Jewish Humanists Remembered A.M. Klein (1909
In this series we are featuring profiles of leading secular and humanistic Jews from various countries and eras. These profiles are written by Bennett Muraskin, a frequent contributor to Outlook, Humanistic Judaism and Jewish Currents, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations.
One of Canada's greatest poets was Abraham Moses Klein, the son of Jewish immigrants. He also served the Jewish community as a writer, editor and advocate for Zionism.
Klein grew up in Montreal. He received a religious education and briefly considered becoming a rabbi, but opted for a legal career, graduating from the University of Montreal Law School in 1933. However, his true passion was for writing, and during the 1920s he was already publishing poems, articles and reviews for a variety of journals. From 1928 onward, he was a dedicated Zionist, as education director of Young Judea, editor of its journal, and national president. In 1936, he became the editor of the Canadian Zionist and a spokesperson for the Zionist movement. He wrote that it was unrealistic to expect many Jews to make aliyah (immigrate to Palestine), but that he expected that the evolving Jewish culture in Palestine would revitalize Canadian Jewish youth and make them into spiritual chalutzim (pioneers), imbued with a strong sense of Jewish identity. This perspective has much in common with Ahad Ha'am's cultural Zionism.
The 1930s and 40s were a period of intense antisemitism in Quebec. The economic depression, nationalist resentment against Ashkenazi Jews as Anglophones, and the religious bigotry of most of the Catholic clergy created hostility against Jews that surpassed anything that existed in the United States. Antisemitism at the federal level was more muted, but was directly reflected in the refusal of Canada to admit Jewish refugees from Hitler.
Some Jews took a passive approach, but Klein, as editor of a major Jewish weekly, the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, was outspoken in his denunciation of antisemitism. When influential antisemites publicly vilified prominent Jews, Klein urged them to defend the interests of the entire Jewish community by suing for slander under Canadian law, which ostensibly banned ethnic defamation. In 1941, the Quebec City Council threatened to confiscate property purchased by Jews for the purpose of building a synagogue. Klein minced no words in attacking its antisemitic motives. The synagogue was finally built and ready to open in May 1945, when it was set afire by arsonists, and nearly burned down. The criminals were never arrested. Klein wrote, "The dubious honor-burning synagogues-which hitherto characterized only Nazi cities, is now shared by the capital of our province."
Klein also used his pen in support of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Canadian war effort during World War Two. He urged Canadian Jews to give unstinting support to these causes, because they were central to the struggle against fascism and Nazism. He was active on the political left, and in 1949 ran for Parliament as a candidate for the social-democratic Canadian Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to Canada's New Democratic Party.
Klein wrote his poetry in English. However, he was fluent in Yiddish and translated Yiddish poetry for the Chronicle. His verse was suffused with Yiddishkayt, including references to Talmud, folklore, holidays, Yiddish and Hebrew expressions and the experiences of Jews in the shtetls (small towns) of Eastern Europe and Montreal's urban ghetto. He wrote four books of poetry, including Hath Not A Jew, (1940), the title referring to Shylock's soliloquy in The Merchant of Venice defending his people, and The Hitleriad (1944), a book of savage satiric verse dealing with the unfolding Jewish catastrophe in Europe. He also wrote short stories and an outstanding novel, The Second Scroll (1951), modeled on the structure of the Torah. This novel has been described as a profound exploration of the Jewish condition in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He treated the creation of the State of Israel as the salvation of Jewish survivors and the beginning of a new stage in the life of the Jewish people.
The postwar era in Quebec marked a major shift toward greater Canadian acceptance of its Jewish minority. From 1945 to 1948, Klein was hired to teach English literature at McGill University. In the latter year, he received the Governor General's Award for The Rocking Chair and Other Poems (1948). He continued to edit the Chronicle until 1953, winning accolades from Jews and non-Jews alike for his high standards of journalism and literary creativity. In 1952, he fell ill with mental depression and remained relatively inactive for the rest of his life.
Klein was not secular, but Jewish humanism was central to his work as a poet and journalist. Canadian Jews, he argued, should remain a distinct religious and cultural group while fully participating in building a democratic society. He was proud to be a Jew and a Canadian. Many of his later poems were paeans to Montreal and Quebec, its people and landscapes, but he had only contempt for those Jews who sought to hide their Jewishness in order to gain acceptance in the Gentile world. This attitude is powerfully expressed in his poem, "Now We Will Suffer Loss of Memory" from "Sonnets Semitic" (in Hath Not a Jew). The last five lines read:
We will have a friend where once we had a foe.
Impugning epithets will glance astray.
To gentile parties we will proudly go;
And Christians, anecdoting us, will say:
"Mr. and Mrs. Klein--the Jews, you know..."
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