By Michael Kent
One of the most common questions I am asked as the curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection is “which is your favourite book in the collection?” While I am unsure if I will ever be able to pick one, there is a work in the collection which I often highlight. Visitors are not surprised when I mention it is one of our Talmuds, the written compendium of Jewish oral law codified in antiquity and arguably the most important Jewish text after the Torah, after all we have impressive volumes from Soncino from the 1400s and Bomberg from the 1500s. I often get a surprised look when instead of selecting a 500 year old volume, I pick a volume that is not even 100 years old.
The item, and one of my favourite works in the collection, is the 1919 Montreal Talmud, which’s publication was termed “the most important event in the annals of Canadian Jewry,” by Canadian Jewish Congress president Lyon Cohen.
To truly appreciate my admiration for this printing of the Talmud, one needs to understand Canadian Jewish history. While some Jews did arrive in Canada during the 1700s, large scale Jewish immigration to Canada did not begin until 1880s. In the early 1900s, the majority of Canadian Jews were actually born in Eastern Europe.
In these early days of Canada’s Jewish community, the reference point for Jewish life was Eastern Europe. When Jewish resources were needed, these communities turned to Eastern Europe. A synagogue in search of a Rabbi would hire one from Europe, a school looking to acquire sacred texts would buy them from Europe, and a family looking for an advanced Jewish education for their son would send him to Europe. The Canadian Jewish community was therefore a true diaspora community.
This situation would have to change when in 1914 the First World War broke out. Quickly the ability of North Americans to import anything from Europe became close to none existent. This was a particularly challenging situation for a range of communities which were relatively new to Canada. Cut off from their European roots, these groups were forced to, for arguably the first time, express and practice their culture in Canada independently and on Canadian terms.
For Canada’s Jews, as the people of the book, one of the key challenges was being able to access sacred texts. Meeting this need was a challenge and opportunity undertaken by Hirsch Wolofsky, a Yiddish author, printer, and business man in Montreal. A mid-war trip to New York confirmed his suspicions for the need to print the Talmud as he discovered that there was a demand for about 800 sets that could not be met. With photos of the famous Vilna Talmud in hand, along with backing from the Council of Rabbis, Wolofsky returned to Montreal to use his printing press (which had the necessary Hebrew printing abilities), the Eagle Publishing Company, to begin this monumental project.
While the war would ultimately end before printing was complete, and Wolofsky would lose thousands of dollars on this project, he had no regrets. “I didn’t make a profit; but I made history” he recalls in his memoirs:
When shortly after the cessation of hostilities, I travelled to Europe, I was everywhere greeted as “the publisher of the Canadian Talmud” … I was the fifth publisher in the history of Talmud publication. The thing had been attempted before, in England, and in America, without success; to me it was given to bring the task to fruition.
The printing of the Talmud was therefore a source of great pride for Wolofsky.
While this project was a source of personal pride for Wolofsky, the importance of this printing for Canada’s Jewish community, and frankly Canadian multiculturalism, cannot be understated. Before the First World War, the Canadian Jewish community was little more than a diaspora community. Upon being cut off from Europe, even only for four years, the Canadian Jewish community found itself for the first time needing to generate Jewishly on Canadian soil. The printing of the Talmud is therefore far more than an accomplishment in publication, it is an important step in the evolution of the Canadian Jewish community as a truly Canadian community. It is projects like this that were crucial in allowing a range of cultural communities to develop and reproduce themselves in Canada, leading to the multicultural Canada we all know and love today. Truly all Canadians owe a debt to Mr. Wolofsky.
- Journey of my life: A Book of Memories by H. Wolofsky
Michael Kent is the Curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection