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May 30, 2003

Jewish landmarks in Vancouver

Tales of religious traditions, Hollywood stars and early immigrants fill bus and walking tour of historic sites.

In 1922, Zeppo Mark, of the famous vaudeville family, was doing a show at the Orpheum Theatre around Passover and was invited for a seder at the home of David Marks, who operated a modest tailor shop in what is now the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. The Marx brother brought along Benny Kubelsky, a friend who was also performing in town. Over dinner, Kubelsky became smitten with Sadie, the youngest of the Marks family's three daughters.

Sadie was just 13 years old at the time (!) but Kubelsky never forgot her and, a few years later, he returned to town, courted and married her. The tailor father sat shivah for his daughter – not because she married young, but because her betrothed was a vaudevillian. The marriage turned out for the best, however. Both Kubelsky and Sadie Marks changed their names and went on to become one of Hollywood's most famous couples under their adopted names: Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone.

The romantic tale with its Hollywood ending was just one of the many anecdotes shared last weekend on a bus and walking tour of historic Jewish Vancouver, sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (JCC). Barry Dunner, an avocational historian who has researched early Jewish history in the city, led about 20 participants on a walk around Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, which were the reception areas for several generations of immigrants and holds many little-remembered landmarks of the Jewish community, which moved incrementally westward in the city, beginning in the 1940s.

Dunner held his audience rapt with tales of pioneer businesses and community life, which included more kosher butchers a century ago than exist here today.

The walking tour began at Pender and Heatley streets, where Vancouver's first synagogue is now a condominium residence. The original Schara Tzedeck synagogue (which was known as B'nai Yehuda shul from its inception in 1910 until 1917) is still evident in the Moorish architecture that the developers maintained. Although it was an Ashkenazi shul, the founders chose a distinctly Sephardi-looking facade. Now recovered in ubiquitous Vancouver pink stucco, the building maintains much of its character and is marked by a City of Vancouver historic plaque, for which Dunner himself can take credit. He was working for the Jewish Festival of the Arts Society during Vancouver's centennial year in 1986, and was responsible for two other historic plaques among the 100 the city erected that year. That was also the time when Dunner researched and created the walking tour he led Sunday, following the Walk With Israel earlier in the day.

The tour visited Ferrera Court, the home of David Marks' family and many of the other Jewish pioneers, and which still stands at Jackson and Hastings streets.
Like many immigrant groups, early Jewish migrants to Vancouver settled in Strathcona and the East Hastings area, which was desirable for its proximity to the ports, railroads and downtown core, where employment was to be found. The merchants in the Jewish community set up businesses in the area, some of which remain today. Zebulon Franks set up a provisioning store for the resource industries in Gastown, which is now recognized as Vancouver's longest continually operating business, under the name Y. Franks Appliances. (It was named for Zebulon's wife, Yetta.)

Rabbi Nathan Meyer Pastinsky was the spiritual leader of Vancouver's Jews from 1918, when he arrived from Winnipeg, until his death in 1948. The tour visited one of the homes he lived in – at 641 East Georgia St. – across from the former Zion Grocery and one of three kosher butcher shops that existed in the early 20th century.

In addition to Dunner, there were a couple of unofficial guides of the tour, which began with a bus ride from the JCC, past the Jewish cemetery at Fraser and 33rd. Philip Swartz, who was born in the neighborhood, recalled that Pastinsky had a booth in a market along Main Street. Jewish shoppers would buy live chickens from one of the farmers' booths, then bring it to the rabbi who, for a few cents, would slaughter the bird according to kashrut regulations. Because it was a small community, the rabbi served not only as head of the congregation and shochet (ritual kosher slaughterer), but also as the city's sole mohel (circumciser). Swartz noted he had benefited from all of the rabbi's skills.

The tour also stopped at the brick building at Oak and 11th Avenue, which now houses the B.C. Lung Association, but which was the original Jewish Community Centre. It was here, several years ago, that Bill Gruenthal, now president of the Jewish Historical Society, met his wife, Noemi. Both were on the tour.

Though they have been through many changes, many of the buildings that existed in that early period remain today. It is a symbol of the neighborhood's remarkable transitions, Dunner said, that a local Catholic church has altered over the years from its original purpose as a Swedish congregation, into a Greek, then Russian church, and now serves the Chinese community. For most of a century, this neighborhood was where most newcomers settled.

The Jewish community lived cheek-by-jowl with other ethnic groups, including the small African-Canadian community, which was centred around the Unity Chapel, on Jackson Street, across from the house that was the original National Council of Jewish Women Neighborhood House. Adjacent to the chapel, which no longer remains, is the home of a woman who would become known mostly because she was the grandmother of the rock music legend Jimi Hendrix. The late noted guitarist lived with his grandmother in Vancouver for a time.

At 456-1/2 Hastings St. stands the tall, narrow building that, in the 1920s and '30s, housed the Zionist Hall, where probably every major Jewish organization in early Vancouver held their meetings. Tall and narrow was the architectural style of the day, as many newcomers came by boat from San Francisco, where the Queen Anne style was all the rage, with gabled rooves and gingerbread elaboration on the exteriors.

A little further down Hastings Street, towards Main, stands Orange Hall, a multipurpose building that offered space to the new Jewish congregation before B'nai Yehuda was built, as well as after, when High Holy Day services required a space larger than the small shul could provide. According to Dunner, the 1921 construction of a new, larger Schara Tzedeck on the same site as the original B'nai Yehuda was motivated by an unpleasant occurrence on Yom Kippur, 1919. Kol Nidre was running late (some things never change) and the proprietors of the hall, who had rented the place out for a banquet that night, began shuffling Jewish congregants out. The next morning, back at Schara Tzedeck, the rabbi launched into an impassioned demand for funds to create an adequate shul. Two years later, the building was completed, seating 600 members. In 1948, the current Schara Tzedeck opened at Oak and West 19th, signifying the shift of the Jewish community from the downtown area to the Oak corridor, where most of the community's institutions exist today.

The tour was organized by Betty Nitkin, adult programming co-ordinator of the JCC, who is also on the board of the historical society.

Pat Johnson is a native Vancouverite, a journalist and commentator.