May 30, 2003
Jewish landmarks in Vancouver
Tales of religious traditions, Hollywood stars and early immigrants
fill bus and walking tour of historic sites.
PAT JOHNSON SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN
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
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
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
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