The Jews of Manitoba, or ‘The centre of its own Diaspora’
Never more than a tiny minority, somehow and against tremendous odds, Jews established one of the most vibrant and culturally rich communities in North America
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/05/2012 (3782 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Rabbi Arthur Chiel immediately knew he was somewhere special when he first visited Winnipeg in 1944.
Winnipeg was, as he later put it, a “Yiddishe shtot (a Yiddish town) unlike any that I had contact with in the U.S.”
What dazzled the man who was to become spiritual leader at Winnipeg’s Rosh Pina Synagogue during the 1950s and author of the 1961 scholarly study, The Jews in Manitoba, was not only the number of synagogues and Jewish organizations that existed. It was also the diversity of Jewish life and opinion in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba.
Anthony Astrachan, an editor and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, came to the same conclusion when he spent time in Winnipeg in the ’70s. He later wrote in the U.S. Jewish magazine Present Tense that Winnipeg’s celebrated vitality was based on five key ingredients: “Political activism, radicalism, a vital Yiddish culture mixed with universal Jewish devotion to education, a Prairie mystique and a geographic isolation that has made Winnipeg the centre of its own Diaspora.”
For years, outsiders had viewed the members of the province’s Jewish community as Hebrews. In reality, by 1920, the Jews were representative of all classes and ideological orientations. Many were religious, others less so. There were Zionists who campaigned for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; socialists who fought for the rights of the workers, and liberals who advocated Jewish assimilation into Canadian society.
Each segment (and some, such as the socialists and Zionists, which were internally divided) had its own associations, mutual aid societies, schools, synagogues and political clubs.
“Winnipeg was a Jewish world,” reflected lawyer and community leader Sam Drache in 1961, “that had small cells of every intellectual, controversial Jewish movement represented within it, and it had leadership — it could have one man, two men, three men, small cells but they were here and they all gave expression.”
The historical circuitous journey that brought thousands of Jews to Manitoba and laid the foundation of today’s Jewish community of about 16,500 people (about 1.3 per cent of Manitoba’s total population), began many centuries ago.
The term Diaspora is derived from the Greek word meaning scattering. And though it was originally applied to any peoples who were exiled or resettled in the ancient world, the term has come to define the Jewish experience since the time of the Babylonians in 586 BC.
Contrary to the ancient teachings of the Bible, Jews have never been content to be merely “a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations.” Instead, suggested the late Abba Eban, an Israeli scholar and diplomat, they have been a people that insisted on “sending the repercussions of its history far and wide, into the ocean of universal culture. Thus there is virtually no civilization that does not have a Jewish component, just as there is no Jewish civilization that does not bear the mark of another culture.”
That is certainly true for the 136-year history of Jews in Manitoba and Winnipeg. They have never been more than 2.8 per cent of the total provincial population — and that was in 1931 — but somehow and against tremendous odds, they established one of the most vibrant and culturally rich Jewish communities in North America.
Beyond the city’s perimeter, in scattered agricultural colonies and country villages and towns of Manitoba, Winnipeg became the proverbial homeland for hundreds of Jewish farmers, labourers, and storekeepers and their families, attempting to retain their religion and heritage. The city served as their supply depot for kosher food and a place to pray on the High Holidays.
More significantly, members of the Jewish community — despite the existence of anti-Semitism that blocked professional advancement and social opportunities — have prospered and affected almost every aspect of Manitoba life.
From lawyer Max J. Finkelstein in the First World War era to community leader and devoted Zionist Rose Rady in the ’20s and ’30s to lawyer and Judge Samuel Freedman in the ’50s and ’60s to political leaders Sidney Spivak and Israel Asper in the ’70s, and to Mayor Sam Katz and philanthropist par excellence Gail Asper today, Jewish Manitobans have made innumerable positive contributions to the larger civic and provincial society.
The story of this achievement started in the mid-1870s. The first Jews to settle in Manitoba, as in the rest of Canada, had emigrated from England or Germany often via the United States, in small numbers soon after the incorporation of Winnipeg in 1874.
The three Coblentz bothers, Edmond, Aachel and Adolphe, who had been born in eastern France near the German border, arrived during these years from Pennsylvania. They were more secular and interested in integration with the non-Jewish world than establishing a self-contained Jewish community.
The eldest brother, Edmond, arrived in Winnipeg first in 1877. Aachel and Adolphe followed a year later with Adolphe’s wife Sarah Weixelbaum, three-year-old daughter, Gabriella, and infant son, Godfrey.
Edmond worked for a brief time at a dry goods shop in Winnipeg before opening his own store in Ste. Anne des Chenes, 40 kilometres to the east along the Seine River. The middle brother, Aachel, found employment as a salesman for the upscale English wholesaler and dry goods store, Stobart, Eden and Company.
Later, Aachel went into partnership with Philip Brown (or Braun), another early Jewish settler.
And the youngest, Adolph, and his wife Sarah and their two young children stayed in the city for several years. Like his brothers, Adolphe worked for a dry goods establishment, Chevrier’s Blue Store. Sarah gave birth to another son, William, in January 1879, the first Jewish child born in Manitoba.
In the nineteenth century, the greatest number of European Jews resided in the Pale of Settlement, a designated Russian-controlled area, roughly in current-day Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia, that existed from the time of Catherine the Great in the mid-eighteenth century to the Russian Revolution in 1917.
In the shtetlach or small villages of the Pale, Jews worked at a variety of trades barely rising above poverty levels, but finding some comfort and relief in religion and the annual cycle of Jewish rituals and holidays.
Official government repression was always present, though somehow the Jews tolerated it. Then, Czar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881 and the subsequent anti-Jewish pogroms (not directed by the government) and the despotic “May Laws” choked Jewish life further.
Emigration to “America,” di goldeneh medina, the Golden Land, was a popular way to escape the misery. And so, between 1880 and 1914, more than two million Russian Jews journeyed across the Atlantic to North America. The vast majority wound up in New York City’s Lower East Side and other large American cities. But about 100,000 made their way to Canada, and of those, about 10,000 came to Manitoba.
The first 340 of these newcomers arrived in Winnipeg in 1882, poor and unable to speak English. They spent their first days in the rickety wooden federal government sheds, located at the current-day Forks.
Among those early pioneers were the Weidman brothers, 20-year-old Chaim, or Hiram (H.L. to his friends), as he was called in Canada, and his 18-year-old brother Mordecai (or Motke). They went from working as labourers to becoming, within a few decades, successful entrepreneurs and leaders of the Jewish community.
Despite the hardships they faced, the Russian Jews and their children — pedlars, tailors and shopkeepers — established the community’s infrastructure: synagogues; kosher shops; schools; mutual benefit societies; an old folks home; orphanage; sports facilities; and newspapers. These allowed Manitoba Jews to maintain their religion and culture, but gradually integrate into the decidedly Anglo-Protestant — and not always welcoming — land they now found themselves in.
The first neighbourhood they called their own was the poorest part of the North End of Winnipeg, “the foreign quarter” or “New Jerusalem.”
In time, as they prospered and grew — Winnipeg’s Jewish population reached 9,000 in 1911 and nearly 15,000 by 1921 — they and their families moved further north making Selkirk Avenue their hub where business was conducted in English as well as Yiddish, Ukrainian, Polish and German.
By 1941, 85 per cent of Winnipeg’s 17,000 Jews lived within a 1.5-kilometre radius of the corner of Salter Street and Aberdeen Avenue. A small minority of Anglo and more assimilated Jews had already begun moving south to River Heights, an often contentious class split in the community that would persist for generations.
From his arrival in Winnipeg in 1907 until his death in 1945, the community’s most significant religious leader was Rabbi Israel Kahnovitch, a sage who was instrumental in establishing the Talmud Torah Hebrew School and dispensed wisdom on everything from synagogue politics to raising children.
Outside of Winnipeg, a small number of Jews tried farming at such agricultural settlements as Bender Hamlet, near Narcisse, but most of those communities died during the Great Depression.
Tiny Jewish communities developed in Brandon and Portage la Prairie, and during the period from 1920 to the mid-1950s, there were Jewish general storekeepers in more than 100 Manitoba towns and villages.
In almost every case, the merchants and their families were the only Jews in the places they resided. Though they established a network among themselves, it was still a great challenge for the parents to ensure their children received a Jewish education.
“Being Jewish was mostly not doing things other people did,” recalled author Fredelle Bruser Maynard who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, “not eating pork, not going to Sunday school, not entering, even playfully, into childhood romances, because the only boys around were goyishe (gentile) boys.”
As Anthony Astrachan had discovered, Jewish life had been defined in Winnipeg for the first part of the 20th century by a bursting secular and socialist Yiddish culture. It was taught to children at the I.L. Peretz School, for one, colourfully depicted on the stage at the Queen’s Theatre on Selkirk Avenue, and an inspiration to Jewish workers at garment factories throughout the city.
Like all members of the Manitoba labour movement, Jewish tailors, pressers and fur-cutters demanded fair wages, better working conditions, union recognition and social justice. Their bitter struggles and strikes frequently pitted them against Jewish owners.
Hence, during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, there were Jews such as city alderman Abraham Heaps on the side of the strikers and others such as lawyer Max Steinkopf, who supported the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, the Winnipeg business elite’s anti-strike group.
As empowering as this Yiddish culture was, however, the critical importance this Jewish proletariat put on education and the way in which they doted on their children meant the generation that followed, moved beyond the factory floor into other business and professional pursuits. In the end, this resulted in more personal success, but also over time, a decline in the use of the Yiddish language and labour radicalism.
If Jews in Manitoba were divided by politics, class, religion and such key issues as a Jewish homeland in Palestine — realized by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 — then they were united in opposition to the prejudice and discrimination they faced.
Anti-Semitism and racism had certain respectability among most segments of Canadian society at least until the 1960s. In Manitoba and across the country, Jews found many professions and jobs closed to them. There were property restrictions at summer resorts such as Sandy Hook and Victoria Beach. The Manitoba Club, Winter Club and St. Charles Country Club, to list a few, did not accept Jewish members.
And from 1932 to 1944, the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Medicine instituted a notorious quota system against Jews and other minorities. There were no Jewish public school principals until 1944, when Charlotte Mass was appointed to that position at Florence Nightingale School, and Samuel Freedman became Manitoba’s first Jewish judge in 1952.
The revelations about the Holocaust during the Second World War and the adoption of more tolerant attitudes in Canada eventually ended such blatant discrimination, but it was a gradual process. As late as 1962, Jack London, who had been admitted into the University of Manitoba Law School, was at first offered and then refused articling positions by two non-Jewish law firms once the firms’ partners learned he was Jewish.
Still, in the years since 1945, a dedicated group of leaders — Sam Drache, Sol Kanee, Harry Silverberg, Rabbi Abraham Kravetz, Harold Buchwald, Sarah Sommer, Israel Asper, Marjorie Blankstein and Bob Freedman among many more — devoted themselves to sustaining and expanding the community’s many religious and cultural institutions.
This has not been an easy task. A multitude of Jewish organizations always compete for a finite amount of funds, and members of the community remain as passionate as ever about their local politics.
Moreover, and ironically, as anti-Semitism diminished and opportunities opened, assimilation and inter-marriage have increased, and strict religious observance has declined. Winnipeg once boasted more than 20 synagogues and likely just as many kosher butcher shops; now it has half as many synagogues with dwindling membership, and no kosher butchers.
On a more positive note, the opening of the impressive Asper Community Campus in 1997 as the centre for the Jewish school, library, heritage centre and almost all other community organizations was a decisive moment in Manitoba Jewish history that bodes well for the future.
Yet, as more and more Winnipeg Jews moved to be closer to the campus, it also signalled the end of the Jewish North End, a reality not cheered by everyone.
The arrival of Holocaust survivors in 1947 — including a 16-year-old orphan from Hungary, John Hirsch, one of the founders of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre — who were able to rebuild their broken lives in Winnipeg, marked one of several population increases for the community.
Though the number of Jews in Manitoba has never topped the 19,500 it was in 1961, in recent years, recruitment efforts by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg has brought 500 people from Argentina and 3,060 primarily former citizens of the Soviet Union and Russia who had immigrated to Israel.
These days, visiting the Asper Campus, you are as likely to hear Spanish, Russian or Hebrew being spoken as you are English.
In 1914, Moses Finkelstein, who had come to the city as a young child in 1882 as a Russian-Jewish immigrant and later became the first Jewish alderman on Winnipeg City Council, considered his life in Manitoba up to that point. He firmly believed, he wrote, that compared to Winnipeg there was nowhere in Europe or North America where the: “Jewish community has acquitted itself in a more spirited way, has achieved greater successes in so far as it is possible as citizens of this country. I refer to Jewish citizens, and as a class, considering that they have come from many countries, with diversified opinions and notions they have in this short time of space gradually moulded themselves into a community that will stand fair criticism and I am proud to say that they are making the very best of Canadian citizens.”
Despite the ups and downs of Manitoba Jewish history, that sentiment is still shared today.
Winnipeg historian and writer Allan Levine is the author of among other books, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, which won the McNally-Robinson Book of the Year Award in 2010.