“Evangeline” – the romantic, tragic, poetic epic by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow we used to read in the Providence public schools – is depicted on postcards, posters, clips from the eponymous Hollywood movie with Dolores del Rio in the title role, in marble busts within glass cases and on canvas in somber hues.
Where? Moncton University (the only exclusively francophone college in Canada) in the Acadian Museum building. The gift case display bears the names “Louise and Reuben Cohen”.
Who are they? Polish Holocaust survivors who prospered in Moncton. Now a 92-year-old widower, Reuben conducted the Sabbath prayers at the nearby Tifereth synagogue on Steadman Street just off Main Street. He chanted with elegance and poise. I stayed for the Kiddush after a Rosh Hodesh service and said “L’chaim” over shot glasses of excellent Canadian club and Crown Royal offered, perhaps surprisingly, with matzah as well as mini pitas.
What was I doing here? Well, my wife was at a conference on breastfeeding and I travelled with her on a research hunch.
Is it possible, as Michele Doucette, a computer– or “ordinateur” – “friend” claims, that Evangeline herself, or the people she symbolized, was a secret Jewish conversa?
Remember the plot of the verse? The Brits and the French are continually at war over rights to the Canadian soil and shorelines, rich in fish and farmland. The English win the battles, of course, and the Quebecois await over four centuries for Charles de Gaulle to restore their pride and their patois; however, it had either changed or simply endured.
The Acadians, however, refuse to swear total allegiance to the Anglo-Saxon king, or at least to commit to taking arms against the French king. They are, therefore, deported; many are doomed to die at sea, or of hunger, thirst, at the hands of pirates, wherever they seek refuge, in Philadelphia or New Orleans, or wherever the winds and waters take them, helplessly adrift. Evangeline finds her lost fiancé, Gabriel, when she, as a nurse, discovers and rescues him. Alas, he perishes in her arms.
Does this sound just a bit like a fictional Holocaust memoir? Or maybe more like a Purim story, or an Inquisition Ladino ballad of wandering tribes subject to the whims of pirates upon the hostile human but inhumane planet?
I asked at the Moncton synagogue if anybody else in the area is pursuing the subject of anusim (abandoning Jewish religion against one’s own will) connections to Acadian accounts. The answer I received from a French-Jewish congregant, born in 1938 in Strasbourg, Alsace, but brought to Canada, who teaches at Moncton University, was, no way! “They were pawns in a political tug-of-war and that’s all there is to it! The flourishing survivors in the region are all named Le Blanc and share a common ancestor. They weren’t suppressed by the Church; they were a faithful flock.” And he walked me back, most amiably, to my hotel and left it at that.
Nevertheless, Michele Doucette declares otherwise. She traces other Acadian patronymics plus other towns in metropolitan France that once had Jewish populations and cultures. “The Acadians came from La Rochelle and Rouen as well as Bayonne and Bordeaux, which abut the Spanish mountainous border. There must have been Jews fleeing the persecutions of Holy Office and the torments and tortures of Torquemada, mixing in among them. It figures.”
And then, the bellman at my hotel accompanied me to the long riverside walkway and said, “Go to the right and you can read the diverse destinies and history of Moncton on the memorial stones. Or take the left path and you will find the bookstores, art galleries, and statues of the founders of region.”
I did both, and found herb gardens, Irish famine monuments, and skate-and-graffiti parks. At the left, I found and photographed a most impressive sculpture of the first mayor of Moncton – a shipbuilder and merchant named Joseph Salter. One of the names of the sponsors of this grand testimonial was “Druckman.” Betty Rubin and husband Isaac share the list with other notables, but I discovered that Betty was a lady of Hadassah and an officer at the Tifereth Synagogue. They are a prominent couple in the high society of the city.
I wondered if, even though I could have failed to find Jewish secrets among the Acadians, I might discover a touch of Torah among the German names, such as Salter. I stepped into the public library – also very close to my hotel – and read the diary of this 19th century successful statesman. No mention of anything Hebraic, but I did notice that his business journeys had taken him among the very Caribbean communities famous for their welcoming of Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain, representing the free enterprise of the Dutch colonialists. I close this chapter of my early research with the reminder that, among the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, there are not only many myths and legends and ancient Biblical sources of information, but there are also, all around and among us, recent and even contemporary versions of our co-religionists vanished into the void.
Among my fellow Minyan acquaintances of this Sabbath morning, Jews from many lands close by and far away, graciously greeted me and made mention of the continuing threats to their rabbis and their very persons. “It was difficult to purchase this land upon which the synagogue stands, and we are a smaller congregation as families move away for safer shores. There have been murders even of rabbis in the past. Beware!”
The weather was, nevertheless, easygoing and lovely for hiking. The weekend in Canada was lit by sunbeams as well as fine whisky! And the fate of all folks shares familiar themes, ecumenical hope being a universal one.
Mike Fink (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.