Culture & Conversation

Almost Lost

Incredible as it may seem today, Yiddish was once the third most widely spoken language in Montreal, after French and English. For several decades in the first half of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Central and Eastern European Jews formed the city’s largest immigrant group. As immigration patterns changed in the post-war years, Italian became the city’s third language, succeeded more recently by Spanish and Arabic.

But for nearly two generations, Montreal was an important centre of Yiddish life, literature and theatre, second in North America only to New York. And many of the leading lights of this phenomenon were women.

An event at the Blue Met festival this year featured readings (in English and Yiddish) from works by Miriam Waddington, Chayele Grove and Rachel Korn. These were drawn from a newly published anthology of short stories by Canadian-Yiddish women writers, along with excepts from novels and memoirs and several personal essays. This collection (in English only), is titled The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers. Earlier anthologies of Yiddish writing, the flyleaf states, tend to focus mostly on male writers.

Yiddish influence in Montreal, the audience at the event was told, benefited from publication starting in 1907 of the Keneder Adler (Canadian Eagle), a Yiddish daily newspaper (which later became a weekly, before ceasing publication). Another important institution was the Jewish Public Library, which is still going strong.

The Yiddish language developed more than ten centuries in the Rhineland, initially as an offshoot of German but written in Hebrew characters and enriched by words introduced from Slavic and other languages. Yiddish spread across Europe and later North America, But the massacre of European Jews by Hitler’s armies dealt the language a near-fatal blow. The coup de grace may have come from the Zionist movement’s insistence on modern Hebrew as the dominant Jewish language. This certainly had an effect among younger Montreal Jews. Today there is a renewal of interest in Yiddish language and culture, although the glory days are long past.


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