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Quebec nationalist explains why he loves Judaism

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Guy Bouthillier, left, talks about his two loves, Judaism and separatism, with Segal Centre executive director Manon Gauthier.

MONTREAL — Venerable Quebec nationalist Guy Bouthillier publicly explained for the first time last week how Judaism and separatism came to be his “two loves.”

It amounts, he said, to issues of language, learning and “reaching out.”

Bouthillier, from 1997 to 2003 the fiery head of the fervently nationalist Saint-Jean Baptiste Society, has for several years been a fixture at classes led by Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz of Chabad of Westmount, studying Talmud, Pirkei Avot and the parshah of the week.

“I call him my rabbi,” Bouthillier said with a laugh.

Bouthillier has also expressed admiration for Israel in recent years and denounced acts of intolerance and antisemitism, including the 2004 firebombing of the Talmud Torah School in St. Laurent – all the while remaining an ardent sovereigntist.

Speaking at a Le Mood event for Jewish young adults at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts late last month, Bouthillier, who at 72 has become something of a nationalist elder statesman, articulated for the first time the nature of his attraction to Judaism.

He used a bit of fractured Hebrew to explain his love for Jewish learning. Roughly translated, it boiled down to the phrase: “Joy breaks barriers,” he said.

Bouthillier said he has found in Torah study a means to learn more about a people two millennia old and to bring together a “circle” of individuals from all parts of Montreal who revel in their common humanity and the wisdom of the patriarchs and sages.

“It rejuvenates me,” he said.

He is also drawn to the notion of tikkkun olam, repairing the world, as the duty of all humanity.

Bouthillier finds regular Torah study stimulating, dynamic and endlessly challenging, with discussions at the table touching on religion, ethics, history, and, sometimes, domestic and Middle East politics.

He said his first patriotic feelings for Quebec were stirred many years ago through his friendship with Jewish students at McGill University and through witnessing their love for Israel.

“It was at McGill that I discovered Israel,” he said during the French-language discussion moderated by Segal Centre executive director Manon Gauthier. “They [the Jewish students] were demonstrating their passion, their determination to protect their heritage.”

It triggered not only Bouthillier’s Quebec patriotism, but also eventually a desire for Quebec to have its own country.

Bouthillier said Quebec as a source of personal identity and French as its language are just as important to him as Israel and Hebrew are to the Jewish people or Greece and the Greek language are to Greeks.

“It’s about the source of identity,” he said.

Bouthillier used the French term cheminement (“progression” or “development”) to characterize his and Quebec’s evolution into a society that embraces bridge-building between cultural groups, thanks in part, he feels, to the efforts of the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society.

He reminded the audience that in 2002, the society held a kosher reception recognizing the 170th anniversary of Jews being granted the same rights under Quebec law as Christians.

In a handout to the audience, he also pointed to the vital importance David Ben-Gurion placed on connecting language (Hebrew) with patrimony. It’s the same with Quebec, Bouthillier said.

The “mini-MOOD” ( event, described as a “fusion of Judaism and the unexpected,” had as its theme, “Dare to be curious.” It was sponsored by Federation CJA and was meant to inspire younger Jews to affirm their Jewishness in a new and unrestricted way. The hundreds who attended chose from nine sessions and mixed and mingled in a hip environment.

To learn more about Le Mood, contact Mike Savatovsky, at 514-345-2645, ext. 3117, or e-mail

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