Author Archives: Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen

About Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is an Israeli-Canadian writer, editor, translator, and teacher. She currently lives in Montreal.

Canadian Jewry

Canada has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, following the United States, Israel, and France. Its population, currently numbering 372,000, is concentrated mostly in Toronto (175,000) and Montreal (80,000), with smaller communities in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and other cities. Canadian Jews are well-educated, relatively affluent, and maintain a vibrant cultural and communal life. 

Establishment and Expansion

The first Jewish arrivals in Canada were members of the British Army, fighting in the Seven Years War (which won Canada for Britain in 1760). Prior to that, King Louis XIV had decreed that only Roman Catholics could enter New France (as Canada was known) leading to an official absence of Jews in the colony. In 1829 the law requiring Canadians to take an oath as Christians was amended to make an exception for Jews, and in 1831 male Jews were given full political and religious rights. In 1850 the Jewish population in Canada was only about 450; in 1871, Canada’s first census recorded 1,115 Jews.

With the onset of the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s, rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the outbreak of World War I, and Canada’s post-confederation development efforts, many European Jews fled to Canada, bringing the Jewish population of Canada to over 155,000 in 1930. Most of the immigrants who settled in Montreal or Toronto started out as peddlers but eventually established businesses, playing a leading role in the development of the textile industry. Jews who settled in the west were storekeepers and tradesmen and developed the fishing industry. Some Jews attempted to establish farms on the prairies, though most of these were unsuccessful due to the farmers’ lack of experience.

canadian flagFollowing World War I, Canada changed its immigration policies, restricting the entrance of people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestant or from the United Kingdom. Following the Great Depression, even more immigration restrictions were imposed, derived, in part, from racial and religious prejudice. Despite attempts by the Canadian Jewish Congress, working alongside the social democratic party (the CCF), to enable the Jews of Europe to find sanctuary in Canada, Canada generally denied entrance to Jews, allowing fewer to enter than did other western countries. Of the tens of thousands of Jews seeking refuge during World War II, only 5,000 were allowed into Canada.

Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist

The Montreal Jewish Community has produced a plethora of Jewish writers with unique literary expressions of Jewish identity, including A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Mordechai Richler, and Leonard Cohen. Cohen is a poet and novelist, though he is best known as a singer-songwriter, with signature songs such as “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.” Cohen grew up in a family deeply rooted in Judaism, living within a strong Jewish community, and from an early age he felt the burden of his name (kohen = priest in Hebrew).Leonard Cohen

Like a bird on a wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried, in my way, to be free.

(“Bird on a Wire,” Songs from a Room)

Jewish Foundations

Leonard Cohen, dubbed by his critics as “the poet laureate of pessimism,” “the grocer of despair,” and “the godfather of gloom,”was born in Montreal in 1934. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was a rabbi and a scholar. His paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was a central figure in Montreal Jewish life who strongly believed that knowledge of Jewish history and letters and the performance of mitzvot were essential for all Jews. Cohen’s childhood home was steeped in Jewish tradition: Sabbath prayers, regular attendance at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue (presided over by his grandfather Lyon), and observance of Jewish holidays and ceremonies.

The Favorite Game

Given Cohen’s biography, his preoccupation with Jewish themes is not surprising, nor are the Judaic allusions often present in his poetry, prose, and songs. Cohen has always identified himself as a Jew, even when he became a Buddhist monk (“I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism,” he said). He has, however, expressed concern regarding the current state of Judaism. In The Favorite Game  (1963), his first (semi-autobiographical) novel, Cohen expressed disillusionment with the superficial form of religiosity he observed through his protagonist, Lawrence Breavman:

“He had thought that his tall uncles in their dark clothes were princes of an elite brotherhood. He had thought the synagogue was their house of purification…But he had grown to understand that none of them even pretended to these things. They were proud of their financial and communal success. They liked to be first, to be respected, to sit close to the alter, to be called up to lift the scrolls. They weren’t pledged to any other idea. They did not believe their blood was consecrated…They did not seem to realize how fragile the ceremony was. They participated in it blindly, as if it would last forever (pp. 123-4).”

What Is An Eruv?

Shabbat is a day set apart from all others, differentiating between the sacred (kodesh) and the mundane (hol), between the work week and the day designated for rest, family, and spirituality. On Shabbat all activities associated with work are prohibited, and according to traditional Jewish law include formal employment as well as traveling, spending money, and carrying items outside the home, in the public domain.

shabbat eruvThe prohibition against carrying includes house keys, prayer books, canes or walkers, and even children who cannot walk on their own. Recognizing the difficulties this rule imposes, the sages of the Talmud devised a way to allow for carrying in public without breaking the rule. Through this means, called an eruv, communities are able to turn a large area into one that is considered, for Jewish law purposes, a large private domain, in which items may be carried.

Symbolic Demarcation of the Private Sphere or Legal Fiction?

The term eruv refers to the act of mixing or combining, and is shorthand for eruv hazerot — the mixing of domains, in this case, the private (rashut hayahid) and the public (rashut harabim). An eruv does not allow for carrying items otherwise prohibited by Jewish law on Shabbat, such as money or cell phones.

Having an eruv does not mean that a city or neighborhood is enclosed entirely by a wall. Rather, the eruv can be comprised of a series of pre-existing structures (walls, fences, electrical poles and wires) and/or structures created expressly for the eruv, often a wire mounted on poles. In practice, then, the eruv is a symbolic demarcation of the private sphere, one that communities come together to create.

To many people, the eruv sounds like a legal fiction, a way to circumvent the spirit and possibly letter of the law against carrying. To them, the eruv risks making the entire Jewish legal process seem absurd to non-Jews and non-observant Jews.

The talmudic Rabbis, however, were concerned with maintaining the integrity of the halakhic (Jewish legal) system while ensuring that the law is livable. Though the eruv makes use of a legal technicality, the fact that it is used — rather than allowing people to just carry anything, anywhere — is itself considered a form of respect for and submission to a legal system that is central and indispensable to traditionalist Jewish life.

How is This Haggadah Different?

The Passover Haggadah has, for centuries, been the text through which Jews have engaged in the retelling of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Fulfilling the injunction to "Remember this day that you came forth from Egypt" (Exodus 13:3), and to recount this story to future generations ("Ve-higadeta le-vinkha"– "And you shall tell thy son," Exodus 13:8), Jews across the globe read the Haggadah during the Passover seder as a way of recapturing the spirit of freedom held by the Israelites following Moses out of Egypt, and celebrating the eternal notion of redemption and liberation. 

The Haggadah–a collected work of blessings, prayers, and excerpts from the Bible, Mishnah, and Midrash–was not written by one particular author, and was gradually supplemented by psalms and songs. The first printed version of the Haggadah was published in Guadalajara in 1482, ten years prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. By the 16th century, there were approximately 25 printed versions; 300 years later, there were more than 1,000. These Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) vary in geographical origin, denominational orientation, political and social focus, and historical emphasis.

Various Haggadah manuscripts emerged around the world throughout the centuries (Darmstadt, ca. 1430; Venice, 1609; Amsterdam, 1737). The most famous is perhaps the Birds’ Head Haggadah, copied in Germany in the late 13th century. The unique nature of this Haggadah lies in the fact that most human figures are not depicted in realistic human form; they have birds’ heads, reflecting a popular medieval artistic style. Printed editions of the Haggadah, produced around the world, began appearing in the 15th century–each generation and region recreating the Haggadah in its own image.

The Holocaust and Israel

Two monumental events that have reshaped the traditional Haggadah were the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. In the waning days of the Holocaust, survivors created A Survivor’s Haggadah, a remarkable illustrated Haggadah anticipating the first Passover after liberation from the Nazis. In this Haggadah, the traditional Passover liturgy, presenting the story of the Israelites’ liberation from Pharaoh in Egypt, was interwoven with the story of the Holocaust, and of the Jews who survived Hitler. The Survivor’s Haggadah, compiled by Yosef Dov Shenison, and decorated with poignant woodcuts created by fellow-survivor Miklos Adler, was reissued by the Jewish Publication Society in 2000. The Wolloch Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust, published in Haifa in 1988, juxtaposes images from the Holocaust with the text of the traditional Haggadah, thereby linking the memory of the destruction of European Jewry with that of the Israelites’ enslavement and emancipation from Egypt.