Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem gave us delightful fables about the shtetl, the overcrowded villages of Eastern Europe, with endearing characters that contended with abysmal poverty, deadly pogroms and false messiahs. However, life in the shtetl was not always so dreary.
In a new book that effectively undermines the archetypical shtetls of our imagination, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern in The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe (Princeton University Press) redraws the image of the shtetl. A professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern University and author of several books, Petrovsky-Shtern documents a brief period in history, from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century, when life was not so bad in those towns of our ancestors in eastern Poland and Ukraine.
Petrovsky-Shtern looks closely at three provinces with 44 shtetls in Eastern Europe. Relying mostly on documents that were previously overlooked, he discovers that many of the shtetls at that time were neither poor nor especially pious. On the contrary, they were thriving communities with stable economies built around popular market fairs. Some shtetls had trading firms that rivaled those found in large cities. Some had fancy restaurants and a rich cultural life.
Although Jewish businessmen were prominent, the Jews were a minority in many of the towns. Jews and Christians lived and worked together.
As might be expected in any neighborhood, the Jewish community also had its share of characters of questionable integrity. Petrovsky-Shtern goes through historic court records that reveal stories of bribes, counterfeiting, smuggling, informants and collusion of Jewish businessmen with crooked clerks. Even the rabbinical leadership comes under his microscope.
Jews came to Eastern Europe with the Greek colonizers more than 2,000 years ago but the Jewish presence in the region was minimal until Polish nobility encouraged Jewish migration from Western Europe.
The Jews were invited to run country fairs and sell liquor, two activities that provided significant tax revenues to the Polish authorities. The Jewish businessmen brought new “Western” approaches to trade. They put stores and stalls under one roof, and sold exotic merchandise from distant lands. They opened inns offering a place to drink and a bed. They injected a cosmopolitan slice of urban life into rural agricultural areas. They expanded trade, bringing prosperity to the region.
By 1840, however, the golden era had started to fade. The Russian monarchy, which had ruled the region with benign neglect since the partition of Poland in the late 1700s, began asserting its authority. Discriminatory laws against Jews contributed to the decline of the shtetl, as authorities shifted economic and political power to larger urban centres. Once-vibrant communities turned into depressed outposts of the Russian Empire, the shtetl of popular Yiddish literature. They struggled to survive in their diminished state, until the Nazi regime wiped them out.
A fascinating and often ignored aspect of the shtetl described by Petrovsky-Shtern is the relationship of the shtetl Jews with the Holy Land.
In the late 18th century, about 500 Jews from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth went to Palestine to build a religious utopian community. Followers of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Zalman, the Mitnagdim idealists, were convinced that resettlement would pave the way for the Messiah. The rabbi, also known as the Vilna Gaon, had predicted the Messiah would arrive in 1840, coinciding with the year 5600 in the Jewish calendar.
Not to be undone, followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the rival Chassidic sect, made aliyah in even greater numbers, settling in Safed, Tiberias, Hebron and Jerusalem. By 1800, the Jewish population of Palestine had expanded to 6,000, accounting for roughly two percent of the population.
Petrovsky-Shtern recounts the impact of this aliyah on those who remained behind in the shtetl. In some respects, reverberations of the migration continue to be felt almost 200 years later.
The pioneers in Palestine faced unimaginable challenges: poverty, illnesses, natural disasters, famine and discriminatory Ottoman Empire laws. In order to survive, the Jews of Palestine developed a sophisticated network of rabbinic fundraisers who went from shtetl to shtetl, giving sermons, selling books and sparking the imagination with stories about the Holy Land, including tales about inscriptions on the tombs of the prophets.
The rabbinic messengers assured shtetl Jews that supporting Jews in the Holy Land was comparable to fulfilling the commandment of settling in the Holy Land themselves. The rabbis, who kept meticulous records, told donors that prayers were chanted on their behalf at the Cave of Machpelah, the gravesite of Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.
The authorities tried to stop the flow of funds to Palestine. They suspected that the Jews, who they blamed for the death of Jesus, were sending money to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed that the fundraising was reinforcing Jewish separateness, undermining assimilation, increasing fanaticism and possibly hindering Jews’ ability to pay local taxes.
Also, as the years passed, raising funds for the Jews in Palestine was viewed as aiding an enemy of the state. By the 1800s, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been partitioned and territory that included many of the shtetls became part of the Russian Empire, which had hostile relations with the Ottoman rulers.
Yet, Jewish communities still managed to raise money, especially in the years from 1810 to 1830. Aiding the Jews of Palestine became one of the highest priorities for Eastern Europe’s Jews, comparable only to the commandment of ransoming prisoners, Petrovsky-Shtern says.
The communal leadership of dozens of shtetls in the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia imposed a tax to help establish a synagogue in Jerusalem and maintain Chassidic groups. Charity boxes were on many dining tables and store counters. As well, sacks of earth from the Holy Land and ritual objects produced by the Jews of Palestine found their way into everyday life of the shtetl. Unpublished manuscripts by Holy Land rabbis and mystics were much sought-after reading, passing from hand-to-hand in the shtetl.
In a tale that echoes across two centuries, Petrovsky-Shtern recounts the role of the legendary charity boxes that are now found in many Jewish homes in North America. He writes that Jewish women in the shtetl of Kremenets, and possibly surrounding towns, turned the “commandment” to help the Jews of Palestine into an intrinsic part of the blessings over candles before Shabbat: right before the blessing, they put some money aside in a wooden charity box or tin mug to support the Holy Land communities.
By the time of the devastating earthquake in Safed in 1837, whatever hurt Palestine was felt just as strongly in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. The relationship between the shtetl and the Jews of Palestine appears to have many similarities with contemporary links between Israel and the Diaspora.
Petrovsky-Shtern provides a wealth of information about many different aspects of daily life, woven between lively vignettes to illustrate the comfortable standard of living enjoyed by many shtetls before their precipitous disintegration.
Unfortunately, the book is too easy to put down. Petrovsky-Shtern’s encyclopedic descriptions of the shtetl provide solid background for an academic understanding of the shtetl, but the pace is uneven. Interesting stories, such as the account of the relationship to the Holy Land, are interspersed with lengthy reports of dry historical records.
As Petrovsky-Shtern wanders back and forth across the years and jumps from shtetl to shtetl, the locations and dates turn into boring lengthy lists of trivia. Despite the endless string of names of real people, the reader does not come to know anyone in the shtetl. The facts may be on Petrovsky-Shtern’s side, but Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem tell much more memorable stories.
Robert Matas, a Vancouver-based writer, is a former journalist with the Globe and Mail. This review was originally published on the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website and is reprinted here with permission. To reserve this book or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman library.
Calof family festive meal, spring 1942. This is but one of the thousands of photos that have been collected and preserved by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. (photo by Cyril Leonoff; JWB fonds, JMABC L.13866)
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) has launched a new campaign called Sustainers of the Archives. The B.C. Jewish Community Archives contains an unmatched collection of material documenting the more than 150-year history of Jewish life in the province, from family mementos to the founding documents of major organizations.
Housed in a secure, climate-controlled 3,000-square-foot facility in Richmond, the collection includes 750 oral history audio and video recordings, extensive photographic collections, as well as art and artifacts. This invaluable community asset is managed by a full-time professional archivist, and access to the material in the archives is available to researchers and other interested parties through the offices of the JMABC.
The purpose of the Sustainers campaign is to invite members of the public to become friends of the archives by making an ongoing financial commitment. These funds will help the JMABC preserve the archives for future generations, as well as help the JMABC achieve its mandate: to tell the story of Jewish life in British Columbia. To become a Friend of the Archives, visit jewishmuseum.ca/become-a-sustainer. For more information, visit jewishmuseum.ca or contact the museum at 604-257-5199.
An old audio reel that writer Shula Klinger found in a suitcase of her late father’s mementoes features a revealing interview with Viennese author Edith de Born. (photo by Shula Klinger)
When my father died in 2014, I was given an old suitcase containing his mementoes. There were photos, much of his early writing and an audio reel in a box. All it said on the box was, “Interview with Edith de Born.” I had never seen this tape before and had no idea who de Born was. I also didn’t know why my father would have had the reel because, to the best of my knowledge, he had never worked in radio.
A quick Google search told me that de Born was a novelist, born in Vienna when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the Second World War, she and her banker husband both worked for the Resistance. An obituary of another writer on theguardian.com mentions her as a “now-forgotten Austro-Hungarian novelist,” a gauntlet of a phrase if ever I read one. The next website I visited was a bookseller with secondhand copies of de Born’s books. The Price of Three Cézannes and The House in Vienna arrived a few weeks later.
Like de Born, my father’s family lived in Vienna in the early 20th century, in the final days of the Habsburg Empire. But what was behind my father’s desire to interview her? I took the reel to a digital studio and had the material transferred to a CD, hoping to find some answers.
The first time I listened to it, I thought I was listening to my father’s voice but couldn’t be sure. The recording was clean, without any extraneous noises, but still, technology distorts the human voice and it didn’t really sound like my dad. This man’s English was excellent and he spoke quickly, but his vowel sounds weren’t quite right, weren’t quite what I remember. His phrases lacked the colloquial idioms you’d hear in a native speaker.
A few minutes in, I was sure this was indeed my father. The recording was made not long after he had moved to England. His first language was (I think) Yiddish, followed by Arabic and Hebrew, English and French. Was my memory playing tricks or was this simply evidence of what my friends had observed in the 1970s – that my dad “had an accent”?
I listened carefully to the rest of the interview. Mostly my father asks de Born about her writing habits, literary preferences and the authors she has met. He wants to know if she keeps notes in a little book, whether her characters are based on people she knows. She answers no, no, no again and again. He seems to be looking for tips on how to be a novelist. He gets nothing.
The conversation is stilted but my father doesn’t seem dissatisfied with the author’s brief answers. Are these the questions of a novice reporter, just learning the tricks of his trade? Or is he working to a personal agenda, trying to glean something useful for himself?
I get a partial answer when de Born speaks of the authors she has met. Evelyn Waugh, she says. And Vladimir Nabokov, whose writing she describes as “divine.” Knowing that Nabokov emigrated to the United States, my father asks, “Did he have an accent?” An odd thing to focus on, one might think, when you’re discussing a world-renowned novelist.
But there’s my answer. I may have grown up oblivious to my father’s accent, but he certainly wasn’t. Like all immigrants, he was aware that it marked him out as different. In a country where one’s identity is defined by the class system, this put him outside regular society. It told others that he was different, and he was just as conscious that, to fit in and be accepted into middle class, professional life in England, one had to be more than educated, more than capable – one had to sound English, to sound as though you belonged. With tanned skin, curly hair and – as he well knew – an abrasive manner, he did his best to tone down the chutzpah and mimic the mannerisms and diction of those around him. But not before he met de Born.
I managed to date the recording to 1960 or 1961 by looking at the publication date of the book de Born is writing when she meets my father. At that time, my father had not seen most of his family for years. Was the conversation a way for him to maintain a connection to his own heritage? Or was he simply looking for professional guidance? De Born could have been the perfect mentor – if only she had agreed. It is clear, however, from her guarded answers that she is not looking to nurture an emerging new talent.
There is, however, a short conversation about her memories of Austria. For the most part, she refuses to discuss her past, but she does talk briefly about her father, a Viennese nobleman. When the emperor Franz Josef died in 1916, her father walked in the funeral procession through the streets of Vienna. She describes her fondness for her father, and speaks warmly of his influence on her life.
Fascinated to learn that there were only two degrees of separation between me and a person who had attended an emperor’s funeral, I decided to look up some of the events she described. I soon found the Pathé News archive. Turns out they have thousands of files online. Here, I found a silent movie of the 1916 procession.
Twenty-six seconds in, I was startled to see something that didn’t fit. In the midst of all the smartly dressed adult aristocrats, prancing black horses and royal footmen, there is a tall, dignified looking man. This man is holding the hand of a little girl. She must be 4 or 5 and she’s holding a teddy bear in her other hand. They turn in front of the camera for a second before they are obscured by the heads of royal guards. She reappears fleetingly, later on, and then she’s gone. Could this be de Born, the woman whose voice I hear in conversation with my father when he was still a young Israeli immigrant?
De Born’s work is not in vogue now but this is – I believe – a tremendous shame. An astute observer of human nature, her dialogue is incisive and the inner lives of her characters richly explored. The world of Viennese aristocrats is opulent but restricted, the women stifled by their positions in society. Even as the characters cling to old traditions, singing of a Habsburg emperor whose fate will be tied to Austria’s for all eternity, de Born’s narrator feels that her world is an anachronism: “No waxwork exhibition could possibly reproduce the atmosphere of a vanished epoch so uncannily as did those creatures who continued to move with old-fashioned grace in their own meaningless world,” she writes.
Soon after, she describes a very different scene, being “in the midst of people who spoke my language, but with whom I could not feel in harmony. ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer …’ chanted, yelled, screamed hysterically.” Little by little, de Born introduces ever more troubling elements, gradually building on a sense of a looming catastrophe – for Austrian nobility, for Europe at large and for Jews in particular. It may be set in polite society, but The House in Vienna is an exquisitely tense and emotional read. It is no wonder my father chose de Born as his interviewee. I have not found her described as a Jewish author, but – to me at least – her photograph on the dust jacket tells me everything I need to know.
As a daughter listening to her father’s voice after his death, the reel of tape is a gift and, like the work of his interviewee, it is a little eerie. It feels like eavesdropping. I don’t know if my father meant me to have it – or even find it – but I loved hearing his chuckle as he talked about something that he cared about, so deeply, as the young man I didn’t know. It’s a great way to remember him and his accent – full of life and Israeli/European inflections – hints at how he must have felt as a newcomer in England, all those years ago.
And, of course, it’s not a particularly smooth interview. At one point, the author laughs, somewhat revealingly, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” in her own gently accented English. Up to that point, my father’s questions have mostly been dead-ends. This question, however, was different, and the pace of the conversation quickens, the tone is light, almost cheeky. Hearing him make a genuine connection with another human being – something I rarely saw myself – was pure gold. It’s an infinitesimally small hunk of gold, but when you lose a complex and extremely guarded parent that you tried throughout your life – and failed – to connect with in this way, it can feel like winning the lottery.
Shula Klingeris an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.
On May 15, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia launched the latest issue of its annual journal, The Scribe. This year’s edition follows the history of Jewish clothiers in the province, so the museum kicked things off with a fashion show curated by local fashion historian, Ivan Sayers, featuring clothing from the 1940s through to the 1970s. Some of the pieces exhibited were made or sold by clothiers included in the journal, which can be purchased for $20 from [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To see more of the fashion show photos, click here.
The Dome of the Rock in the snow, 1940s. (photo by Moshe (Nicolas) Schwartz / Schwartz Collection, Bitmuna)
Jerusalem is one of the most photographed places in the world. The Camera Man: Women and Men Photograph Jerusalem 1900-1950 exhibition at the Tower of David Museum highlights the unique and complex human and cultural heritage of the city. It also offers, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the photographic work in Jerusalem of Christians, Jews and Muslims between the years 1900 and 1950.
The 34 photographers chosen to be exhibited in The Camera Man lived and worked in Jerusalem during the first half of the 20th century. The photographers come from all different backgrounds – European, Armenian and local, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, men and women. Many photographers recorded the Jerusalem residents of different communities; some were hired by institutions and organizations to photograph various historical events that occurred in the city and some were artists who sought to honor the unique faces of Jerusalem.
What makes this exhibition different from others is that much of the photography that has been displayed before from this time period looks at the young “strong Zionist,” the developing state of Israel, the rural local villages, the posed “Orient,” the “new Tel Aviv.” This exhibition – which includes many photographs that have never been seen before – examines Jerusalem and its colorful mosaic of people, from everyday life to historic events.
“The juxtaposition of different viewpoints and spheres of activity, placing works by prominent photographers alongside less well-known names, reveals a hitherto untold chapter in the history of photography in the country and in Jerusalem’s own history,” writes exhibit curator Dr. Shimon Lev.
In the mid-19th century, when Europe began to take an interest in the Orient, Jerusalem witnessed an influx of travelers from England, France and, later, from America. At the same time, a new invention was spreading through Europe – the camera – and the newcomers carted their unwieldy photographic equipment with them. The sight of the squalid city was a bitter disappointment to them and clashed with an imagined idea of the Holy City that had prompted their journey to Jerusalem.
The dissonance between the Jerusalem cherished by the heart and the Jerusalem revealed to the eye, between the heavenly and the earthly Jerusalem, and between the ideal and the mundane Jerusalem, still occupies photographers today. Although cameras are now conveniently small and light and exposure times are shorter, today’s photographer still tries to capture his own personal version of Jerusalem, even if it is only a digital self-portrait in front of the Tower of David.
In The Camera Man, there are photographs showing action in the streets of Jerusalem from 1948, as well as portraits taken by local photographers who opened up their own photographic stores, most of them along Jaffa Road near Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David. The stores were called photographic houses or photo studios, although the driving spirit between the revival of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922), suggested the term ‘“light-painting houses” in Hebrew.
The photographs comprising The Camera Man were collected from private and public archives. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes selected photos from the exhibit, several of which are published for the first time, as well as articles by Lev, Dr. Lavi Shai and artist Meir Appelfeld.
The Camera Man is on display until Dec. 10. For more information, visit tod.org.il/en/exhibition/the-photographers.
A powerful family saga, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016) by Sarit Yishai-Levi is brutally honest. It starts with the narrator, Gabriela, talking about her childhood in 1950s Jerusalem. Her relationship with her mother, Luna, is strained at best; more accurately, a mutual aversion. Luna is a dismal mother and a horrid wife, a cold, spiteful woman. Disliking her immensely, I wanted to know what happened to Gabriela, but the book didn’t go in that direction.
Instead of moving the action forward, the author goes back in time, almost to the banishment of the Jews from Spain. From there, she follows several generations of the Ermosas, a family of merchants in Jerusalem. The story that emerges is an anatomy of animus, a fictional dissertation on the topic of what happens to people who deny love – because they all deny it.
Rafael doesn’t love his wife Mercada. He married her at the behest of his mother, an obedient Jewish son doing his duty, while his heart belonged to another for all of his life. He doesn’t allow himself even to acknowledge his torn soul, but his unloving marriage poisons the family for generations to come. Some describe it as a curse, and Mercada becomes a bitter, hateful woman.
When Mercada and Rafael’s sunny-natured son Gabriel falls in love with a woman not approved by his family, his mother punishes him by marrying him off to the worst bride she can find. She ruthlessly ruins her son’s life and never regrets it.
The curse passes on to Rosa, Gabriel’s wife and one of the few nice characters in the book. Rosa is not beautiful or educated. Poor and orphaned when she was young, she took care of her younger brother from the age of 10. She is kind, with a heart full of emotions she doesn’t know how to express. She would have loved Gabriel, if he were even a little bit willing, a tad more tolerant of her faults, but instead, Gabriel despises her. No matter how hard Rosa tries, Gabriel doesn’t accept her, and his antipathy fills his life with venom and sadness.
Of course, their daughter Luna, born of such a union, doesn’t know how to love at all. The most beautiful woman in Jerusalem, the beauty queen of the title, Luna is frigid and uncaring. She adores clothing and makeup but the only person she truly loves is herself. Repulsed by her husband’s touch, she hates his sexual advances. She doesn’t even try to understand his pains or his interests, and her treatment of their young daughter is cruel. She is a horrible character but, for some reason, the author dedicates most of the book to her. Perhaps she was exploring Luna as the embodiment of self-absorption, but there is little or no pleasure in reading these ruminations.
Only in the last fifth of the book does the story return to Gabriela, showing how hard it was for her to break the curse, to learn to love. Forgiveness, like love, is something the Ermosa family lacked, too, and it takes Gabriela years of self-hatred to even grasp the concept.
Overall, none of the major players in the tale is likable, and it’s difficult to understand their stubborn resistance to love. This difficulty colored my perception of the novel as a whole, and I didn’t enjoy the jumps back and forth in time either. They made the story feel like a jigsaw puzzle, and even when I assembled the entire picture, the squiggly lines between the tiles were blurry.
Fortunately, the Ermosa family drama unfolded on the background of Israeli history, and the historical aspect of this book was fascinating. The Turkish rule of Palestine and the British Mandate, the Zionist movement and the Declaration of Independence, the war of 1948 and the siege of Jerusalem by the Arabs – the Ermosa family lived through it all.
They lived through the Holocaust, never even noticing it. While Jews died by the millions in Europe, the Ermosas’ petty concerns focused on their small shop and their unloving spouses. While the Etzel (aka the Irgun) unleashed bloody terror on the British, with constant bombings and shootings, the Ermosas only cared about their personal safety and their neighbors’ approval.
Some of the younger generation, Luna’s sisters in particular, try to participate, but never Luna or her parents. Gabriel forbids his daughters anything nontraditional, and filial obedience was mandatory in this family of narrow-minded people who didn’t know how to love.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem was originally published in 2013 in Hebrew. The English version was translated by Anthony Berris.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
The Jewish Community Centre at 41st Avenue and Oak Street, November 1962. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11512)
It’s hard to believe that, in the 1950s, the Oakridge area was considered a ways out of town. In going through the minutes of the Jewish Community Council of Vancouver from 1954, one can see the initial attempts by the council to find a new Jewish community centre building – which at the time was on Oak Street at 11th Avenue – that would be as conveniently located. They considered exchanging space with the Peretz School, which was on Broadway, and buying the land on which Vancouver Talmud Torah stood, on Oak at 26th. However, they soon started examining the prospect of buying land from Canadian Pacific Railway, south of 41st. The following snippets of meeting minutes from 1954-1962 allow readers to fast forward through the development process and the establishment of the JCC where it is currently located.
Left to right: Nico Slobinsky of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region; His Excellency Balint Odor; Ezra Shanken of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; and Andre Molnar, Hungarian honorary consul. (photo from Beth Israel)
On Oct. 15, Congregation Beth Israel hosted an exhibition of Eastern European synagogues, sponsored by the Hungarian government. In his welcoming address at the opening, His Excellency Balint Odor, Hungarian ambassador, explained that Hungary is currently heading up the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
“IHRA is very relevant today in fighting spiraling antisemitism across Europe and around the world,” he said. “The mandate of IHRA is to combat all forms of racism, hate incitement and antisemitism, as well as promoting Holocaust education. This year, IHRA has focused a great deal of effort on illustrating the depth of Jewish culture in the region, in particular the synagogue.”
The traveling exhibit showcases renovated synagogues throughout East-Central Europe, from 1782-1944, some of which are still in use. Unlike in Germany and Austria, where the majority of synagogues were destroyed, many survived in Eastern Europe. From the 1970s onward, local municipalities restored and renovated synagogues. This work escalated following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the influx of foreign financial support.
The panels show a variety of different styles, ranging from cottage shuls to “palatial” synagogues. The richness and diversity of these places of worship are reminders of how vibrant Jewish life was in Europe prior to the Shoah.
The role of the presidency of IHRA offers Hungary the opportunity to confront its history and look back at the role the Hungarian state played in the genocide. Close to half a million Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Most of these people died in 1944 following the occupation of Hungary. At that time, every third victim in Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew. Today, the Hungarian Jewish community is the largest in East-Central Europe. Most Hungarian Jews live in the capital, Budapest, which has some 20 working synagogues.
As Rabbi David Bluman said in his welcome of the ambassador: “The synagogues we see in this exhibit are not just the past, they are also the present for those who worship in them, and will be the future for European Jewry. This is very relevant for us here in our beautiful new synagogue – our present, our future.“
Louis and Toby Rubinowitz and their son, Israel, are buried together in the Jewish section of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, while Toby’s sister Sarah is buried separately. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Like a bolt from the blue, and to my profound astonishment, I was on Tuesday afternoon set upon by a number of special constables and arrested,” Israel Rubinowitz wrote from his prison cell in Nanaimo.
It was autumn 1913 when the budding defence lawyer made a plea for his release, penning a letter to Judge Frederick Howay in the midst of a coal miners’ strike on Vancouver Island. Though a Conservative in politics, Rubinowitz offered a passionate, occasionally radical, perspective in British Columbian courtrooms. He grew up in Vancouver, studied at McGill University in Montreal and attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship in 1905. He returned to Vancouver and had only practised law for a short time when he found himself in Nanaimo – as both counsel and accused.
His predicament began when he agreed to represent members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Conflict had been brewing in mining communities on Vancouver Island’s central east coast since miners set up pickets in 1912. The coal companies refused to bargain and hired strikebreakers to keep their mines operating. “Special” constables, untrained and inexperienced, patrolled the region to keep order. In the summer of 1913, clashes broke out between strikers and replacement workers, starting in Cumberland and Nanaimo and spreading to Extension, South Wellington and Ladysmith. The provincial government declared martial law and sent in a militia on Aug. 13 after one man was killed, several surface mine buildings were burned down and homes were damaged. More than 200 strikers were arrested and 166 charged. None were granted bail. Martial law remained in the area for the next year.
The union hired experienced Vancouver labor lawyers Joseph Edward Bird and John Wallace de Beque Farris to defend the accused members. A group of Nanaimo residents fundraised independently and hired Rubinowitz, despite being advised by union officials and their lawyers that he was too inexperienced.
On that fateful Tuesday afternoon in September, Rubinowitz met with strikers Walter Pryde and William Moore on a Nanaimo street to discuss his clients’ cases. Special Constable Maguire and five other constables were patrolling the neighborhood. Maguire spied Rubinowitz and his companions and told them to move along. The trio continued walking, and were engaged in discussion when a train appeared and came to a halt. Twelve replacement workers disembarked, walking past the three men and the constables.
According to the Nanaimo Free Press, Maguire told Rubinowitz, “You are arrested for picketing.”
“I dare you,” Rubinowitz answered. “You don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t care who you are,” Maguire replied.
“After being publicly paraded through the principal streets,” Rubinowitz wrote in his letter to Howay, “I was taken to the police station where I was ultimately informed after persistent demands, that I was being charged with besetting or watching and following and intimidating workmen.”
Rubinowitz further wrote he had been falsely arrested. “I solemnly declare it is a wicked and deliberate trick to prevent my appearing [in court] for the men.”
After spending a sleepless night in jail, Rubinowitz appeared before Magistrate J.H. Simpson. He denounced the charge against him as “preposterous and fantastic.”
The exchange was reported in the Free Press:
“You put yourself in a false position,” the judge told him.
“You are not entitled to make such a suggestion,” the young lawyer responded.
“I ask for no favors,” Rubinowitz also told the court. “If I do not get justice here, I shall get it elsewhere.”
Thomas Shoebotham, acting for the Crown, requested that the bail hearing be moved to Friday, and the judge consented. But Rubinowitz’s letter to Howay and telegrams to newspapers had an impact. His plight received sympathetic media coverage from Victoria to Toronto. After his second night in jail, Rubinowitz was granted bail, though the judge let him know his letter to him was “ill advised.”
Rubinowitz stood before a packed courtroom for a preliminary trial on the Friday. He objected to Simpson’s presence on the bench, arguing Simpson had implied his guilt at the bail hearing and criticized the selection of Shoebotham. The judge overruled both objections.
“I was going to No. 1 mine with Pryde to see the district,” Rubinowitz testified. “I asked Moore to join me.… I stood about a minute pointing north and south. That gesture was seen by police.” Rubinowitz said Special Constable Collison pushed him. “I turned round and may have stared at him indignantly.” As for the arrival of the replacement workers, he said, “I was absorbed by my guides and didn’t notice them.”
Sam Davis, a Crown witness, was one of the workers coming off the train. He testified that he had not been spoken to by any of the accused and had not known anything about the incident until after their arrest.
Simpson seemed determined the case should proceed. “The least can be said is that the three men were in a disturbed district,” he told the court, “and that permission could have been obtained if they cared to have applied for it.” He also defended the special constables’ actions, saying, “… if no notice had been taken of this incident, there was a chance of another outbreak in the district.”
Shoebotham argued that an impartial jury in Nanaimo would be difficult to obtain because public opinion was “inflamed” in favor of the strikers, and requested the trial be moved to the mainland. Rubinowitz agreed but added, “I desire to dissociate myself from the reflection cast upon the good name of the citizens of Nanaimo.” (NFP, Oct. 2)
A month later, dressed in lawyer’s robes, Rubinowitz stood before Judge Aulay Morrison in a Vancouver court. “I appear, my lord on behalf of Pryde and Moore,” he said, “and I ask that they, together with myself, be discharged.” Before the morning was over, a jury found the three men “not guilty.”
By this time, several of the 160 accused strikers had been sentenced, following “speedy trials” in Nanaimo. They pleaded guilty on the advice of lawyers Bird and Farris in the hope of appeasing the court.
The remaining accused, having pled “not guilty,” were being tried in New Westminister. Rubinowitz represented 23 clients, while Bird defended 34. Most were granted bail and, when their trials finally concluded in the spring of 1914, nine went to prison, while others received a suspended sentence or were released because of time already served. Twenty-two men were pardoned. The last union man was released from prison Sept. 25, 1914. The union had been broken and many striking miners were blacklisted and had to find jobs elsewhere.
Rubinowitz was still seeking vindication, despite his acquittal, suing the Nanaimo Herald publisher, J.R.H. Matson, and its editorial writer, R.R. Hindmarsh, for libel. Among the alleged statements was the suggestion Rubinowitz had been purposely “seeking notoriety” the day he was arrested in Nanaimo. The case was tried June 8, 1915, before Justice William Clement with Sidney Taylor, KC, representing Rubinowitz and Robert Reid defending the newspapermen. On the second day, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of Rubinowitz and the Herald was ordered to pay him $1,000 and legal costs.
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Israel Isidore Rubinowitz was the only child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Louis and Toby Rubinowitz. The couple had been among thousands of Eastern European Jews emigrating to North America to seek better opportunities and escape the pogroms under Russian rule. Louis immigrated to New York City in 1879, at age 19, and traveled on to Pittsburgh, where many Lithuanian Jews had already settled. Two years later, he married Toby Rosenthal, and their son Israel was born in 1882. When Israel was 8, the family moved to Vancouver.
The couple were among the first Jews from Eastern Europe to settle in the city. David Oppenheimer, Vancouver’s second mayor, from 1888 to 1891, and a German Jew, represented the small population
of Western European Jews. Antisemitism does not appear to have been widely prevalent in the city’s early years. By the 1920s, this would change in Vancouver and elsewhere. Early tolerance of Jewish residents may be due in part to members of the dominant white population channeling their prejudicial treatment toward residents of Asian background. As well, only 83 Jewish people resided in Vancouver in 1891, increasing to 2,400 by 1931 – compared to 45,000 people in Toronto and 17,000 in Winnipeg.
Louis operated a grocery in Steveston with two partners. In 1894, his family lived in Gastown, the city’s first downtown core. In 1896, Louis opened a department store, Rubinowitz and Co., on the main floor of the five-storey Dominion Hotel, at the corner of Water and Abbott streets. He sold clothing, boots, shoes and other goods.
That same year, Toby’s sister, Sarah, 23, arrived from New York, divorced, pregnant and severely depressed. She gave birth to a son, named Abraham, and they lived with the Rubinowitz family. Israel was 13 when his aunt took her life, drowning in Burrard Inlet. At the coroner’s inquest, which confirmed death was by suicide, it was discovered Sarah had been pregnant and had an abortion. The coroner attempted to discover who the man involved with Sarah could have been, but to no avail. Louis and Toby continued to care for Sarah’s son and gave him their surname.
While attending Vancouver High School and College, Rubinowitz helped his father in the store. He won academic awards in his senior year. He volunteered in the Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, a local militia that recruited from his high school. Following graduation with a bachelor of arts degree at McGill, Rubinowitz articled in two Vancouver law firms, his training temporarily postponed when he won a Rhodes scholarship – the second British Columbian to do so. He studied at Oxford University, then returned home to complete his articles. Attracted to England, Rubinowitz traveled overseas again to practise law for about two years before returning to Vancouver in 1911. He was admitted to the B.C. bar July 9, 1912.
Living with his parents, Rubinowitz had only a short distance to walk to his law office on Granville Street. He became a member of the Masonic order, continued his involvement with the Vancouver Zionist Society (of which he was a founding member) and, during the First World War, was active as secretary of the B.C. Red Cross.
When the First World War began in 1914, Sarah’s son, Abraham, was working as an electrician and carpenter. After the government implemented conscription in 1917, Abraham, 21, was drafted. Following his service, he moved to the United States.
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Rubinowitz had only been practising for a short time when, in May 1913, he took on the defence of a female nurse arrested for murder. Mrs. Ida Ironmonger, 43, was accused of administering drugs to Mrs. H.O. Anderson to induce an abortion, resulting in her death. Rubinowitz’s attempt to have his client released on bail pending the murder trial was unsuccessful. In October – only four days before his own trial in connection to the Nanaimo arrest – Rubinowitz convinced the court to reduce Ironmonger’s charge to “giving noxious drugs and aiding and abetting a deceased woman to commit an illegal operation.” In the four-day trial, Rubinowitz made the case, which included medical testimony, that “the act might have been committed by the deceased herself.” Ironmonger was acquitted after the jury deliberated a mere five minutes.
Until 1968, abortion was illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code. “There is no place in Canada for the professional abortionist,” Judge Murphy told the court in reference to another Rubinowitz client, Joseph Kallenthe, who was found guilty by a jury in a Vancouver court in 1915. The judge also noted of the accused, “I have no doubt from the skill you displayed that you have had much practice.” Rubinowitz urged mercy, stating it was Kallethe’s wife and two children “on whom the brunt of the punishment will fall,” and Kallethe was sentenced to three years in prison.
In 1918, Rubinowitz represented a couple who had taken out a marriage licence without a religious or secular ceremony. They had two children before learning they were not legally married. Rubinowitz corresponded with the B.C. attorney general’s office, stating it was “only fair, particularly to the woman, that every effort should be made to make the marriage valid and to make the children legitmate.” The government responded that the issue could only be remedied with a private member’s bill, an action his clients could not afford. The couple’s dilemma was submitted by letter to a newspaper editor, signed by a “Vancouver barrister.” This led a reader of the newspaper in the same predicament to write the attorney general. Consequently, the Marriage Act was amended, providing for the legitimization of children to couples in this legal situation.
Rubinowitz was presented with his most challenging cases in the midst of Canada’s 1918-1919 “red scare” era. The federal government had suspended civil liberties, enacting the War Measures Act during the First World War in pursuit of “enemy aliens.” In the social turmoil after the war, fear of an uprising similar to the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a government crackdown on left-wing activists. Panic – real and imagined – culminated in the spring of 1919 with the Winnipeg General Strike. By June, as the strike was nearing an end, the government amended the Immigration Act. A newcomer to Canada could not be legally landed if suspected of subversive activities, as determined before an immigration board. The verdict rendered – behind closed doors – could not be challenged in a civil court.
A month following the amendment, 27 Russians in British Columbia were charged with participating in an anarchist ring connected to the Union of Russian Workers. Rubinowitz defended several of the accused. Secret service agents working with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police provided most of the evidence for the prosecution. After the hearings, the board ordered the deportation of 14 of the 27 men.
Bird’s son, Henry, also a lawyer, acted for the local defence committee. He appealed the cases to the Ministry of the Interior. It was agreed that one of the accused would not be deported but had to report regularly to the police. In October, the other 13 Russians were sent to an internment camp at Vernon to await further arrangements.
Rubinowitz instigated a perjury charge against two of the secret agents, accusing them of giving false evidence to the immigration board against three of the accused. Rubinowitz pointed out that the immigration board had taken away rights guaranteed by the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus Act, such as trial by jury and release on bail. He also criticized the board’s composition of appointees, stating they were not familiar with law. Judge Morrison and the Crown lawyer “severely” rapped him for saying fair play had not been done. The judge said the act “was really a war measure” and necessary “for the preservation of the nation.”
On Jan. 14, 1920, the case was moved to a higher court. Meantime, the detention camp in Vernon was closed. One of the 13 accused was released on parole and the others were transported to the B.C. penitentiary.
In May, the two secret agents were acquitted, the judge deciding the evidence had not been sufficient to sustain a charge. Rubinowitz was ordered to pay $2,000 in court costs.
The 12 imprisoned Russians were paroled that December but never deported because the government was unable to find a country willing to accept them. Considered a victory for left-wing activists, these detentions and those elsewhere in Canada had nevertheless served to send an intimidating message to politically active immigrants.
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Rubinowitz was a 41-year-old bachelor when he developed acute bronchopneumonia in the spring of 1923. In the early morning of Aug. 15, he died in his parents’ home. The burial was held the following day.
News of his death came as a “distinct shock” to members of the legal community, who responded with an “overflow of high esteem,” according to a newspaper account. He was described as a shrewd lawyer, quick to spot a weakness in an opponent’s argument, as well as considerate, courteous and kindly “even in the heat of battle.”
His parents carried on. Louis ran unsuccessfully for mayor three times and for alderman five times over the ensuing years. He “achieved a reputation as an eccentric and perhaps this is why he was not a recognized leader of the [Jewish] community,” observed a writer for the Jewish Independent’s predecessor, the Jewish Western Bulletin.
In 1939, Louis visited Vancouver archivist James Matthews to set down his stories.
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The Rubinowitzes are buried together in the Jewish section of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. Toby passed away in 1952, aged 90. Louis entered a provincial home for the aged in Coquitlam a few years after his wife died, passing on in 1958 at age 98. Sarah is buried separately on the edge of the Jewish section.
Janet Nicol is a history teacher at Killarney Secondary School in Vancouver and a freelance writer, with a special interest in local history. She blogs at janetnicol.wordpress.com. The writing of this history – which will be published in greater length in the 2016 edition of The Scribe – was inspired by the novel The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman (1928-1992). In the words of its protagonist, the family patriarch, Abraham: “… and yet there was a time, I think, when I had everything … but now, when I look back, I had at least the beginning of everything.”