Negotiating Jewish Canadian Identity: Montreal Yiddish Literary Journals in the Interwar Period

Article excerpt

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Yiddish journals emerged worldwide in tandem with the periodical press as a vanguard of modern Jewish culture. Canada's Yiddish publishing capital of Montreal produced a dozen interwar journals dedicated to Yiddish literature. The journals published innovative works by writers across Canada while forging links with both international Yiddish culture and world literature. With a shared a roster of Canadian writers, the journals gave voice to ideological rifts in the Yiddish world: journals of the 1920s such as Nyuansn promoted an "art for art's sake" approach; the proletarian journals that dominated the Depression era such as Montreol and Heftn linked literature with the struggle of the working class. Together, the journals provided a forum for emerging writers in a minor Yiddish center, closely connected to the major centers in Europe and the United States, to negotiate their evolving identities as Canadian Jews.

Introduction

In 1921, in one of Montreal's first Yiddish literary journals, Nyuansn, editor J. I. Segal expressed the ambiguity of a young immigrant poet positing a collective identity for Canadian Yiddish writers at the forefront of a new era:

Our motivation is not to strive for pioneering Iiterary activity here in Canada, which is cold, vast, and of limited Jewishness. We cannot hope for any kind of distinct Yiddish cultural center here. ... Our literary center is New York, whether we have expecrations from it or not, and whether we seek inspiration there or not. The fact that we are here in Canada makes us a distinct element that is seeking expression and cannot remain silent.1

Like Nyuansn, Yiddish literary journals worldwide provided a forum for literati to publish their writing and, in the process, to tackle core questions about Jewish identity. The scores of journals devoted to the publication of Yiddish belles-lettres, criticism, and essays that sprang up during the inter-war period reflect the rapid expansion of ideological orientations in the Jewish world. These journals fed an evolution of Yiddish letters and fueled an international network of Yiddish cultural communities that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s.2 These collective publications served as the locus for newly emerging literary movements: Di Yunge (the Young Ones) and Di Inzikhistn (the Introspectivists, both New York), Di Khalyastre (The Gang, Warsaw) Yung Vilna (Young Vilna), and others. Alongside the Yiddish popular press and miscellanies, the journals formed a primary site for the creation of modern Jewish culture, Yiddish letters as well as wider Jewish identity and consciousness.3

Literary journals emerged in major and minor Yiddish centers worldwide in tandem with the periodical press, and evolved as the vanguard of cultural, literary, and ideological innovation and experimentation. While generally short-lived, the journals were unconstrained by the popular and commercial dictates of newspapers4; published for a select readership, they were free to espouse a wide spectrum of ideological orientations, from a cosmopolitan emphasis on new poetics to proletarian journals that promoted a bond between literature and the working class. The journals provided an alternative to the mainstream press, and a means for cutting-edge ideas within a geographically diffuse minority culture to reach a global community of readers and critics. A Canadian example outlines the role the journals played in this dissemination for Montreal poet A. Sh. Shkolnikov :

Soon after World War I, a great hope began to blossom across the Yiddish world and all of Yiddish literature. Large centers were in communication with other large centers - Warsaw with New York with Moscow and Kiev - while smaller centers were doing rhe same, including Montreal with Vienna. At that time, the Montreal Nyuansn [journal] reached the Kritik [journal, Vienna] and with it, the first poems of A. Sh. Shkolnikov. …