BACKSTORY: One foot in Belfast, the other in Peterborough

Beth Israel Congregation, Peterborough
Beth Israel Congregation, Peterborough

Born in 1960 in Toronto, literary scholar Leon Litvack now lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but still fulfils the role of spiritual advisor and sometimes cantor for Beth Israel Congregation in Peterborough, Ont.

Decades ago, Litvack attained a bachelor’s degree in English literature and religious studies from the University of Toronto, then started postgraduate studies – and a new life – in Britain. Today he is a professor of Victorian studies at Queen’s University in Belfast and a noted specialist on the works of Charles Dickens.

Somewhat fittingly, it was a dramatic and somewhat Dickensian twist of fate that led him to establish a new connection with Canada via the Peterborough shul.


Adopted as an infant into a Jewish family in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood, Litvack received a Jewish education at Associated Hebrew Schools and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, and acquired his adoptive father’s love of cantorial music. As a teenager, he often read the Torah and led services for the adult congregation at Toronto’s Beth Sholom Synagogue.

Then, several years ago, came a bolt from the blue in the form of a communication from a relative he didn’t know he had, allowing him to discover his birth family, who were from Peterborough. “I never went looking for it,” he said. “It came to me in an email from my half-sister who found me after they passed the Adoption Disclosure Act in 2009.”

Litvack conducts High Holiday services for the Peterborough congregation, as well as infrequent Erev Shabbat services when he is in town. “I’ve introduced a meditative service for them on Friday nights – a ‘kirtan’ service, which combines eastern musical forms with Hebrew words in order to give it that kind of eastern feel that a lot of Jews respond to quite favourably,” he said. He is also a halachic advisor for congregants.

A trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, Litvack is primarily known in the scholarly world as the principle editor of the Charles Dickens Letters Project, an enterprise that seeks out newly discovered letters by Dickens that have never been in the public domain. He and his team of three get copies of the letters, transcribe them, provide context, and publish them in supplementary journals of a 12-volume series of letters that was completed in 2012.

“It’s amazing how many letters are out there that have never seen the light of day. I would say that I personally find 30 or 40 letters a year. Generally, these are letters that are brought to auction houses like Christie’s, Bonham’s or Sotheby’s and sold in their sales.”

Dickens, of course, was a prolific writer, not just of novels and stories but of letters as well: the project has documented close to 15,000. That number doesn’t include the many baskets of letters that the famed author – in the midst of an affair and ever mindful of his reputation – gathered back from his correspondents and destroyed in a bonfire in the 1860s.

“He was very careful about protecting his private life, and he worried about anything in the public domain that would cast him in a negative light,” Litvack said.


Newly surfaced letters may come with a price tag of 5,000 British pounds or more, but Litvack and his team don’t need to worry about raising that kind of money. “We have very good relations with the auction houses, so generally, if I’m not able to get a transcription from a low-resolution image on the website, I write them for a copy. They understand that we do not publish the images, we only want the text.”

Litvack’s related activities include the Dickens Festival that he and others staged in Belfast to mark the bicentenary of the author’s birth in 2012. Currently, he’s researching the backgrounds of photographs of Dickens and the photographers who created them. He’s also slated to assemble an exhibition of portraits of the literary giant for the Charles Dickens Museum to mark the 150th anniversary of his death in 2020.