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Pioneer Jews of British Columbia

By Cyril Leonoff

Review By Jean Gerber

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 153 Spring 2007  | p. 134-5

Pioneer Jews of British Columbia is a compilation of articles that first appeared in two journals, Western States Jewish History and The Scribe, dealing with Jewish settlement in British Columbia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It includes articles on Jewish businessmen in nineteenth century Victoria and the rest of British Columbia; a lengthy article on the association of Jewish women who were members of the early synagogue, Temple Emanuel; a brief biography of actor and theatre impresario David Belasco; an account of a Jewish home steading family in the Peace River region; a summary of the rededication ceremony of the Dawson City Jewish cemetery in 1998; and a transcription of a taped interview with Trail Jewish businessman Leopold Levy.

The strongest essay is Christopher Hanna’s “Traders on the Frontier: The Jewish ‘Indian Traders’ of Early British Columbia,” a study of Jewish businessmen who lived physically on the residential line between white and Native in Victoria and whose participation in the fur trade was a natural extension of their European roots, as Jews in Europe were deeply involved in the fur business. Hanna describes their business connections to San Francisco and offers the important insight that “the arrival of the first Jewish ‘Indian Traders’ at Victoria,” by their intrusion into the market, “brought an end to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s near monopoly of the coastal fur trade.” Placing their activities within the larger context of early contacts between whites and Natives, Hanna describes the effect that these relatively few people had on the history of economic development in early British Columbia and on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Other essays offer little historical context and fail to assess the greater importance of their subjects within the comparative context of settler and frontier entrepreneurial experience. With the possible exception of Cyril Leonoff’s article on the Hebrew Ladies Association, the essays ignore the effect that class and gender had on the community. Yet Leonoff’s article, while ostensibly illustrating the growing influence and power of Jewish women in the community, provides overwhelming evidence that the opposite occurred, namely, that the Jewish women eventually lost control of the social hall adjacent to the synagogue building, for which they had raised money. In addition, the authors here offer little insight into the experience of BC Jews within the larger Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Much more could have been made of the impact of women in early Jewish business ventures and of the colourful careers of Jewish men who worked with Native peoples along the coast both as legitimate traders and as illegal purveyors of liquor. Similarly, the authors might have asked how it was that the earliest religious manifestation of Jewish identity – the building of the synagogue Congregation Emanuel – was such a well regarded event in Victoria, supported and celebrated by the town fathers and by, among others, the Masons, who participated in its construction (and in its rededication one hundred years later). Nor have the authors compared early Jewish settlers, who came largely via the west coast of the United States, with later Jewish immigrants, who came directly from Eastern Europe.

In his introduction to The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader (Calgary: Red Deer Press, 2004), Richard Menkis argues that Jewish studies in Canada should either illuminate the relationship of Jews to power – how Jews have negotiated power within the larger society and at sites of conflict – or analyze the creation of Jewish communal identities. The essays in this collection will serve mainly as raw material for, rather than as analyses of, these broader topics. As such, they can contribute to the as-yet-unwritten history of Jewish settlement along the west coast of Canada, from its earliest days in frontier Victoria to the present.