The Jewish immigrant neighbourhood that was home and inspiration to an extraordinary number of Yiddish writers, some of international renown, is brought to life in a new podcast produced by Montreal’s annual literary festival, Blue Metropolis.
Hosted by Shelley Pomerance, a Blue Metropolis programmer and former CBC Radio arts journalist, Yiddish Montreal can be simply listened to or used as a self-guided walking tour of the Plateau Mont Royal, the district in the shadow of “the mountain” where the emigré Yiddish literati flourished in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
Although they are long gone, the homes and community institutions of their era still largely stand. Listeners are taken through those streets as Pomerance imagines how they once vibrated with creative and ideological ferment.
“It’s easy to forget that Montreal was once a centre for Yiddish literature, rivaled only by New York City; that over 40 Yiddish writers made this city their home, and that a ‘third solitude’—Yiddish—co-existed alongside English and French on the Plateau,” she said.
Yiddish was the common language on the street, but it was also elevated into expressive and evocative prose and poetry by such luminaries as J.I. Segal, Ida Maze, Rochl Korn, Yaacov Zipper, Melekh Ravitch, Sholem Shtern, and Chava Rosenfarb.
The scene was immensely enriched by the refugees, like Lodz native Rosenfarb, who settled after the Holocaust.
Their hub was the Jewish Public Library—Di folks biblyotek—which also frequently hosted illustrious Yiddish writers from New York. The former JPL is still at the corner of Esplanade and Mount Royal avenues, as is Maze’s flat next door, famed for her literary salons.
The Yiddish daily newspaper, the Keneder Adler, which published for 70 years, was an invaluable platform for local writers, as well as journalists. Its office on St. Laurent Boulevard is on the tour route.
Contributing to the podcast are three academics and authors acquainted with this era from different perspectives: Concordia University professors Norman Ravvin and Sherry Simon, and Goldie Morgentaler from the University of Lethbridge, the daughter and translator of the late Rosenfarb, who was among the younger members of this Yiddish renaissance and most acclaimed.
Pomerance has lived on the Plateau since the late 1970s. It’s where her father, Sol (Shloime) Pomerance, born in 1913, grew up in a poor immigrant family, the youngest of eight children. Yiddish was his mother tongue, and he spoke and wrote it fluently.
His daughter, however, regrets that she never learned the language. Her parents were eager that she should fit into the majority culture, but she always loved the old neighbourhood and its storied past.
Morgentaler asserts that it is not an overstatement that Montreal was “the Jerusalem of North America” and the JPL “the beating intellectual heart of Jewish Montreal,” an environment that stimulated her mother’s writing of novels, short stories and poems.
Simon underlines how emblematic Mount Royal was to these writers, including, ironically, the illuminated cross that crowns it. “Hardly a positive symbol for the Jewish populations who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe…the mountain-top cross could well have been an unwelcome feature of their new city. Yet, in the writings of several Yiddish poets, the mountain and its cross are the object of affection; the cross has been de-barbed, no longer a weapon brandished, more like a bedside lamp.”
Ravvin focuses on Zipper’s lament for the demise of this Yiddish world starting in the 1950s, when Jews began moving westward. Zipper, who was principal of the secular day school, the Peretz Shule, for decades, kept a detailed journal for over 30 years. With melancholy, he recounted returning to a rapidly changing neighbourhood where Yiddish had been silenced.
The podcast narration is accompanied by music by Kleztory, a Montreal-based klezmer ensemble.
The web page bluemetropolis.org/Yiddish lists the sites mentioned under the tab “The Best Places,” providing the addresses and links to Google Maps and more information available from such sources as the Museum of Jewish Montreal, JPL and City of Montreal. Another tab leads to suggestions for further reading.