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Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience

by Allan Levine

“A people’s memory is history; and as a man without a memory, so a people without a history cannot grow wiser, better.” This epigraph, from Yiddish author Isaac Leib Peretz, speaks to the provenance of Seeking the Fabled City, Allan Levine’s lively history of the Jews in Canada. Levine’s title – from A.M. Klein’s poem “Autobiographical” – refers to the wave of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived in Canada a century ago seeking a fabled city where they could flourish and leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren.

This compendious volume, geared to the general reader, spans 250 years beginning with the small numbers of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who arrived in British North America after the conquest of New France in 1759. From there, the book proceeds through the huge swell of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and on to the present day, a time during which a large Canadian Jewish community has survived and thrived. The author’s main focus is on cities with expansive Jewish populations – such as Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg – but he also touches on Jewish enclaves in prairie towns and maritime villages.

The book is broken into four chronological parts, and Levine’s text is based on interviews with a variety of rabbis, leaders, and authors from the Canadian Jewish community, as well as ample bibliographical sources. Archival photographs bring additional life to the text. Levine poses the key question: “Who is a Jew? Are Jews a religion, ethnic group, culture, or all three?” He explores how Jewish identity is multi-layered and complex and underscores the unifying bond of being perpetually branded as outsiders. The author also reminds us that the multicultural tolerance Canadians are so proud of dates only from the late 1960s.

Seeking the Fabled City opens with an encouraging scene from 1970 Montreal, in which then prime minister Pierre Trudeau accepts the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith’s Family of Man Award. Trudeau acknowledges the prodigious contribution of Jews to Canada, coining the phrase “the quintessence of a minority.” Indeed, given the discrimination Jews have endured over millennia, their continued existence is extraordinary. “The real miracle is that Jews have achieved this without sacrificing their religion, culture, and way of life,” Levine remarks.

Jewish history is not only about perseverance, according to Levine; it is a result of the ability to adapt and harness the talents necessary to contribute to society. Though Jews represent only 1.2 per cent of Canada’s total population, Jewish leadership and exceptional achievement is evident in business, literature, the arts, science, medicine, law, and politics. Levine notes that anti-Semitism unites Jews who don’t often agree on much else – including Zionism and the fate of Israel, as well as religious and synagogue rituals. The author is himself a staunch Zionist but acknowledges in his text that other views exist.

What remains true – and what Levine captures – is that Jews are a reflective, intellectual people with a deep commitment to remembrance. Seeking the Fabled City is a valuable addition to the literature on the Jewish contribution to Canada and a passionate call to preserve Jewish identity.