Jan 24

Jews: A Canadian Story in Pictures coming to Calgary City Hall Atrium

by Guest Blogger · 2 comments

image006One of the photographs included in the photography exhibit, Jews: A Canadian Story in Pictures. The writer with her parents, Ilya and Esmeralda Karshenbaum, at Lake Louise, 1980. Successive waves of immigrants from around the world contributed to the vibrancy of the Jewish community of Calgary. Photo courtesy the Karshenbaum family.

By Irena Karshenbaum

What most people don’t know is that the first Jew to come to Canada, what was then known as New France, was Pierre Lafarge, in 1739. His name was not exactly Pierre Lafarge. It was Esther Brandeau. With a name like Esther, she was not exactly a man, but a woman disguised as a man. The nineteen year old was fleeing France anxious to start her life in the New World, a colony of the Kingdom of France. The authorities who caught her allowed her to stay on the land, decreed only for Roman Catholics, since the colony needed women. But she would have to convert.

Problem was, Esther refused to convert. So Esther was sent to a convent, where she refused to convert. Then she was sent to prison, where she still refused to convert. Finally, she was sent to an insane asylum, and she still refused to convert. Esther Brandeau was deported back to France, and lost to history.

This story was told by noted Canadian historian Dr. Irving Abella, at the opening of Jews: A Canadian Story in Pictures, a photography exhibit first showing at the Calgary JCC, before moving to City Hall Atrium from January 27 to 31, 2014.

Dr. Abella explained that Jews did not return to Canada until the 1760s, settling in Lower Canada, what is Quebec today, having migrating from the 13 Colonies and Britain. The arrival began a golden chapter of Canadian history where Jews flourished as fur traders, farmers, business leaders, politicians and even displayed great bravery fighting in the War of 1812.

The golden age came to a close when in 1881 Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated and Jews became the victims of violent pogroms, sparking their exodus to the New World, including Canada. This influx caused a rise in anti-Semitism, which reached its denouement in the 1930s and 40s. Dr. Abella’s seminal work, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933 – 1948, co-authored with Harold Troper, uncovered the Canadian government’s refusal to grant asylum to desperate Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. The book’s publication in 1983 influenced the Canadian government’s policies of welcoming the Vietnamese refugees.

The status of Jews in Canadian society did not improve until the 1950s. Yet despite the hardships, Canadian Jews still managed to play a critical role in building Canada. They were farmers and ranchers helping to break the land beside their non-Jewish neighbors. They started their own businesses, first as peddlers, then factory workers, store and hotel owners. They saved money to send their children to university, built Jewish communal organizations - like Jewish Family Service, Jewish day schools, synagogues - and when the treatment of Jews improved they began to contribute to the greater community.

By the time my family arrived on March 1st, 1979, with nine suitcases and $40, fleeing the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community had welcomed us. I remember my parents struggling, and suffering, to learn English, to find work, to hold on to work in Calgary’s boom and bust economy. Of course, coming to Canada as a little girl, I will never really know what my parents went through. I was sheltered, but then in some ways my parents were sheltered by the Jews who had come generations earlier to the edge of the world, near Sibbald, Alberta, and got busy clearing the land with their bare hands.

There is a sweet irony that almost 35 years later I found myself working on this exhibit and a Karshenbaum family photograph taken a year and a half after our arrival would be included to give voice to Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, South Africa and South America. An exhibit like this would never have been possible in the Soviet Union we fled from, and I have my reservations about it being possible in a public space of any of the former Soviet Republics today. This is why Canada is a giant among nations; it is a multi-cultural mosaic so confident of its identity and democracy it respects the identity of its minority groups.

To learn more about Canadian Jewish history, please visit Jews: A Canadian Story in Pictures in the Calgary City Hall Atrium:

January 27 to 31, 2014 - 9:00am to 5:00pm

IrenaKarshenbaum1Irena Karshenbaum is the Resource Development Associate with the Calgary Jewish Federation. Born in Kharkov, Soviet Union, today she is writer and led a project that gifted one of the last surviving prairie synagogues, originally built near Sibbald, Alberta, to Heritage Park Historical Village. [email protected]

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