Jews were religious and some not.
But that I now know is not true. Individual Jews like me can be irreligious yet we are Jewish only by virtue of connection with a people defined not by place or race but by religion. The areligious cultural periphery cannot become the core or even a core of something new; and when I meet third- and fourth-generation secular American Jews whom I teach at oxford I observe with regret that the sense of connection to the jewish past is decaying and that the special sensibility is disappearing. (To forestall misunderstanding let me add that when I say that the cultural periphery cannot become a core. I do not think that is true by virtue of the very definition of “culture” “religion” “Jewish” or anything else nor do I put it forth as any sort of general truth. It is an empirical claim about this particular people.)
So while I need not tell you that being Jewish means an enormous amount to me—much more for example than being Canadian—I no longer have the illusion which Morris Winchewsky nourished that Jews could go on and on without a religion to carry our identity.
Israel is a different matter. The religion is powerful there but even if it declines the people will remain an entity. Yet if the religion goes then in time those people will no longer be a Jewish entity any more than the Italian citizens of Rome are a Roman entity in the classical sense. Judaism would have contributed centrally to their formation but they will not be Jews (as I understand what Jews are).
Whatever happens to Israel and to Judaism as a religion the secular Yíddishkeit in my identity will not last except as an object of academic attention—albeit perhaps of affectionate academic attention. This way of being Jewish depended on the shtetl on the prohibition on speaking lóshen kóydish the holy language in daily life and on an environing exclusion from gentile society and institutions. As that context goes so Yíddishkeit as a lived thing will also go outside Hassidic and similar communities.
I find that very sad. It is sad to contemplate the disappearance of one's own identity and it is awkward to acknowledge that Yíddishkeit will persist in some lived form only as long as beliefs and practices from which I remain cut off are perpetuated. But that's how it is. History doesn't always go the way you want it to go.
I sometimes imagine myself as my death creeps up on me reciting the “Sh'má Yisroel” which is the prayer to be said when dying and which runs: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God the Lord is one.” I don't know whether that is just an idle fantasy on my part or something deeper. If it is deeper then the desire it expresses is not to pay final homage to the God of the Old Testament whom I find unattractive15 but to solidarize with my forebears from Canaan to Kishinev from Belsen to Brooklyn.
(Prepared with the help of Dovid Katz)
aínikl aíniklach = grandchild grandchildren
bar-mítzvah = male confirmation ceremony at age thirteen
bróche = blessing
Chánnukah = holiday celebrating the victorious revolt of the Maccabees against the king of Syria sntiochus Epiphanes
dávenen = to pray
goy = gentile
kínder = children
lérerin = teacheress
lóshn kóydish = traditional Hebrew (literally “the holy language”)
mácher = wheeler-dealer mover and shaker (literally “maker”)
meshkiách = kitchen functionary whose task is to ensure that all the food is
kósher and all káshrus rules (of preparation of food kitchen cleaning etc.) are observed
mínyan = quorum of ten men required for full communal prayer services
nárishkeit = foolishness nonsense
párim = holiday celebrating events in the Book of Esther
shépn náchas = to derive prideful pleasure from (typically a younger relative)
Sh'má Yistroel = first words of prayer to be said when dying: “Shmá Yisroel! Adóynoy eloyhéynu Adóynoy ékhod” (“Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God the Lord is one”)
shul = synagogue
tefíllen = phylacteries—i.e. small leather boxes containing sacred passages from the Pentateuch held in place by leather straps one on the forehead and the other on the nondominant arm; worn by men during weekday morning prayers
Yíddishkeit = Yiddishness