J. I. Segal (1896–1954), a pre-eminent Yiddish poet and journalist, was born Yaakov Yitzchak Skolar in the village of Solobkovtsy, in present-day Ukraine. His father, a scholar and cantor, died when Segal was three years old. Segal was raised by his impoverished mother in the town of Korets, which later became the setting for much of his Yiddish poetry.
Segal arrived in Montreal in 1910, and by 1915 had begun submitting poems and essays to Montreal’s Yiddish daily, the Keneder Adler . In his early twenties, J. I. Segal (pronounced Yud Yud Segal in Yiddish) became deeply involved in the city’s Yiddish literary and political scene, joining the Labour Zionist group Poale Zion, teaching at the Folkshule, founding several Yiddish literary journals, and publishing volumes of his own poetry in Montreal, New York, and Eastern Europe. Segal was close to several important Yiddish writers in New York, where he lived with his wife for five years during the 1920s. Segal returned to Montreal in 1928, and was literary editor of the Adler with Melech Ravitch beginning in 1941.
Segal published ten volumes of poetry in his lifetime, including the first book of Yiddish poetry ever published in Montreal, Fun mayn velt (From My World; 1918), Mayn shtub un mayn velt (My Home and My World; 1923), and Dos hoyz fun di poshete (The House of the Simple People; 1940). Segal’s poetry was marked by his lyricism and detailed description, and by the contrast between his depictions of life in the shtetl and that of Jewish Montreal. He always considered himself a Yiddish writer living in Canada, rather than a Canadian writer of Yiddish verse, and in his writings he showed nostalgia for the towns of his childhood.
J. I. Segal died of a heart attack on March 7, 1954. The Jewish Public Library honours the poet’s memory by awarding the biennial J. I. Segal Prize “to encourage and reward creative works on Jewish themes.” Segal’s legacy is best captured by the line of his tombstone, which in translation reads, “His life was sanctified to song.”
Compiled by Richard Kreitner
Anctil, Pierre, Mervin Butovsky, and Ira Robinson. An Everyday Miracle: Yiddish Culture in Montreal. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1990.
Anctil, Pierre, and Norman Ravvin. New Readings of Yiddish Montreal. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007.
Friedman, Shari Susan Cooper. J. I. Segal: Between Two Worlds. Montreal: McGill University, 1988.
Medres, Israel. Montreal of Yesterday. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2000.
* Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives and Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.