THE JEWS OF MANITOBA or 'The Centre of Its Own Diaspora'

By Levine, Allan | Winnipeg Free Press, May 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

THE JEWS OF MANITOBA or 'The Centre of Its Own Diaspora'


Levine, Allan, Winnipeg Free Press


Never more than a tiny minority, somehow and against tremendous odds, Jews established one of the most vibrant and culturally rich communities in North America

Rabbi Arthur Chiel immediately knew he was somewhere special when he first visited Winnipeg in 1944.

Winnipeg was, as he later put it, a "Yiddishe shtot (a Yiddish town) unlike any that I had contact with in the U.S."

What dazzled the man who was to become spiritual leader at Winnipeg's Rosh Pina Synagogue during the 1950s and author of the 1961 scholarly study, The Jews in Manitoba, was not only the number of synagogues and Jewish organizations that existed. It was also the diversity of Jewish life and opinion in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba.

Anthony Astrachan, an editor and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, came to the same conclusion when he spent time in Winnipeg in the '70s. He later wrote in the U.S. Jewish magazine Present Tense that Winnipeg's celebrated vitality was based on five key ingredients: "Political activism, radicalism, a vital Yiddish culture mixed with universal Jewish devotion to education, a Prairie mystique and a geographic isolation that has made Winnipeg the centre of its own Diaspora."

For years, outsiders had viewed the members of the province's Jewish community as Hebrews. In reality, by 1920, the Jews were representative of all classes and ideological orientations. Many were religious, others less so. There were Zionists who campaigned for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; socialists who fought for the rights of the workers, and liberals who advocated Jewish assimilation into Canadian society.

Each segment (and some, such as the socialists and Zionists, which were internally divided) had its own associations, mutual aid societies, schools, synagogues and political clubs.

"Winnipeg was a Jewish world," reflected lawyer and community leader Sam Drache in 1961, "that had small cells of every intellectual, controversial Jewish movement represented within it, and it had leadership -- it could have one man, two men, three men, small cells but they were here and they all gave expression."

The historical circuitous journey that brought thousands of Jews to Manitoba and laid the foundation of today's Jewish community of about 16,500 people (about 1.3 per cent of Manitoba's total population), began many centuries ago.

The term Diaspora is derived from the Greek word meaning scattering. And though it was originally applied to any peoples who were exiled or resettled in the ancient world, the term has come to define the Jewish experience since the time of the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Contrary to the ancient teachings of the Bible, Jews have never been content to be merely "a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations." Instead, suggested the late Abba Eban, an Israeli scholar and diplomat, they have been a people that insisted on "sending the repercussions of its history far and wide, into the ocean of universal culture. Thus there is virtually no civilization that does not have a Jewish component, just as there is no Jewish civilization that does not bear the mark of another culture."

That is certainly true for the 136-year history of Jews in Manitoba and Winnipeg. They have never been more than 2.8 per cent of the total provincial population -- and that was in 1931 -- but somehow and against tremendous odds, they established one of the most vibrant and culturally rich Jewish communities in North America.

Beyond the city's perimeter, in scattered agricultural colonies and country villages and towns of Manitoba, Winnipeg became the proverbial homeland for hundreds of Jewish farmers, labourers, and storekeepers and their families, attempting to retain their religion and heritage. The city served as their supply depot for kosher food and a place to pray on the High Holidays.

More significantly, members of the Jewish community -- despite the existence of anti-Semitism that blocked professional advancement and social opportunities -- have prospered and affected almost every aspect of Manitoba life. …

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