Jacob Isaac Segal: A Montreal Yiddish Poet and His Milieu
By Pierre Anctil
Translated by Vivian Felsen
French original published 2012
English translation, University of Ottawa Press, 2017
It must be hard to write a biography of a poet. Poets don’t live exciting lives. Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and therefore a good subject for biography, but he was an exception.
Jacob Isaac Segal, of Montreal, was Canada’s first important Yiddish poet. His life was not exciting, but it was interesting. In this book, Pierre Anctil, a francophone professor in the University of Ottawa’s history department, tells Segal’s story and a number of others.
Segal was born in Korets, a shtetl in Ukraine. His father, a cantor, died when he was still a child, leaving his mother and her children dependent on her father, who was well-to-do and looked after them, but grudgingly. Segal’s grandfather, David Perlmutter, was furious when he found out that his grandson was writing satires on the Perlmutter family. (That echoes Sholem Aleichem, whose first known literary effort was a satire on his stepmother).
Segal and his mother reached Montreal around 1910. He worked in the needle trades and started writing poetry in Yiddish. He married Elke, who became a devoted wife and mother to three children. He was attracted to in zikh and di yunge, modernist movements in Yiddish poetry that began in New York.
Segal’s poems started being published in Montreal Yiddish papers and became known in New York and in European Yiddish centres. He found work as a teacher and got some income by writing articles for Yiddish papers. He produced 11 books of poetry.
Anctil tells the story of the poet’s milieu, which was created by the three waves of Jewish immigration to Montreal: first, at the beginning of the 20th century, to get away from pogroms and poverty in Czarist Russia; next, after the First World War; then, after the Shoah (Holocaust).
When Anctil writes about Montreal Jewish writers in the 1920s, wondering if it was possible to create a Yiddish culture at the foot of Mount Royal, it is reminiscent of English Canadian writers, more recently, wondering if such a thing as CanLit could exist.
He tells us that Segal’s poems about winter “were published at a time when this theme was almost non-existent in French Quebec.” He credits Segal’s poetry with being “the first in all of Quebec literature to refer to immigration and … the throbbing pain of exile.” He admires Segal’s work for being original in its treatment of the urban landscape of Montreal.
The Montreal Yiddish milieu grew to include many more important writers. Anctil mentions a number of names: Shtern, Korn, Rosenfarb, Ravitch, Maze and others. But there was no further replenishment after the third wave; Jewish writing in Montreal turned to English.
Anctil has used his academic ability, and his knowledge of Yiddish, to study the archives of the Montreal Jewish Public Library and the Canadian Jewish Congress. He has, when possible, contacted people still alive who knew Segal, notably his two daughters. He tells of the contentious working class and trade-union environment in which Segal lived. Much of the charm of the book comes from the photographs of Segal and other literary figures, almost always in jacket and tie, and, when outdoors, in fedoras. That is how men dressed in those days.
Anctil recalls meeting David Rome, archivist at the Canadian Jewish Congress, who “must have been astonished to be welcoming a gentile into a field of research so little valued in his own community.” The thought still echoes.
Two regrets: The book does not have an index, no doubt to save money, and there are more typographical errors than are acceptable.