Neither in Dark Speeches Nor in Similitudes: Reflections and Refractions Between Canadian and American Jews ed. by Barry L. Stiefel and Hernan Tesler-Mabé
"How different are Canadian Jews from the Jews of the United States?" ask Barry Stiefel and Hernan Tesler-Mabé, editors of a volume of essays about relationships and comparisons between the communities divided by the world's longest international border (xi). Stiefel and Tesler-Mabé urge us to look beyond these boundaries that too often obscure the manner in which Jews actually lived, place limits on the questions that scholars ask about North American Jewish life, and prevent us from examining assumptions about exceptionalism and singularity.
As a transnational study, Neither in Dark Speeches Nor in Similitudes joins an ongoing conversation in the field of Jewish history. As Stiefel and Tesler-Mabé point out, however, despite the flowering of transnational analysis in recent decades, no systematic comparative work has been done on the Jews of the United States and Canada since Moses Rischin's 1987 [End Page 168] volume The Jews of North America. Their effort to bridge this gap, a collection of essays by American and Canadian scholars, would benefit from a stronger thematic focus instead of the chronological approach it adopts. I would also argue that frequent references in the book to "North American Jewry" and "North American Jewish studies" are problematic in a work that elides the Jews of Mexico altogether. Nevertheless, the editors are to be commended for reviving a field of study that has lain dormant for too long.
The essays explore two dimensions of the relationship between Canadian and American Jews. On one level, we learn about the extent of ties in the realm of lived experience. Traversing the 49th parallel, Jews on either side of the border befriended and married each other, collaborated together on projects of religious and cultural significance, and relied on each other for economic opportunity and spiritual leadership. Lillooet Nördlinger McDonnell examines close connections between Jews in mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco and Victoria, British Columbia. As she demonstrates, Jews north of the border regularly returned to San Francisco to visit family and conduct business, and the first Torah scrolls came to Victoria from San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El. Focused on the same era, Zev Eleff analyzes the cooperative effort of Abraham De Sola, spiritual leader of Montreal's Sephardic congregation, and Jacques Judah Lyons, minister of New York's Shearith Israel, to produce a traditional Jewish calendar that pushed back against the tide of religious reform.
On another level, many of the essays compare and contrast facets of American and Canadian Jewish life, bringing similarities and differences to the fore. In order to explain why the Jews of Quebec's first synagogue composed their bylaws only in English, whereas the Jews of another North American francophone community, New Orleans, wrote the bylaws of their first synagogue in both English and French, Barry Stiefel offers a series of well-reasoned historical explanations. The earliest Jews in Quebec, who worked for or supported the conquering British Army, had family and business ties to British Jewry, and eagerly sought to align themselves with the ruling class of anglophone elites, had no interest in making their synagogue bylaws comprehensible to the Québécois. Catholic antisemitism also loomed large in shaping resentment toward Jews among French Canadians. The Jews of New Orleans, by way of contrast, lived in a territory that was acquired peacefully and was characterized by a more laissez-faire approach to religious difference. Therefore, Stiefel argues, "[h]aving a French copy of Shaarei Chessed's bylaws showed that the Jewish community was a welcoming member of Louisiana's pluralistic society" (36). [End Page 169]
Examining American and Canadian Jews together allows us to see how demographics, politics, markets, and culture shape the lives of individuals and communities in ways both similar and different. The aforementioned Jews of McDonnell's Victoria, we learn, were well integrated into gentile society, concentrated in retail and trade, established a synagogue and a network of benevolent societies, and pursued a form of Judaism characterized by "a blend of traditional adherence and pragmatic abandonment" (85). In these and other respects, Victorian Jewry strongly resembled their coreligionists in nineteenth-century San Francisco and other parts of the American West, separated only by a border.
On the other hand, as Hernan Tesler-Mabé concludes in his biography of the German-Jewish conductor Heinz Unger, sometimes the difference between the American and Canadian Jewish communities loomed quite large. Unlike America, Canada never had a German-Jewish social and cultural elite. In Toronto, Unger found himself a minority in a community predominantly composed of Jews of Eastern European descent, in which the prevailing attitudes toward Jewish identity and Jewish music were informed by Jewish nationalist politics imported from Eastern Europe. Unger's devotion to the work of Gustav Mahler, not merely as art but as an articulation of an assimilated Jewish identity, rang hollow in the ears of the conductor's critics and contemporaries. Sojourning abroad in Los Angeles, Unger found comfort in the company of other German-speaking Jewish émigré artists, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Max Steiner, and Bruno Walter. This insightful sketch of Unger's life and work, together with other essays in the volume, shows both how local context mattered, and how Jews have relied on transnational networks to find work, companionship, and meaning in their lives.
Joshua Furman is the Stanford and Joan Alexander Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Rice University. He is working on a book that explores the history of the Houston Jewish community and the two neighborhoods that shaped its existence for most of the twentieth century.