In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents essays on 10 significant moments in Canadian Jewish history.
There used to be a joke – a bad one at that – about the world’s thinnest book: the one about great Jewish athletes.
Not only have there been plenty of elite Jewish athletes in all kinds of sports, a good number of them have been women, including some right here in Canada.
At the top of anyone’s list – and I’m sure you’re making one of your own right now – has to be Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, whose list of accomplishments is lengthy and could fill a book on its own.
Rosenfeld was in her athletic hey day in the 1920s and ’30s, at a time when women didn’t generally go in for those sort of activities. As her niece, Rochelle Thompson, explained to The CJN, she had to compete wearing her brother’s swim short and her father’s socks.
Track events were only introduced in the Olympic Games in 1928 and Rosenfeld was right there in Amsterdam as a member of Canada’s “Matchless Six” female team. She competed in the discus throw, ran in the 100-metre race and came within a whisker of winning the gold medal. She went on to earn gold in the 4×100-metre relay.
Rosenfeld was a natural, a multi-sport athlete who excelled not just in track and field, but in hockey, golf, tennis, basketball and baseball, as well.
In April, the City of Toronto named her to its Hall of Honour as a sporting legend and she has been a longstanding member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel.
Here’s how the City of Toronto described Rosenfeld’s sporting prowess: “During the course of a single day at the Ontario Ladies Track and Field championships in 1925, she placed first in discus, shot put, 200-metres, low hurdles and long jump, as well as second in javelin and 100-yard dash.”
Not a bad day’s work.
The Canadian Sports Hall of Fame noted that in 1923, Rosenfeld beat Canadian champion Rosa Grosse in the 100-yard dash, as well as world champion Helen Filkey.
A year later, she won the Toronto grass-courts tennis championship and in 1925, she registered five first-place and two second-place titles at the Ontario Ladies Track and Field Championships, as well as setting the world record of 11.0 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
Thompson recalled “Aunt Bobbie” as being good at just about everything she tried. “She was lean and strong and she had a gift, the ability to focus.
“She was so far ahead of everyone else, she got places because of her skill,” Thompson said.
Always a proud Jew, Rosenfeld turned down a membership to an otherwise “restricted” golf club that was willing to bend its rules for an Olympic champion.
“This is a Jewish family,” Thompson said of her aunt and her family, in explaining why she turned down the offer.
Following her career in athletics, Rosenfeld remained in sports, working as a columnist for the Globe and Mail. She often featured female athletes and advocated for equal treatment in the allocation of prize money.
“She was gifted. She really inspired the Jewish People of the time to show you could really accomplish something,” Thompson stated.
Olympian Abigail (Abby) Hoffman was born a generation or two after Rosenfeld first made an impact on women’s sports, but she too faced an uphill challenge in overcoming social barriers that limited her ability to participate in sports.
In 1956, when she was nine years old, she dreamed of playing hockey, but at the time, there were no girls leagues in Toronto. Instead, Hoffman registered for a boys team and with her short hair, she was taken for a boy. When her real identity as a girl was revealed after she was nominated to the league’s all-star team, her story became international news and prompted calls from parents throughout Toronto for a girls hockey league.
As she grew older, Hoffman’s athletic excellence continued to develop, first in competitive swimming and then in long-distance running, as a member of the Toronto Olympic Club.
By the mid-1960s, she was already a world-class runner, winning national track championships and breaking records. She medalled at the 1963 Pan American Games, winning gold in the 800-metre race. At the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, she earned a gold in the 880-yard race. She competed in four consecutive Olympic Games and carried the Canadian flag at the opening ceremonies in Montreal in 1976.
In Tokyo in 1964, she competed in 400-metre and 800-metre races; in Mexico City in 1968, she ran in the 800-metre race, finishing seventh; in 1972 in Munich, she finished eighth in the same race; and in Montreal, she closed out her career running the same distance.
Her trophy case includes silver and bronze medals from the World University Games, a gold in the 800-metre race at the 1971 Pan Am Games, as well as two gold medals from the 1969 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Ellen and Petra Burka are a mother and daughter figure skating duo who changed the face of the sport in Canada.
Born in Holland, Ellen Burka was a natural on ice, a largely self-taught skater who became the Dutch national champion.
During the Holocaust, she was deported to the Westerbork Transit Camp, where she filled out a form describing herself as a Dutch champion. The camp commandant, it turned out, loved figure skating and ensured Burka was treated well, in exchange for regular performances.
After the war, she returned to Holland, where she won the Dutch national championship in 1946 and 1947. In 1950, she and her husband emigrated to Canada. Looking to resume her skating career, Burka believed she would never be accepted as a Jew. Instead, she passed as an Anglican and raised her daughters in that faith. All the while, she told her children that their grandparents had been killed in a car crash, keeping from them the fact that they had been murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews.
As a coach and mentor for Canadian figure skaters, she trained Olympic bronze medallist Toller Cranston and Olympic silver medallist Elvis Stojko, among dozens of other elite skaters. Where figure skating had been rigid and technical, she injected it with ballet and modern dance stylings, and inspired skaters to express themselves artistically on the ice.
Petra became a top skater in her own right, winning a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics and a gold medal at the 1965 World Championship. In 1962, at age 16, she became the first female skater to land a triple Salchow.
Both skaters have been inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Ellen was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1978. Ellen died in Toronto in 2016 at the age of 95.