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New UdeM course studies Quebec Jews

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Université de Montréal professors Jean Duhaime, left, and Alain Gignac [Université de Montréal photo]

MONTREAL — A small group of Université de Montréal (UdeM) students from disciplines as diverse as political science, anthropology and education began studies Jan. 22 on a subject of common interest: the Jews of Quebec.

The UdeM’s theology and science of religions department has launched a course, the first of its kind at a francophone university, that asks the question: Who are the Jews of Quebec?

Taking the form of a multidisciplinary seminar, the course was limited to 15 students. They can earn three credits by the time it concludes in May.

“Culture et experience juives au Québec,” as it is titled, was created and is being taught by Jean Duhaime, a theology professor specializing in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism, with his colleague Alain Gignac, whose sphere is Christianity’s New Testament.

The professors believe the Jews of Quebec are often misunderstood, and they hope this course will promote greater openness to the community and dialogue with its members.

They start from the premise that Jewish identity is varied and complex, with religious, cultural and philosophical elements, and that Jewish communities interact with and participate in the evolution of the societies they live in, Quebec being no exception.

The course examines how Jews have fared in this province, particularly within the francophone context. The students are looking at the origins and composition of the province’s Jewish communities (the plural is used) today, and how they fit into Quebec’s vision of vivre ensemble.

Guest lecturers are University of Ottawa history professor Pierre Anctil, an expert on the Quebec Jewish community, in particular its Yiddish culture; Yolande Cohen, a Université du Québec à Montréal history professor with expertise on Sephardim; former Canadian Jewish Congress Quebec president Victor Goldbloom, the province’s first Jewish cabinet minister; the UdeM’s Marie McAndrew, a professor of intercultural education and the Canada Research Chair in Ethnic Studies; Samuel Mercier, a graduate literature student who is doing his doctorate on Mordecai Richler; and Chantal Ringuet, who has done post-doctoral research in Canadian Jewish studies and is the author of A la découverte du Montréal yiddish.”

All of these lectures are open to the public.

“We sometimes think that Jews are recent immigrants,” said Duhaime, a veteran of interfaith dialogue. He wants to set his students straight by reminding them that “the first Jews arrived with the British troops in the 18th century.”

He does not shrink from facing the antisemitism that pervaded Quebec’s elite and political class, especially before World War II. But the current atmosphere, he believes, is a desire for rapprochement, despite the opposition to Israeli policies among some Quebecers.

“We still strongly associate [Jews] with the anglophone community, but about 40 per cent of them are francophones, of which a good part come from the Maghreb,” Gignac noted. “They are very open to the Quebec reality and are more and more fostering exchange and integration initiatives.”

His 15 years of Christian-Jewish dialogue, Duhaime said, “has permitted me to appreciate a little more [the community’s] diversity and dynamic contribution to Quebec society.

“In the context of today’s religious and cultural pluralism, it seemed to me useful to deepen and to share this experience.”

He adds, “It must not be forgotten that the Jewish and Christian cultures have a common base, at least in the sacred texts. We share the same book which Christians call the Old Testament and Jews the Tanach or Hebrew Bible.”

Students are expected to produce a research paper to be delivered orally toward the end of the course, as well as submitted in written form.

The upcoming public lectures scheduled so far are: Feb. 5, Yolande Cohen; Feb. 19, Pierre Anctil; and March 12, Marie McAndrew, all at 4 p.m. at the UdeM’s Pavillon Marguerite d’Youville, 2375 Côte Ste. Catherine Rd.

Cohen will speak about Jewish immigration from North Africa to Canada, particularly Quebec, in the 1960s following the end of European colonization. The arrival of these Sephardi Jews, mostly Moroccans, she argues, profoundly changed the Montreal Jewish community.

She will look at the Sephardi community’s evolution and the challenges it faces today, contrasting its situation with the community in France.

Anctil, who has translated into French works of Canadian Yiddish literature, will analyze Jews’ responses to how Quebec is dealing with an increasingly pluralistic population, and particularly religious minorities.

McAndrew will be joined by postdoctoral researcher Sivane Hirsch and Geneviève Audet of the Commission scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys. They will present the results of a recent exchange project between Jewish and other young Quebecers, and the need for teacher training and educational materials on this subject.

In the inaugural public lecture, Goldbloom stressed that Jews have been part of Quebec society for 250 years and, while predominantly English-speaking, have generally come to terms with living in French.

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