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The Keeper of Montreal’s Jewish History

Joe King, who died Saturday at 90, chronicled the city’s rich Jewish past

Richard Kreitner
October 29, 2013
Exterior of Bnai Jacob Syangogue, in its 1919-1956 location.(Sara Tauben/Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal)
Exterior of Bnai Jacob Syangogue, in its 1919-1956 location.(Sara Tauben/Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal)

One requires a good reason in the depths of a Montreal winter to decide to get out of bed in the morning. I found that and more in my work, beginning in my second year at McGill University, as a volunteer researcher and blurb writer for the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal, a project which aims to virtually map the entire history of Montreal’s Jewish community and which Tablet’s Liel Liebovitz wrote about earlier this year. Once more than 100,000 in number, until a few decades ago Montreal’s Jews occupied the now student-dominated Plateau neighborhood and rivaled their New York cousins for population, vibrancy, and delicatessen quality. They also birthed, nurtured, and were eventually celebrated and/or insulted by some of 20th century Jewry’s most distinctive literary voices: Saul Bellow, Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Rokhl Korn. For far longer spurts than I have ever managed to devote to actual schoolwork, I would sit in the university library poring over books about Montreal’s Jewish history, postponing as long as possible the brutal schlep back home—the only relief from which, I soon learned, was to imagine yourself a 17th century fur-trapper just minutes from fire and squaw.

The first books I read, on the recommendation of IMJM founder Zev Moses, were by a guy named Joe King, and though clearly the labor of immense love, they seemed to be almost ironically low-budget. It wasn’t only the titles and subtitles that were interchangeable—From the Ghetto to the Main: The Story of the Jews of Montreal; Baron Byng to Bagels: Tales of Jewish Montreal; and, most recently, Fabled City: The Jews of Montreal—anecdotes and photos were recycled; the prose was sweetly wide-eyed but unedited; the books had all the production values of a diner menu. Nonetheless, they demonstrated a literally encyclopedic knowledge about a topic that had begun to seize my notoriously mercurial passions and to transform my private street-walking alter ego from Métis fur-trapper to Yiddish-speaking peddler, making for home and stuffed cabbage and my precious Forverts, hauled over the Adirondacks by train from New York.

“Every Jewish community should have a Joe King book written about it,” Eiran Harris, archivist-emeritus of Montreal’s Jewish Public Library, has said.

Joe King knew everything about the Jews of Montreal. But who on Earth was Joe King?

I learned that a few months later when Moses took a few of us researchers and my forbearing girlfriend to meet King at Montreal’s Maimonides Geriatric Center, where he donated some of his most interesting photos and other historical memorabilia to create a small gallery which bears his name. Endearingly hunched, King briskly strode the hallway showing off his collection, while the Maimonides patients, many significantly younger than his almost 90 years, wondered what we were doing. (King rode public transit until the end: last Wednesday, the Montreal Gazette published a facetious letter from him excoriating the quality of city bus drivers: “We are on board for transportation — not adventure…While I am opposed to the death penalty, there should be exceptions.”)

With astounding sharpness and a salty sense of humor, King gave us a memorable tour of Montreal Jewish history, stringing in anecdotes from his own capacious experiences and interactions with some of the most important Jewish (David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan) and Canadian (Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, the Bronfmans) figures of the last 75 years. For it turned out that Dean of Montreal Jewish Historians—at least of the general-interest branch—was only King’s latest career. Beginning in the 1950s, King was one of the first CBC television news hosts and a globetrotting, well-respected journalist, covering wars in the Middle East and interviewing countless North American, European, and Israeli eminences.

A little while after this meeting I began to do some freelance work for King. In addition to the books, one of his side projects was the creation of brief word-and-image presentations, typically of a didactic character, related to some aspect of Jewish history. One would cover Israel’s various contributions to modern science, another the true story of 1948. If at all relevant, and often even if not, King would bring in the Mufti of Jerusalem’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II—a favorite topic. It never became clear to me what these presentations were for; I think King just e-mailed them to concerned or indulgent acquaintances. He needed help fitting the images into the documents; whether or not he knew exactly what this required wasn’t clear either, but it usually took me less than two minutes to copy and paste them into each document. If a presentation was to include more than a few pictures, he would preface his e-mail with “yikes!” and offer to double my pay. At first, King offered me what he called a “modest fee” of $150 per presentation. I had no idea where King got the money, but assumed it could probably be traced back to the affluent Montreal suburb of Westmount somehow, so I didn’t initially mind sending invoices that amounted to charging $4,500 per hour. But I soon became uncomfortable with the arrangement and became possibly the first person in history to request an 80 percent pay cut, to which King reluctantly agreed.

Sometimes, when King’s needs for my work and my needs for his cash aligned, we would do as many as ten presentations per week. Cumulatively, this took me less than an hour. Other times the work would fall off, as when King was working on Fabled City or I was away. Once, after a long silence, he e-mailed me: “i presume u r still functioning,” a typical demonstration of his humor. Responding to a later e-mail I sent asking how he was getting on, King basically read my mind: “still alive,” he simply wrote. When I graduated from McGill in June 2012, after a final semester off for travels, I met King for coffee in one of Montreal’s underground malls and solicited his ideas on how to kick-start a journalism career. His advice was mainly of the 1940s-style go-downtown-and-ask-to-speak-with-the-editor-of-the-Gazette variety, but I regret not recording or taking notes on our talk anyway.

About two months ago, when my regular juggle-act of hustles had lost a few balls, I wrote to King asking how he was doing. I didn’t mention anything about work, but King wasn’t stupid. “i took a course and do my own inserts now. at 90! be well,” he succinctly wrote, attaching a 20-page primer on Jews and aviation he’d put together himself. King was always learning.

King died on Saturday. His funeral is today at Paperman and Son’s, a longtime Montreal Jewish institution. Donations can be made in memory of King to the Jewish General Hospital Foundation or, to honor his passion for local history, to the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, the Interactive Museum’s host organization.

Richard Kreitner is a writer and researcher in New York who contributes to Tablet, the Nation, Slate, and Salon. He is on Twitter at @richardkreitner.