Quebec wrangle prompts a new Jewish exodus

  • @dusborne
Montreal - Festooned with paintings of tulips and cut-outs of planes with El-Al on their sides, the classroom beneath a suburban Montreal synagogue is usually reserved for kindergarten children.

This evening, though, the pupils are 30 Russian Jews who have just arrived in the city in search of new lives.

Mostly in their sixties, the husbands and wives are listening to Rabbi Israel Sirota, who, in Russian, is teaching them the rudiments of Jewish history and summarising the main world news events of the past week: prisoner exchanges in Bosnia, fighting in southern Lebanon. And he tries to answer their questions, some religious in nature, some day-to-day practical.

"These people come to Canada with no religious identity," said Rabbi Sirota, who landed here from Tashkent in 1973. "They have to learn Jewish history." Among the things the rabbi finds himself arranging for the new arrivals are circumcision (voluntary) for men, even many of the older ones. "Ninety per cent are not circumcised when they get here," he said.

As many as 10,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have settled in Montreal in the past five years, said Rabbi Sirota. To many, the city, with its long and vibrant Jewish heritage, must have seemed a natural choice. A magnet at the beginning of this century for Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim), the city used to be called the "Vilna of North America", after Vilnius, in Lithuania, once a famed seat of Jewish learning.

The Jewish face of Montreal is still well in evidence. Famous Montreal Jews include Leonard Cohen, the song-writer, the poet AM Klein and the author Mordecai Richler, who set many of his novels, notably the The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in the bagel bakeries and smoked-meat restaurants of The Main, a boulevard that bisects Montreal south to north and which, until migration to the suburbs in the 1950s, was the Jewish heart of the city.

You can still jostle with the mostly Jewish crowd at Schwartz's for a stool at the counter and a juicy smoked-meat sandwich.

But the kindergarten Russians have lost pace with history. As recruits to Montreal Jewry they are, in fact, almost oddities. The net flow of Jews, especially of the young and educated, is no longer into Montreal but out of it, to Toronto, Vancouver and cities in the United States. The reason is the interminable battle over Quebec's future in Canada.

The process began in 1976, when the Parti Quebecois first swept to power and introduced laws to proclaim French its official language. The mostly Anglophone Jewish community, which numbered about 120,000, underwent a sudden exodus. About one in six left.

Since the mid-Eighties, the population has stabilised somewhat at about 101,000, but the overall number does not reflect new influxes, first of French-speaking Sephardic Jews from North Africa and, more recently, of the Russians.

Now, a new exodus may be under way. In October, the forces for secession lost a province-wide referendum but only by a razor-thin 1 per cent. The current Parti Quebecois government, headed by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, appears intent on staging another referendum, although by law it must wait until it is itself re-elected to govern the province. Elections are set for 1998.

The atmosphere of uncertainty, meanwhile, is overwhelming. It is felt by all English-speakers, among them many Jews. "We are at a crossroads," said Lawrence Bergman, one of two Jewish members of the provincial parliament in Quebec City. "There is tremendous debate right now. People are feeling discouraged and are talking openly about wanting to leave."

Two incidents have heightened a sense of siege among many Jews in Montreal. On referendum night, when it finally became clear that the federalists had held on, Mr Bouchard's curmudgeonly predecessor, Jacques Parizeau, vowed "revenge" on the opponents of secession and blamed the sovereigntist defeat on what he ominously called "money and the ethnic vote". And then, last month, there was the matzoh flap, otherwise known as Matzohgate.

Richler, who has homes here and in London, said that what happened in Montreal just before Passover last month was so insane as to be "hysterical".

Officials from the province's Office de la Langue Francaise discovered that the kosher labelling on imports from New York of the unleavened bread, matzoh, used by Jews during Passover, was printed in English, instead of French. They ordered them to be withdrawn from sale. Some Jewish families were deprived of matzoh for the season, and the community felt victimised.

"That and the Parizeau business has torn it for a lot of people," suggested Richler, whose five children have all abandoned the city. "It is a terrible situation. The young only come to Montreal for funerals. The Jewish community has diminished by a larger number than anyone is willing to admit."

Richler said that it is the professional and wealthy Jews who will abandon Quebec and that the economy, as well as the many Jewish institutions, will suffer.

"A lot of affluent members of the community are saying: 'Screw them - if they don't want us any more, we are not going to contribute any more'."

If the Jews are sitting on their bags, one irony is inescapable: by fleeing, they may contribute to a nationalist victory next time round. (And Rabbi's Sirota's flock will hardly be enough to turn the trend around).

"If we leave, it would just play into the hands of the sovereigntists," said Mr Bergman.

"They will have the sovereigntist majority that they need."

Is it possible that is exactly what Mr Parizeau and the zealots of the French-language office had in mind?

The Jews of Montreal

Jewish population of city:

1976: 120,000 (historical peak)

1981 : 103,425

1991: 101,210 (Total city population 3,127,000)

Number of Sephardim (Francophone) in 1991: 21,000

Proportion of Orthodox Jews: 24% (New York 13%)

Proportion of elderly: 22.4 % (1 in 10 are 75 or over)

Proportion of young: (15-24): 14,600 (1981); 12,420 (1991)

Proportion of children at Jewish day schools: 40% (higher than any other North American city)