The contradictions of Canadian Jewry

The contradictions of Canadian Jewry McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 11, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 03
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > October 11, 2001 > The contradictions of Canadian Jewry

The contradictions of Canadian Jewry

Sociologist Morton Weinfeld has produced a labour of love. His new book, Like Everyone Else . . . But Different: The Paradoxical Success of Canadian Jews, was inspired by his teaching the course "Jews in North America" at McGill for over a quarter century. As he noticed, "there are many books which deal with the American Jewish communities; it was time to have one that focused on Canadian Jewish communities."

Photo Schwartz's: a smoked meat success story
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Aside from hoping this book will appeal to scholars and the Canadian Jewish public, Weinfeld says, "I deliberately tried to make the book accessible to a general and non-Jewish audience who are curious about Jews."

Canadian Jews are well educated, relatively affluent, and they maintain a vibrant cultural and communal life. The book is structured by themes, in which Weinfeld compares Jews within North America, and examines culture, politics and family-related issues.

Weinfeld admits to a few non-scholarly aspects, such as including jokes and personal anecdotes. "I think jokes are actually important for illuminating certain themes they represent and add an element of folk or popular culture."

Canadian Jews are noteworthy cultural negotiators. "In many ways, [they] have been successful in achieving the twin goals of multiculturalism. On the one hand, participating in Canadian life in all its dimensions: education, occupation, politics, culture; and on the other hand, retaining a fairly strong sense of their own identity and culture." Weinfeld adds, "Jews, perhaps because they have had 2,000 years of practice, have been able to achieve reasonably high levels of both of those."

The paradox of the book's title refers to this balancing act, as well as other seemingly contradictory factors such as the persecution and admiration of Jews, their traditional practices and modern attitudes. "They trace their ancestry to the bible, yet if you look at participation in avant-garde social movements, intellectual innovations, you'll find Jews highly represented there," Weinfeld says.

There are worries over assimilation and weakening of individual ties to the group, yet "the Jewish community in terms of its institutions, seems to be thriving and is a very well-developed polity."

There is great diversity within the Canadian Jewish population -- too much, according to some of its members -- often leading to conflict and tension. Although these differences are bemoaned and lamented, Weinfeld argues "that this tension, this hostility is ultimately a source of strength. When you have diversity that leads to tension and argument within a group, what you've got is a group that cares passionately about its future."

Another cultural paradox is illustrated in the area of food, where classical requirements and modern practicalities meet. For example, within the traditional dietary restrictions, many Jews are selective -- some eat bacon, but not shrimp, or keep kosher at home, but eat out wherever.

"Religious observance for many Jews, particularly for the non-orthodox, is like a cafeteria... you pick and you choose." Weinfeld finds himself as inconsistent as most -- during Passover he brings matzo to eat with his unkosher lunch at the Faculty Club.

Canadian Jews, Weinfeld believes, are far more "Jewish" than their American counterparts. Weinfeld's preferred explanation is their more recent immigration. "They are one generation closer to the old country. But also, Canada's multicultural policies nurture greater retention of cultures and identities."

Weinfeld compares Jews in Montreal with those in Toronto. "I make the provocative point that while Toronto has a larger population of Jews, and more aggregate wealth, the Montreal community... probably has more of a cultural and institutional life."

So why does Montreal's distinctive character extend to the Jewish community? Because of "the ongoing uncertainty with regards to the place of Quebec in Canada. This is a community that's learned to live with uncertainty, live with a demographic loss. Also, living between two cultures, the English and French, probably has been good for the cultural vitality, innovation and creativity of the community."

Yet Jewish life in Montreal hasn't always been so constructive. "There have been prejudices, between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, and earlier, between the more established Jews and the large Eastern European Jewish migration that came at the turn of the last century... Even the holocaust-survivor migration, which came in the '40s, encountered a certain amount of prejudice. These people were called the 'greener' a [Yiddish] term for 'unpolished' immigrants who don't know the ropes."

Jews have always supported immigration but, in another paradox, they weren't always comfortable with the new members of the community. Today, the relationships are much better. "Sephardic francophone Jews are playing major roles in the community." But even though there are more marriages between the two groups, "there is still a residue of prejudice that probably flows both ways."

Canada is a very good place for Jews, according to Weinfeld, but what of traces of anti-Semitism? "At the moment, by conventional measures, anti-Semitism is not a very strong force in Canada... But Jewish history teaches Jews to always have their radar on high. If you look at Weimar Germany before 1933, on many of the conventional indicators you might have thought Jews were doing very well.

"I haven't painted a rose-coloured portrait of the Canadian Jewish community," Weinfeld adds. "I focused on some of the problems, some of the debates and tensions. I have not swept things under the rug. But this is clearly the work of an insider, an affectionate insider."

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