Lessons learned from ‘The Jewish Hour’

Rick Salutin comments on some of the insights from the early Jewish community in Toronto and how they may apply to today’s integration challenges:

That community, in Toronto, is described in a lovely, loving new book by the late Michael Mandel: The Jewish Hour. He focuses on weekly radio shows in Yiddish, in Toronto — in 1938 there were three competing “Jewish Hours” — and on local newspapers from the 1930s to the 1950s. The papers were in Yiddish, but helped integrate their readers by covering Toronto events, unlike the dominant New York Yiddish press, which was devoured here.

By the 1930s, Jews were less than 10 per cent of Toronto — far fewer than the quarter to a third in New York or Warsaw — but still the largest non-British group. You could say they were white, unlike today’s minorities, but in ways they were viewed as non-white. They were assumed to have distinct, identifiable physical traits though they could sometimes “pass,” much like other non-Caucasians. You could also say they shared Canada’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage, but you’d be wrong. Canada was then universally considered a “Christian nation.” As part of the integration of Canadian Jews, the term slowly expanded to Judeo-Christian.

To some degree at least, that process of integration is unstoppable. Mandel’s dad, who was a regular on radio, was known in the Yiddish press as a “showman” — spelled out literally in the 1,000-year-old language of Eastern European Jews. Toronto’s many cantors — leaders in prayer — often crossed over to secular performances, just like Al Jolson in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer.

In return, newcomers made their contributions. The Yiddish papers had no illusions about the rise of Hitler, from the start. They warned Canada. When the war ended, they had no illusions about what would follow: “If we are going to have an era of peace, it is only because humanity is now exhausted and broken — not because it finally realizes the absurdity of the atrocities of war.”

Like every immigrant community, there were fierce internal differences, about which the larger society tends to be oblivious. Instead it tries to homogenize groups, as it now does with Muslims. But there were communist Jews, socialists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Tories and Liberals, rich versus poor — who attacked each other regularly. The presence of a crisis, such as 9/11 or the Holocaust, sharpens the differences while underlining the need for unity.

The outlets declined as Yiddish did. In 1931, 96 per cent of Jews here called it their first language. By 1951, it was 51 per cent, and 11 per cent in 1981. The papers tried to adapt with English sections: the Star’s memorable theatre critic, Nathan Cohen, edited the English pages for the communist “Vochenblatt.”

Till the end, the voices were eloquent: “That is how it goes in Jewish history, from Moses’s time till the present: the presidents and rich ones commit themselves only when there is an ark” — meaning a secure shelter like Noah’s — “and a place of honour.” You can’t get enough of that kind of journalistic feistiness, in any language.

I know there are different challenges with racialized immigrations, like those of the last 50 years. But I don’t think they’re insuperable, due to both the will of immigrants to join their new society and its urgent need for what they offer.

Source: Lessons learned from ‘The Jewish Hour’ | Toronto Star

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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