Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/11/2016 (1079 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, the Winnipeg Jewish community was a hotbed of leftist politics. While the community, as an established entity, long ago strayed from that left-leaning agenda, the legacy of those dissident politics has shaped the history and heritage of many of the community’s educational and cultural institutions, and still today partially informs how the local Jewish community acts.
This legacy, according to sociologist Ester Reiter, is most apparent in the focus and work of the secular humanist Sholem Aleichem community and the United Jewish People’s Order. It is evident, too, in various social justice pursuits undertaken by individual community agencies and the activist politics of individual members of the community.
Reiter elaborates on the legacy of the Jewish Left in Canada, its roots and its reverberations, in a new book titled A Future without Hate or Need, the Promise of the Jewish Left in Canada. She devotes a significant portion of the book to Winnipeg, where the author, who was raised in the Jewish left in New York, happened to live and work in the 1960s. Reiter ended up leaving Winnipeg to pursue her PhD and enjoyed a long and distinguished career in labour and women’s studies at York University in Toronto.
"Winnipeg was so important to the left," Reiter says. "It was really the happening place. It was lively and cultural and so exiting in terms of what people were doing."
What people were doing, as far back as the turn of the 20th century, was organizing unions, fighting for workers’ rights and founding cultural institutions, choirs, women’s reading circles, mutual benefit associations and schools. The non-religious Jewish Radical School, for example, was founded in 1914. Later renamed the I.L. Peretz School, it was the first Jewish school in North America to offer a full-day kindergarten, and, by the early 1930s, was the largest Yiddish language school in North America.
These Winnipeg Jewish activists were, like most Jews in Canada, descendants of the thousands of emigrants who fled persecution and poverty in the Russian Pale of Settlement, mainly during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century.
"To understand the origins of the Jewish left in Canada you have to go back to Eastern Europe," Reiter explains.
"There was a period in the late 19th century when economics were terrible and when shtetlach (small Jewish towns) were falling apart so people had to move into the big cities."
For many, moving to the city meant breaking away from the religious orthodoxy of daily shtetl life, and embracing the enlightenment, class consciousness and the nascent workers movement.
"People knew they were being exploited big time," Reiter adds. "They were facing terrible anti-Semitism and they had this incredible need to know everything. They become radicals… and they brought this kind of activist politics across the ocean."
That activism, she adds, wasn’t only activism on picket lines. It was activism to sing, to have a school, and to give women opportunities to learn.
"They were people who had ideals," Reiter continues.
"What they did in Canada, in Winnipeg, in the service of those ideals, was to care, and to stake out our Jewish heritage and make it matter for everybody. That" she adds, "is a legacy that I think is very much worth remembering and holding on to and honouring as much as possible."
Reiter has done her share of remembering and honouring that legacy by writing her book. After launching it in Toronto in October, she will bring it to Winnipeg this month. While here she will read and sing from the book — workers’ songs, folk songs and Yiddish songs, all intended to remind those in attendance about the caring ideals of the Jewish left.
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