Oh ladies and gentlemen,
While I’ve nothing to do,
I’ll just sing a song
About the Belleville Jew.
— Dr. John Barker, Kingston British Whig, April 1836
The acclaimed 19th century Canadian author Susanna Moodie is best remembered for her popular account of the trials and tribulations of pioneer life in Upper Canada, most notably in her classic book Roughing It in the Bush published in London in 1852. Moodie had a keen eye for details. She was intelligent, progressive and fought against slavery. But she also had a bad temper, especially when she believed someone had wronged her husband, Sheriff J.W. Dunbar Moodie of Belleville, Ont.
In 1843, she sought her revenge against George Benjamin, the British-born and Jewish publisher and editor of the weekly Belleville Intelligencer, who had harshly criticized Dunbar’s alleged bias as a returning officer in a United Province of Canada election. The sheriff subsequently lost his job as the returning officer and the Moodies, rightly or wrongly, blamed Benjamin. Moodie wrote a four-part story for the Literary Garland, a popular magazine published in Montreal, entitled Richard Redpath: A Tale.
In her story, which partly takes place in Jamaica, there is a Shylock-like character named Benjamin Levi, “the Jew editor” of the Jamaica Observer. There was little attempt to disguise the blatantly anti-Semitic portrait of George Benjamin as Levi, as Moodie readily admitted in her correspondence.
Benjamin was one of the more peculiar individuals in Canadian Jewish history. As his biographers, Sheldon and Judith Godfrey, relate, Benjamin’s real claim to fame was his career as a municipal and provincial politician. In 1836, he won election as a clerk of the Thurlow Township, and thus was the first Jew elected to a municipal office in pre-Confederation Canada. This was one of many municipal posts he held over the years. Two decades later, in 1856, he was elected to the Province of Canada’s assembly and again had “made history,” as the Godfreys put it. “Benjamin was the first Jew to be elected to the Canadian parliament,” they write. “He was the first Jew whose right to be seated in a British North American legislature was not contested.”
But the curious thing about Benjamin was that he spent his entire adult life shunning and hiding his Jewish roots, living as a Christian. Benjamin was also likely the only known Jew to become a grandmaster of the Orange Lodge, the Protestant organization highly critical of Roman Catholicism. And yet, one of his most cherished possessions was a Hebrew prayer book in which he kept a record of his life and the births of his children.
Benjamin was born in 1799 in Brighton, England, as Moses Cohen to a family with Sephardi ancestry. Believing that being a Jew was an obstacle to success, he initially changed his name to George Benjamin (taking his mother’s maiden name.) In his new guise, he immigrated to the United States and lived for a time in North Carolina, where in 1832 at the age of 33 he met and married Isabella Jacobs, a Jewish girl who was a few months shy of her 13th birthday, a young bride even for those days. They had 14 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood. They arrived in Toronto in 1834 and then soon moved to Belleville.
While Benjamin did not advertise that he was Jewish, his critics and political opponents, like John Barker, the editor and publisher of the Kingston British Whig, a Reform newspaper, did not hesitate to bring up the fact.
Benjamin’s political career ended in 1863 when he opted not to stand for re-election. By then, most of his children had been baptized. Nine months before he died in September 1864, and to ensure that he and Isabella would be buried in Belleville’s St. Thomas’ Anglican Church cemetery, the two were also baptized. Other Jewish politicians of this era did not feel the need to go to such extremes. Yet George Benjamin, who had willingly shed his identity as Moses Cohen, was not the last Jew to perceive that being Jewish was a liability to success.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.