The Rise of Jews in the True North

By Scott Fox

Last week, Canada’s Consul General came to talk at my school (Carleton College in Minnesota) about the importance of the United States’ relationship with Canada. But what actually came across was a recruitment speech for joining our Northern neighbor. To tell the truth, I was nearly convinced as he mentioned the country’s comparatively low national unemployment (around six percent), government-provided healthcare for all and its drive for new immigrants.

I’m not the only American looking to Canada for a brighter future. In 2007, the number of American citizens moving to Canada reached its highest rate in 30 years—and the numbers have only been climbing since.

But what does Canada offer Jews? If you’re a Canada-curious American Jew thinking of heading North, don’t worry aboot the lack of Canadian yiddishkeit. Even though they’re usually overlooked, Canadian Jews have a rich culture and history in North America just like their American counterparts. In fact, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, only standing behind the United States, Israel and France.

Around 375,000 Jews live in Canada—just over one percent of the national population—and are concentrated in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas. And according to writer Jonathan Rosenblum, 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel—twice the rate of American Jews.

Canadian Jews experienced a somewhat parallel history as their American counterparts. Jews first came to Canada in large numbers between 1880 and 1930 from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Montreal, but rising Jewish immigration also led to rising anti-Semitism. The city’s French Catholic leadership supported discrimination against Jews in housing and employment, and a homegrown French Nazi movement also flourished in the 1930s. However, after World War II, anti-Semitism declined, and during the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s, most Jews left for Toronto due to their strong opposition to the movement.

In the realm of entertainment, Jews have been as prolific in Canada as in the United States. Recording artist and actor Drake, one of Canada’s biggest stars, identifies as Jewish, attended Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah. “My mother is Jewish and we have great Jewish dinners on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.

The most popular sitcom in Canadian history was “King of Kensington,” which starred the late Al Waxman, who was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Leonard Cohen, whose grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the Canuck answer to Bob Dylan. And of course the greatest Canadian entertainer of all is Jewish William Shatner.

And much of what we consider American-Jewish humor is actually Canadian-Jewish. Lome Michaels, Eugene Levy and Seth Rogen are among other funny makers who grew up in Canada. Rogen, whose parents met at an Israeli kibbutz, was born in Vancouver and got his start by performing stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs. His early jokes usually revolved around his Jewish upbringing. His hit film, Superbad, was co-written with Evan Goldberg, a friend Rogen met in bar mitzvah class. In another movie, Funny People, Rogen even wears a “Super Jew” t-shirt that has the Superman “S” inside a Star of David. Canadian literature also has its own major Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, a foulmouthed version of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth wrapped into Tim Horton’s pancake.

Becoming Canadian wouldn’t even mean shifting your taste buds that much. Like American Jews, Canadian Jews love deli food, but with French-inspired touches. Montreal-style bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and have a larger hole than traditional New York bagels. Deli meat is also smoked Montreal-style with less sugar and more peppercorns and coriander than American salted, cured meats.

Hearing about the exciting world of Canadian Jewry almost makes me want to say, “Next year in Mississauga!” But I don’t think I can handle the Montreal-style bagel.

2 responses to “The Rise of Jews in the True North

  1. I was disappointed that the writer did not mention theJewish- Canadian actor Lorne Greene, who provided a respectable father-figure to a generation of boomers as Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the iconic TV series Bonanza. Perhaps as an actor he was one-dimensional, unlike Mr. Shatner, but he struck a responsive chord with many.

  2. Well, immigrating to Canada isn’t *quite* that easy even if they have a “drive for new immigrants.” They want *certain kinds* of immigrants. Unless you are employable in an areas they are recruiting for or you have a standing job offer (which, their national policy says that employers must show they cannot fill with Canadians or permanent residents first, so you can imagine these are hard to get), it is not straight forward or easy (or necessarily even possible). And the province of Quebec (where Montreal is and has the largest Jewish population) has additional rules for immigration all their own on top of that. So while there are obvious appeals of moving to Canada, I think sometimes there is the false impression that all Americans have to do is show up on the border and they’ll give a handshake and roll out the welcome mat, which is just not so.

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