One hundred years of Jewish Montreal

A Century Songbook, a tapestry of iconic songs, dances and personal stories

By Byron Toben

Over the years, the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, founded in 1958, has provided memorable full-scale productions to Segal Centre audiences. This year, it again produced a tears and cheers “musical journey celebrating the past 100 years of Jewish life in Montreal”.

Written by long-time member Edit Kuper, who co-produced with fellow vet Aron Gonshor, they managed to assemble 26 performers, some going back 50 years. An onstage band of six provided zesty music, headed by pianist Nick Burgess. Choreographer Jenny Brizard kept the troops whirling about.

The whole was indeed “a tapestry of iconic songs, dances and personal stories”.

The 75-minute show started and ended with the popular Those Were the Days. Based on a Russian romantic tune and translated in to English by Columbia University prof Eugene Raskin, it became a big hit in the 60s. Here is a rare Russian YouTube version of it:

The show invoked the Jazz age with singer/sax player Billy Finkelstein doing Bye-bye Blackbird. It then passed through the Depression with Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (sung by Burney Lieberman), leading to optimism with Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Rhona Sobol) (both Yip Harburg classics) and on to World War II and Montreal becoming, after Tel Aviv and New York, the city with the third most Holocaust survivors (10,000).

Honoured were also the many famous Baron Byng (the Jewish ghetto high school within the Protestant school Board) alumni.

Moments of joy were recollected with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Dozens of rare video and photographs were projected on the screen behind the ensemble.

Mostly in English, the show included French, Yiddish, Hebrew and even Russian tunes. One touching Yiddish highlight was Sam Stein voicing Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern (Under Your White Stars), which was written by Avraham Sutzkever in the Vilna ghetto.

Mostly in English, the show included French, Yiddish, Hebrew and even Russian tunes.

A Century Songbook - WestmountMag.ca

Yuri Vedenyapin strummed on guitar while singing the Russian Moscow Nights, even translating one verse into Yiddish. Even a dance by some Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews admitted to Canada) was included.

Cultural celebs A.M. Klein, Mordechai Richler and Leonard Cohen were not overlooked.

A touch of humour listed Montreal Jewish foods… bagels, smoked meat and… Yangtze eggrolls.

The ensemble all joined in Halleluiah (Cohen version) and Bronna Levy sang one of his verses translated into Yiddish, as did Westmounter Stephanie Finkelstein, in Hebrew.

The whole an amazingly smooth production despite the twice a week evening rehearsals until stepped up the last few weeks.

A Century Songbook ended at the Segal Centre on November 29.

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Images: Leslie Schachter

Read also: Romeo and Juliet still resonates 425 years later

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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