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Western Front

In Winnipeg, Jewish life has been far from quiet

Ezra Glinter
July 24, 2009
Mischa (Moses) Werier in store on Selkirk Avenue, circa 1920.(Archives of Manitoba, via the Manitoba Historical Society)

Mischa (Moses) Werier in store on Selkirk Avenue, circa 1920.(Archives of Manitoba, via the Manitoba Historical Society)

When Rabbi Arthur Chiel first visited Winnipeg in the summer of 1944, he was immediately impressed by the vigor of the local Jewish community. A native of Taylor, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Yeshiva University, Chiel was working at the time as the religious director of New York’s 92nd Street YMHA. He was so deeply impressed by Winnipeg, however, that he returned five years later to become the first Judaic Studies professor at the University of Manitoba and the rabbi of the city’s Conservative Rosh Pina synagogue. Fascinated by the strange energy of his adopted community, he spent the next five years poring through old newspapers and personal correspondence to write its history, The Jews in Manitoba, which was published in 1961.

“Although Manitoba’s Jews have kept themselves closely informed of developments throughout the world … their geographic situation has enabled them to grow independently as a community,” he wrote. “Isolated by distance and by the long, severe winters the Jews of Winnipeg … worked with these conditions and wrought great creativity in communal, cultural, and religious life, in education, in music, in drama and in Jewish journalism.”

Chiel’s glowing assessment was the first systematic account of Manitoba Jewry, but it would be far from the last. Jewish communities since Biblical times have been notorious self-chroniclers, and for its size, Winnipeg’s been remarkably prolific. The most recent volume—and, at 500 pages, certainly the most thorough—is Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba by the historian Allan Levine.

The first Jews to trickle into Western Canada in the 1870s and 80s were English and German speakers from Western and Central Europe who came with the land boom that accompanied the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the decades that followed, a much larger influx of Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement immigrated to the province, as they did in great numbers to other parts of North America.

My own great-grandfather came from Bialystok, where, according to family lore, he once studied with Rabbi Israel Kahanovitch, who later became the Chief Rabbi of Western Canada. (Rabbi Kahanovitch’s great-grandson is today a friend of mine.) It was because of Kahanovitch that my great-grandfather made his way to Manitoba, but instead of settling in Winnipeg, he drifted around the province’s northern towns with his wife and growing family, trading cattle and furs with Native Canadians. Eventually they settled in Arborg, Manitoba, a small town of Icelandic settlers located 64 miles north of Winnipeg. That’s where my grandfather was born.

Fur trading in the Canadian North may be, as Levine puts it, “one of the more unusual career choices for a Jewish boy,” but my family’s trajectory there was not uncommon. One of the first Jewish visitors to Winnipeg was Joseph Ullman, who founded the Jewish community of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1854, and who eventually expanded his fur business into an international concern with offices from Leipzig to Shanghai.

More typically, Manitoba’s early Jewish settlers were rag-and-scrap peddlers, laborers, or the proprietors of small businesses. Others, who had been enticed west by the promise of free land, took up farming, and established small colonies across the Canadian prairies. As Levine observes, these were often idealists who “dreamed of becoming farmers in the New World and transforming the Jews’ long-standing and frequently detested economic role as middlemen.”

But the majority of the immigrant population settled in Winnipeg, clustered around Selkirk Avenue in the North End of the city. Though the neighborhood has long since lost its Jewish character, it remains enshrined in the collective memory, like New York’s Lower East Side. It produced a string of notable personalities, including novelist Adele Wiseman, poet Miriam Waddington, and Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall.

Even at the height of the North End’s strength, however, Winnipeg’s upwardly mobile Jews were moving to the more affluent South End, tipping the balance in a long-standing feud between Jews on either side of the city. Levine locates the beginning of this antipathy in the city’s first Jewish residents and their distaste for the less-wealthy, less-educated immigrants who poured in from Russia, Romania, and Bessarabia. Even amongst North Enders there were fierce disputes, as between the socialist Yiddishists, who sent their children to school at the secular Peretz Shul, and the more orthodox Zionists, who sent their children to the Talmud Torah. But it is the South-North rivalry that persists, even though the majority of today’s South End Jews descend from, or were once themselves, North Enders.

The most cataclysmic change over which Levine’s history presides is the opening in 1997 of the Asper Jewish Community Campus in the South End, which consolidated the city’s Jewish organizations and forced many of the North End institutions to either close or relocate. Whether this was a “coming of age” or an incalculable loss is still a matter of debate. Gone is the old Jewish Public Library, whose priceless collection once contained first editions of books by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Asch, as well as many books salvaged in Europe after the Holocaust. The Orthodox Talmud Torah Beth Jacob synagogue, which in an earlier incarnation had been the pulpit of Rabbi Kahanovitch, was forced to move into a run-down movie theater, which, ironically, had once been owned by Leon and Celia Asper, after whom the new community campus was now being named.

But for better or for worse, there is no question that the face of Winnipeg’s Jewish community is changing. After decades of decline from its height of 19,376 people in 1961, the Jewish population of Winnipeg is growing again, thanks to immigration from Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and the former Soviet Union. Whether these new arrivals will be able to revive Winnipeg Jewry has yet to be seen. Chiel, writing in 1955, observed that “the zeal of the Eastern European immigrants, their fiery partisanship to particular causes and philosophies … has been largely supplanted by a concern with efficiency and coordinated effort … . Community effort is still at a maximum… [but] the fire, the vigour, and the colour of earlier days are almost history.”

Ezra Glinter is a freelance writer from Winnipeg.

Ezra Glinter is a freelance writer from Winnipeg.