MF: Max, when you were growing up in Vancouver in this area what kind of activities did you get involved in? Were you active in sports?
MP: Yes, quite a bit. Swimming quite a bit in summertime and then springtime we used to do quite a bit of hiking.
MF: There was a Jewish athletic club at one time which I’m not familiar with. Do you remember who was the president or who was involved?
MP: We didn’t have such…We had a group called the Jewish Athletic Club and we had a basketball team and we formed a basketball team that joined the church league. And we used to practice in the Japanese gym on Powell, on Jackson and Powell Street, on Jackson, it was near Powell.
MF: Jackson Avenue. How many teams were in this league?
MP: Well, there was at least six or eight teams in the league, oh yes.
MF: It was a popular thing, so it was kind of an ethnic thing. There was a Japanese team, and a Jewish team…
MP: No, there was nothing about no Japanese team. But it was Jewish only…but there was different kinds of churches [had] teams.
MF: Included in that group.
MF: And there was a popular thing for young people in those days to go to Bowen Island?
MP: In the summertime B’nai B’rith used to put on picnics and of course other societies used to put on…and that was the popular thing to take a boat to Bowen Island for a good outing for the day.
ID: How long were you are Gordon House, Albert?
AM: I was there about four or five years and then I stayed with the neighbourhood house as a director of another house. Yeah, in 71, 73, I became the director…
AM: Kitsilano House.
ID: And was that an umbrella organization of…
AM: Yeah, Gordon House has four or five neighbourhoods around the city.
ID: Gordon House was one of them, or?
AM: Gordon House was one of them, everybody was in an area, and in every area they had their own peculiarities. Like when I was working at Kitsilano it was also at the time of the hippies. So because I spoke French and many hippies came from Quebec, so the City of Vancouver asked me, no that was during Gordon House years, asked me to go to the YWJ where they created as place for the hippies because they didn’t want them to be all over town. So they had them in a place and there was a couple of social workers and myself who were kind of the supervisors to try to make sure they don’t go into mischief. So every time I went home I had to change all my clothes of the smell of tobacco, drugs, and all that every night it was a difficult thing but, I also learned how to do other things. When I was working with the hippies except explaining to them the idea of Canada values, laws, and things like, because they would come to me saying, “Albert, why does the narcotic policeman run after me? I was just making a living.” To them selling drugs is just making a living, you know they say, “Albert, why don’t you talk to the Narcs? Tell them to leave me alone.” So I had to explain the two worlds. But then long, long ago in the ‘60s there was a bit of a riot in the West End, and of course the city wanted to know why were many hippies and that on the rampage. So I went and interview many of them and I found out that one of the major complaints was that there was not dental health. You know, many of them were in pain and there was no way you know, at that time St. Paul had once a week somebody who would came for emergency, but that’s all. So, I decided to do something about it, I went to Gordon House, my supervisor was a strong lady, you know, no it was another supervisors, if you can do something, so I went to some kind of get together of dentists and I invited myself in the cocktail lounge and that and I convinced few dentists if can give some time to help these people of that. Anyway I found one who was a bit of an idealist who organized with me, but we didn’t have a place. So I used the Gordon House kitchen to have our first, I remember having a flashlight and that and a dentist. Anyway, after a little while the word went around, and I got second hand dentist chair, tools ,and that I had 10 or 12 dentist, and every Wednesday night all the hippies, all the people who could not have a dentist, they would come to Gordon House to have dental care, no questions asked. I have an article about it, you can have see it. But that was one of the things, you know, I always, when I saw a need I said let’s do something about it.
ID: Now I want to talk about your marriage. You said you met Anne. What
was Anne’s maiden name?
AM: It was Anne Ruth Heller.
ID: And can you describe your wedding?
AM: Oh! My wedding. Another story. You’re getting a lot of stories today. Nobody got, nobody got these stories.
ID: I want them.
AM: Anyway, when I was going to get married, of course I never did things the proper way. I just went to one dinner and gave her a, went to the father and said I want to marry your daughter and...
ID: Oh, you asked permission?
AM: Yea, but the way I asked it you know, I like it is a fait de compli so, you know and things like that and I always. Anne was coaching a little baseball team of young girls and I went to the young girls even before I got married and I said, I’m going to marry your coach and things like that. So the girls said, “By the way you know Albert is going to marry you.” So....
ID: That’s before you asked her?
AM: Yeah, before you know things like that. So things were always done in a different way, unorthodox way. Then when come to the wedding, I wanted to have is Sephardic and Ashkenazi, so we had to, you know this idea of compromises, so we did it in a small town called Brantford, which is about...
ID: Brantford, Ontario.
AM: Ontario, which is about and an hour and a half two hours from Toronto.
ID: Why in Brantford?
AM: Because this is what she was grew up and all her family, I didn’t have family, so it was normal to do it where all her family was and that, but I wanted part of it to be Sephardic. So what I did was, I asked my people to come to Brantford so we had a bus and cars coming. And I had a choir coming in the Sephardic way, you know, to say some of the blessings in Sephardic. So we had it half and half. Melodies Sephardic and that. But one of the most problem was that the rabbi was his first wedding, he was a young fellow, his first wedding and then he was all nervous. So here I am running my wedding and coaching the rabbi telling him, “This is what you do next,” and, “Calm down.” You know, [laughs], “You’re doing fine.” Meanwhile I’m getting married and that. And then at the end of the marriage, the second day, the mother says, I hope the guy finishes…the city, he had the rabbi registration, but the Ontario one, “I hope he…” and that. So I went to the mother and said jokingly, “Oh, if I don’t have the license I don’t…” So the mother panicked it was just a joke, and I said, “No worry the wedding is legal.” So, what happened is Anne was still working, so the way the honeymoon was is after two day after the day of the marriage she went to work and I will wait for her every day for her in Toronto. We had a hotel and then I came back to Vancouver, watch her finish her school month, she had one more month, and then she joined me in Vancouver, and…
ID: The rest is history.
AM: The rest is history.
ID: Now I’d like to move into your, you are a member of Beth Hamidrash and
I’d like to know how you got involved. I know you’re a regular attender of services.
AM: Well, Beth Hamidrash again is one of the projects in with I am the
founding director of the society, but the whole thing started again like many other things. There was a teacher at Talmud Torah who wanted to do something Sephardic. I forgot his name, he is a Rabbi now in California, and he came to me and says, Albert, you know for the same reason, we should have something Sephardic here and all that. So, anyway we got our first services in my house and in other houses in the beginning there were a few of us. Then, because I was involved with the Centre and other things like that, our first Yom Kipper, Rosh Hashanah, I rented the nursery at the JCC to have our first services. Then of course other people took the mantle and things like that and then there was a group of Ashkenazi which they were passing away and they gave us their synagogue for one dollar. This is one of the, we started our first [society], we started our first constitution which I signed. And after the thing again like everything else once it’s going, then other people took the mantle. I only came and worked for the board always when I see something is not working a little bit, I get involved, when it’s working, I get out. So at the present time you know, a few years I was on the board, now I am not. There are better people now.
ID: So, there was a small number of Sephardic Jews when you first came here.
AM: Oh, there were many Sephardic Jews when I came here, and then little by
little they more and more came, but then because Vancouver is very expensive we have many Sephardic Jews in Richmond, in Coquitlam, in other places. But there is a community, Sephardic, but not all of them…Beth Hamidrash needs more members, it’s a small community keeping an ideal and were struggling with the budgets and all that, but we still are the only western Sephardic voice.
ID: When you say western, you mean like west…
AM: From Ottawa, from Toronto, Montreal to here.
AM: Yeah, so…
ID: So, where…I know there are Sephardic Jews in Edmonton
AM: Oh there are…Yeah, but...
ID: But they don’t, there’s not…
AM: But they don’t have like an identity like a Sephardic synagogue organization and things like that.
ID: So who were...
AM: So, so my involvement lately with that is to bring back the history and the folk lore. So I have been giving a lot of workshops on the history, Ladino music and customs. It’s one of the new hobbies, after I retired, I needed a hobby and I decided to get to know more about my culture. And then I begun to sharing it with other by giving workshops in Ladino, in Sephardic, music and singing.
ID: So who are the movers and shakers now in the Sephardic…
AM: Oh, now they have a third generation. A young group, very, yeah, is very good because now we have got people who have grown up with the synagogue for a long time, and the problem with our synagogue like many other people is that we have a small base, you know, like 50, 60 paid members. And to keep a building and a rabbi and all that, so half of our time is the struggle to raise money, and half of our time is like that. But we try to keep as much as we can the customs and that from the Sephardic thing.
JM: So your return to speaking Yiddish and promoting Yiddish, that happened after you retired?
AS: No it didn’t actually.
JM: Oh this happened before that?
AS: It happened before. In the last, I would say, three decades of my life probably is when I learned more Yiddish than as a young person. When I was in Victoria, I was contacted by a group of older people. Mostly older people who were native Yiddish speakers in most cases and they had a reading group called a leyenkreis in Yiddish, a reading group, a reading circle. They invited me to participate and I did and I, from that beginning I recaptured my language and learned a whole lot more and continued to and I also inherited, my father was a great Yiddish reader and supporter of the Yiddish literature in many ways. I inherited his Yiddish library which I’m sure on Vancouver Island where I lived for so long was the largest Yiddish library on all of Vancouver Island by far, most of which now is in the Peretz library here in Vancouver. But in any case that’s, to answer your question, I actually I think learned more of my Yiddish in the last three decades as an adult by reading and conversing as much as possible in Yiddish and I now co-lead a Yiddish group, a reading circle, conversation group here [in Vancouver] together with Shanie Levin, you may know her—she volunteers in the library here—we co-lead a Yiddish reading group that meets at the Peretz Centre twice a month, for again, people who have had some basic experience with Yiddish as young children but have basically abandoned it for like 40 years maybe, in some cases 50 years, and now wish to recover it and there is a surprising number of people who wish to do just that now. So that’s where I picked up the Yiddish and it’s very dear to me, Yiddish, the Yiddish language and the language implies a culture as you probably realize and so it’s that aspect as well.
JM: I think Yiddish is so beautiful and it also, because I’m a historian it is very significant to the history of all these people that migrated all over the world, that was their common language, you know.
AS: Yes it’s amazing to me, in fact, when I did travel in Europe many, 50, 60 years ago now almost as a young student, I was able to use Yiddish in various places around Europe, to my surprise. There was always somebody there who spoke Yiddish. To my amazement, even in a trolley bus once in downtown Moscow.
JM: Wow, how astounding.
AS: It’s, just by accident I happened to overhear a couple, a middle aged couple sitting near me, I was hanging on a strap there in this crowded trolley bus and they were conversing part time in Russian and part time in Yiddish. So I introduced myself, they were quite surprised that a young ‘American’—I was only in my early 20s at the time—would, you know, speak Yiddish.
Telephone interview conducted by Michael Schwartz in Vancouver with Michael Livni in Israel.
MS: What do you remember? What are the most memorable parts of that experience?
ML: Well for me the social part, like my first girlfriend that I ever had I had, you know, at Camp Miriam, and what’s her name? I only know her pre-married name, Marianovich in Vancouver too. And I was 16, she was 14, it was all very…and you know we’d walk to the Point in our white shirts and when a couple, a new couple sort of got together like, then everybody would sing ‘Zug Hadash bi Mahanin,’ a new couple in our hameh, I didn’t even know what it meant at that time, but actually in terms of memories I have the hefartid the two main memories would be, you know, the personal relationships, that was my first girlfriend, and the fact that…Two other things, the fact that really the names of the trees and things like that…I knew and the others didn’t, they didn’t know that kind of stuff. The third thing was that we were not terribly disciplined and with one of the madrichot [camp counselors] who is now in Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, Eva Hirsch, is her name now, one day we decided to not be very nice to the director, this guy Moshe Laufman, and we came in on Shabbat in the morning to wake him up and poured some water on him, a pail of water on him and really I was almost sent home for that so I certainly remember that. It was only two weeks because I think the CCF were still using the camp for part of the summer so they were only renting it out for a short period of time.
MS: How many years were you there?
ML: Well, I wasn’t there many years, I wasn’t really at Camp Miriam again until 1957 but my involvement was at a different level entirely, it was at the…what shall we say…the administrative level, I wasn’t there because frankly I had to work in the summers, I couldn’t just be a camper and I was going through university during those years and I had to work every summer. But for example when the whole question came that we could no longer rent that camp and we had to buy it then I and another guy my age, Alan Gelfond, he’s in Detroit now, we went looking for new campsites and we travelled around Howe Sound and we tried to find new campsites and then we realized, I realized actually, that there was no possibility of getting this whole thing together if we didn’t organize the parents, because the Labour Zionist movement really was pretty theoretical…I mean there were people who were sort of together as Labour Zionists but what we needed was a chartered society incorporated under the laws of British Columbia that could actually buy a camp. So in other words my sort of role at that time…I was 21, 22 in 1954, ‘55 and I was already starting in medical school…my role was to organize the adults and to organize the Habonim Zionist society so that there was a society where it was a legal body where people could buy a camp. And actually that was the, I suppose that was my central contribution to Camp Miriam, to probably be the central person in creating a situation where it could be bought and where I was the administrator, and I was the secretary and I had to take the minutes, and I had to do the dealings with the chartered accountants to get the…you know a chartered society has to hand in an annual statement to the government and I had to do all that, that was really my function in terms of the camp—I wasn’t at the camp proper during those years, I couldn’t be, I had to work in the summer.
JY: Did your family keep kosher, were they…?
ML: Yes, absolute. Two sets of dishes, kosher with another set, couple of sets of dishes for Passover. We had a chicken coop with chickens and turkeys and ducks so that every four to six weeks the shochet [kosher butcher], an itinerant shochet, you know what I mean?
ML: Came by and killed some chickens which my mother would, in the winter time, she would cook up and then freeze. You may ask what sort of a freezer did we have in the ‘30s? Well, we had a piano and my father kept the piano box, kept it outside the kitchen door, shelves were put into it and between, we were at Canora several hundred miles north of the border and it was quite cold in those days so that the freezer, the freezer was a piano box between October and May. You know the piano box was big and was sturdy for shipment. In the summer time the way she preserved things, she used to corn chicken and we had…whenever my father went into Winnipeg on a buying trip which was about every three months, three or four months, he would bring back beef of some sort so that we had beef then, other than that we had chicken, we had fish, lake fish because there were a couple of lakes close by. My mother and the girls used to pluck the chickens and they kept the goose down and the duck down for making pillows and comforters and things like that. I remember intermittently they used to have…she used to have help in the house and she also used to help pluck the chickens and do that sort of thing.
JY: That’s a tough job.
ML: Yeah. My mother was a gardener. We had a large, a large…a small house and a large piece of land. By large piece of land I mean the size of two city lots, two standard city lots. On this property was the house, a chicken coop and a granary because during the Depression my father frequently took grain as barter, I presume, from farmers for things from the store. And the rest, I guess maybe it was the size of three, maybe four city lots and the rest was a big garden. There was a small patch of flowers and grass and the rest was garden. My sisters as I recall were not really interested in the garden and my mother…perhaps some of my best quality time with my mother was digging and weeding and doing other things in the garden. She sewed, she sewed everything, she sewed clothes for her girls. And she read in Yiddish. There were all sorts of Yiddish books around the house.
JY: Did she sell any of the garden, any of the vegetables or it was all for the family?
ML: No. We had a cellar and root vegetables were put away, carrots and beets and turnips and potatoes which we then ate through much of the winter and then when we ran out we’d get it from the store of course. But mostly that’s what we had. And her…one of her favourite spices, herbs that she grew was dill and dill was present in many things.
JY: Did you observe all the Jewish holidays?
JY: Do you have any fond memories of occasions?
ML: No. Except that the Seders used to go on beyond midnight and my sisters used to sit there. Actually the oldest three sisters were out of the house before my memory because I think they got married in 1932,’33 or something, ‘34. So my memory of the early Seders was with Hannah, Dori and Dubby and sometimes I used to see that they were reading things other than the Hagadah. No, it was not…they were not a festive occasion, they were a religious event and if you can imagine in those days maintaining a strict two sets of dishes kosher household in rural Saskatchewan this was a tour de force for my mother, I never really appreciated it at that time.
GL: University was a lot of fun for me, hard work but a lot of fun. Realizing that I was very young and I wanted to be a lawyer, and thinking that, first of all I had a very cherubic face, thinking that no one would want a lawyer…you know, if I went I would be out by the time I was 20, 19 or 20, and I thought no one is going to go to a lawyer who’s 19 or 20, so I decided to take two courses. I took BComm, Bachelor of Commerce and Law. In those days you could take a double degree and they gave you credit for an extra year, so you could take, I think, two years of commerce and three years of law and that gave you two degrees, instead of three years of commerce. So I went in, took my first year of arts, two years of commerce, and three years of law. I was…the Jewish kids at that time, there was still a bit of a division. Well no, there wasn’t as much of a division, there were two Jewish fraternities on campus. Oh, remember I couldn’t remember the name of the girls’ organization, Jewish organization; it was called B’nai B’rith Girls, BBGs for short. So there were two Jewish fraternities on campus, and one Jewish sorority. The ZBT [Zeta Beta Tau], the Zebes; the SAM [Sigma Alpha Mu], the Sammies; and DPhiEs [Delta Phi Epsilon], the Deefers. They were the girls. And I belonged to the ZBTs. Mostly, I shouldn’t say mostly, a lot of the guys from Magee that I had grown up with, but by that time they were mixing back and forth, so the guys from the east side, the west side, it didn’t matter. The Jewish girls on campus, it was a fairly new Jewish sorority; in those days there was a lot of sorority and fraternity things, a lot of activities, and a lot of social life was in fraternity and sorority life. And there was a picture in the Jewish Historical Society magazine, I think it was on the back cover, of a whole party of people; they sent away and they asked did anyone know the names of all these people. And I think I sent back mentioning the names of some of the people I didn’t know. That was a picture of a ZBT party, and I was there. I was one of the people in the picture.
GL: …So she [Gerald Lecovin’s mother] came out in ‘47 and we lived on Angus Drive, 5975 Angus Drive, which is 43rd and Angus. We lived next door to—what’s the name of the guy, what’s the name of the bridge that goes across the water in Richmond, not the Oak Street Bridge, the other one?
JM: Arthur Laing?
GL: Arthur Laing. We lived next door to Arthur Laing. [Laughs]. And he was our next door neighbour and at that time was head of the BC Liberal Party although at that time he never, they were never in power while he was alive. And I went to Magee High School. I started in grade—you too? Oh, great—I started in, I guess it was Grade 10 and at the time because of one machination and another I was about two years younger than everyone else. So I was a little past 13 when I went to Magee and I was very short and in fact when they, when my mother took me to register me at Magee, they said, “No madam, you have the wrong school, you want the school kitty corner,” which of course was Maple Grove, which was a public school. I was more that size. But I was duly registered, and the principal, having a great sense of humour, decided he would marry me up with someone who’d take me around and show me the ropes and things like that ‘cause, you know, I was an out-of-towner and everything. And he brought in a fellow called Jack Nelson, and Jack Nelson was six foot five, and we built up a friendship and thereafter were known as Mutt and Jeff, and I don’t know if you remember the old comics of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but there was this couple Mutt and Jeff, he was very tall and the other guy was very short. And we eventually became, they decided to open up a tuck shop at Magee, to sell pop and things like that, and we took it over, and so we were a well known couple at the school. The Jewish community then was essentially divided between, I think the divisional line was perhaps either Oak Street or Cambie. The ‘haves,’ the people who had, the upper middle class, lived on this side, and the lower middle class lived on the other side. Most of the kids my age who were Jewish went to Magee, a few went to Prince of Wales, maybe the odd one went to the other schools, depending on where the parents lived, but those were the big enclaves, and on the eastern side most of the Jewish kids went to King Ed. And, so that was sort of, a kind of a division. The Jewish kids pretty well, I would say, they kept to themselves, where we were, they associated with themselves most of the time, although they were active in sports and other things.
ID: And what about your teachers? Were there any of your teachers that were outstanding that you remember in high school?
HL: In high school, yes, there was….
ID: That influenced you in your future?
HL: One, two teachers actually were outstanding. One was a younger woman who taught math and taught algebra and geometry. I loved geometry and I just ate it up and that was very easy for me. And the other one who was outstanding was somebody called Miss Brandon and she was much older and she taught English and French and I thought she was outstanding because by the time I went to university and took the first year French I really had learned most of that in Grade 12 and so that was relatively easy.
ID: Harold, I used…we used to have Miss Brandon as our French teacher, French and English teacher. Well, she taught everything, in Cupar.
ID: Yes and when she left Cupar I guess she went to Kamsack. Can you believe we had the same teacher, that’s amazing!
HL: I thought she was outstanding.
ID: And what about Jewish education? Was there an opportunity for that in Kamsack?
HL: Yes, well you know at one time there were approximately 35 Jewish families in Kamsack, that’s at the height. It would be in the late ‘30s I suppose. And we had one man there who served as the rabbi, the shochet [kosher butcher], the teacher, the cantor all rolled into one. Rabbi…Reverend Oland was his name and he stayed there until the community really dwindled and dwindled in the early ‘40s and then ultimately went to Saskatoon. He did teach me some elements of Hebrew and I suppose he also must have taught me something relative to my Bar Mitzvah although I don’t remember having a Bar Mitzvah with a lot of simcha [celebrations] in Kamsack. It was during the war years and I presume that those type of activities took a back seat.