Montreal’s rich Yiddish heritage has an unlikely champion

Scholar Chantal Ringuet has immersed herself in Yiddish Montreal. (Photo by Irwin Block)
Scholar Chantal Ringuet has immersed herself in Yiddish Montreal. (Photo by Irwin Block)

Scholar Chantal Ringuet has immersed herself in Yiddish Montreal. (Photo by Irwin Block)

Yiddish, and the rich literary output of the last century in Montreal when the language thrived here, has a new and unlikely champion.

Chantal Ringuet, raised in Quebec City’s Charlesbourg suburb, never heard a word of Yiddish in that almost exclusively French environment.

At the Ursuline school and Collège St-Charles-Garnier, Ringuet was unaware of the vibrant Yiddish culture that blossomed in the inter-war period and beyond, in Montreal.

Yet, here she was last fall, proudly presenting to a standup crowd at the Laïka Café on St. Laurent and Duluth, an anthology of French translations of poetry and prose written in Yiddish during that golden era. Published in the literary journal Moebius, it was a follow-up to her book, À la decouverte du Montréal yiddish, (Fides, 2011), a first historical and cultural survey in French on the subject.

Ringuet recalls spending countless hours at the library of Laval University, where her father worked, but the works of the dozens of Yiddish and Jewish writers nurtured here were not part of her literary digest.

It wasn’t until 2001, when she began doctoral studies in Québécois literature, that she discovered novels written in French by such immigrants as Polish-born Alice Poznanska Parizeau and French-born Régine Robin. She then learned about the Jewish writers.

“I found it totally fascinating that there was in Montreal a major literary stream, with several hundred writers, a lot of activity at the Jewish Public Library, many books—a veritable literary life in the Yiddish language, something I was totally unaware of,” she told The Senior Times.

Having a parallel academic interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, Ringuet was fascinated to discover the Jewish community, its major symbols and aspects of its culture, in the work of Montreal Jewish writers.

Ringuet spent two years on post-doctoral research on the Yiddish language and Montreal Jewish writers. She met Pierre Anctil, a historian who has written and translated books into Yiddish. They are now married.

Ringuet complemented her literary work with a discovery of the community’s geography, culminating in her 2011 book on Yiddish Montreal, a summary of its historical and cultural growth.

Her goal was not just to open the door to the literary work in French, but to overcome the fact that this literary stream is virtually unknown in French Quebec.

“And it’s more than that. There is a tremendous lack of awareness about the political movements, the unions, the community organizations—a whole world that for francophones is somewhat subterranean but deserves to be discovered and identified as part of Montreal’s literary and social history.”

The selections in the journal, many of which she translated, were chosen to exemplify the scope and depth of this extraordinary literary flowering.

“What’s striking is the modern outlook in these pieces written as far back as 1910 and 1920 in Montreal.”

She cites Melach Ravitch, the Yiddish poet, essayist, playwright and cultural activist who lived in Montreal. Included is his ode to freedom; another in praise of sexual love; and a tribute to the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, ex-communicated after he challenged the providential nature of God.

Ringuet’s favourite is the poet Rochel Korn, who comes across as “very sensitive, refined, and anguished, facing despair as a result of the Shoah.”

These writers paint Montreal is very positive light. “The mountain, the parks, the Cross—these are presented as symbols of prosperity, open-mindedness, liberty, for the Jews who arrived here in the 1920s and 1930s.

“This is not at all how Montreal is pictured at the time by francophone writers. For many Montreal was a city of alienation. It was seen from the viewpoint of big working-class families living in cramped quarters.”

She was struck by the social activism in the community, reflected in the writing of journalist Israel Medresh and socialist Hershl Novak, who wrote that he would never work for the Yiddish daily newspaper at the time because it was too bourgeois.

Asked why she devotes herself to a language and culture that are on edge of extinction, Ringuet replied: “The richness of the literature is something that should be more widely known, and more personally, the importance of the Shoah that wiped off the map this world, this language—and a feeling of profound injustice that I have felt since I learned as a youngster about the Holocaust.

“This is quite a heritage, which belongs to the Jewish community, in Montreal, or Buenos Aires or Berlin, but also a Montreal heritage.”

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