Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada


Ever since I was a small boy beginning Cheder (afternoon school), I have felt this special feeling as a Jew. Till this day, I always felt this powerful bond with my people and with the Jewish State of Israel, my country. I am sixty-three years old! And I am still fiercely proud of my Jewish faith.

Growing up in a small town, in a small Jewish community of 110 families, I always felt quite comfortable as part of the general population. I was integrated very well into the general community--I had a love for sports and participated fervently in athletics. But though I felt comfortable, I was always conscious of being Jewish, almost on a daily basis, sometimes in a sensitive way. Everything I did, subconsciously I asked myself, "How do they really react to me as their friend, as a member of their football team? Do my teammates like it when I score the winning goal, or would they prefer one of their own to have done it? Do the opponents swear under their breath because I am the Jew who scored against them? When I was at their parties and danced with a Gentile girl, did the girls feel different and think their friends were watching us because of my religion?" I was constantly wondering how and what they were thinking, regarding my Jewishness. It seems as though I was possessed with being Jewish, twenty-four hours a day. It certainly was my fault, and I was overreacting, because I went on with my activities in a normal way. I want to make that perfectly clear. It's just that I wanted them to like me as I am, as an individual, and the fact that I was Jewish did not make a difference as to their assessment of me.

As you can see, emotionally I am very Jewish. I did not understand the time, but of course as I grew up I began to understand myself more and more, and why it was like that. It certainly left scars on me which, strangely enough, helped me in some ways (and hindered me in others).

I perhaps should tell my story in the form of a catalogue of events, breaking it down into decades--the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, to the 1970s, and the 1980s till now.  

1930s to 1940s-Events of the decade

I am the youngest of ten children of Louis and Rose (Reva Mor Marshall who came from Byelorussia. My mother came in 1910, my father at the turn of the century. My father was eighteen years older than mother, and for my father it was his second marriage. Father died in 1933. I was reciting Kaddish at six years old with my brothers--for me, a most traumatic experience in my life.

   1940-My Bar Mitzvah

I was influenced very much by my teacher, Rabbi Kirchenblatt (who incidently is living today in Toronto, age eighty-six). I am still in touch with him. Actually, I was a better Hebrew school student than at public school, where I was just an average student.

1940 to 1950-World War II - High School - University

 As a boy, through my teens, I heard stories about the Jews in Germany, in Europe, my relatives being oppressed, persecuted, but at the time these events seemed very far away. With no communication, it never had any kind of real impact on me, but it did later when I learned more about the Holocaust and what went on.

I found myself gravely affected, deeply moved, emotionally upset by the Holocaust. How could it have happened in this century, and outside of the war effort, primarily to put down this Fascist government and to win the war, nobody acted upon this dastardly, programmed mass murder? Where were the Christian churches? Where were the governments? It is constantly with me, looking for a!lswers. Though we know there are no logical explanations, we must continue to ask questions, to search for answers about "man's inhumanity to man," and the religious side of it. Where was God?

The Holocaust--mysterious, incomprehensible--defies rational thinking. Undoubtedly, it had the most impact and influence on my life, and my thinking regarding the world and its people. It continues to this day to be consistently on my mind--that and my mother's death. Even though she was eighty-eight; we were very close.

My brother Tommy, Pilot Officer-Pilot Instructor, was killed in a plane accident at Trenton, Ontario. Brother Jack, who is now a Senator in Canada, was in the infantry (Canadian Armed Forces) overseas. He was recommended out of action on D-Day to take his officers' training at Sandhurst Officers' School in England. Today he sits in the Senate of Canada and holds the rank of Colonel as well.

One other thought struck me that describes my days in Glace Bay High School, an interesting note about sports in high school. As I mentioned earlier, I loved sports (as did most Jewish kids), and I think it was always a positive factor in our lives. Being good in sports, theater, or music helped us as a minority in two ways. One, it helped to fight anti-Semitism, in the sense that the Christian boys held a great respect for athletic ability (especially football, being a physical contact sport); the other, that it was a great outlet for us, kept us out of trouble, and was an image builder.

Interesting note: One year, 1943-1944, during my Glace Bay High School career, we played English rugby football, not the American football game, not the Canadian football game. This game of rugby originated in Great Britain, and of course with a strong Scottish and English population in this area of Eastern Atlantic Canada, it was very popular. Now, when you consider the total enrollment in our high school, us Jewish kids made up less than one percent; yet on the football team, made up of thirteen players, eight of us were Jewish. Furthermore, we were first string regulars, and on the High Holidays in the fall (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), they would call off practice because we took off those Jewish Holidays, and went to synagogue.

1947 to 1950-Years at University

I attended university at Mt. Allison University, Sackville, Province of New Brunswick. It was a small town with a small Presbyterian University, and a lot of Jewish kids attended this college for theiundergraduate years. It was a good school that welcomed and treated Jewish students very well. What I remember most is getting away from Jewishness. When I was a boy my mother made me go to synagogue at home, of course, and with no Jewish community in the town of Sackville, I got away from it. For the High Holidays the Jewish kids went into Moncton, a neighboring community that had a synagogue and small Jewish community, much like  home. When I finished university in 1950, I came home and went into the family business with my oldest brother Sam. It was a retail clothing business.

Before World War II there were about 110 Jewish families in Glace Bay, a very active and flourishing community with an Orthodox synagogue, Talmud Torah, with about 75 pupils in Hebrew School, a Shochet Ritual slaughter, and a rabbi (who als0 taught Cheder). We each received about four hours of afternoon Hebrew learning, and one hour Sunday morning. There were two Jewish butchers, a very active Zionist organization, Young Judeans, Young Israel Clubs, Habimah P Ladies Aid, Hadassah, Wizo, very active theater activities, etc. All in all, it was a very full, functioning community.

About our Community

We had a true mixture of types from Poland, Lithuania, and Russia--the same story of surviving and running from the pogroms and the tough Russian Army. In our community, we seemed to have two contrasting types: the tough, rough cattle rustlers--illiterate, but for some reason (whether through fear or mystique religiousness) they knew shul procedure, though with little, if any, kind of formal education. On the other side of the coin, there were real scholars, academics well versed from studies at Yeshivos. Somehow they blended and existed on Orthodox religious practice. They managed to build a Shul in 1907, brought in rabbis and kosher butchers from Europe, and kept to the letter of the ritual law.

As for making a living, they went with packs on their backs to the countryside, with no knowledge of the English language. In the countryside they spoke Scottish Gaelic, and some of these Jewish peddlers learned Gaelic before they learned English. In my research I learned there was one Russian Jew who came to the area, already married to a Russian Christian woman; when he died, his wife asked the president of the congregation to bury him in the Jewish cemetery, but was refused.

We had three Jewish men who worked in the coal mines of the area--it was the coal mines that attracted my father, a tailor, and other Jews to the area. At that time, the economy was flourishing--they started out peddling, then opened small shops, retailing in clothing, ladies' and men's wear; or opened small grocery stores and general merchandise stores. Three of the grocery merchants developed their business into bigger stores, then wholesaling, and then with the onset and growth of the supermarket concept, became very big.

All the time those earlier immigrants, even during the hard economic times of the 1920s and the Depression years of the 1930s, understood and emphasized the importance of Hebrew and secular education to their children. According to my research, many of the Jewish kids finished high school and went on to university. Bear in mind a lot of the families were large--seven, eight, nine, ten kids away, but here lies a sad consequence of these large families and hard times. The older ones, left on their own in their teens, moved over the American border to New York, and many did very well. They had to leave to make it easier for their parents to raise the younger ones. But that's a story in itself.

I consider myself second generation in this country because my father was fifty-eight when I was born and could have been my grandfather.

I feel as I am telling this story as if I'm looking back in history, through a window on the past--at the community. My story is deeply rooted because of my strong feelings for family and community.

Now I'll get back to 1950 to 1970. I came home from university, and my oldest brother, Sam (sixteen years older), who was like a father to me, had saved one property that my father left mortgaged. They paid up the mortgage, built a new store, and I went into business with him as a junior partner.

The 1950s were a real turning point in my life. A lot of friends went on to professional school and then to Montreal and Toronto to practice and establish new lives for themselves. The small communities could hardly support all of them and, as for the others, how could one small family business support two or three families? There was quite an exodus to the big cities, and consequently our community started to shrink in the late 1950s. However, those of us who stayed kept the Jewish community vibrant and organized. It was a very close-knit and strong community.

I, as a single boy, lived at home with my mother and brother, who married rather late in life. I had a good life, perhaps too good. Although I went to synagogue, I ran around with the Christian crowd but always felt guilty, and felt a void in my life. I knew I would not marry outside my faith--I guess the Jewish values and Jewish vibes were built my being.

Fortunately, I was able to travel a lot, going on buying trips for the business to Montreal and Toronto. Naturally, my friends and I would combine a holiday at the same time. On these trips, we would look up family and friends, who were always on the lookout for a nice Jewish girl for us singles. Well, I was certainly one of the fortunate ones who met a lovely Jewish girl who changed and turned my whole life around.

Now you must remember it was not easy to convince a Jewish girl to leave her family and come to a Christian community to live and raise a family there. The generation before me, my oldest brother's generation, was a different story as it was a little easier to get a girl to come to a small community because times were tough everywhere. If they could get a good husband, with an established business in a small community where life was pretty comfortable, the compensations were certainly there. There were all the amenities, and a good quality of life was attainable. In my generation, the prospective wives were more worldly, more educated,  and not so willing to move away from the city.

As I said, I was lucky. I met a girl in Montreal who was born in Vienna, escaped as a baby with her parents (during the Anschluss Annexation) from Austria to the only doors open to refugees--Shanghai, China. I've been told that during the hard economic Depression years, and during strikes at the coal mines, many of the Jewish merchants, especially in the grocery trade, carried the miners' families on the books (credit), which kept them in food and clothing until things got better. Some of them showed their appreciation and paid them back, but of course as is often the case, many of them got stuck with bills, and never got paid or even thanked. But that's life, isn't it!

1970 to 1990-Present Time

From 1970 to 1990, our community had around fifty-five families--kind of a steady as you go, but organized community. We could still afford a rabbi-cantor, but signs were starting to show that the community had reached its limitations; that is, a downgrade turn would be indicated on a graph. Consequently, the youth continued to leave, with a hard core left to keep the community going. We still had kids in Cheder, a few Bar-Mitzvahs, and a strong support system towards Israel. Our United Israel Appeal Campaign didn't have to take a back seat to anyone, on a per capita basis.

In 1980, it started to become clear what was going to happen. From 1975 to 1980 we hired an Israeli teacher, Bal T'Filah, Bal Koreh, who was residing in Montreal. He came to us and remained with us for five years, and when there were no kids left in Hebrew school, he got restless and left. Then it became a do-it-yourself program for us; that is, to conduct the services ourselves. Fortunately, our president at that time could read the Torah, so we kept the Shul doors open and survived very well.

It is interesting to note that you would think it was easier to be a Jew in a big center, but as a speaker who came down to us from Montreal for United Israel Appeal said when he saw how we functioned as an organized Jewish community without the benefit of a rabbi, "It is easier to be a Jew in a small community because you have to try harder."

Thus the synagogue is the link and center of our Jewish life. At this stage of our existence, one of the main significances of being Jewish, staying Jewish in a small community, is as Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition, keeping the Jewish traditions alive."

Now, as the president for one-and-one-half years, I took on the duties of keeping the flock (an elderly congregation) together; perhaps two or three years more and we will be history. Our main objective has been in building up a cemetery fund so that the cemetery will be assured of perpetual care, and the Ner Tamid will be eternal for our Shul somewhere in Israel! We are a determined group, a hard core, and we will function till the lights are turned off and the doors of the Shul, "Congregation Sons of Israel," CLOSED!

Postscript: I've often been asked over the years and along the way if I ever regretted not having gone to the bigger Jewish centers as a lot of my peers had done. With the advantage of better facilities, better access to real Jewish culture, Jewish libraries, Jewish studies, classes for furthering Jewish education, and the whole Jewish environment--well, my standard answer has always been, and still is the same. Naturally I have given it much thought and consideration. When I rationalize what did happen in my life, staying in a small community and the interest and involvement I did take, I wonder if my staying was not the best step and the best direction my life could have taken. When I sort it out, there is no guarantee that had I chosen to go away, maybe I would have gone and strayed away completely from a Jewish way of life. Wherever I did make a contribution to my Jewish community and to Israel, on the executive committee of our Shul for thirty years, and I say this with great humility, I helped to keep the community active (and have always been a Shul goer), and when we could not afford a rabbi, helped to direct and conduct the Service on Shabbot. I was also Chairman of U.I.A. and J.N.F. for thirty-five years. This way, I feel as if I did my share and made my contribution to the Jewish cause and there is a great feeling of fulfillment in that!




Copyright 2009. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved.  Image Use Policy.