Manitoba History: Review: Allan Levine, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba

by John C. Lehr
University of Winnipeg

Number 63, Spring 2010

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Although they have never constituted more than 2.8 per cent of the population, Jews in Manitoba have had an impact on the province’s social and economic development that is by far out of proportion to their relatively small numbers. Winnipeg, always the centre of Jewish life on the prairies, developed as one of the most culturally rich and diverse Jewish communities in North America, producing a host of artists, radicals, entrepreneurs, professionals, politicians and philanthropists who not only built Jewish life in Canada but played vital roles in shaping both the city and the province.

Although Jews were present in the early days of the fur trade, a Jewish community did not develop in western Canada until the arrival of Jewish agricultural settlers in the early 1880s. The rules of Jewish religious observance complicate Jewish life in rural areas and small towns where Jewish institutions cannot be sustained. Thus, although the story of the Jews in Manitoba began as a story of pioneer agricultural settlement, its subsequent history is overshadowed by the story of Judaism in the city of Winnipeg, which became its supply base for material goods, kosher food, Jewish culture, and education. Indeed, as Coming of Age makes clear, political activism, radicalism, a Yiddish culture mixed with the Jewish devotion to education, a prairie mystique and geographic isolation have made Winnipeg the centre of its own Diaspora. It is a unique story but one that resonates with the experiences of many other disadvantaged groups that were a part of the polyglot immigration into the Canadian west.

Never judge a book by its cover. At first sight, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People in Manitoba appears to be a book destined for the coffee table rather than the bookshelf or library. Oversized, printed on high quality glossy paper, and clearly a commissioned work, it is profusely illustrated and the index reads like a “who’s who” of Winnipeg’s Jewish community. It attempts to explain how the descendants of a small group of impoverished immigrants created a vibrant and significant community in western Canada. But this is no hagiography. The text, by Winnipeg historian Allan Levine, is well written and carefully researched. Levine provides an even-handed account of the growth of the community set within the framework of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s development. Himself a member of the community he portrays, he does not shy away from detailing its less savoury side, although he dwells on the successes and achievements of those who “made it”, or played prominent roles within the community.

The book’s twelve chapters are organized thematically and presented more or less in chronological order. The first chapters quickly establish the European antecedents of Jewish immigrants that would determine the structure of the community in Manitoba. Jews from Germany, who were the earliest to arrive, were considered a cut above those from Russia or Romania, who fled from the pogroms of the late 19th century and came later. A chapter on “Farming the Promised Land” wisely disregards Manitoba’s political boundaries in its analysis of Jewish pioneering endeavours on the prairies, their early success and eventual failure, and for most, a drift into Winnipeg.

In its early days Winnipeg was truly the heart of a New Jerusalem that produced a plethora of remarkable people of the likes of John Hirsch, Monty Hall, Israel Asper, Abraham Heaps, Joe Zuken and Samuel Freedman. This amazing diversity of talent reflected the diversity of the Jewish community that was mostly found in the North End. It is easy for an outsider to see such an ethno-religious community as a monolithic entity wherein they all shared common goals and held common values. Levine convincingly demonstrates that this community was anything but unified. Chapters discuss the Yiddish renaissance, Jewish political radicalism, and the development of Jewish charitable and cultural organizations where differences abounded. Life for those Jews who worked and lived in Manitoba’s small towns operating retail stores was also very different from that experienced in the city, except for the endurance of various forms of anti-Semitism, ranging from petty discrimination to insults and physical violence.

Even in matters of religion the Jewish community was early divided between the conservative and orthodox. Politically too, it was fragmented: some were at the heart of radical left wing politics striving for social justice for all, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation; others supported the mainstream Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties, holding office as cabinet ministers or, in the case of Sidney Spivak and Israel Asper, serving as party leaders.

Levine draws on a wide array of primary and secondary sources, but the oral histories underpinning the volume give freshness and vibrancy to the narrative and make this an interesting and absorbing book. With a work such as this it would be easy to slip into a recitation of achievement in the concluding chapters. Instead, Levine chooses to end the work with a reflective chapter discussing the paradox that acceptance and tolerance lead to assimilation, whereas in the past, prejudice and discrimination built community solidarity. Dealing with this difficult conundrum will be a true measure of the community’s coming of age.

Although the book is directed at members of Manitoba’s Jewish community, anyone interested in the history of Manitoba or the Jewish community in general, will want this book in his or her collection.

Page revised: 4 July 2016