WINNIPEG — Like most other Jewish kids growing up in Winnipeg’s north end in the 1940s and ’50s, Bill Mahon attended public school by day and cheder in the evenings, went to shul with his dad on Shabbat, had a bar mitzvah, went to St. John’s Tech for high school (where he was president of the student council) and hung out with his friends.
The only difference between Mahon and his friends was that his father was a black man – Emerson Swift Mahon.
Emerson Mahon was the subject of a feature in the Feb. 25 edition of The CJN, where he was profiled in honour of Black History Month and described as “Canada’s first black Jew.”
Originally from the Caribbean island of Grenada, Mahon, who was raised as an Anglican, came to Canada in his early 20s. He enlisted in the Canadian armed forces in World War I, where he met the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Abramowitz, who inspired him to convert to Judaism.
Mahon underwent a formal Orthodox conversion in Montreal in 1921.
“This was no watered-down conversion,” says his son, Bill. “He had to learn Hebrew and be able to recite the prayers.”
Mahon later moved to Winnipeg, where, in 1934, he met and married Faiga (Frances, in English) Golbert, who had recently arrived from Russia.
Although he earned a degree in science and a teaching certificate from the University of Manitoba, the only work he was able to find was as a porter on the trains.
The union of Emerson Mahon and Golbert produced two children, Bill – who is a financial planner in Winnipeg, and older sister, Ethel, who left Winnipeg for the United States after graduating from the General Hospital School of Nursing. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 64.
Bill, who was born in 1940, said he had some family on his mother’s side in Winnipeg, but that his father had no relatives here.
“He rarely spoke about his parents,” Mahon said of his father, “but did speak fondly about one grandmother who, he said, was once a slave who was owned by Jewish plantation owners who treated her well. Perhaps that was a factor in his choosing Judaism.”
Mahon, who has two daughters – one in Vancouver and another who lives in Toronto with her family – added that his father had five brothers and one sister.
Bill did get to meet three of his uncles and several cousins.
One favourite uncle converted to Islam about the same time that Emerson chose Judaism.
“That uncle was stationed in the Middle East in the Great War,” Mahon said. “I have learned to be more tolerant of all religions.”
Bill remembers his late father, who passed away in 1963 at age 71 following a lengthy illness, as a voracious reader who at bedtime read his kids stories from Greek and Roman mythology.
“I can still recite the old poem, King Bruce of Scotland, which was one of my father’s favourites,” Mahon said.
“Certainly, my family was different from my friends’ families,” Mahon noted. “That was neither good nor bad. I had a wonderful childhood.
“There were some redneck Jews in the community. The bottom line, though, is that my father was a practising Jew.”