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AllanBy BERNIE BELLAN
It’s been nine years since Allan Levine released his very popular history of the Jews of Manitoba, titled “Coming of Age – A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba”.

 

 

Now Levine has written another book – this time a popular history of the entire Canadian Jewish community, titled “Seeking the Fabled City – the Canadian Jewish Experience”. We were given an advance copy of the book for review purposes; the book itself is now available for purchase at select bookstores across Canada, including McNally Robinson in Winnipeg.
The title “Seeking the Fabled City” comes from a poem written by famed poet A. M. Klein. Like “Coming of Age”, this particular book is meant to be accessible to readers of all types. By no means did Levine set out to write a comprehensive history of Canadian Jewry. Rather, as he told me during an interview conducted on October 9 in the reading room of the Kaufman Silverberg Library at the Asper Campus, he was recruited to produce the book by the publisher, Penguin Random House with no clear objectives in mind. How the book was to be structured was left entirely up to him to decide.

It took Levine two and a half years to complete the research and write what is almost a 500-page book. “Seeking the Fabled City” is divided into four parts: “In a Christian Land”; “Jewish Canadians”; “Canadian Jews”; and “The Making of Tolerant Canada”.
In the first part of the book, Levine explains that it took quite some time for Canada’s Jewish population to reach any significant size. The first Jewish community of any significant numbers was located in Montreal, with its members having emigrated largely from Great Britain, some also from Germany.
As he did in “Coming of Age” Levine tells the stories of various individuals who played key roles in building Jewish communities in Canada in order to convey the larger historical experience. Relying upon research previously done by other historians as well as some primary research of his own, Levine develops certain themes that run through the book. Among the most notable themes is the constant anti-Semitism faced by Jews in Canada – something that really only began to dissipate quite recently really with the emergence of groundbreaking legislation meant to counter anti-Semitism, first in Ontario under the Progressive Conservative premiership of Leslie Frost in the 1950s, then federally under the leadership of various prime ministers, including both Progressive Conservative and Liberal ones.
As Levine pointed out during our interview, anti-Semitism grew in intensity in Canada following the beginning of large-scale Jewish immigration to Canada in the 1880s, primarily from Eastern Europe. Before that, while there was certainly a hostility to Jews from what almost totally a Christian country, there was general intolerance toward almost all non-British or French groups. (In Manitoba you can add Icelanders toward the list of privileged groups.)

At the same time though, the role and influence of wealthy Canadian Jews is also a key theme in “Seeking the Fabled City”. Not everyone may enjoy reading the continuing series of stories in this book that laud the considerable achievements of financially successful Jews but, as Levine pointed out to me during our interview,, “there was a lot of money needed to build up the internal structure of” what is now a very successful community, especially in a city like Winnipeg, whose Jewish community at one time certainly punched well above its weight in terms of its impact on the larger Jewish Canadian community.
In the early years of Jewish immigration to Canada, the story of building communities in each city in which Jews settled was really one of building synagogues, and Levine tells some fascinating stories how many of those early synagogues came about. As one might expect, those stories often involved bickering and vying for prestige among the wealthy businessmen who donated the funds for building those institutions.

Ezekiel Hart/Baron Maurice de Hirsch

One of the most remarkable stories in the book relates to the enormous sums of money that German businessman Baron Maurice de Hirsch donated toward the cause of establishing Jewish agricultural colonies, not just in Canada, but in the United States and Argentina as well. With the advent of what became the “Jewish Colonization Association”, Hirsch gave “about $36 million in all to purchase tracts of land in those three countries, beginning in the 1890s, Levine notes. That’s quite an incredible amount of money to have given back then!
As he did in “Coming of Age”, Levine spends a fair bit of time describing some of those agricultural settlements, devoting an entire chapter to the story of the Kives, Vickar and Usiskin families in Saskatchewan, for instance.
Yet Levine is not one to view history through rose-coloured glasses nor wax nostalgic about those agricultural settlements, despite the trend in recent times for people like me to write elegies about the heroic efforts of those pioneer Jewish farmers.
Here is how Levine attempts to put those agricultural settlements in a more proper context: “The agricultural settlements loom large – admittedly too large-in the history of Jews in Western Canada. They epitomized the pioneer spirit and persistence that characterized the first and second waves of immigrants. Yet no more than 2,500 Jews-or 2 per cent of the total Canadian Jewish population-engaged in agriculture from the 1880s to the 1920s”.

As much as Canada’s Jewish community has now emerged as wealthy and successful, looking back on the not-so-distant past it is sometimes difficult to conceive how many obstacles were put in the way of Jews succeeding in this country. Levine describes in great detail the quota systems that were put in place in almost all Canadian universities in the 1930s which severely limited the number of Jews who were allowed into medical schools, for instance. (Here in Manitoba we’ve been made well aware of the insidious degree to which certain individuals, especially University of Manitoba medical school dean Alvin Mathers rigorously enforced quotas on Jews gaining admittance into that school.)
But, what Levine also points out in his book is that there was a general compliance within the Canadian Jewish community when it came to resisting those quotas. As he observed during our interview, the prevailing attitude was “don’t make waves”. And, as he also points out in his book, while Jews may have been emerging as successful financially in the first half of the 20th century, they still lacked “political power”.
Levine chronicles the challenges faced by the early Jewish politicians who did get elected to office, including members of the famous Hart family in Quebec. Ezekiel Hart was the first Jew elected to office (in what was then Lower Canada), but in order to take his seat in the Assembly he would have had to swear an oath on the Christian Bible. What followed became known as L’affaire Hart and Levine does a terrific job describing the difficult position Hart was put in as a result.
In fact, although Jews did begin to be elected to various legislatures in the first part of the 20th century, there were still many obstacles to Jews gaining entry into many occupations, such as banking. Levine writes with pride about Louis Rasminsky, who became the first Jewish Governor of the Bank of Canada, although he was initially bypassed for the position even though he was supremely qualified.
And, while many Jews had begun making their mark in the legal profession early on in the 20th century, the appointment of Jewish judges didn’t begin to happen until much later. Levine tells the stories of many of those pioneers, including our own Justice Samuel Freedman, also Bora Laskin, who became the first Jewish Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. He also writes of many Jewish politicians, including Herb Gray, who became the first Jewish Federal cabinet minister.

Other themes tackled by Levine in this wide-ranging book include the tremendous impact the creation of the State of Israel has had on Canadian Jewry, also the often bitter political squabbles between and among various Jewish organizations, most notably the late Canadian Jewish Congress and the organization that usurped the CJC’s role, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Levine holds no brief for anyone or any organization. He often casts a caustic eye on the struggles for power within the Jewish community. As he told me during our interview, the influence accorded to men of wealth in our community has been a dominant factor in the growth of many of what are now mature Jewish organizations, yet that vying for power among powerful men has not come without some cost, as individuals such as Sam Bronfman threw their weight around with abandon when Bronfman, for instance, was the longtime president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Levine described the motivation that lies behind so many powerful Jewish men as stemming from a “macher gene” during our interview.
The section dealing with the period prior to World War II and the immediate post-war period is particularly interesting, as Levine describes the build-up of pro-fascist sentiment in Canada during the 1930s. What readers will probably find truly amazing – and disturbing, is the fact that the popular sentiment among Canadians was strong opposition to letting Jewish refugees into the country, not only before the war, but even after the war when the full horrors of the Holocaust began to emerge. While the book “None is Too Many” certainly peeled back the covers on the Federal Liberal government’s almost categorical refusal to allow Jewish refugees into Canada during the 1930s, when only 5,000 were allowed in, it might come as a surprise to learn that even following the end of World War II only 35,000 survivors of the Holocaust were allowed to immigrate to Canada.

But, if there has been any one single issue that can be said to have moved to the forefront of the Canadian Jewish community’s concern (if one can be allowed to speak of the Jewish community in monolithic terms), according to Levine it has been a focus on the State of Israel. Levine describes that focus this way: “The Jewish state became the number-one focus for most Canadian Jews, more critical for many of them than religious precepts.”
Although support for Israel has risen to the top of concerns for much of our community, Levine also pays ample attention to the major impact that left-wing groups have also had within Canadian Jewry. He devotes a fair bit of attention, for instance, to describing activities of the United Jewish People’s Order which, while it once may have played a significant role in the affairs of some Canadian Jewish communities, especially here in Winnipeg, has by now been reduced to a fringe role.
Levine is avowedly pro-Israel though, which would come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, but he might have paid more attention to Jewish groups other than UJPO which are quite critical of Israeli government policies. By no means is he a shill for the Jewish establishment, but one wonders whether his assessment that most Canadian Jews are strongly pro-Israel is still as valid a contention as it once might have been, especially within the younger generations of Jews.
Since there hasn’t been a comprehensive survey of Canadian Jewish attitudes until quite recently (although this past summer CIJA did undertake just such a survey across Canada), unlike the seminal Pew survey of American Jews’ attitudes, which was done in 2013, and which showed how little Jewish identity in America was tied to religion, also how support for Israel was either only somewhat important to American Jews (39 per cent) or not at all important (31 per cent), it is difficult to know whether Levine is actually accurate when he suggests that support for the State of Israel “is the number-one focus for most Canadian Jews”. He may be right on that point, but since there is really no empirical data (yet) to confirm that point of view, I wonder whether Levine might be off on that particular point.

Also, although Levine doesn’t like to predict the future of Canadian Jewry, he spends a great deal of time describing the many institutions that have been built by Jewish communities, including synagogues, schools, community centres, senior homes and child & family services. He suggests that “All the major cities have Jewish foundations with millions of dollars in assets to continually raise funds and ensure the survival of the communities in the future.”
One might well ask, however, whether bricks and mortar are sufficient in and of themselves to ensure the survival of various Jewish communities (outside of major centres such as Toronto and Montreal, both of which have a critical mass of populations of Jews that would seem to be able to guarantee survival as distinct Jewish communities for quite some time into the future) . Levine refers to the very high intermarriage rate among Canadian Jews, noting how much that rate has grown in the past few decades, and observing that the “steadily rising intermarriage rate is indeed a cause for concern.” Unfortunately the last year for which we have any reliable information is 2011, when the intermarriage rate for Canadian Jews had reached “26 per cent”, Levine writes.

When I interviewed him I asked Levine whether he had any predictions for the future of Canadian Jewry, but he demurred from doing that, saying he’s a historian and prefers to avoid getting into the prediction game. Still, “Seeking the Fabled City” shows that the Canadian Jewish community has, for the most part, followed a certain trajectory, beginning with a relatively slow emergence as a cohesive community, followed by a sudden and rapid growth during the latter part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century, followed by a long period of severe anti-Semitism which didn’t really dissipate until well into the second half of the 20th century, followed by an integration into Canadian society as a whole especially during the 1960s and 70s and the emergence of a strong and confident community.
But, as has been the case throughout the history of the Jewish people, one might well ask whether that integration into the larger society, and the inevitable assimilation that follows, portends the end of an identifiable “Jewish” community?

However one might choose to answer that question, “Seeking the Fabled City” is a terrific read which shows how the Canadian Jewish community went from being a small and relatively minor part of the larger community to a successful and powerful community today. Levine is a highly accomplished writer who knows how to weave disparate threads together to tell a cohesive story. One final word of warning though: Don’t be too disappointed if your grandparents’ names aren’t mentioned in this book. I know how many readers were furious with Levine after reading “Coming of Age” for exactly that reason. (I did get a mention in this book, I don’t mind my admitting though, when I was described as writing about the “machinations” of Winnipeg’s Jewish community. I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe life within our own community here – full as it is of intrigue that would befit a Shakespearean drama. See my story on page 1 about the latest shake-up in one of our major organizations here to prove that point.)

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