The Jewish Traveler: Vancouver
Canada’s western coast has long attracted Jews with a pioneering spirit. From digging for gold to outdoor adventure, the ruggedness of this land has been a spiritual haven.
You know what the early Jews in British Columbia looked like. You’ve seen them in the movies and old photos; you just didn’t imagine they were Jews. Bearded prospectors panning for gold; rough fur trappers and Indian traders; peddlers trudging through snowy mountain passes, unloading their mules in mining camps—Jews were part of the development of the great Pacific Northwest.
Nowadays, the majority of Jews in British Columbia live in Vancouver, which has grown from a logging outpost to an international banking center and harbor for splendid ships. The city’s bold modern architecture is still dramatically framed by mountains and sea, and its Jews still retain a sense of themselves as pioneers in an Edenic new world.
The first recorded Jewish presence in the region was a young Latvian merchant named Adolph Friedman, who in 1845 settled in the city of Tacoma, now in the State of Washington but then still on the British side of the border. Many Jews who arrived in the next few decades had come first for the California gold rush of 1848 and then the Canadian gold rushes of 1858 and later. They crossed the continent by stagecoach and came up the coast by wagon train and boat. Hardy individualists, often traveling alone, they typically kept moving from one isolated settlement to the next as opportunity or necessity demanded.
The Jews living in Vancouver when it was incorporated in 1886 shared certain qualities. They tended to be brave: 17-year-old Rachel Goldbloom, for example, married a trader who had come east for a visit and went off to live with him in the faraway mountains. They were resourceful: Samuel Gintzburger, a 20-year-old from Switzerland, failed at homesteading, Indian trading, seal hunting, mining for silver and prospecting for gold before he established himself selling real estate and insurance. They were determined: David Oppenheimer left Bavaria at 14 and, with his brothers, set up trading posts from Texas to Cariboo, constantly moving, sometimes armed, following a restless population. And they were tough: “Leaping” Louis Gold opened a general store on the waterfront in 1872 and promptly earned his nickname when he socked a lumberjack. Gold was a little guy, so what he did was leap up in the air “swinging mightily and landing with his full weight on his opponent’s chin,” according to a bystander.
By the early 20th century, when completion of the transcontinental railroad had made Vancouver British Columbia’s principal city, Jews had established synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish organizations. Gintzburger, now prosperous, became president of one of those synagogues, the Reform Congregation Emanuel, as well as of the Hebrew Free Loan Association; Goldbloom organized so many community activities out of her parlor that friends called her “a one-woman philanthropic organization.”
In 1910, Vancouver had 200 Jewish families; by the early 1930’s, there were over 600. A peddler named Karl Levy set up the town’s first menswear store, in a tent on the waterfront, and called it The Hub. By the 1920’s, a neon sign featuring a giant revolving hub stretched across the big brick storefront. In 1927, a Polish kid named Jack Diamond got a job sweeping up in a butcher store. After 13 years, he owned western Canada’s biggest meatpacking firm and went on, among other accomplishments, to be chancellor of the University of British Columbia and was named Man of the Year in thoroughbred racing by the Canada Jockey Club.
Still, the community retained its connection to the continental wilderness. In the 1920’s, Dr. Maurice Fox paid house calls to isolated patients by dogsled (in the 1950’s, Dr. Leon Komar used a helicopter); and a pair of dentists made routine rounds on a paddleboat up the Yukon River.
As the Jews prospered, they contributed to the prosperity of the city at large. The local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women founded a free well-baby clinic that was eventually incorporated into the Metropolitan Health Services. The Oppenheimer brothers encouraged Vancouver’s expansion and donated land for public purposes. They were prime forces in persuading the Canadian Pacific Railroad to extend its terminus to Vancouver and aided in the creation of roads and bridges, electric lights and waterworks. In 1887, David Oppenheimer became the first president of the Vancouver Board of Trade; the following year he began serving four consecutive terms as the city’s second mayor—unsalaried—eventually becoming known as the “Father of Vancouver.”
Jews’ integration into the larger community showed in the outpouring of support after the 1986 firebombing of Temple Sholom, since handsomely rebuilt on the same site. And Jewish intermingling in the population has been mirrored in where they lived. Although at first homes were concentrated in the downtown East End neighborhood of Strathcona, Jews soon started moving south. There, after World War II, the Oak Street corridor became the backbone of the community; it is still the location of kosher restaurants and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Vancouver’s largest synagogues still stand in a line along the street, from the Orthodox Schara Tzedeck (about an hour’s walk from downtown) to the Reform Temple Sholom (about 40 blocks farther out).
In the 1950’s, the population expanded farther south to Richmond and, as unofficial covenants against selling residential properties to Jews (and other outsiders) eased, fanned out to North Vancouver and West Vancouver. By 2003, greater Vancouver had no area identifiable as Jewish. North and east of the city proper, tiny groups of Jews are scattered in small towns with names like Chilliwack, Whitehorse and the Kootenays.
The Jewish population, estimated at 23,000, has doubled since 1968. (Vancouver as a whole is growing at breakneck speed.) Today, immigrants arrive from Eastern Europe, India, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, North Africa and the Middle East as well as other areas of Canada and the United States. They are mixed in every other way, too, from affluent to impoverished, and though many are in professions and businesses, their livelihoods range as much as in the non-Jewish population.
Like the earliest pioneers, these newcomers are arriving, often alone, in a society where it is easy to be accepted and assimilate. This combination of circumstances is particularly conducive to what Richard Menkis, professor of Jewish history at the University of British Columbia and a specialist in the history of the Canadian Jewish experience, calls “diffusion rather than cohesion” as a Jewish community. Combine this with a widespread preference for “spirituality rather than religiosity” and the result is that “Jewish identity seems to get lost in people’s knapsacks on their way through the mountains,” he says. The local rate of institutional affiliation is very low, and intermarriage stands at 60 to 65 percent.
Cyril Edel Leonoff, historian of the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, estimates that only about a third of the known Jews belong to one of the more than eleven synagogues, but that about three quarter participate in social activities. The Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library and the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia (604-257-5199; https://collections.ic.gc.ca/jhs) are housed in the JCC at 950 West 41st Avenue (604-257-5111;www.jccgv.com), as is the Bagel Club, which provides assistance to Jewish adults with special needs, and the local office of Hadassah–WIZO (604-257-5160). There is a revolving schedule of lectures, courses and events.
The Vancouver area is home to three Jewish day schools and two high schools as well as various Sunday schools and after-school programs.
The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture (604-325-1812;www.peretz-centre.org) runs its own school and secular Yiddishist activities. Vancouver Hillel (604-224-4748; www.vancouverhillel.ca) administers Hillel chapters at British Columbia’s three biggest universities: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.
Most people say they moved to Vancouver for its natural attractions: the mild climate and the great outdoors. Jews are no exception and have created groups such as Adam va-Adamah Environmental Society (the regional affiliate of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life: 604-872-7380; www.av-a.org), which focuses on spirituality and nature, especially retreats; and the hiking club Teva (604-874-5311). On Rosh Hashana, when Jews cast their sins upon the water, many gather to perform the tashlikh ceremony at a waterfall in downtown Queen Elizabeth Park.
There is a long tradition here of helping newcomers. A whole apparatus exists to welcome the flow of immigrants, from meeting them at the airport and giving them a welcome basket to matching them with host families. The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (604-257-5100; www.jfgv.com) and other professional and volunteer services help find housing and jobs and even translate.
And while Vancouver has no private Jewish funeral home, the Orthodox synagogues sponsor a volunteer hevra kadisha (burial society).
Vancouver Jews claim only one famous show biz figure, Jack Benny. Well, not exactly Jack Benny: his wife, Sadie Marks. Jack (then Benny Kubelsky) and his pal Zeppo Marx came through town on the vaudeville circuit one spring and ended up at Sadie’s family’s Seder. She was only 13 at the time, so he courted her for five years till they married. Later, she became known to radio fans as Mary Livingston. A plaque marks the otherwise uninteresting Strathcona apartment house (504 East Hastings) where she and her stage-struck sisters grew up, a few blocks from The Hub, which is now Benmore Furniture (45 East Hastings).
At the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, you can get a printed walking tour of old Strathcona, called “In the Footsteps of Jewish Vancouver,” which passes Sadie Marks’s home, The Hub and several of the oldest Jewish-owned businesses operating in Vancouver today. Strathcona now includes gentrified streets with elegant gardens and spills over into Chinatown. And Vancouver’s Chinatown—the second largest in North America, after San Francisco’s—offers not only restaurants and shops but also Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park with its lovely Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum.
But, being a Jewish tourist provides an excuse to see most historic sections. For example, “Leaping” Louis socked the lumberjack in Gastown, now a quaint cobblestone-street neighborhood of shops and clubs, where he rented his general store’s premises (64 Water Street) from the “Gassy Jack” who gave the area its name. Not far from Gastown you’ll find the first brick building in the city, the temporary first City Hall; it had been the Oppenheimers’ grocery store.
On the beachfront facing English Bay in the West End stands the Sylvia Hotel (1154 Gilford Street; 604-682-3551;www.sylviahotel.com). It was Vancouver’s first high-rise (eight stories) when it was built as an apartment house in 1912. It was named after Sylvia Goldstein, the owner’s daughter who later became the first Jewish woman to graduate from the University of British Columbia.
Or visit nearby Stanley Park, a thousand-acre stretch of woods and beach with bike paths and sports facilities; a statue of David Oppenheimer greets you at the gate. And there are sites of artistic interest as well. Library Square at 350 West Georgia Street (604-331-3603) was designed in 1995 by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. A seven-story rectangle covering an entire city block, it looks like the Roman Coliseum with an additional freestanding wall curving around the side and reachable by bridges. The building houses not only the library but also government offices, shops, cafés and a public garden on the roof.
For a Jewish arts scene, the JCC art gallery holds ongoing shows and the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel (4350 Oak Street; 604-731-4161; www.bethisrael.ca), the largest synagogue in Vancouver, houses a small museum of Jewish artifacts.
Some of the synagogues themselves, which offer a range of practice and atmosphere, also are worth a visit. The building that Vancouverites mention first is the Conservative Congregation Har El, in West Vancouver about 45 minutes from downtown (604-925-6488; www.harel.org). It was designed in 1997 and earned the architect, Mark Ostry, several awards for incorporating woodsy surroundings, including a running salmon stream, into its modern styling. Schara Tzedeck (3476 Oak Street; 604-736-7607;www.scharatzedeck.com), a new building with vivid stained-glass panels, is actually the Orthodox congregation’s third home (the first, erected in 1921, was the first substantial Jewish public building in Vancouver) and it still houses the original oak bima and Ark with their quaint carved wood lions. The Sefardic synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash (3231 Heather Street; 604-872-4222;www.bethhamidrash.com) moved into its new airy and light-filled house of worship almost three years ago. Though the edifice may be modern, the congregation uses an ancient Torah scroll from Mumbai, India; services follow Iraqi customs.
In the 19th century, Victoria was western Canada’s principal city as well as its principal Jewish center, and it remains the provincial capital. Victoria’s second mayor, Lumley Franklin, elected in 1866, was the first Jewish mayor of a city in British North America. Today, Victoria’s numerous Jewish organizations are testament to the breadth of Jewish interest.
In addition to the Orthodox Aish Hatorah (250-598-2676) and the Reform Temple Kolot Mayim (https://kolotmayim.org), whose services are held in the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria (250-477-7185), the city is home to Canada’s oldest synagogue building still in use as a house of worship, the Conservative Congregation Emanu-El. The historic synagogue is a pleasant brick building, recently refurbished and enlarged (1461 Blanchard Street; 250-382-0615; www.congregation-emanu-el.org).
Victoria also has Canada’s oldest Chinatown. The trip from Vancouver takes about an hour and a half by ferry past islands, mountains and the occasional whale.
Notable Vancouver Jews include David Barrett, premier of British Columbia from 1972 to 1975, and Simma Holt, who in 1974 became the first Jewish woman member of Parliament. In 1914, Samuel Davies Schultz (1865-1925) became the nation’s first Jewish judge; by 1979, Nathan T. Nemetz had become provincial Supreme Court chief justice.
Leonard Frank, who won a crude camera in a mining camp raffle, went on to become a famous photographer; his photo of Vancouver Harbor graces Canada’s 50-cent stamp.
Pioneers, Pedlars, and Prayershawls: The Jewish Communities in British Columbia and the Yukon by Cyril Edel Leonoff (Sono Nis Press), published in 1978, remains the best source on the community. The historical society sells the one-hour video More than Gold: Outposts of Civilization to Cornerstones of Community.
Throwaway Angels (Press Gang Publishers), a 1996 novel set in Vancouver and written by Jewish author Nancy Richler, shows a seamy side of the city that is not particularly connected with the Jewish world.
To answer Jewish tourists’ questions, Shalom BC mans a desk at the Greater Vancouver JCC (604-257-5111).
For a full list of kosher restaurants, caterers and hotel kitchens, visitwww.bckosher.org. Highlights include Omnitsky’s Kosher Deli (5866 Cambie Street; 604-321-1818), Sabra Bakery (3844 Oak Street; 604-733-4912) and Chagall’s, a dairy café at the JCC. Frozen and packaged kosher foods are available in Kaplan’s (nonkosher) deli and at supermarkets. Vancouver has three vegetarian restaurants, plus the popular Bo Kong Vegetarian Restaurant in Chinatown.
Helen’s Place Kosher Bed and Breakfast is at 1049 West 32nd Avenue (604-733-7280).
Jews are still moving to Vancouver. They are drawn by the mountains and the sea—and by the legacy of its pioneers, who ventured west to start new lives.