When Michael Tregebov was 11, he was invited to a community dance held in the basement of Rosh Pina Synagogue in Winnipeg. When he arrived, he found dozens of other Jewish kids, all of them expected – by their parents, community leaders and eager matchmakers – to couple up and slow dance.
“They would shut the lights off and they would play the Association’s songs, like ‘Cherish’, so you were made to fall in love with a Jewish girl before you intermarried,” Tregebov recalls with a laugh in a café in Toronto. “The big fear was intermarriage.”
That was in the mid-1960s, a few years before Winnipeg’s Jewish community underwent a seismic transformation. By the 1970s, Jews had grown in status and wealth, migrating south as newer immigrant groups moved into their place. The result relocated the city’s Jewish centres and closed numerous cultural institutions, including synagogues and the local curling rink.
Tregebov commemorates that curling rink in his latest novel, Shot Rock, available Sept. 26 through New Star Books.
The novel focuses on the recently divorced Blackie Timmerman, an avid curler who’s fighting to save his local rink from shutting down and becoming a supermarket. Like the basement slow dances at Rosh Pina, Blackie’s fight marks a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable assimilation that defines North American Jewry, preserving his Jewish culture the only way he knows how.
The entire work is fiction. Tregebov makes no attempt to disguise this. Only the general concept – the background and setting – are grounded in reality.
“It’s like the oldest part of me, the part you never forget,” he says of his upbringing in Winnipeg. “Whatever I didn’t remember, I made up.”
Tregebov initially wrote this story as part of a greater novel, a sprawling tome, 750 pages long, chronicling Jewish Winnipeg in the tumultuous 1970s. When his publisher saw it, he asked if Tregebov was trying to bankrupt him. So Tregebov carved out two plotlines from his opus and crafted them into Shot Rock.
He based most of the characters on himself, his father and his father’s friends, around whom he grew up. These men fascinated him, always gathering at racetracks and the curling rink. Tregebov compares the rink to a Shakespearean court: a place where locals gossip, catch up and share a drink. In this world, a man’s value was measured by the sweep of his broom.
The slow march of progress changed all this, of course, and Tregebov himself marched at the front lines. Despite the community’s attempts to couple up their kids, by age 15, Tregebov knew he was an atheist. Years later, he’d be living in Barcelona, where he currently resides with his wife and children. He’s now lived in Spain almost twice as long as he ever lived in Winnipeg – yet he still thinks of the Peg as home.
“I could never write a novel about Spain, with Spanish characters. It would just be false,” he says. “I think I read too much (Marcel) Proust in the ’80s and ’90s, and so I’ve always been fascinated by that remembrance of things past…. Writing about the past gives me all that time, all that experience, for those emotions to rush into my life.”