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Manitoba History: Review: Daniel Stone (editor), Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960

by Jim Mochoruk
History Department, University of North Dakota

Number 46, Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

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Daniel Stone (ed.) Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960 (Winnipeg: Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, 2003) pp 224, illus., ISBN 0969 125666, $25.00.

Academics love to damn collections of essays, conference proceedings and other such compilations with the simple descriptive phrase, “these offerings are of uneven quality.” We all know what will come next—one or two notable exceptions will be praised while the remainder are consigned to the dustbin of academia. Now, while I would be the first to say that the scholarly essays and personal reminiscences which comprise Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960 are uneven, I would also argue that it is the very unevenness which gives this collection of conference papers both its usefulness and its charm. A balance has been struck between the scholarly and the popular, between the (sometimes) brutally analytic and the philio-pietistic, and perhaps most remarkable of all, between the social sciences and the humanities.

Scholars of popular radicalism and ethnicity in Canada (and elsewhere) will immediately recognize the quality and credentials—of the academics who took part in the conference which gave birth to this book. To the cognoscente, Leo Panitch, Nelson Wiseman, Arthur Ross, Alvin Finkel, Henry Srebrnik, and Ruth Frager need no introduction. Moreover, those who are associated with the study of ethnicity and radicalism in Winnipeg will also be well aware of the many contributions made to this field by the Gutkins, Roz Usiskin and Henry Trachtenberg. So, it comes as no surprise that their contributions collectively set a high standard for this volume. But what is surprising—and delightful—is that a number of these scholars provide the perfect bridge between their own scholarly work and the reminiscences of those who took part in, or were brought up in, the milieu of Jewish radicalism in Winnipeg. In effect, several of these scholars, most notably Leo Panitch, let down their academic guards just enough to allow the reader to glimpse their personal connections to the traditions of Jewish popular radicalism, providing a natural segue-way to the contributions of the non-academic participants.

Broken down into five sections—“Organizational Life,” “Education, Arts, and Culture,” “Trade Union Movement,” “Jewish Women of the Left,” and “Political Life/ Political Action”—Jewish Radicalism not only covers a broad array of topics, but offers a wide variety of interpretations and perspectives. Leo Panitch, for example, sees valuable lessons for today’s radicals—especially members of the anti-globalization movement—which can be gleaned from the culture of opposition which Winnipeg’s radical Jewish community developed towards capitalism from 1905 on- wards. Harry Gutkin on the other hand, was far less interested in documenting a “usable past” than Panitch. To be sure, he mourned the passing of the radical ethos, but saw it as an inevitable development, taking solace primarily in the overall “liberalizing influence” which Jewish radicals had on Winnipeg and Canada. Fred Narvey, however, would not for a second concede that Jewish radicalism was dead. As he put it, with considerable defiance, “I am happy to say that Jewish radicalism did not end in 1960, but is alive and well and living in Winnipeg today.” (p. 86) For his part, Nelson Wiseman was far less up-beat in his analysis, and provided a grim—if rigorous—interpretation of both the causes (material and cultural) and decline (dramatic and permanent) of Jewish radicalism. He also differed with many of the other authors on the importance of the Eastern European/Yiddishist background of Jewish radicalism in Winnipeg, arguing that while this was an important factor, most scholars have consistently underestimated the crucial role played by British-born or British-raised Jewish leaders in orienting large numbers of North End Jewish voters towards the Social Democratic left.

Scattered throughout these five sections are the richly detailed research papers. Henry Trachtenberg’s study of left wing electoral politics during the inter-war period is an outstanding example of the researcher’s art, providing scholar and layperson alike with a rich pallet of archival sources to draw upon. Arthur Ross’ analysis of the development of Jewish mutual aid societies provides a useful synthesis of materials which link the Winnipeg case to both US examples and to origins in the pale of settlement. Mildred Gutkin’s sparkling contribution on Yiddish as the language of the radical Jewish ethos both instructs and fascinates—not least because it teaches the uninitiated so much about the history of the language itself. Meanwhile, Roz Usiskin’s essay on Jewish women of the left and Michael Greenstein’s contribution on three of Winnipeg’s major literary figures who drew upon their radical Jewish roots in their writings, explore territory which has been notoriously neglected. Somewhat less satisfactory is Ruth Frager’s contribution on the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender in Winnipeg’s Jewish community, largely because the author relies too much on her research on the Toronto Jewish experience to make her well-conceived points fully applicable to the Winnipeg case. Alvin Finkel’s nicely crafted analysis of the decline of Jewish radicalism in Winnipeg agrees in many ways with Wiseman’s analysis, although unlike Wiseman’s essay, Finkel’s is a bit more explicit on the issue of Cold War politics and thankfully contains endnotes, an amenity sadly lacking in Wiseman’s contribution. Finally, some mention must be made of Henry Srebrnik’s essay on Winnipeg support for ICOR and the Soviet Union’s “territorialist” solution to the question of establishing a national homeland for the Jews. Virtually unstudied in Canada—and therefore little known even in radical circles and now virtually forgotten—Srebrnik’s work reminds us that the pro-communist element in Winnipeg’s Jewish community had an alternative to Palestine-oriented Zionism for over two decades; an alternative they promoted with considerable vigour and passion.

Leavening all of these scholarly contributions are vignettes of the radical Jewish community, provided both by those who played an active role in that community, by those who were educated in its schools, and often by the offspring of that community’s luminaries. Far from constituting scholarly and balanced assessments these “perspectives” provide the essential charm of Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg. Warm, witty and even pugnacious, these contributions save this book from being just another solid piece of scholarship, designed to be read by 10 other people with Ph.D.’s. Instead, these contributions infuse a sense of life as it was lived, and more importantly, of the love and the passions that surrounded and sometimes tore asunder the radical community. As such they are invaluable as insights into a community that has ceased to exist, constituting primary documents and ethnographies which will be both interesting to readers and useful to scholars of radicalism.

Of course there are flaws in this work. The whole volume could use a good solid copy-edit. Indeed, my personal copy is now filled with blue ink, correcting faulty sentences, punctuation marks, and elided words. And to be honest, there were one or two contributions of personal perspectives which could safely have been excluded from the finished product, as they added little if anything to the book. However, having said this, I must concur with Harold Buchwald, C.M., Q.C., Ll.D.(Hon), and R.C. (Reactionary Capitalist)—the September, 2001 conference on Jewish radicalism and the book which it has spawned has contributed greatly to our understanding of the radical Jewish community. But I would go one step further and suggest that it contributes to our understanding of the social and political ethos of the entire North End and of Winnipeg itself.

Page revised: 19 September 2010

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