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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Quebecers’ evocative books about Jews are bestsellers

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Claude Jasmin [claudejasmin.com photo]

Two very different books with strong Jewish themes by francophone Quebecers are bestsellers in Montreal this month.

Pourquoi moi? Ma vie chez les Juifs hassidiques (Les Editions Libre Expression) by Lise Ravary and Anita, une fille numérotée (Les Edition XYZ) by Claude Jasmin were No. 14 and No. 22, respectively, on the bookstore Renaud-Bray’s list of most popular books last week.

The former is veteran journalist Ravary’s memoir of her powerful attraction to Judaism – unusual for someone who describes herself as a Québécoise de souche from Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. She was editor-in-chief of Chatelaine and Elle Québec, and founding editor of Elle Canada magazines.

Disillusioned since her teens with the Catholic faith she was raised in, Ravary began her journey toward conversion to Judaism following a trip to Israel some 20 years ago.

Ravary, today a blogger for the Journal de Montréal, writes that she felt at home as she stood before Jerusalem’s Western Wall and knew she wanted to be part of the Jewish People. But, as the title suggests, even she wondered why this should be.

After Ravary returned to Montreal, she spent five years living among two different chassidic communities during the 1990s. Normally discouraging to would-be converts, they, nevertheless, embraced her and educated her in their religion and way of life.

Her recollections of that time are tender and very personal, and her observations provide insight into an often-misunderstood people.

Eventually, Ravary converted to a more liberal form of Orthodox Judaism. Her chassidic rabbi had ultimately refused her conversion because she would not comply with his demand that she sever ties with her two daughters, who had no intention of becoming Jewish.

Ravary attempts to demystify the Chassidim and show that they know more about the society around them, than that society knows about them.

She says she wrote the book now – 13 years after ending her relationship amicably with these communities – in part because she’s concerned by rising intolerance toward Chassidim in Montreal.

Jasmin’s lightly fictionalized short novel is a story of star-crossed love set after World War II. The narrator (clearly Jasmin) falls madly in love with a Jewish girl, a Holocaust survivor.

There is no happy ending. In fact, the story concludes under a cloud that has hung over Jasmin for the rest of his life.

Jasmin has never before told his real life love for such a girl and how it abruptly ended, and the book has a confessional tone.

At 82, Jasmin is one of Quebec’s best-known writers and television and radio personalities.

Anita was a pretty, but rather mysterious, blue-eyed blonde girl he met while they were both ceramics students at an arts school.

He would learn that she was a Polish Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz, who hid the tattooed numbers on her arm. Her mother and two older sisters perished during the war.

For his family, for his society, in which antisemitism was the norm, a romantic relationship with a Jew was out of the question.

These many decades later, Jasmin still feels shame and remorse at how he suddenly ended the affair, caving in to the prevailing prejudice.

Anita was hailed as the prolific Jasmin’s chef-d’oeuvre by Louis Cornellier in his review in Le Devoir. He praised it as “a strong work, fervent, deeply moving, and desvastating.”

Jasmin, perhaps best known for his 1972 nostalgic novel and TV series La Petite Patrie, admits on his blog that he was stunned by this accolade for what he, Jasmin, calls “an embarrassing memory from my youth.”

But the octogenarian is thrilled that at his age he could summon the intensity of his conflicting emotions and the atmosphere in Montreal in that long ago time.

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