06 March 2008

British Columbia: Pioneer Jewish history

Some travellers delight in new gastronomic experiences or in acquiring dust-collecting souvenirs. My passion is books and, to be very specific, those with Jewish genealogical content. Last summer's visit to Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia provided me with several volumes of fascinating names, dates and important Jewish history.

When I read today's Vancouver Sun story on early Vancouver Jewish immigrants (that posting follows this one), I realized I had not posted this entry from last summer.

At the Vancouver Jewish Community Center, following my Jewish genealogy presentation, I discovered an excellent regional collection of books. In one, I discovered that the first Jewish family in Victoria was Sephardic.

Following California's gold rush came British Columbia discoveries in 1857 and 1862, and some 35,000 people arrived looking for the proverbial pot of gold. Among the first were Jews from England and Australia, gold-seekers and Californians looking for business opportunities. Many early arrivals had Polish, Prussian or German roots.

In June 1858, San Francisco correspondent Daniel Levy of the Archives Israelite in Paris filed a report predicting that small Victoria trading posts would soon become "great centres of population and flourishing ports in which the commerce of the world will meet." He also believed this would be a disaster for the fledgling San Francisco Jewish community, which would see a large migration north, although this never happened.

In December 1858, the Philadelphia Jewish Occident reported that it had learned that many Jews had settled there and predicted a "prosperous congregation would soon spring up."

Victoria's community first met on August 2, 1858, held Rosh Hashanah services in a private home, founded a Benevolent Society in May 1859, consecrated a cemetery (still in use) in February 1860 and formed a congregation in August 1862. The synagogue cost $9,196.60, and was dedicated in September 1863. A non-Jewish resident reported, in an 1865 book, that it was the "most costly religious structure in the place, and the only one that is made of brick …."

The congregation numbered 59 - only men were counted - and the first rabbi was Polish-born Dr. Morris R. Cohen, who officiated at the first marriage (October 1863).

At the peak of the gold rush, some 119 Jewish families lived in multi-cultural Victoria. A Romanian Jewish traveler - I.J. Benjamin - arrived in February 1861, and reported that while others came and went, the Jews "held their ground, set up tents for residence and booths for shops," and saw the commercial future.

By 1865, the frontier settlements had experienced some difficult economic times, and people began to leave, returning to California - including Rabbi Cohen, when the community couldn't pay his salary. In 1866, the two colonies of Vancouver Island (where Victoria is located) and British Columbia (location of Vancouver) joined. When the US purchased Alaska in 1867 - foreshadowing Michael Chabon's bestseller, The Yiddish Policemen's' Union - some residents relocated their businesses to Sitka and other Alaskan communities.

The small group of Jews produced mayors of the province's major cities, the first Jews to serve in Canadian government (provincial legislatures and Parliament), industry founders, manufacturers, pioneers, miners, developers and actors (among them David Belasco, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone).

The books include detailed information about the Hebrew Ladies of Victoria and their considerable achievements in helping to form, financially support and organize community services.

Julius Silversmith ran one of the earliest schools and produced the first Victoria City Directory in 1860 (500 copies were printed), listing all residents and their businesses. He had come from San Francisco where he was a German newspaper correspondent and taught at the Emanu-El Institute. His Select School offered music (piano, violin, guitar, singing), French, German, Spanish, English to boys and girls ages 5 and up, according to an advertisement. By 1878, Silversmith had moved to Chicago and established The Occident, the city's first English-language Jewish weekly.

Jewish small businessmen broke the fur-trading monopoly of Hudson's Bay Company in the Northwest, and Jewish curio merchants dominated anthropological native craft collecting in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

Am I the only one who watched an early TV series on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the Yukon? I connected with the descriptions of Jewish adventurers in the Klondike and the Yukon territory, including 60 Jews who lived in Dawson City, the gold rush business center, which also featured in that old TV program. In 1998, its Jewish cemetery was restored and rededicated.

Among the books I brought home from Vancouver, BC: "Pioneer Jews of British Columbia" (Western States Jewish History and The Scribe - Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, 2005; 288pgs, excellent footnotes, historic photographs and maps) and "Pioneers, Pedlars, and Prayer Shawls: Jewish Communities in British Columbia and the Yukon" by Cyril Edel Leonoff; Sono Nis Press, Victoria, BC; 1978; 255pgs, index, footnotes, historic photographs).

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