Long before anyone ever spoke the word “multiculturalism,” there was a German choir, some Scotsmen and Frenchmen in costume, a “girl rabbi” named Ray and a heartstoppingly gorgeous neo-Romanesque synagogue that arose as if by magic from a boggy patch of ground near the edge of a salt marsh.
The utter unlikeliness of the whole story is sometimes nearly too much for Rabbi Harold Brechner, the 49-year-old New Yorker — by way of New Orleans, the Israeli Defense Forces and life as a deckhand on a fishboat in Alaska — who serves Victoria’s beloved Congregation Emanu-El and its roughly 200 families.
“We always have to be careful not to read too much into history,” Rabbi Brechner said. “But, you know, it’s true. All this collaboration and co-operation and friendship, these stories just keep coming up again and again.”
True story: the Congregation Emanu-El is the oldest synagogue in Canada (other synagogues in Toronto and Montreal preceded it, but later moved to larger premises). Congregation Emanu-El celebrated its 150th birthday on Sunday with a re-enactment of the colourful parade that marked the synagogue’s 1863 cornerstone-laying.
Many if not most of the synagogue’s original building-fund subscribers were Gentiles. It is as though Victorians decided that their little city would not be a proper metropolis unless it had its own serious-looking synagogue, and given the sort of place Victoria was at the time, that would make a kind of sense.
In the early 1860s, Victoria was a kaleidoscopically polyglot little city with a population exceeding 25,000. It was a Gold Rush port teeming with Hawaiians, Cantonese and Orkney Islanders.
When American miners disembarked in Victoria harbour, bound for the Cariboo goldfields, they were greeted by a phalanx of the African Rifles — an all-Black militia. Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas was himself what they would have called then an “octoroon” (one-eighth black) and a follower of the great British abolitionist William Wilberforce.
The matriarch of Victorian society was Sir James’ wife, Lady Amelia, an Irish Cree with a weakness for smoked buffalo tongue. The city’s laissez-faire sensibility was such that, in 1860, a jury of townspeople agreed to spend a night in jail themselves rather than agree to a sodomy conviction against Victoria’s notoriously fabulous gay town-crier, John Butts, the “Hero of a Hundred Acquittals.”
Back in 1863, heralding the start of construction on the Emanu-El synagogue, the Victoria Colonist reported: “The Israelites in Victoria are a large and highly respectable body. Many of them have resided in the city from the date of its earliest existence, and their conduct and bearing has invariably been such as to earn for them the good wishes and esteem of their fellow citizens of other persuasions.”
And so it was that on June 2, 1863, the grand parade to the corner of Blanshard and Pandora brought out the St. Andrew’s Society, the Germania Sing Verein choir, the French Benevolent Society and other such “ethnic” constituencies. The highlight of the day was the cornerstone-laying ritual performed by Victoria’s Freemasons, many of whom were themselves Jews.
Designed by the premier architects John Wright and George Sanders, the brick-and-stone synagogue was far and away more imposing and grand than any of the city’s several churches, almost all of which were built of fir and cedar. As soon as the temple was consecrated, the “firsts” would start their parade through the congregation’s story.
In 1865, Lumley Franklin was elected mayor of Victoria — the first Jewish mayor in North America. His kid brother Selim, elected to the legislative council of B.C. in 1859, was only the third Jew ever elected to a legislative council in Canada, so we will skip to 1871, the year British Columbia joined Confederation. That’s when Victoria voters sent Wharf Street merchant Henry Nathan to Ottawa — Canada’s first Jewish Member of Parliament.
The “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West” involves the story of Ray Frank, who was not a “rabbi” as such, but a famous sort-of evangelist of the late 19th century. In 1895, in what has been called a moment probably unprecedented in the history of Judaism, Ms. Frank served briefly as the paid leader of the city’s Jewish congregation, officiating from the pulpit through the High Holidays.
It may even be true that Samuel D. Schultz pitched the first shutout game in the history of British Columbia baseball, but what is known for certain is that this vice-president of Congregation Emanu-El was appointed Canada’s first Jewish judge, in 1914. But even that was after his pitching arm had brought the University of Toronto baseball team to victory over Cornell University in North America’s first cross-border inter-varsity game.
Judge Schultz was also an accomplished composer, and his marching tune “The Charge at Dawn” was what the Royal Canadian Navy’s Naden band was playing on Sunday, leading the parade through Victoria.
Said Rabbi Brechner: “You know, there’s a word in Yiddish. It’s ‘naches,’ which is like the opposite of schadenfreude. I’m so proud of the way everybody in the congregation pulled all this together. I am filled with naches.”