Accommodation: Or, Growing Up Jewish in Protestant Canada

We were invited to join in the school’s prayers and hymns, but our grateful acquiescence also implied there was something illicit or shameful about our Jewishness.

The drama director of Montreal’s Jewish Public Library leads a Saturday morning story-telling session. Library and Archives of Canada.
The drama director of Montreal’s Jewish Public Library leads a Saturday morning story-telling session. Library and Archives of Canada.
Observation
Aug. 30 2018
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


We present here the fourth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found hereFurther installments will appear over the next months.

“I must tell you that I’ve been feeling guilty.”

It was during my afternoon office hours at Harvard in November 2008, immediately after the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, that a freshman would blurt out this confession to me. Dreading a revelation that might require administrative action, I asked what was on her mind. She replied, “I worked for the Obama campaign.” I laughed with relief: “You and apparently everyone else. Why would that make you feel guilty?” She said, “Because I was really for McCain.”

To my next question, she explained that she’d been seeking the approval of her dorm mates and feared ostracism had she declared her political preferences. At the point of coming to see me, she no longer wanted to continue the charade but didn’t know how to extricate herself from her subterfuge.

I was fairly confident that this young woman would eventually make her own way, and that she was not as solitary as she imagined; that much I knew from serving as an adviser to the college’s Republican club and from talking with other conservative-leaning students at that left-liberal university who had privately confided in me. But in addition to further stoking my alarm over the effects of conformism on campus, her predicament reminded me of how badly I, too, had once wanted the approbation of my classmates. Smart people may be the least resistant to societal pressure when their ambition includes securing an invitation to the party. Although I had had a mind of my own at a younger age than my student’s, there was a time when I applied much of it to the project of fitting in.

 

I

 

In September 1949, I registered at Montreal’s Strathcona Academy, the high school—in Canada, grades eight through eleven—that served our district of Outremont. Most of the incoming students came from the city’s two large feeder Protestant schools, which is to say that most of them were Jews. (In an earlier chapter I’ve explained how Quebec’s confessional school system defined Jews as Protestants “for purposes of education.”) As it happened, the majority of my former classmates at the Jewish People’s School were headed for a different Protestant high school named for Baron Byng, a World War I hero. Academic rivalry between Strathcona and Baron Byng, the two Protestant schools with the largest Jewish populations, was reinforced by a perceptible socio-economic divide between the former’s prosperous district and the latter’s still-immigrant one.

The girls ahead of me in line seemed to be at home with each other. I was glad to be anonymous: since I would soon be wearing a school uniform, Mother had bought me no autumn clothes except a dark purple silk dress with puffed sleeves for the Jewish holidays. There was irony in those puffed sleeves. My beloved heroine Anne of Green Gables had longed for such a dress—but for purposes of a party, not high-school registration. To hide the sleeves, I wore a cardigan that not even the torture of late-summer heat could make me remove.

Torture was anyway never far from my mind. Here I was in Canada, growing up in the calmest place on the planet, while my parallel fantasy track, stocked with images of war, persecution, and Holocaust, often featured a scenario of chase-and-entrapment in which I was required to hold out and refuse to surrender. Accordingly, all I remember of that day is the eternity of poor, privileged me standing in line wearing a sweater in the hot sunshine.

Yet registration must have gone well enough. My older brother Ben, who attended Strathcona before me, had racked up such an exemplary academic record and stellar civic reputation that I was accorded some of the respect earned by him. I was assigned to a “Mixed Class” of boys and girls made up of the top-ranking students from all incoming schools. Thirty-odd students were now confined to a single academic ladder where one wrong answer could hurl you down three or four rungs in class standings.

As one of only two in the class who had been admitted from Jewish day schools, I was nervous; but how bad could the school be if Ben had been here before me? And I was already accustomed to mixed classes of boys and girls in my elementary school. But Strathcona’s rules of conduct were new to me. On the first regular day of classes I found myself twice dispatched to the principal’s office—first for answering a question without waiting to be called upon and then for correcting the teacher who had misheard my reply: “But that’s what I said!”

Jewish school had not required the same sort of decorum—and had I been a boy, I might have been not just reprimanded but strapped. In the following years, the worst part of high school was the sound from the boys’ section down the hall of the strap coming down on someone’s hands. This was one of several ways I learned that it was better to be a girl.

But at least academic achievement was emphasized as fully as it had been at the Jewish People’s School. Placed in any ranking system, I knew I had to come first, and by the end of eighth grade I did, beating out several students with higher IQs. This I gleaned from a roster someone had “borrowed” from the teacher’s desk that ascribed the highest IQ to the boy who ranked last in the class by dint of having defied the rules. I admired but did not intend to emulate his spunk.

On the whole, the girls did better at things that teachers cared about: neatness, clear handwriting, memorization, and anticipating and satisfying teachers’ expectations by being attuned less to the subject than to how they taught it. Though none of this came easily to me, I figured out how to give them what they wanted, and as a result learned too little during my four years of high school even as I maintained suitably high grades. Though I can still speak passable French and could once recite a half-dozen or so passages from Shakespeare, what I mostly mastered were the arts of adaptation.

 

II

 

Any outside observer might have mistaken our school for a thoroughly Christian institution. All of our teachers were required to be Protestant, and our Jewish tax-paying parents were excluded from the school board. That Jews constituted over 90 percent of the student body went unmentioned before the High Holy Days, when none of us attended class, or at the annual Christmas assemblies at which all of us were present. The school day itself began with the Episcopal version of the Lord’s Prayer—“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. . . .” The absence of the name of Jesus meant that we could recite it in good conscience.

We and our teachers thus formed a temporary coalition, like shipmates forced to cooperate during a shared voyage. The teachers said they expected us to “lead the province” in the matriculation examinations at the end of senior year, and that they would be judged by our success, thus making us allies in a common cause. Only once did I resent being in a Christian school, and that was when an English teacher reproached the Jews of Shushan in the biblical book of Esther for killing an excessive number of their foes. Reading that same story in Jewish school, we had celebrated the escape of Jews from Haman’s murderous decree and commended them for killing their antagonists—without looting the spoils.

Our Mixed Class was discontinued after that first year, apparently written off as a failed experiment, and I was relegated thereafter to far less lively all-girl classes. My bright and friendly new classmates did not seem interested in what interested me. Perhaps for that reason, I put greater effort into extracurricular activities. When the music teacher auditioned for Gilbert & Sullivan, he cast me as Angelina in Trial by Jury, transposing the score downward so that I could hit the high notes. By junior year I was so desperate to get out of the classroom (while staying in our teachers’ good graces) that I bought a stuffed teddy bear and appointed myself mascot carrier for the boys’ basketball team. This was entirely wacky—the games featured no bands or cheerleaders—but no one objected to my ruse, which got me excused on afternoons when our team traveled to another school. Male sweat remains one of my favorite colognes.

Another target of my ambition was the student council, of which, by the end of junior year, I was elected president on the slogan, “Don’t Let the Students’ Council be Ruthless.” I thereupon made good on my campaign promises: to acquire a new scoreboard for the baseball diamond and to eliminate strapping. The latter I accomplished by proposing to our principal, Miss Hay, that she suspend physical punishment for a period of months and, if behavior did not worsen or perhaps even improved, prohibit the practice thereafter. No doubt she was already planning something similar, but she agreed with alacrity and I don’t think strapping was ever reinstated.

I even found a creative use for the reversal-of-roles gimmick of “camper-counselor day” that I had dreaded at my summer camp. My suggestion: that upper-class students contemplating a career in education be permitted on a certain day to take over as teachers of the junior grades. Anticipating favorable publicity, Miss Hay invited the press to cover the event; there I was in the next day’s paper, shown teaching one of the lower grades.

Do you find this girl insufferable? I, too, began to dislike her a little. In elementary school I had begun taking lessons in elocution and acting in productions of the local Children’s Theater. After hitting my prime at fifteen as Jo in Little Women, I was certain I had found my profession. The following season, disappointed to be cast only as stand-in for the female lead, I got to play the part after all when the assigned actress broke her ankle. Spooked by the thought that I might inadvertently have wished for her accident, I quit the program at the end of the year.

Ruth Wisse, née Roskies, second from left, as Jo in “Little Women.” Courtesy Ruth Wisse.

By the upper grades in high school, the same unease about competition made me begin to worry whether doing well in class also made it harder to be liked, and my anxiety increased once I wanted to be liked by the boys with whom I was competing. There was no one to talk to about any of these things; Ben was out of the house by then, and I had never gone to my parents with such problems.

As we approached our senior year the mathematics teacher, Mr. Russell, announced early-morning classes for students in the Latin stream interested in taking an additional set of matriculation exams in trigonometry, where it was easier to score a perfect grade than in the humanities. Math was my worst subject, and I had no intention of mastering trigonometry. But I was pursuing a boy who was taking the class and so became one of only two girls to accept Mr. Russell’s challenge—and the other girl excelled at mathematics.

I spent most of the class time exchanging notes with the object of my affections. When my combination of incompetence and inattention earned me a grade of 16 out of 100 in the first test, Mr. Russell gently took me aside and asked me to drop the class lest I lower the school average. I saw his point, and by then, luckily, the boy in question had asked me out. I told everyone about my disastrous grade, thinking it would enhance my standing as an average kid. Upon arriving home still in this state of euphoria, I flounced into the kitchen proclaiming, “I failed my math test!” Hearing only “failed” and “test,” and oblivious of the true nature of my accomplishment, Mother slapped me—I think for the last time.

No doubt, my behavior was a normal manifestation of the mating instinct that guides the reordering of our priorities as we enter that stage of life. Two generations earlier, my parents would have been arranging my marriage, but we were free—and required—to find our own mates, in my case with no adult guidance beyond my father’s telling me not to let the moon be my matchmaker, a line he might have picked up in a Russian novel.

Fortunately, most of the boys who attracted me liked the fact that I was as smart as they, but in developing crushes on a number of them I was also signaling that this new project was more urgent than the pursuit of grades. And I must have succeeded in shifting gears: though I lacked the normal qualities of a prom queen, some of the boys pulled off my nomination as a contestant. I did not merit the title, and it would have embarrassed me to win it, but I was overjoyed to be one of the also-rans to the lovely girl who deserved the crown.

The boys I admired were brave like Ben. At one school assembly, standing on the stage beside Miss Hay for the singing of “God Save the Queen”—Canada was then still part of the British Commonwealth—I was shocked to see two seniors, Jerry Pearl and Herbie Greenwald, demonstratively seated amid all the students on their feet. I realized they were acting in political solidarity with Israel, displaying their displeasure at England’s vile behavior in taking the Arab side against the fledgling Jewish state. But I wondered whether Miss Hay understood the point of their protest.

Had she asked, I would have told her that to protest Britain’s betrayal of the Jews expressed not disloyalty to Canada but faith in the workings of Western democracy. As she said nothing, I was left with the shame of my own conformism. Even if I’d considered the possibility of joining the boys in protest, I was under the greater obligation to be on good behavior.

But I also knew I had reason to be ashamed. Two girls had joined our class in tenth grade, a frizzy blond and a bobbed brunette, both of them Jewish refugees who had survived the war in France. I think the teacher introduced them only by name, Ida and Monique. I assumed they were friends because they arrived together, but they may have resented the accident of timing that turned them into a unit, making it harder to seek out other friends in the class.

Though curiosity and duty prompted me to befriend these newcomers, and though I sensed that we had much in common, I preferred to be among the popular girls in the class. I was never rude to the pair, yet I felt shabby neglecting them. Whether or not they would even have wanted to be friends with me, I should have had the grit to fulfill what I knew to be my obligation.

 

III

 

Had my adolescence been confined to Protestant high school, I would have been left like most of my classmates with very little Jewish knowledge or the confidence that comes with learning. Happily—if sometimes a little reluctantly—I attended mitl-shule, the extension classes of the Jewish People’s School that met after regular hours twice a week and on Sunday mornings. The few of us who continued with this program had the benefit of fine teachers and an advanced curriculum in Jewish literature and history.

When I once tried to summarize what we had learned, I called it our inclusive Jewish heritage “from the Tanakh to the Palmah,” that is, from the Hebrew Bible to the underground Jewish army in Palestine. I was unaware that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had used the same phrase to overleap the millennia between the loss of Jewish sovereignty and its recovery. He wanted modern Zionism to return as much as possible to its biblical source and to renounce the presumed passivity of the intervening centuries; we who would probably be staying in Canada needed to know how the Jews had managed in those centuries.

I later made these comments at a festive dinner retrospectively thanking the teachers of the Jewish People’s School for giving us the security to move out as Jews into the North American mainstream. The guest speaker at that same event was the American Jewish social philosopher Horace Kallen, who complimented me for anticipating his prepared remarks. As a cultural pluralist, Kallen resisted the idea of assimilation-through-homogenization; instead, he advised us to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people within a heterogeneous democracy. With no intentional malice, our exclusively Protestant-school education had, he intimated, encouraged our deracination, whereas Jewish instruction encouraged us instead to reinforce the tiles in the Canadian mosaic. We would serve our countries best by maintaining the pluribus in the phrase e pluribus unum.

Both my knowledge and my confidence were further strengthened by the summers I spent at a Hebrew-speaking camp. In recommending Camp Massad north of the city, a friend blew off my objection that I knew almost no Hebrew by saying I would pick it up like an immigrant—sink or swim. The first Hebrew word I added to my vocabulary that summer was yitushim, mosquitoes. But, ashamed to know less than the others, I quickly memorized all of the traditional daily blessings and the lyrics of Hebrew songs, along the way picking up the meaning of announcements over the ramkol (loudspeaker) about the dining room (ḥadar okhel) and canteen (tsurkaniya).

The adjustment from Pripstein’s, where I had been a camper since the age of five, was almost as severe as the shift from Jewish to Protestant school. Pripstein’s exuded familial generosity; the administration of Massad, founded in 1947 by a consortium of Zionist educators, tried to keep costs down and amenities to a minimum. And whereas Pripstein’s conveyed most of its Jewishness informally, Massad’s requirement that we speak only Hebrew, though not strictly enforced, reflected at once a stronger national purpose and a greater degree of religious observance. In the camp’s staging of a contemporary Israeli play, I once again, as in elementary school, enacted Israel’s War of Independence—but this time in Hebrew, playing a mother whose son is killed in battle. In a very small way my struggle to master the language felt part of Israel’s fight to secure the future of the Jewish people.

During my second summer at Massad I was promised a visit from Ben, by then the editor of the student publication of the International Zionist Federation of America and himself a student of textile engineering in Philadelphia with the intention of bringing his professional training to Israel. On my first solo trip to New York that spring, Ben, who had driven in from Philadelphia, took me to the Sabra nightclub where we heard the great Israeli singer Shoshana Damari.

On the evening of Ben’s visit to Massad I sang the camp’s praises, expecting his admiration. Somehow, he was not as enthusiastic as I’d anticipated. I tried to guess the reason why, but just as I had never admitted to him my skepticism about his youthful Habonim group, he may not have wanted to express his discomfort with the camp’s religious Hebraism, a nationalist fervor with no hint of socialist apologetics.

Even within our shared idea of the Jewish people, we were at that point pulling in slightly different directions, represented in Israel itself by different political parties. Pripstein’s, Habonim, Massad: the Jewish people had its own internal divisions as well as its own mosaic.

 

IV

 

Before my sophomore year in high school, our parents bought a house two doors up from Strathcona, half a block from where I had nervously lined up to register. By senior year I was as much at home with the Protestant school’s culture as I had been in Jewish elementary school. As president of the student council I was on good terms with the principal and with dozens of students in all grades. I felt that I glided easily between the hymns at Christmas assemblies and Mother’s Hanukkah songs at her annual family celebration. At Camp Massad we had been taught the Hebrew poem “Awake, My People” by Yehudah Leib Gordon, whose famous line—”Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home”—described the kind of balance I was trying to maintain between membership in a sovereign Jewish people and citizenship in our Canadian democracy. As if unconsciously channeling Horace Kallen, I enjoyed both sets of responsibilities.

The larger society was anyway quickly evolving. Three years after I graduated, the Strathcona building was sold; the Outremont High School built to replace it exemplified the simultaneous replacement of confessional schools by a non-denominational educational system. My younger siblings Eva and David both attended the new high school. On my few visits to it when Mother asked me to stand in for her at parent-teacher meetings, I would no more think back to my own adolescence than a butterfly does to the caterpillar it once was.

Nonetheless, my high-school experience generated an instructive epilogue.

Fifteen years ago, some of my former schoolmates decided to organize a 50th Strathcona Academy class reunion, the first of its kind. Lacking any updated school registry, they did their best to track down members of the 1953 graduating class. By the time I received the invitation, my husband and I had been away from Montreal for a decade, and we therefore looked to the reunion as a chance to reconnect with old friends. Such were the social networks of the Montreal community that, although Len had attended a different high school, his 40 years of lawyering in the city had put him in touch with most of the people at the planned gathering.

A week before the event one of the organizers called to ask that I be one of the speakers as former president of the student council. Although I tried to demur in favor of those who had organized the reunion, he insisted—and after a bit of mutual reminiscing I agreed. This man had invited me to my first school dance and afterward taken me to the kind of homey soda fountain where you joked about ordering a “pine float” (a toothpick in a glass of water). The evening was among the sweetest of my high-school years—until, as he walked me home much later than expected, I saw my parents coming toward us in their bathrobes. After that embarrassment we never dated again, but in preparing my remarks I had him in mind as a listener.

I’d been asked to speak for about five minutes, essentially the length of an op-ed piece. After discarding a number of early drafts, I went about the task as I’ve done here by describing what it was like in those years to be a majority of Jews in a Protestant school. In our homes, I said, there was grieving over the murdered Jews of Europe and concern for the fledgling state of Israel. For her part, Miss Hay could not have known that her favorite hymn at assembly, “Praise the Lord Ye Heavens Adore Him,” was sung to the same melody as “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” And yet—here was the intended point of my talk—the teachers wanted us to succeed and encouraged us to excel. Was this not as commendable as it was bizarre?

I was by then a practiced speaker who could sometimes bring audiences to their feet, so as I ended I knew immediately that something had gone wrong. The room was too dark to see the faces of my classmates, but I felt their disapproval, the kind familiar from other occasions when I said things people didn’t want to hear. But I usually knew in advance when and why I would meet resistance. Now, I thought I’d been saying the obvious. Afterward, however, the only ones to come over to thank me for my remarks were Herbie Greenwald (who long ago had ostentatiously sat through the singing of “God Save the Queen”) and a student who’d arrived from postwar Europe in junior year. They evidently thought I had voiced their disaffection.

In the following months I received letters advising me that I’d ruined the evening. “It was the wrong time and the wrong place to rebuke the teachers . . . and the PSBGM [Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal], the only school board accepting Jewish students at that time,” read one. Another asserted that my memories were highly atypical if not singular; from the other speakers that evening, I should have realized that the occasion required lighthearted and preferably comic remembrances of a carefree youth. I was utterly off-key.

I replied individually to those who had written me; had I followed my first impulse, which was to send the class an open letter of explanation, I might have made things worse. The truth is that much as I regretted allegedly “ruining” the evening and “insulting the two teachers who had come as our guests”—another offense with which I’d been charged—my chief mistake in preparing for the evening was failing to recognize how greatly I myself had changed in the intervening years. In preparing my remarks it no longer occurred to me to wonder what my schoolmates wanted or what the occasion required. I just wanted to get at the truth, and yes, I believed that truth rises, as in the Yiddish expression, like oil to the surface of water.

If my remarks disturbed my agemates, I was no less puzzled by their own reminiscences of youth. During our college days, some boys from other schools would recount pranks they had played on their teachers, like whispering until one elderly teacher turned up his hearing aid and then shouting out their answers, or disassembling a car and then reconstructing it on the top floor of the school. But were antics and frolics what we most wanted to think about after a half-century? To the degree that I wished to recover my adolescence, it was in order to correct its follies. In fact, I’d been hoping for the chance to speak with Monique and Ida, the girls who had come via France to join us in tenth grade, and belatedly to find something out about them. Neither one showed up at the reunion; Monique had died, and the organizing committee hadn’t managed to contact Ida.

True, I ought to have emphasized our thanks to the teachers, several among whom were veterans or war widows. And I ought to have made it clearer that I valued the arts of accommodation that I was fortunate to have mastered as part of my high-school education. What would we Jews be as a people if we did not learn to satisfy the requirements of those who tolerated our collective presence? Besides, our Canadian adjustment was ever so much gentler than the process Norman Podhoretz describes in his marvelous memoir, Making It, of being shamed into accepting a “brutal bargain.” Our teachers had generously and on the whole sensitively educated us for successful lives in Canada.

Nonetheless, although I could have said it better, the time had come to speak as well of the tensions we had experienced between the demands of being Jews and the requirements of joining Gentile—in this case frankly Protestant—society. My angry classmates seemed either to deny having experienced any such strain or to think it mean-spirited of me to mention something that had gone unmentioned in all the years of our schooling. But that it had gone unmentioned was for me the heart of the matter. Grateful as we were to be invited to join in the prayers and hymns and holiday assemblies, and to master the curriculum designed to perpetuate the Christian swath of Western civilization, our acquiescence also implied there was something illicit or shameful about our Jewishness. How discouraging that this contract of denial should have remained one of the school’s lasting legacies.

By the time I left high school I was ready for challenge, contradiction, and non-conformity. The promise of Canada in the 1950s was otherwise—as vast as the country, as firm as its democracy, and as open as life can seem at seventeen. How else can I put it but to say that to me then, and to my classmates still, there appeared no sign of adversity to be overcome? I was in the position, mutatis mutandis, of the young woman who in 2008 would work for the Obama campaign while supporting John McCain, but much less aware of the contradictions and far from ready to confront them.

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