Yiddish Literary Culture and Community in Montreal

Montreal could easily be considered a Canadian Yiddish hub, however on the global scale it is considered by many scholars to be peripheral at best. The prolific scholar Rebecca Margolis at the University of Ottawa is among those who have explored Montreal’s Yiddish literary culture in depth, and in her book Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil she describes the life of this literary community.  Because many of the Yiddish speaking Jews in Canada were those who had experienced the “literacy movements that had emerged among nineteenth century modernizers in Tsarist Russia,” Margolis argues that they brought with them and then adapted “Eastern European literacy patterns,” which would later influence Yiddish literary culture through emphasis on education, especially self-sought opportunities for that education.  Although she admits that this “minor Yiddish center… lagged behind the United States and Europe in its development of Yiddish literature,” she focuses on the fact that by the 1930s there existed in Montreal a “diverse group of writers and a network of literary activity” that allowed for a Yiddish literary culture there.  This “high point in Montreal Yiddish literary activity” allowed writers to explore new genres, organize literary groups, and interact with the wide variety of Yiddish cultural institutions in Montreal.

Group portrait, staff of the "Keneder Adler" and "Canadian Jewis

Keneder Adler staff and founders

Many of the literati of Montreal were involved with the Keneder Adler, a Yiddish newspaper based there, which allowed them to connect with the literary culture that Margolis stresses had “community at its core.” Writers adopted “multiple roles” within Yiddish general culture in Montreal, often participating in not only literature, but also education, theater and music, allowing them to connect with each other on many different levels as well as with the culture of the city itself. Ultimately, Margolis argues that “poets staked their literary careers in Montreal with the support of a local community of writers,” using local publications to develop their voices and relying on each other to do so.


Photo of young Chava Rosenfarb from the frontispiece of her first published collection of poetry

In a rare work of nonfiction, the poet Chava Rosenfarb took the time to describe the Yiddish literary life of Montreal in her essay on Canadian Yiddish Writers. Much of what she describes matches Margolis’ careful research. Arriving after the golden age of Montreal Yiddish literature that Margolis described, Rosenfarb remembers that when she arrived in 1950, she “found a bustling Yiddish social life,” including Yiddish literary periodicals through which she might stay connected to both local and global Yiddish cultural life. She was invited to join an “active writer’s union,” which connected the community of local writers as well as inviting Yiddish authors from abroad, which is how she met such stars as “Opatoshu, Bialostocki, Itzik Manger, Israel Joshua singer, and his brother Bashevis.” Interestingly, in her essay, Rosenfarb discusses not only the intense community among writers in Montreal, but also makes an effort to define Canadian Yiddish literature more generally. While she notes that American Yiddish authors had a “sharp, clear sense of self-awareness as an American,” her fellow Canadian Yiddish authors, especially poets, “looked upon their adopted homeland through glasses that were somewhat out of focus.” The reason she gives for this is that Canadian Yiddish authors were less at home than their American counterparts, because while “Americanism imposed itself, Canadianism has to be looked for,” and for the most part her fellow Canadian Yiddish writers saw Canadian culture on the whole as parochial, and less worldly than themselves, immigrants with cultural experience.

Anctil, Pierre, Norman Ravvin, and Sherry Simon. “Canadian Yiddish Writers by Chava Rosenfarb.” New Readings of Yiddish Montreal = Traduire Le Montréal Yiddish = Taytshn Un Ibertaytshn Yidish in Montreol. Ottawa: U of Ottawa, 2007. N. pag. Print.
Margolis, Rebecca. Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011. Print.
Yiddish Publishing in Montreal 
Yiddish book publishing never operated on as large a scale in Canada as it did in the United States. This was in part due to the prominent role of the press in Yiddish print culture. Newspapers and literary journals published short stories, poetry, and serialized novels at a lower price than the cost of a book. Yiddish book publishing was simply not a very lucrative market in Montreal.
Nevertheless, Yiddish books were published in Montreal – over half of the 80 Yiddish titles which were published in Canada between 1910 and 1945 were published in Montreal. Most were self-published, printed in small runs at commercial presses which handled Yiddish type. These presses include the Adler, the City Printing Company, the Old Rose Printing Company, and the Artistic Print Shop. Also common were Bukh-Komitet, committees who would come together to publish a single book or series of books. Yiddish publishing companies were usually only active long enough to publish a single text or a small number of volumes.
The fact that so many Yiddish books were published in Montreal, in spite of the lack of established commercial publishing houses, shows how supportive the Montreal Jewish community was of Yiddish culture, and how all Yiddish culture in Montreal was essentially a collaborative venture.
Some Montreal Yiddish publishers and their publications are detailed below.
Farlag Kenede
The Kanade publishing house was the first and longest-lasting Jewish publishing company in Canada. It is not known who founded Kanade, but it was possibly H. Hirsch, editor of the Toronto Yidisher Zhurnal and the Adler.
Der Yid in Kanade [The Jew in Canada], 1925
A history of the Jews in Canada, from the French period to the modern time. By Abraham Reynveyz.

Hundert tropn tint [A Hundred Drops of Ink]

H. Hirsch’s first book, and the first volume of belles lettres to appear in Canada.


Sholem Shtern Bukh-Komitet

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Title page of Sholem Shtern’s In Kanede, volume I

This book committee was formed in 1960 to print the poet Sholem Shtern’s two-volume novel in Yiddish verse. The novel, In Kanade [In Canada], deals with the Canadian literary scene.
Shrayber-Grupe Montreal [Montreal Writing Group]
This writing group published one book of poetry, Vandervegn [Migrant Roads], by the poet Yudiks [pen name of Yudis Tsik] in 1934.
Margolis, Rebecca. Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011. Print.
Reynvez, Abraham. Der Yid in Kanade. Canada: Farlag Kanade, 1925. Print. 
Shtern, Sholem. In Kanade. Canada: Sholem Shtern Bukh-Komitet, 1960. Print. 
Yudiks. Vandervegn. Canada: Shrayber-Grupe Montreal, 1934. Print.