As an immigrant nation, one of the most important questions for Canadians has been: what does it mean to be Canadian? Within the field of Jewish history, scholars such as Gerald Tulchinsky, Harold Troper, Irving Abella, and Ruth Frager have explored the formation of Jewish communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Scholars of ethnic and racialized women, including Franca Iacovetta, Marlene Epp, and Varpu Lindstrom, have often focused on the ways in which immigrant women worked hard to establish new lives. However, none of these works have addressed the central question: how do individuals already living in Canada define their sense of being Canadian? Despite the excellent work that has been done on the immigrant generation, the experiences of Jewish men, and the experiences of Jewish women in the garment industry, scholars of both Jewish history and women’s history have yet to explore how second- and third-generation Canadian women and men reconciled their Old World culture and their present nationality in creating a distinctly Canadian identity. Yet, without such an understanding, can we ever truly understand what it means to be Canadian?
My first book, Becoming Ourselves: Women and the Creation of Jewish Identity in Montreal, 1945-1980 (forthcoming from UBC Press) fills this gap by examining the ways in which Jewish women of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi) in postwar Montreal sought to define for themselves a distinct identity that was at once Jewish, Canadian, and female. By comparing written documents and oral histories and inserting gender and ethnicity into the study of national identity, Becoming Ourselves is able to track currents of thoughts and fragmented sets of discussions about ethnic identity by comparing public and private expressions of Canadian “Jewishness.”
The ways that Jewish women perpetuated, modified, or even abandoned Old World practices to fit the exigencies of Canadian life are instructive for the study of ethnic women in Canada more generally. If we are to truly understand the ways that ethnic women learn to be Portuguese, Greek, Japanese, and so on, we must look to the way that they have understood their place in society. In some cases this might mean that certain values (woman as homemaker) became more prominent in certain ethnic communities, while other values and norms (body image) were modified to fit Canadian standards. The study of changing ethnic identities, though fraught with contradictions, will lead to a more complex and richer picture of Canadian women’s history and Canadian history more generally. Becoming Ourselves provides a model for future scholars in this field for the incorporation of oral history as a major source of information. It is for this reason that Becoming Ourselves is important not only for scholars of Jewish history, but also for Canadian history and women and gender history more generally. Becoming Ourselves builds upon these previous works by filling a gap in the Canadian context through a consideration of “ordinary Jewish women” in Montreal. By “ordinary” I refer to individuals who were homemakers, teachers, and secretaries as opposed to those who were public figures in the Jewish and larger Canadian community.
This book draws upon my doctoral dissertation, “What My Mother Taught Me: The Construction of Canadian Jewish Womanhood in Montreal, 1945-1980,” which I defended in November of 2011 at the University of Victoria. I have presented my findings at several different conferences, including the Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting, the Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association, the Canadian Committee on Women’s History Conference, the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association Conference, and the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies Annual Meeting. My work has also been published in Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History and Histoire Sociale/Social History.