An eclectic mix of memoir, history and fiction describes the five recent books, two of them in French, shortlisted for the $5,000 J.I. Segal Award for Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme.
Administered by Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (JPL), the awards are bestowed every two years.
The three memoirs are: A Promise of Sweet Tea by Pinchas Blitt (Azrieli Foundation), Lunging into the Underbrush: A Life Lived Backward by David Homel (Linda Leith Publishing), and Music, Late and Soon by Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis Books).
The historical work is Pierre Anctil’s Antijudaisme et influence nazie au Québec (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal).
The lone fiction in the running is Le danseur de La Macaza by Anne Élaine Cliche (Le Quartanier).
All five were published in 2021.
The memoirs recount very different lives.
Ninety-year-old Blitt recreates the charmed prewar life of the insular Jewish village he grew up in called Kortelisy in eastern Poland. His family were the sole survivors after the Nazis burned the village to the ground in September 1942.
Blitt, a lawyer by profession, is better known for his many years performing with the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre.
In his first non-fiction book, novelist Homel serves up a candid portrait of himself as a young man. To avoid the U.S. draft, the Chicago native hightailed it to Paris in 1970 at age 18 and bummed around Europe for a few years.
A hiking accident in Spain resulting in a series of botched surgeries dramatically altered his life, leaving him disabled, in pain and addicted to opiates.
Homel, now 70, did eventually recover, settled in Toronto and then Montreal, and has since published eight novels, as well as worked as a literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He reflects on such matters as body image, relationships and getting older.
Robyn Sarah, who has made a successful career as a poet, reveals in Music, Late and Soon that she was expected to become an orchestral musician after years of studying the clarinet and piano.
Writing won out, but she dabbled at the piano off and on as an adult until 35 years had passed. She decided one day to reconnect with the beloved piano teacher of her youth and once again apply herself to the instrument seriously.
Her renewed relationship with this extraordinary mentor proved to be deeper and more inspirational than their first, and Sarah’s early passion for music was rekindled. In the process, Sarah discovered the commonality of all artistic pursuits.
In his nominated book, Anctil, known for his decades-long research into the history of Jews in Quebec, tackles the still shrouded subject of how antisemitism permeated the French-Canadian elite and Nazi ideology took root in the province before the Second World War.
The University of Ottawa history professor specifically delves into L’Action catholique, an influential daily newspaper supported by the Church, which reflected the opinion of the conservative francophone elite, from 1931-1939.
The publication strongly opposed Jewish immigration, and was contemptuous of Judaism. By the mid-‘30s, however, the sympathy L’Action catholique had shown to Nazism weakened.
Cliche, a Université du Québec à Montréal literature professor, draws on the legends she heard growing up in the Abitibi region in Le danseur de La Macaza.
One night the townspeople spot a dancer atop a log floating down the river. He is a young man, strong, and dressed in black. He holds a flaming torch in each hand. His head is covered with a tallit – a sure sign of his Jewish identity.
What follows is a spirited discussion on who he is, and could he be the Prophet Elijah who some swore they had seen and was speaking Algonquin.
The winner will be announced in mid-December (exact date to be determined.)
This year, two other J.I. Segal prizes will be handed out: the Dr. Hirsh and Dvorah Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature and the Rose and David z”l Finestone Translation Award for a Book on a Jewish Theme, each worth $1,000. No shortlist is announced for these awards.
Instead of a live ceremony, the JPL is producing three short videos to be posted on its website and social media platforms in which the winning books will be unveiled and their authors talk about them.
In the meantime, the JPL will be promoting the nominees online.
“With five outstanding titles by well-known writers in English and French in a variety of genres, there is much to celebrate,” said Robert Schwartzwald, chair of the J.I. Segal Awards committee and a Université de Montréal professor.
The first winner of the Best Quebec Book category, created in 2020, was Le Mammouth, a novel by Pierre Samson. This prize recognizes “the contribution of Jewish culture to a richly diverse contemporary Quebec.”
Launched in 1968, the awards honour the memory of Canadian Yiddish poet Jacob Isaac Segal (1896-1954). Winners over the years include Leonard Cohen, Naim Kattan and Chava Rosenfarb.