The recent passing of Leon Berger will resonate with thousands of his former students, but really symbolizes the closing of a chapter for Jewish education in Canada.
Mr. Berger – even many colleagues called him that – taught for 47 straight years in Winnipeg’s Jewish schools. He taught for so long that his students spanned multiple generations of the same family, including my mother and me. My mother subsequently joined him on faculty, but even she retired before him.
By dint of his tenure alone, Mr. Berger leaves a substantial mark on Winnipeg’s Jewish community and on thousands of former Winnipeggers living across Canada and beyond. But his real contribution was using his humour, warmth and dedication to shape the character of successive generations.
He would yell at us, but we all knew it was just for show. Somehow, his sharp remarks and empty threats – “take your shmattes and get out of here!” – conveyed genuine kindness. He was like the cliché sabra – prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside.
But he was not a sabra. His slight European accent, his formal dress and his decidedly old-fashioned teaching style betrayed an earlier life in Europe.
In fact, he was a survivor. This is a strange thing to write, since I have no memory of him ever talking about the Holocaust, or of anyone ever describing him as a survivor. In fact, after his father was arrested and never seen again, he and his remaining family fled Poland for Kazakhstan.
When the war ended, he taught refugee children in a German displaced persons camp. All he wanted was to “help kids who had lost years of Jewish education,” he said. “Teaching was my desire.” He added that “Jewish education is the greatest education in the world because it encompasses everything else.”
Arriving in Winnipeg in 1949, Mr. Berger immediately began his legendary career at Talmud Torah and Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. He consequently became a quintessential North Ender, part of the legendary working-class community that forged one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Canadian history. It’s therefore fitting that his career finally ended in the 1990s, when multiple day schools merged under one new roof in the south. Sure, it was time anyway, but all Mr. Berger needed to teach was paper, pencil and a Humash – not fancy-shmancy classrooms and newfangled technology.
Retirement, however, did not dull his lifelong calling to serve his community. He had already spent decades reading Torah at a North End shul, so when it merged with two other synagogues to form Congregation Etz Chayim, he just continued, leining with the skill and ease that only comes from decades of experience.
But nature took its inevitable course and, eventually, even that became too much. He retired again, this time to a privileged spot in the first row of that large shul.
I last saw him there two Rosh Hashanahs ago, and it was like watching the final scene from Cinema Paradiso. A caregiver pushed him into shul in a wheelchair. After wearing jackets and ties for his entire career, he wore a bright tracksuit. He looked tired and gaunt and didn’t stay long.
Now that he’s passed, I realize that we’ve lost someone who connected a new generation to the Old World. We didn’t understand it then, but in a small way, we students were the very last to have just a fleeting touch of a world gone forever, a flickering hint what it was like to go to heder, rather than to something new and modern called “day school.”
My old school’s cast of characters included a wonderfully eccentric faculty, a remarkably eclectic student body and a sometimes wacky culture. I once said that attending it was like living in a Neil Simon play. Mr. Berger was not the star, nor was he the director. Like so many teachers, he was happy playing a small supporting role, but a role that, nonetheless, quietly enabled the entire production to succeed.