Yiddish and Multiculturalism: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

By Margolis, Rebecca | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Yiddish and Multiculturalism: A Marriage Made in Heaven?


Margolis, Rebecca, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Abstract

Yiddish has shifted from a Jewish immigrant language to a Jewish heritage and ethnic language within the rubric of Canadian multiculturalism. This paper examines the interplay between four decades of multiculturalism and the changing place of Yiddish within Canadian life. It discusses how multiculturalism has encouraged the maintenance of a distinct Yiddish culture as an expression of Jewish identity within the matrix of Canadian diversity, notably in the areas of literature and translation. At the same time, the integration of Yiddish into the wider fabric of Canadian society as a symbol of ethnic identity has resulted in increasingly symbolic usage of Yiddish in the mainstream.

Resume

De langue juive immigrante, Le yiddish est devenu ethnique et patrimonial dans un contexte de multiculturalisme canadien. Ce travail porte sur rinteraction entre l'evolution du role du yiddish dans la vie canadienne et quatre decennies de multiculturalisme. Nous y examinons comment ce dernier a encourage la maintenance d'une culture yiddish distincte comme expression d'une identite juive au sein de la diversite canadienne, notamment en litterature et en traduction. Par ailleurs, l'integration de cette langue dans un tissu elargi de la societe canadienne comme symbole d'identite ethnique a mene a son usage symbolique de plus en plus commun.

INTRODUCTION

Yiddish has made the transition from a Jewish immigrant language to a Jewish heritage and ethnic language within the context of Canadian multiculturalism. This paper will examine the interplay between four decades of multiculturalism and the changing place of Yiddish within Canadian life. It will argue that multiculturalism has ultimately had a mixed impact for Yiddish in Canada. On the one hand, it has encouraged the maintenance of Yiddish in the preservation of a distinct Jewish identity as part of the matrix of Canadian diversity, notably among Yiddish writers in the secular realm. On the other hand, multiculturalism has also promoted the integration of Yiddish into the wider fabric of Canadian cultural life as a marker of ethnic identity, which has resulted in the privileging of accessibility over linguistic and cultural cohesiveness. In this role, Yiddish has become one expression of symbolic ethnicity among Canadian Jews who have integrated linguistically but who have sought to preserve a distinct identity. This tension stems from the shift of Yiddish from a shared immigrant language to one increasingly imbued with symbolic meaning, a mode that American scholar Jeffrey Shandler calls "postvernacular" (Shandler 2006). In contrast, a growing population of Haredi (self-consciously ultra-traditional, "God-fearing") Jews employ Yiddish as an ethnic marker to deliberately separate themselves from a pluralistic Canadian society. This study thus explores the ways in which Yiddish has intersected with Canadian concepts of multiculturalism.

YIDDISH IN CANADA

Within the last century, Canadian Jewry has undergone many changes as successive waves of immigrants arrived in the country. After 250 years of continual Jewish settlement in Canada, the country's Jewish population expanded from several hundred individuals in the mid-nineteenth century--who were largely of British origin and integrated into the English milieu--to some 16,000 in 1901 due to the beginnings of a mass immigration of Eastern European Jews fleeing violence and persecution. This immigrant group would augment Canada's Jewish population to some 125,000 by 1921, after which restrictive immigration policies severely curtailed Jewish immigration until the end of the 1940s. Despite wide political and ideological diversity among the newcomers, the Jewish immigrant community was unified by its shared lingua franca of Yiddish. In 1931, when the Jews formed the eighth largest ethno-linguistic group in Canada, Yiddish was identified as mother tongue by some 96% of 156,000 Canadian Jews on the census (Rosenberg 1939, 12).

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