'The Jewish Hour' tells a story of immigration that resonates today

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The tens of thousands of Jews who migrated to Canada in the first part of the past century came as immigrants, not refugees, so it might ring false to compare them to, say, recent Syrian arrivals. But they could've been seen as refugees, based on motives and experience, as they fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. That's how my grandparents got here, from Ukraine and Belarus.

That community, in Toronto, is described in a lovely, loving new book by the late Michael Mandel: The Jewish Hour. He focuses on weekly radio shows in Yiddish, in Toronto -- in 1938 there were three competing "Jewish Hours" -- and on local newspapers from the 1930s to the 1950s. The papers were in Yiddish, but helped integrate their readers by covering Toronto events, unlike the dominant New York Yiddish press, which was devoured here.

By the 1930s, Jews were less than 10 per cent of Toronto -- far fewer than the quarter to a third in New York or Warsaw -- but still the largest non-British group. You could say they were white, unlike today's minorities, but in ways they were viewed as non-white. They were assumed to have distinct, identifiable physical traits though they could sometimes "pass," much like other non-Caucasians. You could also say they shared Canada's "Judeo-Christian" heritage, but you'd be wrong. Canada was then universally considered a "Christian nation." As part of the integration of Canadian Jews, the term slowly expanded to Judeo-Christian.

To some degree at least, that process of integration is unstoppable. Mandel's dad, who was a regular on radio, was known in the Yiddish press as a "showman" -- spelled out literally in the 1,000-year-old language of Eastern European Jews. Toronto's many cantors -- leaders in prayer -- often crossed over to secular performances, just like Al Jolson in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer.

In return, newcomers made their contributions. The Yiddish papers had no illusions about the rise of Hitler, from the start. They warned Canada. When the war ended, they had no illusions about what would follow: "If we are going to have an era of peace, it is only because humanity is now exhausted and broken -- not because it finally realizes the absurdity of the atrocities of war."

Like every immigrant community, there were fierce internal differences, about which the larger society tends to be oblivious. Instead it tries to homogenize groups, as it now does with Muslims. But there were communist Jews, socialists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Tories and Liberals, rich versus poor -- who attacked each other regularly. The presence of a crisis, such as 9/11 or the Holocaust, sharpens the differences while underlining the need for unity.

The outlets declined as Yiddish did. In 1931, 96 per cent of Jews here called it their first language. By 1951, it was 51 per cent, and 11 per cent in 1981. The papers tried to adapt with English sections: the Star's memorable theatre critic, Nathan Cohen, edited the English pages for the communist "Vochenblatt."

Till the end, the voices were eloquent: "That is how it goes in Jewish history, from Moses's time till the present: the presidents and rich ones commit themselves only when there is an ark" -- meaning a secure shelter like Noah's -- "and a place of honour." You can't get enough of that kind of journalistic feistiness, in any language.

I know there are different challenges with racialized immigrations, like those of the last 50 years. But I don't think they're insuperable, due to both the will of immigrants to join their new society and its urgent need for what they offer.

I knew Michael Mandel as an irascible left-wing law prof from Osgoode and an eccentric opera singer and fanatic, who was once my neighbour. His voice rang out from his third floor and wafted over Vermont Park, one of Toronto's few downtown squares. He took sabbaticals in Italy of course.

He was adamant in his critiques of Israel's actions and of U.S. foreign policy, from the standpoint of international law. In this graceful, uncantankerous book, he transcended that contentious, somewhat strident persona. His father, "showman" Max Mandel, was a vital figure in those radio broadcasts. He died when Michael was just four, which may have some connection to that persona and to how he managed to move outside the rage and incomprehension he surely felt then, by way of this, his last book, finished just before he died.

Alev hasholem, as they say.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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