A Yiddishist, labour leader, refugee activist, and general-secretary of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Hannaniah Meir Caiserman was born in 1884 to a relatively prosperous family in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. He studied Torah and rabbinic commentaries while still a young boy, and by age thirteen was a devout Jew and a deeply committed Zionist. However, upon his arrival in Bucharest as a young adolescent, he quickly gave up his practice of religion and stopped speaking Yiddish as his main language.
A committed Yiddishist, Caiserman strongly encouraged local writers like J. I. Segal and Israel Rabinovitch. Caiserman can be considered in many ways the elder of the Montreal Yiddish literary culture, which lasted several decades and whose intellectual vibrancy was rivalled in North America only by New York’s. The home of H. M. Caiserman and his wife, Sarah Wittal-Caiserman (a designer, entrepreneur and Labour Zionist leader), became a salon for artists and writers. Their support of Jewish artists extended to their daughter, Ghitta Caiserman, a well-known painter who was first married to Alfred Pinsky, another influential painter and art teacher.
In 1919, Caiserman expanded his influence from labour politics and Jewish intellectual life to a more mainstream organization, the Canadian Jewish Congress. Serving as its general-secretary, Caiserman was a guiding force of the Canadian Jewish Congress from its founding until his death in 1950, except during its years of relative dormancy in the 1920s and early 1930s. From his perch as a community leader, Caiserman orchestrated efforts of relief and rescue for Jews facing dire circumstances all around the world, and traveled after World War II to study firsthand the conditions of Jewish refugees in Poland, Palestine, and South America. He also fought strongly for the achievement of the Zionist ideals he had held for so long, and vigorously defended his fellow Jews against a creeping tide of antisemitism in Quebec in the 1930s.
Compiled by Richard Kreitner.
Anctil, Pierre,Mervin Butovsky and Ira Robinson. An Everyday Miracle: Yiddish Culture in Montreal. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1990.
Figler, Bernard and David Rome. The H.M. Caiserman Book. Montreal: Northern Printing and Lithographing Co., 1962.
Medres, Israel. Montreal of Yesterday. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2000.
*Images courtesy of Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and the Jewish Public Library Archives.