JHSBC Oral History Collection
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.
CS: I was just gonna go back for a second to your grandfather.
ML: My great-grandfather or the grandfather? Jake was the great-grandfather.
CS: Okay, Jake. Okay, when he came here do you know if he lived in the Jewish community which was down in Strathcona in the early days?
ML: You see my feeling is, and I haven’t really done a history and people would know, the Jewish community in Strathcona was a later visitation and I think that Jake’s group and Jake’s family they were moving up. They were, I mean I would think that Cyril [Leonoff] would call them, they were part of the West End Jews, they were on the West End of Vancouver and they had a different location for services and they moved through the community in a different way. And probably just because every different generation coming here, economically, etcetera, moves in a different direction through the community. Because the Strathcona group, which, it’s funny—I lived in Strathcona when I came here in ‘76, which happened to be that part of the history where the Jewish community came from—but my mother’s side, they were well established in the community by the ‘teens and earlier and didn’t go through Strathcona at all. In fact when my Mum left here in the ‘40s she was living on Nanton in Shaughnessy area, so I think their jump was downtown, you know, when Jake was here probably, for the Cordova, Carroll Street, right in the centre near Gastown where they’d live near where their store was at that point, to the West End. The West End was the huge step up for people and that’s where Jake and those guys lived, and my mom grew up just off Denman on Comox so her world was the West End of Vancouver and then when they moved even wealthier I guess they moved up to Shaughnessy area and had a house there.
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.
Kent: What did you do at recess?
Karby: Whatever, we used to play tag, a lot of hopscotch, a lot of hanging
Kent: You mean just talking with your friends?
Karby: Yeah, just hanging out. There was always a teacher on duty, always someone in the playground. There are things I don't want to tell you. We were mean sometimes, you know how kids can be. But mostly, I'd say mostly the girls played jump rope, a lot of doubles jump rope with the big skipping rope..
Kent: When you say ‘doubles’ do you mean two ropes or just one rope, two people jumping?
Karby: One rope sometimes two people jumping, sometimes two ropes but one of these long [ropes], you know, that it takes two people to hold. And we did a lot of hopscotch although there was only one small section where you could draw the squares because I'm sure the rest of the thing was gravel.
Kent: You mean you drew your own squares?
Karby: Yeah, sure, of course with chalk, absolutely. And we made our own little beaded throws. I can't tell you how many hours of our childhood were spent making hopscotch throws, you know, beaded, and I don’t even remember now what they were out of, but all kinds of varieties. We did a lot of roller skating and sometimes we'd bring our roller skates and skate in the yard but that was rare because it meant schlepping them to school.
Kent: Yeah, you said the yard was gravel.
Karby: It must have not all been gravel because if we drew the hopscotch it couldn't have been gravel so maybe I’m not…maybe it was just concrete, some kind of cement of some sort. I really don’t remember now. Maybe it’s part and part. I don’t know somebody else might remember that…Once in a while…No, that was about it. We were never allowed off the school grounds. Once in a while we'd go to the park, not Douglas Park but the little Braemar Park, if the weather was nice sometimes.
Kent: You went with the teachers?
Karby: Yeah, with the teacher, we’d have our lunch in the park.
JG: Where do you get your meat now?
ZG and HG: From Omnitsky’s [Vancouver] and Kaplans.
HG: Marty Kaplan. I don’t know the man.
ZG: I get some stuff from him too.
HG: Safeway used to bring it in, but they bring in chickens, only chickens.
ZG: But they don’t any more. They haven’t got a place.
JG: What do you do for Passover?
HG: No problem.
ZG: Well Passover, Safeway brings in enough stuff for us because for the last what four years now that we’ve had Passover Seder at the Centre.
HG: They used to have them a hotel or someplace, but now they have them at
ZG: They were catered, but we finally, well, we’ve got our own Centre, we should do it in our own kitchen. And so we clean the kitchen up. Our kitchen is dairy. But for Pesach we wash it down and use it for meat.
HG: And Calgary sent...I think they came from Calgary, the dishes, they came from Calgary the meat dishes that we use, don’t they?
ZG: Yeah, the dishes we got from Calgary. One of our members, a mother, Susan Shawley, her mother bought the dishes that we use there for everyday, so we bought a few things and cooked our first Seder.
HG: They store away, nobody uses them.
ZG: They have them covered up on top. The first year, I don’t know how I got into it—thanks to Mel—my girlfriend Ruth Finkleman and I took on. Well, we didn’t know anything about it, cooking for how much you should do. So we ordered turkeys and chickens and that and we…
HG: Way too. They ordered way too much.
ZG: Way too much. We didn’t cook all the turkeys we had ordered. I bought the ones that weren’t cooked. But a lot of our members went home with food after the Seder because I think we had about 75 people and I think I had cooked three turkeys which was quite a bit.
HG: They have more than 75 now.
ZG: Yeah, they have over 120 now, but that was the first one. It was good, it was fun, it was the first time we had it in our own place. Everybody helped; Susan Shawley helped us. She taking it over for this year now, and we in turn are going to help her.
DR: Well, my name is Rome, as you heard, more correctly originally it was Rom, from Vilna, where the family name is rather well known as a publishing house. I suppose at the beginning of the story, during the First World War the family were refugees deep inside Russia, and when peace was declared in Western Europe—because there never was any peace afterwards in Eastern Europe what with wars and pogroms and civil wars and revolutions and things…When peace came in Western Europe we made contact with an uncle, a brother of my father, Aaron Rome, who was living in Vancouver, and he ‘brought’ us was the term that was used, he brought us to Canada in December 1921. I might say that the whole story of our family and every other family in these decades of getting into Canada from Europe after 1914, each story was a saga because of the very tight and tightening immigration rules that were coming into effect in Canada. As a matter of fact, our family, after we did manage to reach Canadian soil legally, with passports and visas and everything, were detained incommunicado in a Halifax, we’ll call it a jail, for seven weeks, and very dramatically, with the assistance of [Lou] Freeman and Archie Freeman, the mayor of Vancouver came all the way from Vancouver to Halifax to help get us out, and eventually, in December 1921, we reached Vancouver as free immigrants, and that’s the real beginning of my life I suppose as far as you would want to know.