Beginning in 1900, a significant number of Eastern European Jews immigrated to Canada, establishing themselves in Montreal. Coming from the Tsarist Empire, these newcomers brought their centuries-old Ashkenazi culture along with them. This produced, among other things, lots of high quality Yiddish literature in Montreal.
Several scholars from this wave of Jewish immigration went on to produce a Yiddish language cultural current in Quebec second in North America only to the one that flourished in New York. This fact is not very well known outside the Jewish community, however, because few French studies and translations conveyed the significance of the Montreal Jewish community’s cultural influence.
The Montreal Yiddish literary movement began in 1907 when a Polish immigrant, Hirsch Wolofsky, started publishing his daily Yiddish newspaper, Keneder adler (Canadian eagle), from his shop on Saint Laurent Boulevard. At this point, the Montreal Jewish population was large enough for the project to be financially viable. Recognizing the popularity of his Yiddish publication within the Jewish community, Wolofsky reached out to the Eastern European intellectual Reuben Brainin to manage his newspaper. Brainin came to Montreal in 1912. Within a few years of his arrival, he had galvanized the Yiddish cultural community, mainly by supporting the creation of schools and, in 1914, a Jewish public library – which would have a significant impact on the community over the following decades.
Yiddish literature started to take off in Montreal when the young garment factory worker Jacob-Isaac Segal published a book of poetry, Fun mayn velt (From my world), in 1918. Ahead of its time for Yiddish literature, it had a very contemporary style, a theme of openness to the world and the desire to lyrically describe Montreal’s urban environment. Others, such as Sholem Shtern, Yudica and Ida Maze, would express themselves during the interwar period, as well. After the war, Holocaust survivors arrived in Montreal and added to the literary progress that had already been made. One such author was Chava Rosenfarb, who published a poetry collection in 1948 called Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (The ballad of yesterday’s forest). Rosenfarb also wrote a very moving three-volume work about life in the Nazi concentration camps. It was published in Tel Aviv in 1972 under the title Der boym fun lebn (The tree of life).