Looking for Cape Breton Jews
The former Congregation Sons of Israel in Glace Bay. In 1902, the structure was the first purpose-built synagogue in Nova Scotia. It permanently closed in July 2010. To the left of it is what was the Talmud Torah community centre, also now closed. This was the location of the Hebrew school and functions like bar mitzvahs and wedding dinners. (photo by Abebenjoe via commons.wikimedia.org)
PhD candidate Ely Rosenblum is looking for former Cape Breton Jews to interview as part of a research project called Diversity Cape Breton.
The 26-year-old University of Cambridge student is assisting Cape Breton University professor Marcia Ostashewski with a research project that investigates ethnocultural communities, including the Jewish community.
Rosenblum explained that, while his PhD focuses on cultural musicology, he has a background in folklore and ethnographic study. He met Ostashewski, the Nova Scotia university’s Canada Research Chair in Communities and Cultures, and became involved in her research project about three years ago when he worked for a nonprofit organization she was directing, called Friends of the Ukrainian Village Society.
“When I met Marcia and started working with her on a different project and she discovered that my family is from Cape Breton, she got very excited and we started working on this project together,” Rosenblum said. “I have family members who are from Cape Breton. My dad is from Cape Breton, and the entire Rosenblum side of the family is from Glace Bay, N.S.”
Rosenblum said he has been meeting with members of the Jewish community from Cape Breton and collecting oral histories on and off for the past three years.
“I’m collecting oral histories and … talking about their experiences and their family histories, how they arrived in Canada in the first place, why they moved to Nova Scotia, their experiences on Cape Breton Island, both as a Jewish community and how they interacted with other communities, and celebrating some of the multiculturalism on Cape Breton Island that people don’t really know about.”
Last year, Ostashewski and Rosenblum held an event at York University about Jewish life in Cape Breton and in small towns in Canada, and put archival photos on display.
“We had a roundtable panel discussion … [about] what immigration patterns look like and what it has meant for these Jewish communities,” he said. “So many of them, especially from Cape Breton, so many people have moved to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa – bigger cities where their kids have moved. It’s certainly a pattern, but it’s an indicator of the kinds of lives that Jewish parents wanted for their kids.”
He said that, today, there isn’t much of a Jewish community in Cape Breton. According to the Atlantic Jewish Council, Cape Breton’s Jewish community peaked in 1941, when it boasted a population of 939 Jews.
“The few who live there, they have trouble making a minyan … it’s incredibly challenging. Sometimes, people go from city to city so they can have a minyan, but there really aren’t more than 10 Jews on the island still. I believe there is one Jewish child, but that can’t be entirely verified,” he said.
Rosenblum said that, for him, this research project is “deeply personal. It’s a part of my family history, but I also think, for Jewish communities to have a strong sense of what kind of national identity they have, how they fit into the idea of Canada as a multicultural country, as a place where you’re free to be whoever you are, [is important],” he said. “I think the stronger the sense of where our parents came from and the kinds of experiences they had in these small towns, the better we can mobilize communities in these larger cities.”
Rosenblum said he hopes to find more Jewish Cape Breton natives who are willing to share their stories, photos and video or audio recordings, so that they can be archived.
“The most important part for me, the most exciting part, is seeing these amazing collections that families have, these incredible photos and memories that I’m hoping they can preserve.”
Diversity Cape Breton, a web portal launched this month, is available to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Jewish community and other communities in Cape Breton. Visit diversitycapebreton.ca.
For more national Jewish news, visit cjnews.com.