Memories of the once-vibrant little Jewish community in Brantford, Ont., will be revived on Nov. 26, when a staged reading of short stories written by Canadian scholar Gerald (Jerry) Tulchinsky will be held.
Tulchinsky’s stories, which were written before his death in 2017 and published in a volume titled Shtetl on the Grand, are fictional, but his wife Ruth said they were inspired by his memories of growing up in the city.
After an academic life spent studying Canadian and Jewish-Canadian history at Queen’s University, in retirement, Tulchinsky turned to recalling and preserving the little piece of history that he lived.
“The short stories were something different, he just wrote them for fun, as a hobby,” Ruth Tulchinsky recalled. “He was a great one for reminiscing about his childhood in Brantford and all of the memories associated with that. These stories came out of that.
“He says in his forward they are fiction, but they came out of his experiences growing up.”
Tulchinsky’s slender volume quietly went out of print, overshadowed by his academic tomes, including Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey, and may have been forgotten if not for Brantford history enthusiast Bill Darfler.
He had the book in his collection until he loaned it out and it was never returned. After looking around for a replacement and finding that the remaining copies sold online were going for outrageous prices, he connected with Ruth Tulchinsky. She sold him her remaining box of the title, which Darfler sold piece-by-piece to other history fans.
“That box of books lasted all of three days,” Darfler said. “When we saw that kind of interest, we started thinking about doing a public reading of some of the stories by local luminaries at the public library.”
Darfler said that tales of Brantford’s Jewish community are “an important but relatively ignored portion of Brantford’s history.”
The event, which is being presented by a coalition of groups seeking to preserve pieces of the city’s history, includes a walking tour of some of the sites associated with the Jewish community in downtown Brantford, museum exhibits, speeches and the staged reading. That part starts at 6:45 p.m. at the Laurier Brantford Research and Academic Centre (150 Dalhousie St.).
“What I found interesting is it was not instigated by a Jewish group. It was a non-Jewish individual who was very keen on it and most of the people who are involved in it are not Jewish, they’re just looking upon it as part of Brantford’s history, the Jewish community’s involvement in Brantford’s history,” Ruth Tulchinsky said.
Brantford’s first Jewish family arrived in the city in 1881 and by the 1960s, the population peaked at 150 families. Today, it’s estimated that only about 28 remain.
The first Jewish immigrants worked as scrap merchants, collecting metals from local industrial plants and then selling them to Hamilton’s steel mills. With the wealth amassed from doing jobs that others didn’t want to do, the Jews were able to set their children up with businesses in the city’s core.
Tulchinsky’s stories are not all a misty-eyed memory of a wonderful youth. In the foreword, he recalled that, “From earliest memory I was made aware I was a Jew and was therefore basically different from other kids in these neighbourhoods. At the age of six I was taken aside roughly by a local woman and told … ‘You are a Jew and don’t belong here. This is not your country.’ ”
His wife said that, “As a child, I know Jerry experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, but that was not unusual for the time.… Brantford had quite a mix of ethnic groups and a lot of them brought their prejudices from the old countries.
“It wasn’t like today where people are so conscious about being welcoming. It was typical for the time, no better, no worse.”