Jewish Canadian Identity: A.M. Klein’s “Heirloom”

By Shoji Motomura

An immigrant-receiving country such as Canada has many diverse religious and cultural groups. For example, Canada has the 4th largest Jewish population in the world. For much of their history, Jewish people lived without a homeland and suffered from religious persecution, the violence of pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and in the 20th century, genocide in Nazi Germany.

It is said that literature is a mirror which is important to a people’s identity. This Jewish experience has been reflected in literature and Jewish identity has been shaped by it. Literature written by Jewish Canadians in English shows strength, contrast and creativity, and it brings us to the problematic essence of Jewish Canadian identity. This paper examines the life of Montreal poet A.M. Klein and discusses Klein’s view of Jewish identity.

A.M. Klein, Montreal Jewish Poet

Abraham Moses Klein was born in Ratno, Ukraine in 1909 and died 1972. When he was 3 or 4 years old, he moved from Ratno to Montreal with his family, because of the pogroms taking place in the country. Thus like other Jewish families, Klein’s family sought a safer place to live. In 1915, Klein attended Mt Royal School and received his Jewish education from private tutors and at Talmud Torah. In 1922, he attended Bacon Byng High School. He began writing and publishing poems in 1926 when he was an undergraduate at McGill University, majoring in classics, political science and economics. In 1928, Klein served as educational director of Canadian Young Judaea, a Zionist Youth Organization. There, he edited monthly magazines and his works often appeared in magazines. In 1930, he studied law at the Université de Montréal. In 1934 he established a law firm with Max Garmise, and served as national president of Canadian Young Judaea. In 1935, he married Bessie Kozlov. In 1936, he was active in publicity and educational work, and on speaking tours, for the Zionist Organization of Canada, and editor of its monthly, the Canadian Zionist. In 1938, he assumed editorship of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, to which he contributed numerous editorials, essays, book reviews, poems, and stories. In 1939, he began to work as the president of Canadian Jewish Congress. In the next year 1940, his first volume of poems, Hath Not a Jew… was published by Behrman’s in New York (Canadian Poetry Online).

Klein’s early poetry of the 1920s and 30s was greatly concerned with Jewish themes, mainly the deaths and slaughter of Jews in European pogroms. Since he was young, Klein had heard many things about pogroms from his parents and other relatives who had suffered persecution, and Klein’s poems were influenced by these incidents. Klein was “the most Jewish poet who ever used the English tongue,” and his poems “present and subvert stereotypical and historical Jewish characters”. In fact, according to Hurley and Belyea, Klein shows “a symbolic representation of each individual’s struggle for personal integrity and wholeness.” Referring to Klein’s aims, Sherry Simon describes his position as a Jewish poet:

[Klein] was [not] the first Jew to write in English, but … he was the first to assert his Jewish identity through English. He was the hinge between the Yiddish-speaking world of his parents and the many important Montreal Jewish writers who would follow – notably Irving Layton, Mordecai Richer, and Leonard Cohen. (62)

It is interesting that Klein sought to describe his Jewish identity and thoughts in English instead of the Yiddish language, which was spoken in his native Ukraine. Klein decided to play the role of pioneer of Jewish writing in English. According to Simon, “Translation into English was never simply a form of modernization or updating. On the contrary, Klein strove for a kind of layered simultaneity of time and space” (62). As to Klein’s motivation to become a poet and a representative of his Jewish ethnic group and culture, Usher Caplan and M.W. Steinberg write, “Klein believed, then, that the fusion of divergent languages and cultures, far from being an aesthetic liability, could constitute a positive virtue. The fact that so few talented writers were as interested as he was in the creation of a truly Jewish literature in English was a source of considerable disappointment to him” (14). For Klein the Jewish poet “had necessarily to sacrifice a portion of his individualism. To be a poet of the people was to suffer a kind of anonymity and a frequent suppression of the private lyrical accent in favour of the public rhetorical voice” (Caplan and Steinberg 15). Also Klein as a Jewish poet, strives

to absorb into traditional English verse forms and subjects the lore and legends of his people, Klein eventually found and honed an authentic voice that speaks from his duality. Its linguistic virtuosity seems rooted in his native Montreal locale, one that affords a rich diversity and intermingling of dialects and cultures. (Hurley and Belyea 583)

Klein wrote as a representative of the Jewish people and their experiences. As mentioned before, Jewish people lost everything, and thus needed to create their own identity by themselves in their new homelands. But their traditions, it could be said, were fragmented and partly lost. They might be small things, fragments from traditions that were lost. A.M. Klein dares to speak of the situation and experiences of Jews as a representative of the group. Also by translating his Yiddish view of the people in English, Klein creates a fragmented, partly lost Jewish identity. Klein’s poem “Heirloom,” published in 1940, in particular describes his Jewish identity by using figures of metonymy and synecdoche.

[Visit Canadian Poetry Online to read Klein’s poem “Heirloom“]

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker refers to a common Jewish experience, that is, the lack of “wide estates.” His father does not bequeath him [the speaker] property such as real estate or ledgers or keys. The 1st line suggests the Jewish situation in Europe. For it was prohibited for Jews to own their own land. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “Jews, both male and female, who are living in Ukraine and other Russian towns are to be immediately deported beyond the frontier, and must not henceforth be allowed to enter Russia under any circumstances.” In line 2, “keys” and “ledgers” are metonymies of wealth and property. “Keys” means homes, and “ledgers” means account books used in business or to keep of track wealth. What his father leaves are only holy books. In this stanza, Klein offers negative images of the history that Jews have suffered. But Klein’s message is not entirely negative. In the figure of metonymy he finds the creative possibility of Jewish Canadian writing: a ‘creativity’ influenced by the history of Jewish people. Throughout this history, the Jews have been discriminated against. They had no homeland, no property, and they lost, altered or struggled to preserve their identity as Jews. With these things lost or fragmented, some small pieces remain. This idea of things left behind, such as keys and ledgers, implies the hardships of the Jews.

Later in the poem, Klein refers to a bridge between the importance of Jewish identity and western culture. As mentioned before, Klein is a Jewish pioneer who writes poems not in Yiddish but in English. In the line 13, in one of the holy books that his father leaves, there is “the snuff left on the page, now brown and old”. It is the proof that the father and his ancestry have certainly existed. In line 17, the speaker says, “And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground.” The speaker also would be a part of the history in respect of that the speaker adds something (here described as “tears”) to what his father has left behind.

In addition, this stanza has an ironic meaning, Klein says, “these are my coat of arms” in line 15. The coat of arms comes from European tradition of war; it is a symbol showing a family’s identity, sometimes used as a banner in order to distinguish which party a soldier belongs to. It was permitted for the rich classes who could afford to have estates to own coat of arms. Jewish people could not. Klein, however, considers the snuff and a white fallen hair from his father in the fifth stanza as his own coat of arms, exclaiming “my noble lineage, my proud ancestry!” (l.16). Synecdoche is used here again as Klein refers to a white fallen hair in order to describe his father. He keeps it and considers it as his legacy. As seen in these things, he is proud of his ancestry and what his father and his ancestors stand for. Thus Klein declares his pride and decision to live and write as a Jew. Klein shows that he is the representative of Jewish people. As seen in this poem, the feature of Jewish Canadian writing in English shows strength, contradiction, and creativity in the face of extreme hardship.

A.M. Klein’s poem “Heirloom” expresses the idea that literature written by Jewish Canadians in English shows power to stand, and it brings us to the problematic essence of Jewish Canadian identity. This poem includes the whole of Klein’s role within and his image of Jewish tradition. As seen in the lines referring to the truth that it was prohibited for Jews to own their land, “My father bequeathed me no wide estates – No keys and ledgers were my heritage” (ll.1-2). Showing respect for his ancestry and declaring his decision to live and write as a Jew, he says, “The snuff left on this page, now brown and old – These are my coat of arms, and these unfold – My noble lineage, my proud ancestry! – And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground – A white hair fallen from my father’s beard” (ll.13, 15-17, 20).

By focusing on a Jewish Canadian poet who decides to write his Jewish identity in English, A.M. Klein, it becomes possible to learn how a new literature in English is connected to and influenced by Jewish history. In respect of Klein’s influence on Jewish literature, another Jewish Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, says,

His [Klein’s] fate was very important to me [Cohen], what happened to and what would happen to a Jewish writer in Montreal who was writing in English, who was not totally writing from a Jewish position….Klein came out of the Jewish community of Montreal, but [he] had a perspective on it and on the country, and on the province. He made a step outside the community. He was no longer protected by it. (Nadel 67)

In the situation where few other Jewish poets and writers were interested in the writing of true Jewish experiences in English, Klein represented the Jewish tradition as a new but fragmented tradition, adapting himself to his new homeland, an English-speaking country. By translating his Yiddish thinking into English, Klein describes the history that his ancestors have accumulated, a fragmented Jewish identity created in hardship and exile. However, as seen in the poem “Heirloom,” the Jews have become strong enough to be proud of their ancestors and themselves, and create their own culture and community. 

References and Further Reading

Hurley, Michael. and Belyea, Andy. “Klein, A.M.” Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Ed. William H. New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

The Jewish Encyclopedia <>

Kattan, Naim. A.M. Klein Poet and Prophet. Lantzville: XYZ Publishing, 2001.

Klein, A.M. Literary Essays and Reviews. Eds. User Caplan and M.W. Steinberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Toronto: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Simon, Sherry. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Shoji Motomura is a graduate (2009) of the Dept. of British and American Cultural Studies.