Non-Fiction

Haunted success, with humour

Life Everyone Else…but Different: The Paradoxical Success Of Canadian Jews
Morton Weinfeld

McClelland & Stewart
$37.99
cloth
446pp
0-7710-8912-0

An Israeli acquaintance once told me that he’d been on a ship that ran aground on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence. He and his fellow travellers were transported to the closest village. When the villagers discovered that there was a Jew amidst the shipwrecked, they turned out to take a look. “They’d never seen a Jew before,” Hyam said.

Morton Weinfeld, a McGill sociology professor and the son of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, provides a much-needed overview of Canada’s 350,000 Jews. He describes their lives and concerns in the 21st century, and traces their contributions to this country since the first permanent Jewish settlers arrived in the 1760s. The book aims to present “the big picture,” and succeeds admirably, offering colourful observations gleaned from scholarly research, interviews, and personal experience.

Like Everyone Else…But Different doesn’t shy away from controversy. Weinfeld complains, for instance, that “affluence and conformity have dulled the Jewish edge” in intellectual performance and argues that “Montreal, a declining community, has more ta’am (good taste) and savoir faire,” than Toronto Jewry, which has “more people, power, and money, all of recent vintage.” He tackles a wide range of sensitive topics: the Jewish vote, Jewish reactions to Canadian policy in the Middle East, negative Jewish stereotypes of Gentiles, Jewish homosexuality.

True to his title, Weinfeld explains how Jews are like other ethno-cultural and religious groups and how they differ in many respects, including their sense of humour. “I think Jews value humour more than other groups,” he says, “perhaps as an antidote to a history dotted with persecution.” With a panache that’s unusual for such studies, he serves up traditional and modern Jewish jokes throughout his text. Here’s one on assimilation: “A Jew converts in order to join an exclusive country club. On his first day as a member he accidentally falls into the swimming pool fully clothed. Climbing out soaking wet and embarrassed, he groans, ‘Oy gevalt – whatever that means.'”

Weinfeld also makes it clear from the outset that, while “Jews are a people, am Yisrael (‘the nation of Israel’),” they have “never – ever – been a unified people.” He examines the political and religious schisms that exist among them.

Overall, the author feels, “Jewish life in Canada is a success story.” Jews on average boast higher-status occupations and concomitantly higher incomes than most Canadians, and are more highly educated. Jewish education, claims Weinfeld, “is a crucial element of the Jewish experience, and linked intimately to Jewish survival.”

The issue of survival is one that surfaces repeatedly in Like Everyone Else…But Different. No matter how successful they are, Canadian Jews are haunted by a legacy of “insecurity and marginality.” They think about Israel and about the Holocaust “far more than they think about God,” and “despite the general improvement in social conditions for Canadian Jews in recent decades, anti-Semitism remains a defining feature of the Canadian Jewish consciousness.”

Nonetheless, Jews have gradually become full-fledged members of Canadian society, though their acceptance into both mainstream and elite circles has brought the risk of assimilation. Despite a religious preoccupation against marriage outside the Jewish faith, the rate of mixed marriages has risen considerably. Birthrates have fallen too, except among the ultra-Orthodox.

Despite this, Weinfeld maintains that the diversity of the Jewish population is a strength, not a weakness. New immigrants, he believes, will continue to reshape and renew the community.

“There will be challenges ahead, no doubt. But for the present and near future, this paradoxical people survives, and thrives.” mRb

Louise Abbott is the director of the award-winning documentary Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story and the author of Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree.

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