Mordecai Richler’s typewriter is among the many items on display in the exhibit Shalom Montreal, which is at Montreal’s McCord Museum until Nov. 11. (photo by Arthur Wolak)
Shalom Montreal: Stories and Contributions of the Jewish Community is at Montreal’s McCord Museum, across from McGill University, until Nov. 11.
The exhibition showcases how Montreal’s diverse Jewish communities have participated in the city’s growth and development, including the remarkable Jewish achievements in various sectors, from arts and culture, health and science, legal and community groups, and business and real estate. It does an excellent job telling the story – through videos, photos, audio recordings, as well as numerous visual displays – of how the Jewish community grew and benefited not only Jews but also continues benefiting all Montrealers.
Montreal now boasts a Jewish population of 90,000. Jewish immigrants began settling there as far back as the 18th century. Between 1904 and 1914, Montreal saw the largest wave of Jewish immigration, with many Jews arriving to the city from Eastern Europe fleeing from antisemitism and violent pogroms. Yiddish culture flourished. More Jews settled in Montreal after the First World War, but far fewer due to Canada’s restrictive policy against Jewish immigrants. Then, after the Second World War, and with new policies in place, several thousand Holocaust survivors immigrated to Montreal, making Yiddish the third most commonly spoken language in the city after French and English.
At the same time, Sephardi Jews from Arab-Muslim countries, also fleeing persecution, arrived in Montreal, including some 10,000 Moroccan Jews who spoke French. This helped them find their place in Quebec, as they set up new institutions featuring their own cultural practices, which differed from those of the Ashkenazim, who had dominated for decades.
Jews of Montreal faced antisemitic policies in the predominantly Catholic and Protestant population, which prohibited Jews from attending Catholic schools, placed barriers for Jews in Protestant schools and even saw a Jewish quota placed in various faculties of McGill University between the 1930s and 1950s. Nonetheless, Jewish contributions to the larger community are recognized today for their positive impact on society in general.
These contributions are highlighted in the exhibition. Jewish architects – Max Kalman, Max Wolfe Roth, David Fred Lebensold and Moshe Safdie, among others – and artists became prominent through their design of important city buildings. Jewish philanthropists, such as the Azrielis, Bronfmans, Cummingses, Hornsteins, Pollacks, Segals and Steinbergs, paid for well-known Montreal educational, cultural, medical and other buildings benefiting all Montrealers. Jewish lawyers, such as Alan B. Gold, Anne-France Goldwater and Irwin Cotler, have promoted social equity, evident in many controversial cases. In 1919, the Canadian Jewish Congress was founded in Montreal – in 2009, the Quebec wing branched off as the Quebec Jewish Congress – providing support to human rights groups.
Jewish contributions to healthcare are particularly noteworthy, with research that has gone beyond the confines of Montreal to benefit the international community. Within the city, Jewish doctors, wanting to counter systemic Catholic and Protestant antisemitic policies, established the Jewish General Hospital in the 1930s. Considered one of the great hospitals in Quebec, it had Canada’s first non-discrimination policy, accepting patients and employees from all communities, and it still thrives today.
Montreal’s clothing industry flourished due to the influence of Jewish immigrants. In the 1930s, the industry employed 35% of Montreal Jewish workers, who were known for their garment skills. Later on, clothing companies founded in Montreal by Jewish families include Reitmans, Le Château, Canadelle, Peerless, Aldo, and clothing brands like Joseph Ribkoff and Parachute.
Shalom Montreal is well worth a visit. It uses entertaining and informative multimedia, along with many visual artifacts, to prove there is far more to Jewish Montreal than its legendary bagels and smoked meat.
Arthur Wolak, PhD, is a business consultant, writer and member of the board of governors of Gratz College. His most recent books are The Development of Managerial Culture (Palgrave Macmillan) and Religion and Contemporary Management (Anthem Press), available in hardcover and ebook formats from all online retailers. He lives with his wife and three children in Vancouver.
The gruff yet endearing Jewish character actor Ed Asner is instantly recognizable to many people for his portrayal of the equally gruff yet amiable Lou Grant in the classic 1970s television sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff drama Lou Grant. Fewer people realize that the Emmy Award-winning actor is also a well-known political activist, whose views became more prominent in the 1980s during his two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Asner, now 88 and far from retirement – he just performed here in April in a one-man stage play – has written The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs (Simon & Schuster, 2017) with Ed Weinberger, longtime screenwriter for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In this compelling read, Asner attempts – in his own words – to “reclaim the [U.S.] Constitution” from far-right conservative pundits. Making no secret of his ideological perspective, Asner argues, “The constitution is the cornerstone of the Republican party’s agenda, along with small government, less regulation and making sure the rich pay less taxes than the rest of us.” Yet, he maintains, the constitution was written to form a robust central government – giving sweeping powers to Congress (not the states) – secured by an equally strong executive branch. He further asserts, “Nothing in the constitution suggests, let alone enforces, the concepts of limited government, limited taxes and limited regulations.” Far from hating taxation, the framers of the constitution, writes Asner, desperately needed taxes because “[t]hey had a war to pay off.”
Asner notes that John Adams had wanted the presidential role to have even more powers by not requiring the “advice and consent” of the Senate to make federal and cabinet appointments, “a clear signal that Adams, like [Alexander] Hamilton, believed in a strong central government headed by an executive with vigorous powers.”
About the constitution’s founders and framers, Asner says they were “petty, flawed, inconsistent and all too human,” but, he concedes, they were highly educated “eloquent orators and brilliant writers,” who, “[u]nlike the current right-wing doomsayers and fearmongers, they were all, truly, apostles of optimism.”
Asner spends several chapters discussing God and the constitution – notably God’s absence from the preamble, as well as the Presidential Oath of Office – and speculates why the framers took their approach. He points out George Washington was a Grand Master Mason on whose Bible he took his oath of office, noting, “Masonic Bibles do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ.” As for Benjamin Franklin, Asner says, “you can quote endlessly about Franklin’s faith in Christian ethics, but none about his faith in Jesus the Christ.” Regarding Adams, Asner mentions that, as a member of the New England branch of the Unitarian Church, Adams and fellow “Unitarians did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, the Holy Trinity or Original Sin.” In other words, Asner takes a swipe at the Christian right who claim Christian origins for the American constitution. Asner points out that the entire career of James Madison Jr., as “a politician, lawmaker, intellectual – was devoted to the separation of church and state.” Yet Asner defends First Amendment rights for freedom of religion.
Not only does Asner explore in great detail the actual writing of the constitution and the financial backgrounds of all 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, but he does so in the gruff and thorough style of newsman Lou Grant. About these delegates – whom he claims conservative legal theory holds were “infallible patriots” who behaved “solely to establish national unity, economic development and the civil liberties of all citizens” – Asner concludes, “One thing is for certain: they are not the saints living in the imagination of the right wing, acting out God’s will.”
Asner notes that more than 40 delegates held government bonds, more than 15 were slave owners, and several were land and debt speculators. Most participated in more than one category, like Washington, who was not only “a slave owner [but] a money lender, a land speculator and the largest holder of government IOUs in the country.” Asner points out that small farmers, shopkeepers, labourers, Revolutionary War veterans and slaves, among others, were not at the convention. Hence, he paints a picture of a small group of “capitalist elites” with personal interests – two notable exceptions being Madison and Hamilton – who framed the constitution. In reaching his conclusions, Asner draws on the ideas of American historian Charles A. Beard’s admittedly controversial early 20th-century economic views of the document.
Asner shows his creativity in a humorous way, like in his “Open Letter to Senator Ted Cruz, Written in the Style of 1787,” where he states, “I am prompted to write this upon discovery of a foreword you penned to The U.S. Constitution for Dummies.” He proceeds to carefully address, in language of the day, five of Cruz’s assertions, after which he closes with “Whilst This Flame Exists Within Me, I Remain Your Most Staunch Adversary.”
Not many could pull this off as well as Asner. Same goes for his scathing review of the controversial personal and constitutional views of Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon and secretary of housing and urban development. And Asner goes further in his criticism of such contemporary conservative social critics as Ann Coulter.
Asner critiques the origins of the Bill of Rights using language of the era in the inventive form of a series of letters from Madison to heighten the drama of the time. After all, as Asner correctly notes, “It is the Bill of Rights – guaranteeing our freedoms of speech, conscience, religion, and the press – that is the centrepiece of America’s exceptionalism.” However, he also argues its practical limitations over the centuries through a careful description of a series of legal cases.
Asner even shares his own set of constitutional amendments, both humorous and real, including his desire for a guaranteed minimum income, which he is careful to note was not just a liberal idea but was also advocated by conservative economist Milton Friedman and nearly implemented by Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Yet, for a self-declared “old-time lefty,” Asner surprises the reader with his qualified defence of the Second Amendment. He devotes an entire chapter to it.
Asner says he is “not against guns and the good people who own them.” He even admits to owning a Glock 15 – obtained for reasons of self-defence after receiving a death threat in 1979 – and a Beretta Px4, because he “liked its look and the heft of it” in his hand. However, he convincingly argues that American “gun culture” has led to too many deaths. He concedes, “It’s a bloody trail that leads right back to the Second Amendment,” specifically, “the right wing’s interpretation of it: an unfettered licence for every American to own, carry, collect, trade and eventually shoot a gun.” He maintains that this item in the Bill of Rights was not the clearest constitutional amendment ever written because, when it states the need for “a well-regulated militia,” that does not automatically imply a concurrent “personal right” for the individual citizen “to keep and bear arms.”
Asner takes this view from a close examination of the wording used by the framers of the constitution. “The only two subjects in the Second Amendment,” notes Asner, “are collective nouns: ‘state militia’ and ‘people.’” Asner asks, “where, then, can anyone find an individual right to own a weapon except as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’”? He maintains that, historically, Madison’s intent was to limit the Second Amendment “only to state militias” and that the United States was, in fact, “founded on gun control,” with a balance between gun ownership and the desire for public safety. He goes on to outline a very persuasive argument to support his case while emphasizing that “today, despite the evidence, the gun lobby has the chutzpah to claim that the Second Amendment belongs to them and them alone.” According to Asner, the issue boils down to whether the Second Amendment represents a fundamental or absolute right that cannot be limited nor regulated – Asner maintains the former view.
Ultimately, Asner feels it’s time to return to the kind of America its founders envisioned, including a “government that rules by reason, tempered with compassion and advanced by science,” that guarantees free speech and respects liberties for all while protecting its most vulnerable citizens.
Whether left, right or centrist, readers will learn much from Asner, who comprehensively studied the topic and arrived at a serious analysis along with amusing takes. Since his voice is heard throughout the book, it’s easy to imagine this tome being transformed into a one-man stage play some day. But no one could do it as well as Asner. As for why an award-winning actor like him would write about the U.S. Constitution, Asner states without equivocation, “Well, why not me? After all, I have played some of the smartest people ever seen on television.” Newsman Lou Grant would be the first to agree.
Arthur Wolak, PhD, is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a member of the board of governors of Gratz College. He is author of The Development of Managerial Culture and Religion and Contemporary Management, available in hardcover and ebook formats from all online retailers.
Since Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, arguing the importance of the division of labor and launching the era of specialization, a formal managing role – initially personified by the owner of the enterprise – became necessary to coordinate the diverse tasks and operations of machines and workers.
As a modern profession, management is relatively new. It rose in importance during the 20th century as formerly unskilled preindustrial workers transformed into skilled workers, and their increasingly specialized knowledge and skills needed coordinators and supervisors to ensure the attainment of organizational objectives. Although the managerial role subsequently shifted from owners to professional managers, the latter tended to pursue similar goals as the wealthy elite who retained corporate ownership interest.
Comparing business owners in two of the largest English-speaking nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, suggests they were quite distinct from each other. The American business leader was typified by Horatio Alger-type stories of rising from the depths of poverty to the height of financial success. The rapid economic growth of the Gilded Age in the decades that followed the Civil War contributed to a stereotype of achievement, suggesting the existence of “equality of opportunity.” This American cultural striving for – and adulation of – achievement reflects the strength of individualism in American society. In contrast, the role of the businessman in Britain and Canada was different. Australian sociologist Sol Encel suggests that the typical representative during the 18th and 19th centuries was not just a male who owned a small business but one who was capable of seizing the opportunities provided by technological change to increase the size of his plant or create a completely new enterprise, revealing “a tradition of hard work, self-denial, the ploughing back of profits and the gradual building up of small firms into large ones.” There was less ruthless competition and vicious battles with trade unions compared to the United States but, similar to the U.S. tradition, British leaders of industry were viewed as “self-made men,” typified by a Scotsman like Samuel Smiles.
Encel rightfully alludes to Alger and Smiles for they provided flattering images of individuals who successfully built up their enterprises ostensibly on their own initiatives, whose achievements were admired by their peers and workers alike. There is a notable absence of such images in Australia where, in contrast with these other cultures, Encel observes, “Businessmen, apart from isolated individuals, are not generally regarded as having contributed prominently to the ‘development’ of Australia.” Credit for this largely belongs to members of the working class who championed egalitarianism and preferred flatter hierarchies, often to the chagrin of the more individualist managerial class.
As the managerial role evolved following the Second World War, it was no longer seen exclusively in the context of business. In the words of American management guru Peter Drucker, management “pertains to every human effort that brings together in one organization people of diverse knowledge and skills.” In a modern sense, “management” applies as much to the functioning of nonprofit organizations – from religious institutions, charities, social service agencies and public academic institutions – to the world of business and government. The term “manager,” therefore, signifies a role known by various titles, from supervisor, director and department head, to team leader and coordinator, among numerous other possibilities. Regardless of the title, contemporary managers focus their efforts on controlling, directing or coordinating the work of others.
Although the activities of managers have evolved to include a more supportive role to help the work efforts of people by coaching and otherwise supporting their labors, whether first-line, middle or top managers, they have customarily been defined as people to whom other people directly report. This arrangement suggests vertical hierarchy with management above workers, so the term manager applies to holders of positions of authority who not only possess the ability to influence how people work or behave but also indirectly impact their quality of life. Hence, the origins and implications of differences between Australian and Canadian egalitarianism and the role of political ideology in the development of the managerial outlook expose subtle variances in managerial culture. Management models also provide a window to identify salient Anglo-Celtic cultural features in managerial style. How workers organized is also revealing.
Unions in Australia and Canada emerged in the late 19th century as powerful representatives of workers in their dealings with management. In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, there was a rise in employment arrangements with individual employees rather than the workforce as a collective entity, a development that reflects a largely Anglo-Protestant management’s preference to reduce as much as possible union involvement in employment policy matters. Even in instances when union involvement could not be excluded from the bargaining process, the heightened focus on the individualization of employment has been evident in the increased use of performance-based pay systems over job- or grade-based pay, and with greater reliance on individual goal-setting procedures and appraisal, and more direct communication with individuals instead of unions as an intermediary. Prior to the rise of this individualist trend, however, collectivism strongly affected employment policies due to the strength of unions and the ideological and ethnic influences that helped shape Australian and Canadian society. The ideological influences on each culture were not identical. But what do the terms individualism and collectivism mean when applied specifically to the context of management? Above all, they provide a useful way to see influences on labor-management relations.
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. He received his PhD in management from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia. He has published articles in Australian, Canadian, U.S., U.K. and Israeli academic journals, as well as written for numerous newspapers, including the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Independent. This is an excerpt from his book The Development of Managerial Culture: A Comparative Study of Australia and Canada (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Bitstrips creator Jacob “BA” Blackstock. (photo from Bitstrips)
One of the most popular apps ruling the Internet today is Bitstrips, digital comic strips made from computer bits. The app achieved virtual global fame in no small part due to it creator, Jewish cartoonist – now Bitstrips chief executive officer and creative director – Jacob “BA” Blackstock.
A Canadian venture, Bitstrips allows users to create avatars of themselves and others to produce a comic based on various customizable scenarios. New ones are provided nearly every day. The users can make adjustments to their facial expressions or gestures, choose who to include in the scene and add dialogue or thought bubbles to create a cartoon to encapsulate a moment, a holiday sentiment or a mood. And for those who are cartoon fans, Bitstrips has proven a popular vehicle from which to demonstrate one’s wit and talent – or lack thereof.
Born and raised in Toronto where Bitstrips was founded in 2007 and where its headquarters remains, BA – Blackstock’s nickname since childhood – has enjoyed a lifelong passion for comics.
“I’ve been drawing and creating comics since I was a little kid. Our team has been friends for decades and a love of comics has always been central to our friendship. We’ve always enjoyed making comics for each other, whether in the classroom in high school or later on in life,” said Blackstock in an interview.
Bitstrips’ executive team is comprised of Blackstock, David Kennedy (vice-president, technology), Shahan Panth (vice-president, marketing) and Dorian Baldwin (lead interactive developer), who were all co-founders.
Bitstrips essentially came about while Blackstock was developing a quicker way to make his own comics. He “realized that this technology could be used to make comics accessible to everyone – and enable them to have the fun of social comic creating and sharing that my friends and I had already been experiencing for years.”
While the company started up in 2007, bitstrips.com was formally launched in March 2008 at SXSW (South by Southwest), which sponsors festivals and conferences for film, interactive media and music in Austin, Tex. However, though its Facebook app had been around since December 2012, Bitstrips’ popularity took off almost overnight when Bitstrips iOS mobile app launched for the iPhone in October 2013.
The sudden fame exceeded Blackstock’s expectations. “We launched in stealth mode with no PR or marketing with the sole purpose of testing out the app and letting it grow organically. We never expected the explosion in users once the mobile app launched so we definitely weren’t initially prepared.”
After the iPhone release, use of Bitstrips grew almost exponentially. “Within two months of the apps launch,” Blackstock said, “we saw over 30 million avatars created through the app (iOS & Android). It quickly became the #1 free app in over 40 countries,” including the United States, “and the #1 entertainment app in over 90 countries. Many of the world’s biggest cities, including New York, Chicago, London, Hong Kong and Mexico City, now have hundreds of thousands of citizens with Bitstrips avatars.”
Today, Bitstrips are visible everywhere and are shared via email, SMS and on all the major social media channels. Additionally, Bitstrips for Schools, which hit the education market in fall 2009 to teach children with the aid of comics, is another division that continues to thrive.
Even before it became popular, Bitstrips had already attracted the attention of investors with a $3 million infusion by Horizon Ventures, a global investment firm headquartered in Hong Kong. “They discovered us last summer, before we’d finished the mobile app, as Bitstrips were already popping up all over Facebook,” said Blackstock.
This infusion of capital has enabled the Canadian-based company to expand. “We will use this round of funding to add to the engineering team, hire more artists, enhance the product and, of course, increase the number of servers to help us handle the dramatic growth in users we have been experiencing,” he explained.
But what attracts so many social media users to Bitstrips?
“Everyone needs to express themselves, however they can – and comics are an incredibly powerful way to communicate. Bitstrips is giving people a genuinely new way to communicate, one that is more visual and relevant than simple text, photos and emoticons,” said Blackstock.
“It’s a visual language that everyone understands. But, even more importantly, it’s you – your Bitstrips look like you, and reflect your personality. And not only is it a new form of self-expression, it’s a new way to interact with your friends. Combine all those things and you have something that people all over the world will enjoy.”
Dialogue is still only available in English, though other languages are in the company’s future.
“The amazing thing about Bitstrips is that people in many different countries and different cultures have been adapting the same comics, adding their own text, to make their own personal creations,” noted Blackstock. “It’s been the #1 entertainment app in 100 countries.”
Inevitably, with such popularity also comes a measure of disdain.
Blackstock acknowledged this development. “While Bitstrips is extremely popular, which is great, some enthusiastic users were oversharing on their Facebook feeds and some people who don’t love Bitstrips were getting quite upset. In terms of a solution, Facebook sharing can be turned off. Also, we rolled out an update that makes in-app sharing the default with Facebook sharing an option users need to select.”
The scenarios for Bitstrips cartoons come primarily from the creative minds of a team of four, including Blackstock, co-founder Panth, T.J. Garcia and James Spencer. The rest of the company team is also invited to contribute ideas on a regular basis.
These days, said Blackstock, the company is “entirely focused on making Bitstrips a seamless and awesome experience.” From a business perspective, he added, “We have lots of ideas for monetization down the road, potentially including in-app purchases – but whatever we do to monetize, we will make sure it is done in a way that enhances the user experience and remains true to our brand.”
Blackstock is confident that the future of Bitstrips remains bright. “We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to Bitstrips’ popularity,” he said.
Asked about his own background and attraction to the comic medium, Blackstock said it began “through mass consumption of comics.” He realized early on that he enjoyed making comics himself.
“I’ve been making comics, animation and games since I was a kid. Before creating Bitstrips, I spent 10 years developing another epic cartoon project called Griddleville, which I partially funded by running animation workshops in schools.”
Blackstock himself spent considerable time in school drawing instead of studying. Following high school he studied film at York University in Toronto only to drop out, he explained, “when I became too busy with other projects that were much more exciting than what was happening in my classes.”
Jews have played an influential role in the history of the cartoon genre and some of those involved had a profound influence on Blackstock. His primary inspirations were “the amazing old cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers,” Max and Dave Fleischer whose New York-based Fleischer Studios produced theatrical shorts and feature films until the animation company was acquired by Paramount Pictures. Other significant influences were Mad Magazine’s founder, William Gaines, and Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics. One of Blackstock’s favorite modern cartoonists is Daniel Clowes, known for graphic novels such as Ghost World.
But the work of a cartoonist is neither easy nor fast, which Blackstock fully realized while working on Griddleville, a cartoon from his own imagination.
“To create it,” Blackstock related, “I locked myself in a small room and taught myself classical animation along with all kinds of software. In the end, it took three years to produce 11 minutes of animation. The resulting impatience was a contributing factor to the creation of Bitstrips.”
The burgeoning popularity of social media was also a strong influence. “The concept of Bitstrips from the beginning was to connect comics to social media – that comics could one day be one of the main forms of social media, just like photos or videos.”
Those who follow Bitstrips daily, weekly or close to holidays might notice themes. While Blackstock is Jewish, he doesn’t limit Bitstrips to any one audience.
“Bitstrips are enjoyed by all cultures across the world – we try to make them as universal as possible, so that anyone anywhere can find a comic to express themselves through.”
Yet Blackstock gives a nod to members of his tribe. “We do have some scenes in the app based on Jewish holidays, which I think are pretty funny.”
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. A version of this article was originally published in theTimes of Israel.