Manitoba History: Review: Jewish Life and Times: A Collection of Essays

by A. G. Levine

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Jewish Life and Times: a Collection of Essays. Winnipeg: Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada, 1983. 185 pp. ISBN 0-969-1256-0-7.

Since its inception in 1968 the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada has worked diligently at “recording, preserving and presenting the history and culture of the Jewish people of western Canada.” Among other accomplishments, it has put on display two exceptional historical exhibits—”Journey into our Heritage” and “Selkirk Avenue Revisited”—and organized many interesting lectures. From these latter gatherings Jewish Life and Times was born.

This book, a collection of twenty-two papers delivered at the Society’s meetings between 1968 and 1978, is a fine contribution to the historiography of Western Canada. Written by a diverse group of individuals including academics, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and teachers, the essays explore a variety of issues concerned with Jewish life in Canada. Like many such collections, however, some papers tend to be better than others. Reminiscences by lawyer A. M. Israels, Senator Sidney Buckwold, Stratford Artistic Director John Hirsch, and psychologist Ruth Bellan are colourful but familiar tales of the immigrant experience in the west. Similar in nature are contributions by Leible Hershfield, who relates the history of Jewish participation in Manitoba amateur sports, and by Dr. Harry Medovy, who presents a biographical essay on the first Jewish physicians in the province.

Jewish interaction with the host society is examined. Dr. Percy Barsky provides a good account of how a small group of Jewish students campaigned during the early 1940s to end the University of Manitoba’s ethnic quota system in its medical school. Sybil Shack, a former President of the Manitoba Teachers Society, concentrates on the “Canadianizing” curriculum of Manitoba’s public schools. In her view, the school succeeded in its task as the “great agency of assimilation in North America.” “If there is any doubt,” Shack writes, “that the public school has or had a powerful influence on the molding of a new generation in Canada, one has only to listen to those of us who came through the system. We are Canadian, we are Anglicized [and] we are even in a sense Christianized in the Protestant image.”

But this socialization did not spell the end for the province’s Jewish community. Indeed, if one theme pervades these papers, it is that the maintenance of a Jewish culture and identity was an essential element in the lives of Manitoba’s Jewish population. But, like the Jewish communities of Toronto and New York, the Jews of Manitoba were not an homogeneous group. As several of the authors indicate, Jews were divided along religious, political, and class lines. Roz Usiskin, for example, shows the extent to which ideological divisions split Winnipeg’s Jewish working class. According to Harvey Herstein, this heterogeneity was also reflected in Winnipeg’s Jewish educational institutions. Depending upon the particular political or religious convictions of a family, children could be sent to a Zionist school where Hebrew was the language of instruction, to the I. L. Peretz Folk School which stressed Yiddish language and literature, or to the more radical “Arbeiter Ring” (Workmen’s Circle) School where Jewish youths were indoctrinated in a unique brand of socialism.

During the inter-war years, Winnipeg Jews tended to vote along class lines. “This was due primarily,” Henry Trachtenberg asserts, “to the traumatic impact of the war and the General Strike upon the collective psyche of Winnipeg Jewry.” Thus in 1919 the Jewish left put aside its philosophical differences during the municipal elections of that year to oppose Max Steinkopf, a respected Jewish lawyer, and H. E. Wilder, the editor of a local Yiddish newspaper. Both were believed to have been associated with the establishment led Citizen’s Committee of 1000. In this instance, therefore, class took precedence over ethnicity.

If there is one major criticism to be made of this collection, it is the absence of footnotes. Certainly the inclusion of sources would have benefited future researchers. This academic exigency aside, Jewish Life and Times is a worthy addition to the growing field of Canadian ethnic history.

Mischa (Moses) Werier in store, circa 1920.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 25 September 2009