Jews in the Diaspora have successfully adopted to local environments while keeping faith with Jewish traditions. This pattern of accommodation looms large in The People of the Book, a 28-minute documentary by Felix Lazarus which focuses on three towns in the Canadian province of Ontario — Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay.
Released in 1973, this time capsule of a movie is being streamed free of charge in May by the National Film Board of Canada in honor of Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.
As Lazarus correctly observes, small-town Canadian Jews have managed to strike a fine balance between assimilation and tradition. Like many other Canadians, they have embraced Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, which enables them to be good Jews and good Canadians.
In Sudbury, a mining town several hundred kilometres north of Toronto, Lazarus meets two Jewish men whose ancestors arrived here in the late 19th century from Europe. Wilf Moses owns a newspaper/magazine/book shop. Sam Rothschild, whose profession Lazarus leaves unmentioned, has been an alderman and president of the Canadian Curling Association.
Rothschild’s father arrived in Canada when nickel was discovered in Sudbury. A merchant, he donated the land on which the town’s first synagogue was built in 1913, when only 12 Jewish families lived here.
Regrettably, Lazarus does not explore the history of Sudbury’s Jewish community in any depth. He merely glosses over it, as if it is irrelevant. He resorts to the same unsatisfying method in the next two segments about Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay.
There are fewer than 80 Jews in Sault Ste. Marie. For inexplicable reasons, Lazarus zeroes in on Murray Davis, a local businessman who is trying to organize a memorial for his late father. Lazarus gleans nothing of value from these fleeting clips. In passing, he states that Jewish housewives who keep kosher order meat from Toronto.
In North Bay, Lazarus does not even scratch the surface of its Jewish community. Instead, he devotes this segment to a North African-born teacher who instructs Jewish students in religious studies at a synagogue. Here, too, a viewer learns nothing about North Bay’s Jewish community.
The People of the Book is not about the challenges Jews face in small towns in Canada, but about how they have adapted to their respective milieus. From this perspective, he falls short of the mark.
Had he chosen to do so, Lazarus could have provided viewers with a sound account of their lives in relatively remote places like Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay. Unfortunately, he does not, leaving us with a hurried, incomplete and superficial picture of three Jewish communities in Canada.