The Jewish Decade

by Robert Fulford

At the Rideau Club in Ottawa during the early 1960s, every fresh piece of paper money in the cash register carried the signature of Louis Rasminsky. That was true across the country, since Rasminsky was governor of the Bank of Canada. At the Rideau Club, however, Rasminsky himself was absent. The Rideau Club had a no-Jews policy.

What made this especially shameful was that the club functioned as the social centre of Ottawa power-mongers. They knew about the anti-Semitic policy but lunched there anyway. Finally, the shame became too much for a significant cluster of influential members. They proposed that the blackball keeping the Jews out be replaced by a membership committee. Just to make their position clear, they cited four prospective members they were backing, all Jews, one of them Rasminsky. The motion passed, and in 1964 one of the institutionalized absurdities of Canadian bigotry vanished.

In Toronto the Granite Club on St. Clair Avenue had been anti-Semitic since the Jurassic age. (The one time I went there for a business lunch I felt compromised and dishonest.) When the club decided to sell its property and move north to the suburbs, it was persuaded by a Jewish group that this might be the right moment for a change in membership policy. The new Granite Club began soliciting Jewish members, with some success, though one Jew of my acquaintance, who lived near the site of the new club, said thanks but it was a little late.

Club membership may seem a trivial matter but those two changes symbolized the transformation of the status of the Jews. Barriers were falling and Jews were finding new opportunities. The Jews themselves were changing. Harold Troper, in his new book, The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics, and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press), deftly organizes the details of this earthquake in human relations.

In the political world, Pierre Trudeau’s election in 1968 was a surprising turning point. There had never been a Jewish cabinet minister in Ottawa; Trudeau appointed the first, second, third and fourth. He made Bora Laskin the first Jew on the Supreme Court and later named him chief justice. He gave major positions in the public service to Jews.

Troper argues that the Jewish community in 1970 differed fundamentally from the same community as it existed in 1960. When doors opened, Jews who chose to pass through “no longer had to park their Jewishness at the door,” as earlier generations had been forced to do. Suddenly, Jewishness was not something to hide.

Troper quotes Bernard Avishai, a Montreal-born academic who has written three books about Israel and believes Israel’s success in the Six Day War of 1967 changed the relationship between Canadian Jews and their tradition. Before the war, Jews saw themselves as “derived from a people of the past.”

As Troper puts it, Jewishness was what their parents or grandparents had escaped; it was largely commemorative, a historical bequest. The Six Day War changed that. Being Jewish was no longer an inherited shadow of the past. It was a commitment to the present and future.

Unfortunately, Troper shows no interest in the cultural changes that were part of the same period. Mordecai Richler is mentioned on two pages, Irving Layton on one, Leonard Cohen not at all. Troper doesn’t discuss the enmity expressed by many Jews for Richler’s work, a major source of argument at the time. For many young Canadian Jews, Richler’s fierce, jagged comedy, a criticism of Jewish life in modern Canada, was in itself an expression of Jewishness. On changes in the other arts, such as the emergence of Samuel Zacks as a famous collector and in 1966 the first Jewish president of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Troper says nothing.

In certain ways the changes Troper describes came embarrassingly late; the Americans had a Jewish cabinet minister in 1906, a Supreme Court justice in 1916. In other ways, changes came with what seems in retrospect blinding speed, especially in the professions of law and medicine.

The events in The Defining Decade began happening only 15 years after Vincent Massey, in London as Canada’s high commissioner, was doing his best to keep refugee Jews out of our country. But in the middle of the 1960s Toronto opened its new civic square with its new city hall and named it for Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s first Jewish mayor. Troper’s book amounts to an antidote for social pessimism, a reminder that sometimes long-overdue change can come astonishingly fast.

From The National Post

The original article may be found here.

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