French-language Quebec Novel Wins Top J.I. Segal Award

Nov. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—A French-language historical novel by a well-known Quebec author that captures the political ferment during the Depression in Montreal’s working-class Mile End district is the winner of the top prize of the Jacob Isaac Segal Awards, sponsored by the Jewish Public Library (JPL).

Le Mammouth by Pierre Samson, published by Héliotrope last year, is based on a forgotten actual event: The fatal police shooting in the back of Nikita Zynchuck, a Ukrainian immigrant labourer, in March 1933.

PIerre Samson

The police officer who delivered the fatal bullets – himself the son of Italian immigrants – is never brought to justice, a scandal that rallied trade unionists and civil rights defenders across ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

The incident was illustrative of the authorities’ fear of growing communist sentiment, especially in immigrant communities, a movement in which Jews were predominant, while less attention was paid to fascist sympathies.

Samson weaves into the fictional narrative such real-life Jewish figures as labour organizer Fred Rose, the first Communist Party candidate elected to Parliament, and lawyer Michael Garber, later president of Canadian Jewish Congress, who led the outcry against the killing of Zynchuck, nicknamed le mammouth because of his size.

Le Mammouth was chosen the inaugural Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme, which carries a $5,000 prize, by an independent jury. The four members hailed Samson for “portray(ing) the Jewish community, which occupies a prominent place in this world of immigrants in the first decades of 20th century, with admirable topographical and psychological precision, while being sensitive to the internal tensions that divide it and the relationships it maintains with the francophone community and the other groups of recently arrived immigrants.”

The jurors, all writers, were literary critic Alberto Manguel, former director of the National Library of Argentina; University of Montreal French literature professor Catherine Mavrikakis; philosopher and Columbia University professor Emmanuel Kattan; and Adam Gollner Leith, former editor of Vice magazine.

Le Mammouth was a finalist for this year’s Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal.

The other 2020 Segal Award winners are Boris Sandler, former editor-in-chief of the Yiddish edition of the Forward, for Antiques from My Travel Bag (published by Yiddish Branzhe), selected for the $1,000 Dr. Hirsh and Dvorah Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature; and, sharing the Rosa and David Finestone z”l Award for Best Translation of a Book on a Jewish Theme, also worth $1,000, are Goldie Morgentaler, and, jointly, Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné.

Morgentaler, a University of Lethbridge English professor, translated from the Yiddish her late mother Chava Rosenfarb’s Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays.

This collection of non-fiction by Polish-born Rosenfarb (1923-2011) covers a variety of subjects, including her experiences during the Holocaust, reminiscences about Yiddish writers she knew in postwar Montreal, where she lived for many years, and travel writings, especially on Australia, a part-time home. Rosenfarb is best-known for her trilogy novel set in the Lodz ghetto, The Tree of Life.

Saint-Martin and Gagné are cited for their translation into French of Canadian author Gary Barwin’s novel Yiddish for Pirates. The translation was published as Le Yiddish à l’usage des pirates by Éditions du Boréal.

The Segal Awards will be presented at a virtual ceremony on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m., when Samson, two of whose earlier novels were nominated for Governor General’s Awards, will be interviewed.

Reservations may be made at https://bit.ly/37pnEjS.

JPL executive director Michael Crelinsten said the introduction of the Quebec book category by the Segal Awards, now in their 52nd year, reflects the JPL’s “double, but intertwined, mission of being both Jewish and public. With the new format, the JPL also highlights the contribution of Jewish culture to a richly diverse contemporary Quebec.”

On Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Jewish Book Month, the JPL presents an online lecture by Chilean-born writer Isabel Allende on “Write What Shall Not Be Forgotten: A Journey into Memory and Soul.”

Physical Museum of Jewish Montreal Will Return, Director Assures

Aug. 25, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM), evicted from its premises in June, has resumed some of its popular walking tours through historic Jewish neighbourhoods, keeping alive its real-life presence while it assesses its future.

Led by trained guides, the family-friendly tours focus on little-known stories about Jewish life and intriguing personalities in the Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End districts of yesteryear. COVID precautions are observed: Everyone must wear a mask and keep a safe distance.

Founder and executive director Zev Moses says MJM is using the “shocking” loss of its physical location as a time to review its mission, and he is “cautiously optimistic” MJM will have a new home by next year.

Since 2016, MJM had occupied a street-level storefront at the corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Street, in the heart of what had been the Jewish immigrant district, and today’s trendy Plateau. The former industrial building was originally the Vineberg garment factory, dating to 1912.

MJM was preparing to reopen after being locked down since mid-March, when it received notice in May from a new landlord that the space was going to be leased to another tenant and that the museum would have to vacate by June 30, Moses said.

The timing was especially painful because MJM, which began as a virtual conception, was looking forward to its 10th anniversary celebration this year.

“We hope to have (a new place) by next spring, there’s a good possibility, but it will depend on where the pandemic and economy goes,” he said.

Moses, a rabbi’s son who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania, started MJM as an online portal where users could connect to Montreal Jewish history and culture interactively. Its signature feature was “mapping” key Jewish sites and linking them to people and events. The site also archives personal stories of the Montreal Jewish past.

In a reversal of the societal direction, Moses expanded into bricks and mortar, a gamble he said paid off and allowed MJM to reach a far broader audience, both in the Jewish community and general population.

Despite the name, MJM was never strictly a “museum,” and only in the past few years has been holding exhibitions by independent Canadian Jewish artists and rescuing artifacts of disappearing Jewish landmarks, like shop signs.

Rather, Moses conceived of MJM as a hub where Jews of all ages and identities could gather, and non-Jews would feel comfortable dropping in and learning a little about what Jews are all about.

Moses was particularly keen to showcase the diversity of the Montreal Jewish community and how it is an integral part of the city’s history and character.

A big draw was Fletcher’s, the food counter where modern twists on various ethnic Jewish cuisines could be sampled, as well as musical programs – typically informal klezmer performances by young artists. MJM strived to be a good neighbour, taking part in the Plateau’s festivals and forming ties with area community groups.

Moses said MJM was especially successful in attracting Jews under age 35 who might otherwise not be involved with community life, and in changing ill-informed images about Jews among Quebecers.

“It really had become a second home for many,” he said. So much so, that at about 1,200 square feet, including office space, MJM’s location was getting too small anyway, said Moses.

Those are his prime selling points as he seeks support for MJM’s continuation. 

“If there is a silver lining, this has given us time to re-conceive what we will look like post-pandemic,” he said.

The walking tours, now in their ninth season, have been a major source of income, but with tourism down drastically, it would not have made sense to run the usual schedule this season, Moses noted, even if MJM was still open. Nevertheless, he felt it worthwhile to offer a limited number and is pleased to see Montrealers joining them.

“Why not take a walk with an expert and learn something you didn’t know about your city?” he asked. “These neighbourhoods today are very popular with students and families, but most don’t know the stories that are hidden in their own backyards.”

Three different tours are available, scheduled Tuesdays through Sundays. Bookings may be made at tours@imjm.ca.

“’Bubble tours” are also offered for private groups of up to eight family members or friends. In the coming months, MJM plans to launch virtual tours as well. Meanwhile, a variety of online programming is set to resume, after a summer break, at the end of August.

Between 55-60 percent of MJM’s revenue has come from private donors, perhaps six to seven percent of that from Federation CJA or the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, Moses said.

About 30 per cent was self-generating through rentals of the space, ticket sales, and the food counter’s receipts. The rest was government funding.

Moses said all nine permanent staff members have been retained, but in the summer, the number employed normally swells to about 30.