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An Afternoon with Basya Schechter

Basya Schechter with her prized oud.

What an honor it was to have pan-ethnic musician, Basya Schechter, from Pharoah’s Daughter, come and speak to my ‘Mosaic of Jewish Music’ class last week.  In front of a packed room in Wilson Hall, Basya immediately set an intimate and casual tone by sitting cross legged on a desk, introducing and playing her beloved oud. From that moment on, we lucky souls were quick to realize that we had just embarked on a very personal journey with one of today’s most unique artists in the American Jewish music scene.

With a generosity of humor and grace, Basya shared her unique life story as she described her Hassidic origins and then her eventual embrace of the secular world. She spoke of her love of travel, (more precisely, hitch-hiking!), as a conduit for her own exploration of music from Africa, Turkey, Bulgaria, India, Israel and North America.  The songs she played for us from her CDs, sung in Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, Hebrew and English, were presented as tiny glimpses into her colorful vocal range, as well as her fascination for complex rhythms and lesser known non-western instruments.

– Professor Liane Alitowski

For more information on Basya, visit

To listen to an interview with Basya conducted on CKUT’s “Shtetl on the Shortwave” program, click here.


Yiddish Courses at McGill Connect With Montreal’s Jewish Past

(Photo of Montreal Yiddish poets, including Jacob Segal, Chava Rosenfarb, and Melekh Ravitch, courtesy of

An article in La Presse last weekend told the story of Montreal’s Jewish community, once called the “Little Jerusalem of America.” The community boasted writers, artists, and political leaders, and was predominantly Yiddish-speaking. In 1930, approximately 97% of Montreal Jews spoke Yiddish, the article says.

In a list of what remains of the heritage of Yiddish in Montreal, the article in La Presse mentions the courses offered by the Jewish Studies Department of McGill. The language courses on offer include Yiddish at the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels; the literature courses include an introductory course, a course in modern Yiddish literature, and higher-level tutorials and seminars.

Click here to see the courses offered by the Jewish Studies Department.

Click here to read the full article in La Presse.

Interview with Professor Gershon Hundert

The Royal Society, Canada’s most prestigious academic organization, recently voted to invite three Jewish Studies scholars, including one from McGill, to join its ranks. Professor Gershon Hundert, who teaches history and Jewish studies at McGill, will be inducted into the society this Saturday in Ottawa. Professor Hundert is the Leonor Segal Professor of Jewish Studes and the editor-in-chief of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. He spoke with me about his career, the life of Jewish studies in Canada, and how McGill has changed.

Photo by Tim Boxer,

RK: How did you react when you first found out about the Royal Society asking you to be a member?

GH: I was pleased. What’s especially moving about this honour is that you’re nominated by your colleagues, in the History and Jewish Studies departments here at McGill, who put my name forward. That’s the best kind of recognition.

RK: More generally, what does this achievement signal for Jewish Studies as an academic discipline?

GH: Three people in Jewish Studies across Canada were nominated to the Society this year. As far as I know it’s the first time anyone in the field of Jewish Studies has become a member of the Royal Society. So it marks some kind of final maturation, this recognition by the most august established academic body in the country.

RK: When did you join the department, and what major changes in Jewish Studies at McGill have you noticed since then?

GH: Jewish Studies at McGill was founded in 1968, and I joined in 1975. First, it’s much bigger now. We have many more people than we had back in the ’70s. I think there’s a more expansive understanding of what Jewish Studies is about. We were very text-centred at the beginning—we had the sense that Jewish Studies was only about Jewish languages and literature. Nowadays, we give much more attention to other areas of Jewish culture, to an understanding of culture itself as broader than just text.


Royal Society of Canada Honours Three Jewish Studies Scholars, Including One From McGill

The fellows of the Royal Society, Canada’s most prestigious academic organization, voted this year to invite three scholars of Jewish Studies to join the group: David Novak and Derek Penslar of the University of Toronto and our own Gershon Hundert, of McGill, who edits the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, now available online.

“This is a signal that we’ve come of age and we have a place in the academy,” Hundert told a reporter.

Click here to read the full story in The Canadian Jewish News.

Interview with Jascha Nemtsov

Jascha Nemtsov is a world-renowned pianist and scholar of European Jewish and Russian composers from the inter-war period. Through his performances in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, on more than 26 CDs, and in many academic works, Jascha has brought the forgotten works of these persecuted composers to the world’s attention. Tonight, he will present “In the Exile: A Concert of Jewish Music,” in McGill’s Redpath Hall. He spoke with me before the performance about why these composers are of particular historical and musical significance, and what drew his interest to them in the first place.


Interview with Dr. Yuval Sinai

On September 19th, Dr. Yuval Sinai – director of the Centre for Practical Application of Jewish Law in Israel – delivered a lecture on the history of pluralism in the Jewish legal tradition and the contemporary role of Jewish law in a multicultural society. After the lecture, sponsored by the Department of Jewish Studies and hosted by the Faculty of Law, Dr. Sinai spoke with Jewish Studies student Ricky Kreitner about the occasional tensions between Jewish law and secular law, and offered his own opinions as to how reconciliation of the two can best be achieved.

You showed the many examples in the Jewish canon of legal pluralism. But would you consider those exceptions or are they indicative of the general character of the Jewish legal tradition?

Legal pluralism is one of the central features of Jewish law. I think I illustrated it very interestingly by the way that enterprises of codification did not exist, because the Jewish people didn’t want one clear-cut situation. The Shulchan Aruch [the most authoritative Jewish legal code, written in Israel in 1563] has all different opinions, Ashkenazi and Sephardic opinions, and it’s flexible. You can find any opinion to reflect your tradition, and only because of its flexibility, because of its legal pluralism and multicultural character. This is why it was accepted.

You mentioned some 19th century Orthodox rabbis who were reluctant to incorporate Jewish law into state law because they were so intent on pluralism, and they thought that crystallizing the law in such a way would betray that commitment. Is there any continuation of that tradition today within the Orthodox community?

This is a fascinating question, and maybe I could give another lecture about that. The Haredic world – the ultra-Orthodox world – they’re more in favor of the decentralized model for incorporating Jewish law into Israel law. They traditionally want to live their lives the way they live in their community, and they’re not concerned about the state of Israel anyway – they look at that as a secular state, not a religious state. On the other hand, the religious Zionist Orthodox usually look at the institutes of Jewish law, and the great rabbis of the religious Orthodox in Israel, they look at the state and see a religious dimension for the state of Israel, and therefore it’s important that the institutions reflect Jewish law.


Video from Klez Kanada Student Presentations

From August 22nd-28th, Klez Kanada hosted their 16th annual festival devoted to Jewish culture and the arts. Set in the beautiful Laurentian mountains, the festival hosts musical, comedic, and dance performances, and a course on Jewish music co-hosted by the McGill Department of Jewish Studies.

Below is a video of the student presentations from that course.



Welcome to the blog of the McGill Department of Jewish Studies.

We hope this blog will serve as a useful resource for students, faculty, and the broader community to better connect with one another and find out about all the great things going on around the department.

There is indeed a lot going on. From the many speakers and musical performers who visit every year, to the typically fascinating academic work done everyday by Jewish Studies students and faculty, the department is a dynamic and interesting place. Too often we all get wrapped up in our own little worlds and projects, and neglect to realize the potential of the Jewish Studies community at McGill.

This blog hopes to offset that tendency. We hope you’ll keep coming back to get the latest news on what’s happening in the department, and hope you’ll share with us if you’re working on something interesting.


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Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.