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FEATURE: Archives house valuable artifacts of Canada’s Jewish left

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The Labour League at the Winchevsky Cenre in 1935 ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES BLANKENSTEIN FAMILY HERITAGE CENTRE PHOTO

One of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Jewish left in Canada occurred some 57 years ago, in 1959, when a huge and irreparable split developed within the ranks of the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) and a significant number of members left to form a new organization, the New Fraternal Jewish Association (NFJA).

UJPO, of course, was an affiliate of the Communist Party of Russia, and its members in Toronto adhered to the party line emanating from Moscow. So when Stalin began killing Jewish doctors, poets and others in the postwar era, members of UJPO should have been the first to know, but they were just about the last to accept the reality of Stalin’s criminal purges. That’s what ultimately (and belatedly) caused the enormous breach in UJPO’s deeply conflicted ranks.

The rich history of the Jewish left in Canada may be gleaned from myriad artifacts – photographs, souvenir booklets, memoirs, taped interviews and more – in the collection of the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family History Centre at 4600 Bathurst St. in Toronto.

READ: JEWISH ARCHIVES’ VAULT HOUSES MANY RECORDS AND COLLECTIONS OF INTEREST TO FAMILY HISTORIANS

One of the best things to come from the NFJA was its popular monthly newsletter, Fraternally Yours, which began publishing in March 1960 and featured regular columns by NFJA co-founder J.B. Salsberg, along with many interesting guest voices. Besides politics, the newsletter gave prominent attention to books, music and the rest of the arts, and even featured a column on classical music. The OJA has a range of back issues dating from 1960 to the 1990s.

In the December 1974 issue, Salsberg would muse: “Our organization, the New Fraternal Jewish Association, was born 15 years ago, and, in retrospect, I would say without hesitation that it came into being not one day too soon. Indeed, for many of us who were its founders, the nagging question we often ask ourselves is why it did not happen sooner – much sooner.”

The newsletter’s editor was Sam Lipshitz, former editor of the Communist paper Vochenblatt, who, although a staunch Communist, knew how to evade party disciplinarians when necessary. Once, at a meeting of the Young Communist League, Lipshitz was roundly criticized for “bourgeois deviation” because he and his wife, Mania, had recently been married in a religious ceremony, which was taboo under Communist doctrine.

Faced with these serious accusations, Lipshitz rose and said, simply, “Comrades, I am deeply sorry. I made a mistake. I promise never to do it again.”

The anecdote comes from Morris Biderman’s excellent memoir, A Life on the Jewish Left: An Immigrant’s Experience (2000), a copy of which sits on OJA’s shelves. Also available at the OJA is another indispensable book to understanding the Jewish left in Canada, Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment, by Gerald Tulchinsky.

READ: J.B. SALSBERG’S CONTROVERSIAL LIFE COMES ALIVE

But it is in its archival collection of dozens of souvenir booklets from smaller organizations that the OJA really excels. These include historic items from the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), Labor League, Poalei Zion, Labour Zionist Alliance, the Farband and the Borochov. Only through careful study of these pamphlets does one realize that many of these once-influential political organizations were related and sprang out of each other in an era when much of the Jewish world was oriented toward the left.

These organizations’ souvenir booklets give a sense of their ideology, idealism, purpose and interconnectedness. In an Achdut Ha-Avoda Poale Zion booklet from 1989, for example, chairman Max Federman recalled that Poale Zion was actively involved in organizing the needle trade workers: tailors, furriers, cloakmakers, cap and millinery workers. Not surprisingly, the organization’s 65th anniversary jubilee dinner was held at the Borochov Centre on Codsell Avenue.

Affiliated with the Farband and Labour Zionist Alliance, the Borochov was established in Toronto in 1915 as a local branch of a New York-based fraternal labour Zionist order that promoted the ideals of humanitarianism and Jewish ethical values. Early meetings were held on Spadina Avenue, then in the Zionist Institute on Beverley Street, then in its own premises on Cecil Street and later on Viewmount Avenue.

The Workmen’s Circle also originated in New York and soon spread to Toronto, where it is still active. At an early date, in both the United States and Canada, the Communists were ultimately forced out and formed their own fraternal-cultural organization, the Labor League. In Toronto, the Labor League offered most of the benefits of a landsmanshaft society except, of course, for a synagogue. UJPO grew out of the Labor League in 1945, a time when Communists were being banned from the mainstream and many moderates were trying to disassociate themselves from them.

The venerable Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, which has been on the local Jewish scene for an astonishing 90 years, is but one socio-cultural institution that sprang from the Labor League. Another is the well-storied Camp Naivelt, which was established in the mid-1930s on a 104-acre tract near Brampton. (Its predecessors were Camp Kindervelt, which the Labor League operated on the Rouge River in 1925, and Arbeiter Ring’s Yungvelt Camp of the early 1930s.)

UJPO may have made its greatest impact on popular culture, however, with the formation of The Travellers, the 1950s folk band that formed at Camp Naivelt and rose to national prominence with a Canadian version of This Land Is Your Land. Besides performing at protests and labour rallies, the group made several cross-Canada tours and – not surprisingly – participated in a government-sponsored concert tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. 


This is the fourth in a series of articles to be published periodically about the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, funded by the J. B. & Dora Salsberg Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. This series is in partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, and draws on its collections: www.ontariojewisharchives.org

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Bill Gladstone is a Toronto-based professional genealogist whose family surname was formerly Glickstein, and Glicensztejn before that. His website is www.billgladstone.ca