Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July - August 2002

Morton Weinfeld
Like Everyone Else…but Different: The Paradoxical Success of Canadian Jews.

Toronto: McClelland and Stewart., 2001, 446 pp.
$24.99 paper (0-7710-8913-9) $37.99 cloth (0-7710-8912-0)

The official celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s twenty-five year reign as Queen of Canada was marked on Parliament Hill in November 1977. The affair, attended by many dignitaries, was also rained out. Prince Philip, nearly drenched, turned to one of the distinguished guests, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, and asked, “Could you clergymen not have arranged for better weather?” Plaut replied, “Sir, we are in sales, not in management.” (Columbo, 2001:46).

Morton Weinfeld, in this new look at Jews and Jewish life in Canada, is most emphatically in sales. He declares in his opening sentence that this book was a labour of love. His love for the project as well as for the story he has to share bounces from every page. He skilfully integrates sociological analyses with personal anecdotes and insights. To borrow and adapt a second-wave feminist phrase, the personal is sociological for Morton Weinfeld in this book.

Like Everyone Else…but Different is a book about Jews in Canada, about Jewish experiences both individual and collective (which he clearly shows must be seen in the plural). But it is also a book about Canada and Canadianness, about ethnicity and ethnic minorities and minoritization, about assimilation and mosaics and resistances to both. It is about neighbourliness and getting along, sometimes with amusing and sometimes with far less amusing consequences , but generally in the spirit of human sharing and communality. It is a book about belonging or not, homelands in Canada (at times in neighbourhoods), in Israel, and elsewhere throughout the world, and, fundamentally, homelands in ancient historical consciousness, memory and soul.

The book unfolds in eleven chapters, plus bibliographic material, tables and appendices that take up 94 more pages. It may be that this project fell naturally into eleven sections, but this reviewer finds this number telling in its jarring numerical oddness (Weinfeld, in his opening Preface, describes the Jews as “this strange people” to non-Jews). At the same time, eleven has mirrored alliteration. It is a number reflective of the contentment and not forgotten torment of the people whose voices and spirit Weinfeld reflects; it is a number which jumps out as “like every other number…but different.” Eleven is a number that stands up for itself.

Like Everyone Else…but Different opens with an introductory focus on difference and diversity among Canadian Jews, and then sets out to tell their story, all their stories. Jews are seen as a paradoxical people, full of contradiction, conflict, irony and mystery. Jews, Weinfeld suggests, have created by luck and design, a workable synthesis of opposites. They are both the precursor of modernity and in the avant garde. They are both secular and sacred. Chapter 1 asks “Who Are the Jews?” It is a census and a history, but not by any means dull or dry. The complexity of Jewish identity is explored through history, religion, genetics and culture. “Quantity, Quality and Conflict” is the second chapter, a look at the challenges of counting Jews in Canada or anywhere else. Canada is more blessed than the United States in its official statistics, enabling something closer to a count of Jews than is possible below the 49th. Are Jews a religious group, a people with common cultural ancestry, an ethnic group? Weinfeld here, in the best sociological style, moves fluently back and forth between official statistical counts of Jews, and how people identify themselves. He even tosses in an image of a Jew who “passes” as a non-Jew to gain membership at a swishy gentile country club until he falls into the pool and dripping wet, emerges, saying, “Oy gevalt…whatever that means.” Or, Jews who didn’t know or acknowledge their Jewish ancestry. Chapter 3 examines the building of communities in Canada by Jews, and the many waves of immigrants and periods when immigration was drastically curtailed, mainly in Canada for economic reasons, Weinfeld argues. In the United States, racial factors were a bigger factor, apparently. The bittersweet of having family scattered all over the globe and then reuniting to find little in common and little support, of escaping, of surviving, of building anew, is recounted both in general patterns and in the author’s telling of his own family saga. Exodus not only describes the flight to Israel of war refugees, but is the story of countless Jews coming in waves to North America over much of the 20th century. Earning a living is discussed in Chapter 4, families and their centrality to Jewish lives in Chapter 5, and the communal foundations of Jewish life in Chapter 6. The pain of gay/lesbian children in Jewish families is poignantly revealed with reluctant candour and attention to the gaping contradictions, as is the struggle of women to be religious equals.

Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 look at literature/art, Jewish education, political behaviour of Jews, and Judaism and religious practices respectively. Chapter 11 is particularly informative for anyone wishing to understand the paradoxical force of anti-semitism, true conundrum as it is, Weinfeld argues compellingly, as both a unifying part of Jewish life, and a scourge. The history of anti-semitism in Quebec and in Canada are not pretty or easy for Canadians who see ourselves as liberal and tolerant to read or accept. The story of the Christie Pits riots in Toronto in 1933 is utterly chilling (pp.325-326) and something all Canadians should know, but don’t. The good news Weinfeld brings is his view that anti-semitism in Canada is not a major problem, and, better yet, is on the decline. However, there are new dimensions and guises of anti-semitism that he does not discuss. One is how anti-Israeli government feelings may manifest as anti-semitism in these troubled and troubling times for Israel and for the Palestinians, or give license to old anti-semitic expressions. A second new form that is not discussed here is the impact, manifest and potential, of the new Christian fundamentalist Right on anti-semitism. This is not aberrant or idiosyncratic but a structural movement, with political support in and by mainstream parties in Canada, but particularly in the U.S. Some see the freedom of reproductive choice, particularly the abortion issue, as partly manifesting anti-semitism against Jewish doctors who may perform abortions. The rhetoric is certainly there and mainstream enough that it cannot be easily missed or discounted. And its potential to grow in these times of fear of what and who may be different, is large.

This is a welcome book and a topical book, joining in this historical moment a number of recent books on Jews, Jewish identities, family and personal history of Jews. There is the 1996 Jewish Identity and the Civilizing Process by Steven Russell, which examines the history of Jewish experience in Western Europe from the early Middle Ages to the 20th century, relying on the theory and method of renowned social theorist Norbert Elias. There is The Jews in the 20th Century: An Illustrated History (2001), by the distinguished British historian, Sir Martin Gilbert. An overall theme of Gilbert’s volume is that the Jews, no matter what society they find themselves in, have struggled to fit in, with a large degree of success. He borrows Alice Munro’s compelling image of “floating bridges” to describe how Jews in various corners of the world have built between worlds and across swamps (his gripping image). Relying on different imagery, Mort Weinfeld paints a similar picture of the experiences of Canadian Jews. And, there is Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, also in 2001, edited by Pamela Nadell and Jonathan Sarna (University of New England Press) This is a welcome gendered overview of three hundred years of Jewish women’s lives in the U.S., from the colonial era to the present, as they reshape their lives as Jews, as women, and as Jewish women in their synagogues and communities. Lastly, among recent books of related interest that have come to my attention, there is Jael Silliman’s 2001 book, Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Disapora of Hope, which may be the most interesting, and certainly the most personal and revealing of the contradictions of being “like everyone else but different.” It is a family portrait of the author’s great grandmother, her grandmother’s mother, who with her own mother lived almost entirely within a Jewish community in India. Connections are then drawn from their lives of seclusion to the present-day globalized citizen, Jael.

Morton Weinfeld’s book joins these others and stands tall; his book is like them but different. Weinfeld bases his book on both evidence and interpretation, with both filtered through his delicious sense of humour and irony, and his remarkable intertwining of personal anecdote, jokes and joie de vivre. The story of his adolescent experience with racial taunting (p. 318) is alone worth both the price and the time spent in reading this book. Young Mort worked in a hardware store in East End Montreal. An older, bigger man working in the store one day yelled “Hey Rabbi, Rabbi” in Mort’s direction. Being a reflective and likely considerate young man, Mort pondered for days on how best to respond. Then, he realized that this fellow was yelling not at him but at his friend, Robert, at the other end of the store. In joual and at high decibel, “Robert” (likely said something like “Robbie” sounds a lot like “rabbi.” A few short sentences after this personal anecdote, Weinfeld, the adult and insightful sociologist, incisively describes the “paradoxical relation between two divergent trends”: the Canadian non-problem (largely) of anti-semitism and the disturbing aspects of anti-semitism that do exist and some of its new forms. On very different but parallel and connected levels, both the personal anecdote and the sociological analysis, are fundamental insights into how Jewish lives and experiences in Canada are, indeed, like everyone else’s but different. The everydayness of the personal experience is felt on one’s own skin as one reads.

A strong flavour of the experience of Jews and Jewish life in Canada comes through in this book. Prior to the 1950s, Weinfeld tells, Canadian Jews lived “a profoundly Jewish solitude, built on both choice and exclusion.” The anecdote about the elderly Jew who had had little contact with non-Jews comes to mind here. When he found himself alone with a non-Jew of similar age one day, he was at first at a loss as to how to make small-talk but soon, he came up with an idea. “When,” he asked graciously, “do you think Christmas will be this year?”

Of course, in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century, the dominant groups were very different than today. The “relations of ruling” of high society Montreal meant that Irish and French-speaking Roman Catholics suffered snubs and sneers from the colonial Anglicans and Scottish Presbyterians who dominated the Montreal of the day (Graham, 2002: F8). They also suffered job and educational challenges.

Weinfeldisms abound in the book. Just when one thinks that this is a sociological treatise (and it is indeed a superlatively sculpted sociological analysis), in comes a lively story that pulls the sociological together perfectly. In the midst of discussing the limits and ceilings of the success of Jewish professionals, Weinfeld suggests that in WASP law firms, they lock up the liquor, while in Jewish law firms, they lock up the cookie supply! A good friend of mine remarked that low alcohol consumption among Jews is not so surprising given that Manischewitz was the drink of the holidays when she was young! It’s enough to put anyone off drinking for a lifetime. And the exchange between the Rabbi and the priest on the train about their respective transgressions in their youth is uproarious, with the rabbi concluding that the priest’s fall from his vows of celibacy, “Beats the hell out of pork, doesn’t it?” (pp. 135-136).

Much can be learned from Weinfeld’s stories and interpretative analyses about how Jews have adapted and made Canada theirs but at the same time, not adapted and remained apart in important ways. Particularly enticing is his intricate and compelling analyses of how Jews and Jewish life reconstructs and is self-consciously reconstructed in the Diaspora, and yet somehow retains an air of difference and a deep connection to collective memory and cultural rootedness. Is the same true, perhaps to differing degrees for other immigrants, particularly those who bring strong cultural and/or religious traditions and practices? If not, can the differences be explained?

If complaints can be made of Weinfeld’s book, they must be scant indeed. One might be his differential attention to what he best knows, Jews and Jewish life in central Canada. I would add quickly as a Western Canadian, that this bias in favour of Quebec and Ontario, it may not be surprising to note, is not something Morton Weinfeld invented nor is it by any means limited to him. I once invited a Quebecois acquaintance to come to Alberta for a visit. He wrinkled his nose and asked why ever would he want to do that? I mentioned some attractions such as the Rocky Mountains and the West Edmonton Mall. He replied that he hadn’t thought of those, and yes, indeed, there might be reasons to go to Alberta! Alberta, thank heavens, as Quebec or British Columbia or Ontario or Newfoundland, is more than politics. And all of us are more than where we live, and more than our culturally constructed selves. We tend to knit into community, as Weinfeld so intricately shows in this book.

Similarly, Jewish life in Canada is more than what occurs in central Canada. The centre of Jewish life in Canada is in Ontario and Quebec, mainly of course, in Montreal with its rich Jewish traditions, history, and institutions. Weinfeld does discuss Jewish life in Winnipeg, and in Calgary and Vancouver. The question of whether there are differences from east to west in Canada, and what these differences might mean for being “like everyone else…but different” comes to mind. It was, after all, a Jewish family firm that invented the Calgary Stetson, the long-term symbol of the Calgary Stampede, and, consistent with Weinfeld’s sense of paradox and irony, the sometime symbol of redneck Alberta. And possibly the second most favourite popular Canadian book on Jewish life – this is before Mort Weinfeld’s volume was published, of course! – after The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in 1959, is Raisins and Almonds by Fredelle Bruser Maynard (1972) about growing up Jewish in a small town in Saskatchewan. Countless Canadian children and young people read and loved Maynard’s book, including this reviewer.

To suggest that the Montreal/Toronto emphasis in Like Everyone Else…but Different is a detraction may not be completely justified, however. One book cannot do everything, and this one sets itself a large task and succeeds magnificently, without paradox. However, I am reminded of a quote attributed to Sir Leon Radzinowicz, which I am here taking liberties in paraphrasing, “Sociological analyses are like French bathing suits; what they reveal is highly suggestive, but what they hide is vital!” Sir Leon initially said this not about sociological analysis but about statistics. True, no doubt, in both cases. What Weinfeld reveals about urban Jewish life in central Canada is indeed suggestive as well as revealing. It is not clear that we needed to have so much revealed in some places, however, such as the vivid description of the lavish Lastman Bar Mitzvah. One almost felt that one had to turn one’s eyes away from this spectacle of conspicuous consumption. What is hidden is some of the richness and diversity of secular Judaism in Canada, cultural expressions and linkages that have no religious content. Perhaps these are stronger in Winnipeg and Vancouver, but are present also in Toronto and Montreal. The Peretz folksculs would be an example.

The question of what greater or lesser success on various dimensions (money, prestige, education, entry into the elites, charitable donations, professional practices) means in terms of protection against minoritization and disempowerment, or anti-semitism is central to Weinfeld’s thesis of the paradoxical success of Jews in Canada. Perplexing, perturbing social questions arise, as they have throughout the history of the 20th century. One of these is the degree to which relations, both micro and macro, of Jews with non-Jews and particularly with non-Jewish social structures, are mitigated by success. For example, Weinfeld mentions possible resentment against Jewish wealth, but what about Jewish poverty? Is it eclipsed? Does wealth or poverty work as protections against risks and resentments? Sociologists struggle with this question and have no clear answers. The Jewish experience seems, sadly, to belie the fervent popular myth that success, respect for the law, caution, and solid values will mean security and acceptance. Weinfeld’s book tells us unequivocally that this is sort of true, but not quite, for Jews in Canada. The “not quite” raises fundamental social questions, not only for those who experience the taunting and anti-semitism (but particularly for them), but for every caring, concerned person in society interested in something that used to be known as “the public good,” prior to the reinvention of rugged individualism. In other places in the world, it is clearly and sorrowfully untrue that success protects. In Germany in the 1930s, success and good citizenship did nothing to protect or insulate the Jewish community, tragically.

In concluding, this book about Jews in Canada is long overdue. It updates and enhances what is known. It updates Louis Rosenberg’s (1939) long ago examination, which Mort Weinfeld himself brought out in a new edition in 1993. It does much to fill a gap in our knowledge and understanding of ourselves as Canadians. It makes a crucial contribution to Canada and Canadian history. Weinfeld’s particular blend of personal anecdote with hard sociological evidence and analysis is refreshing and draws the reader into the story. The reader feels as if he/she is being told a family history by the fireside, one that never ceases to fascinate. The book is simply a tour de force. It would be a welcome addition to any Canadian’s bookshelves. It could be discussed, argued over, and reached for again and again for its reference material, for its humour, and for its abiding humanity and warmth. As a sociology book, it could be used in courses in ethnicity, religious studies, multi-culturalism, social history, and Canadian history. It could also be used as a foundational example of a methodological approach to doing sociology.


Columbo, John Robert. 2001. The Penguin Book of Canadian Jokes. Toronto: Penguin.

Graham, Ron. 2002. “Motherland,” The Globe and Mail 25 May 2002, F1, F8.

Rosenberg, Louis. 1939. Canada’s Jews: A Social and Economic Study of Jews in Canada in the 1930’s. Montreal: Canadian Jewish Congress.

: I thank the Canadian Jewish Studies Association for inviting me to read Morton Weinfeld’s book and participate in a panel discussion of it at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue on 26 May 2002 as part of the Association’s annual meetings. I also thank my good friend, Lillian Zimmerman, for sharing her insights on her reading of this book from her own life experiences.

Susan A. McDaniel
University of Alberta

Susan A. McDaniel, Ph.D., FRSC is Professor of Sociology, University of Alberta, researching intergenerational transfers/linkages, gendering demographics, and family/social policy challenges in aging societies. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, immediate Past-President of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association, and Editor of Current Sociology, an official journal of the International Sociological Association.
July 2002
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