Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Fort William and Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada


Fort William and Port Arthur, formerly Ontario's twin-cities (today combined under the name of Thunder Bay) are located at the head of Lake Superior to the north of Duluth, Minnesota. Our family lived there in the 1930s and 1940s, part of a small Jewish enclave of perhaps one hundred Jewish single, couple, and family units within an overall district population of some 50,000 non-Jews.

My late father (who came to Canada with his father from Russia at eleven) worked on the "local" train out of Port Arthur. Known as a "news agent," he sold newspapers, candies, soft drinks, coffee, cigarettes, and the like to hunters, trappers, fishermen, miners, and lumberjacks who took the two-hundred-mile, ten-hour journey to Sioux Lookout. This was a branch run that met the Canadian National's trans-Canada mainline in the heart of the Northern Ontario wilderness. He made three trips a week, going there one day (beginning on a Monday) and returning to Port Arthur the next. On Sunday, he'd be home and would take still another try at teaching his three children (my sister Minnie, brother Morris, and mainly me) how to write and read Yiddish from a book called The Briefenshtaller, collection of letters to cover every occasion in Jewish family life.

In the early '30s, like all too many, we lived in poverty, clasping our few Jewish friends to our bosoms "with bands of steel," as the poet wrote. Port Arthur had a small shteebl for a synagogue (across from Chercover's Horse Exchange), used mainly for our holy days ... and a rabbi/shochet, who one day suddenly passed away leaving a penniless widow and child out on the street. The rabbi died on a Saturday afternoon. My father, fresh off his run, suddenly. found himself involved in making burial arrangements in Fort William, which had a larger Jewish population, a viable synagogue, a Chesed Shel Emis, and a Jewish cemetery. A good portion of the funding for the burial came from his meager resources (despite the fact that there was to be a "collection"), and the widow and young orphan ended up in our cramped wooden cottage on Algoma Street. They were with us for three months, until a long lost relative took them to Winnipeg. How my mother coped with three children of her own, the two permanent visitors, and very few dollars for food, I'll never know. What I knew was that all four children slept in one room, and I didn't like it.

My parents were not happy living in Port Arthur. It wasn't only the anti-Semitic Ukrainian and Polish kids at Cornwall Public School who beat me up once a week and mocked me every day which caused their discontent. It was the fact that my hit-and-run Sunday morning lessons were (to put it bluntly) getting me nowhere. At first, they thought that enrolling my sister and me in the Fort William cheder would do the trick. It was three dollars per month per pupil (which was a godly sum for them), plus street car fare back and forth, but they thought it would be worth the hard-earned expenditure. And so Minnie and I began making the three times a week trolley trips to Fort William where Mr. Kirch, our moreh, had to cope under great duress, trying to teach six and seven-year-old rambunctious ruffians, candidates for Bar Mitzvah, and the pupils in between. And all of this in a grungy basement room beneath the synagogue, heated in fall and winter by a pot-bellied stove. It was bedlam, but slowly I learned to haltingly read in Hebrew.

Our stay in Port Arthur lasted another year. One day, we missed the streetcar going home, and my sister decided that we should walk the four miles back. My father had returned from the Sioux at six o'clock ... when he learned that we had not arrived, panic set in. With my mother staying home twisting her hands in anguish, he began walking along the road to Fort William. A mile or so out of Port Arthur, he met us plodding along.

That was it! We moved to Fort William and began a fuller Jewish life of regular cheder, joining the Finlayson Street synagogue, attending Friday night and Saturday services, and being present at community social events at the B'nai B'rith Hall on Pruden Street.

There were perhaps six Jewish pupils at the Central Public School which I attended, and here and there I experienced the traditional latent anti-Semitism. One of the boys who became my close friend was Bob Cracknell. He was from a staunch English family and, after several "dirty Jew" instances, he took up my cause with both words and fists, because (as he said) "the British have a mandate over Palestine and are committed to protect the Jews." It was a friendship that lasted for several decades.

Despite this, I always felt "Jewish" from within to a point where quietly I'd refuse to participate in decorating the classroom Christmas tree, and when it was my turn to lead the morning class prayer, I'd ask the teacher if I could read a passage from the Old Testament. When I was younger I sang "Jesus Loves Me" along with the class, substituting "Moses" for the so-called son of God. Even when my classmates let me forget it, I felt special, and I never questioned or bemoaned it.

In high school, this sense of being different continued. Since it was a district high school, there were more Jewish students and little anti-Semitic occurrences. Still (with the exception of my continuing bond with Bob), I remained only "friendly" with fellow Christians; we were not friends in the true sense of the word. At school, we were all one but after school and on weekends, there was an invisible barrier separating our homes and ourselves.

We were a closely-knit gang of Jewish kids in Fort William, perhaps ten or twelve boys whose life (living in the poorer East End of town) centered on hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer and football in the fall. The so-called rich West End Jewish kids played basketball and tennis; we survived on a flooded backyard which was part of Savela's lumber yard. The synagogue and community hall were located in our end of town and it was common for West End balabatim having Yahrzeit or to say kaddish, to come to the rink or lumberyard and "grab us for a few minutes" minyan. Once in a while (out of desperation) we'd bring our Gentile friend, the placid Wally Vint, with us because waiting for the tenth man to be rounded up devoured our playing time. We taught him to say Shalom aleichem and look at a siddur as he said "backwards."

But we also felt imposed upon by the wealthier elements in the small community. Why didn't they pull their own kids out of the gym to help them remember the dead? In time, an attendance system was worked out--each month a baseball bat or glove or a hockey stick would be awarded (by the person or persons who needed our presence to make up the minyan) to the boy who put in the best attendance. Somehow that seemed to be fair retribution for lost playing time.

Saturday was Shabbos and no fooling around; we East End boys (willingly or not) were committed to shul where Rabbi Polonsky, Mr. Spector, and Mr. Gurvitch ruled the roost. Each week after services we huddled at the back of the synagogue awaiting the rabbi's decision. He was a short, bearded, quiet-spoken man who, I think, enjoyed his one moment of postprayer power each week. As he walked out he'd mutter the name of the one whom he had chosen to recite the maftir on the next Shabbos. There was no way (barring a broken leg) that one could wriggle out of it, no excuse or plea would suffice. So it meant a week of practice and study (with or without the rabbi's help) and, of course, missing hockey or football in the process. Oh, to live in the West End!

Rabbi Polonsky earned $100 a month and I think the community looked after his $25 a month (across from the shul) house rental. But what it took to put that sum of money together twelve times a year! Today, I admire my father very much for what he did in those years. I never appreciated it then, giying up his one free day a week (Sunday) "to go collecting." He was neither an intellectual nor a leader in the sense of being a community or B'nai B'rith president or an executive member of either. Rather, he was a tireless foot-soldier who knew a job had to be done and set out to do it. Somebody had to do it.

He did it on foot, not having a car or enough to squander on streetcar fare. Most of our Jewish community's bread earners were either small to mid-size storekeepers or "in the professions. They all valued their day of rest; volunteers for the unpopular collection for the rabbi were few. My father did it for many years as his personal communal responsibility. As a youngster, I thought he did it to make amends to the Almighty because he had to work on Shabbos. I never told him that. But much later, when I was an adult, he told me why he felt he had to do it. "We were kubzunim (paupers) in the community. I wanted to be important, too." It sounds better in Yiddish. ("Ich bin oi-chet a mensch.")

Many times I went with him, writing out the receipt and filling in the amount given on the community list. A dollar here, two dollars there--and in between many complaints like "the butcher doesn't give us good meat," which was another story. The gentleman, a kindly, highly educated Mr.Whiteman who served as our kosher butcher, bringing in his supplies from Winnipeg, could hardly be blamed if six housewives wanted tongue on the same Thursday and he had but two to sell.

Collecting for the rabbi's salary came a little easier in the West End. The amounts were larger (as high as five dollars!) but still a few heads of families (East and West) hid out in the basement until the collector left.  Often, my father ended up with $95 or $90 or $85 and would put in his own hard-earned dollars in order to have the check written out to Rabbi Polonsky, saying, "I'll collect for the shortage next time." My mother would complain and his answer was "Rose, he's a rabbi! The community needs a rabbi!"

My mother was a quiet little woman who came to Canada from Poland at the age of eight and shortly after went to work in a factory making candy boxes. Along with my father, she was an avid reader of the Forward daily, even though it took more than a week to get to our house from New York by mail. (My delight was reading the Sunday photo-rotogravure insert, printed in brown with captions in both Yiddish and English.) She was a great cook and baker and good at the sewing machine too. Her life centered around seeing my father off to work early in the morning and preparing for his homecoming the next evening, the activities and problems of her three children, and the monthly meetings of Hadassah.

Our little community was staunchly Zionist. Hardly a month went by without a visiting speaker (and the inevitable collection which followed) at the B'nai B'rith hall. One month it would be on behalf of the United Palestine Appeal, the next for the Labor Zionists, followed by a speaker for the Mizrachi Organization the next month. The same people attended all of these gatherings, listened attentively and clucked their approval, even if the representative differed drastically in opinion with the speaker of the previous month. My parents' approach summed it up. "Was what he was saying good for Jews?" "Of course" ... then "Don't argue ... give."

Passover was "big" in our family's life--almost as important as the rabbi's Simchas Torah party at his house, which would have to be laboriously collected for along with his salary for the following month. The first sign of Passover's coming was my father and mother testing the special wine they were brewing and bottling in the basement. It was the one time in the year when they acted like adolescents. The wine-tasting made them both, as they say, bafufkit, a Canadian colloquialism for tipsy. A more serious exercise was the house cleaning the week before the first seder. It was rigorous and unrelenting. Every nook, cranny, and corner had to be emptied, scrubbed, polished, and restored to its glittering glory. The house smelled of overdoses of wax and furniture polish for days.

The ceremony itself was long and thorough. Sometimes my grandfather (my mother's father) would come from Winnipeg to celebrate with us and stay for several months. His name was Chasen meaning chazzan (cantor), but sadly, unlike his father and grandfather who were members of that profession, fate had given him a very squeaky and, at times, grating voice. He, in turn, thought his chanting to be of outstanding lyrical quality and in shul on Saturdays (if he was not called upon to guest daven for the oylem), he would station himself at the back of the synagogue and follow the designated chazzan for the day, with his own cantorial version of praying aloud, not accompanying the real chazzan at the bimah up front, but coming after him by about five to ten seconds, as if to say, "This is how it really should be chanted." It took me a long time to learn not to be embarrassed by the jibes and icy looks thrown at him, which he seemed not to hear or see.

But, as I said, Passover was "big" at our house. My father would repeat every word, and we three kids would sing along from the Mah Nishtanah to the Chad Gadya with our shrill, thin voices. There was neither harmony nor talent there, just enthusiasm at being part of a tradition that made us a family.

Often, Jewish holidays and my father's train schedule were incompatible. He couldn't sit out a trip because that would deplete his slim weekly income, and he wouldn't think of not sending ten dollars that month to his father and to my mother's sister, both of whom lived in poverty in Winnipeg and depended on his generosity.

On one occasion, my father ended up in the Sioux on a Monday night, and Yom Kippur was on Tuesday at sundown. He knew if he stayed on his day long Local, he would get home after Kol Nidre had commenced because his train was always late in the fall. He started his trip back to Port Arthur as usual; then several stations along the line, he jumped off and, with satchel in hand, cut through the bush on foot for approximately five miles to get to the Canadian Pacific's mainline, where he hopped a freight train on its way to the Lakehead. He arrived in the nick of time to a cheering family, and we made our way to the synagogue with a special fervor burning deep inside each of us.

 My father's relationship with his Christian train workers was unbelievable! There was Charlie Pethick, the conductor; Davie Peppard, the baggageman; Jimmy Struthers, the engineer; Jack Bonnell and Tom (Red Onion) Carroll, the brakemen; and a host of others. He was their mentor, banker, advisor, confidant, and friend all rolled into one. At Passover he give each of them a pekal of matzoh and a small bottle of his homemade wine and explain to them what it was all about. They may not have understood completely, but they respected him and his special privacy early morning on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays (before the train started) when part of the baggage car was "out of bounds" because "Sam is doing his daily praying."

We left the Lakehead in the late forties; in time, each of us journeyed in different directions in search of a life. There is little doubt that my years as a Jewish youngster in a small town shaped and fashioned my personality, values, outlook, and future. I think of those times now and then, the nostalgia and fond memories eclipsing the drudgery and difficulties my parents endured in eking out a bare livelihood.

Later, after my father retired from an ill-fated grocery business in Winnipeg, he and my mother came to live in Montreal where my wife, Lila (we met as leaders of Canadian Young Judaea), and I settled 1in 1950. My mother passed away soon after and, for eighteen years, my father, who was far from perfect even in his older years (Lila is the greatest!) lived with us. We celebrated the holidays, including Passover, of course, with Zayde (as he was fondly known to our three children), reading every word of the Haggadah and crying at the appropriate places. Inevitably, when it was over, the children would find Zayde's false teeth (he always had difficulty wearing them) under the seder table amidst a generous sprinkling of matzoh crumbs just as I had as a child at Passover time years before. My father passed on in 1980. Since then, each year our three children (now grown and well into their own lives) continue the traditional glance under the table at the end, for their beloved Zayde's false teeth.

But, like the splendid, fulfilling, and basic simple pleasures in the small Jewish community of my yesteryear, sadly they are no longer there.




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