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Book looks at early Jewish immigration to Winnipeg

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Communal Solidarity: Immigration, Settlement, and Social Welfare in Winnipeg’s Jewish Community, 1882-1930 by Arthur Ross.

Arthur Ross’s new book, Communal Solidarity: Immigration, Settlement, and Social Welfare in Winnipeg’s Jewish Community, 1882-1930, focuses on a period Winnipeg’s Jewish history that has been largely overlooked by others who have written about the community.

There has been very little written about Canadian Jewish history as a whole between Confederation and the First World War, he observes.

For Ross – who has advanced degrees from the London School of Economics and the University of Toronto and who has been teaching Canadian politics at Ryerson University in Toronto for 36 years – Communal Solidarity hits close to home. He is a third-generation descendant of those pre-1914 Jewish immigrants to Winnipeg. His mother, the late Anne Ross, was the public face of, and the driving force behind, the Mount Carmel Clinic, one of the Jewish institutions built (in 1926) by those early immigrants.

His father’s brother, Joe Zuken, was Winnipeg’s longest-serving city councillor.

Ross begins Communal Solidarity with a description of Jewish life in Russia in the second half of the 19th century – a time when new social and political currents were combining with increased oppression and restrictions, to produce new political and social movements and greater secularization among the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement. The Jewish immigrants to Winnipeg brought these new ideas with them.

He further examines the challenges these immigrants confronted in Winnipeg – a city where they didn’t speak the language and were mistrusted by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. For many, it was the first time that they had lived in a modern, industrialized city.

By the start of the First World War, Ross notes, there were about 14,000 Jews in Winnipeg, most living in the North End – the area north of the CPR marshaling yards that essentially cut off the North End, with its many ethnic minorities, from the rest of the city.

The growing Jewish community overcame its adversity, he points out, by creating their own institutions – including synagogues, an old folks home, an orphanage, schools and cultural organizations, the Mount Carmel Clinic and, perhaps most importantly, a number of mutual aid associations, which provided members with interest-free loans and other forms of support.

“It is really remarkable what that generation was able to build, considering that the average Jewish Winnipegger was earning just $750 a year, which was about $200 below the living wage,” he says. “Even with that, the community was able to raise $120,000 (in the second decade of the 20th century) to build an orphanage.”

He also emphasizes the important role that women played in developing the new institutions.

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Ross says that Communal Solidarity developed from a paper he presented in Winnipeg in 2001 at a conference on radicalism. “This book wasn’t easy to research,” he says. “I explored eight or nine archives in different cities. But it was rewarding in the end.”

He says that he will be launching the book in Toronto on March 31 at Darchei Noam – a congregation that includes many former Winnipeggers. He will be following up with a Winnipeg launch in mid-April at the Max and Rose Rady Jewish Community Centre.