19 October 2008

Canada: Moose Jaw's members of the tribe

Jewish life in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is the Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent's travel story this week by Lauren Kramer. Learn about the town's hot springs, underground tunnels and more.

It's Friday night, and I'm in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, standing outside the House of Israel Synagogue and wishing there were a service I could attend.

As it happens, I'm late -- by nearly 18 years. This synagogue closed its doors in September 1990, leaving only a cement plaque outside as evidence that it was, indeed, a synagogue, serving a Jewish community in this small prairie town since 1926.

Today, it's a dance school, with windows boarded up against the sunlight and weeds growing prolifically around the building. But there was a time when the House of Israel Synagogue was a hub of activity, with regular Shabbat services and social get-togethers.

"Everybody pitched in and was friendly in our Jewish community; it was like a big family," recalls Sam Cohen, who lived in Moose Jaw from 1957 until 1988.

"We had a Hadassah that was very active, and a B'nai Brith that did a lot of work in the gentile community. We kept kosher, and we knew we were Jews, but ultimately the community disintegrated because you brought up the children to leave -- you didn't want them staying, you wanted them in more of a Jewish environment."

Lillian Butts, 85, was born there in 1921 and lived there until 1943. Her parents were from Russia and Romania, and recalled going to cheder three days a week and hating it.

"My mother, Rose Schwartz, was one of the few Jews who kept a kosher home in Moose Jaw, so when Jewish travelers came to town and required kosher meals, they came to us. My mother would be up at 5 a.m. on Fridays baking challah, and all week, we'd look forward to our traditional Shabbat dinner of chicken soup and

The natural spring was discovered in 1910 as someone was drilling for oil. It became a popular place. I assume the hot mineral water was really popular in those Saskatchewan winters.

Those visitors also explored the underground connecting passages under the city, used by bootleggers. The city denied the tunnels existed for more than 70 years. In 1985, they couldn't them it anymore when a heavy truck disappeared into a hole when the pavement collapsed.

Today, they are a hot tourist attraction and offer two tours. One focuses on the lives of poor Chinese laborers who in the early 1900s lived in the tunnels; the other is on the bootlegging history (the town became a mob retreat for the mob).

The Jewish Exponent also has an earlier story on the Calgary, Alberta stampede here, which mentions the Fairmount Palliser Hotel's kosher kitchen, the kosher Haifa Deli and kosher Karen's Cafe & Catering. The Jewish community numbers some 9,000 people.

Recently, the community restored a 1913 prairie synagogue, called Little Synagogue on the Prairie, which Tracing the Tribe has noted previously, which also provides the Jewish history of the city; the first Jewish settler arrived in 1898, the 1904 purchase of land for a cemetery, and the eventual schools, synagogues and facilities that made a real community. The JCC houses community institutions, such as the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta.

A recently published book, "A Joyful Harvest: A History of Jews in Southern Alberta," tells the story of the community.

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