A Jewish history of Vancouver

Michael Schwartz is exploring early Jewish history, as well as other cultural histories, in Vancouver with the Historic Walking Tours, a program put on by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.

Jews have been in B.C. for over 150 years. Longer than Vancouver has been a city,” says Schwartz, a Vancouver native who describes himself as “fascinated” by history and identity and who is now the museum’s Director of Community Engagement. “But Vancouver’s is a story of many cultures, of which Jews are only one.”

The tours, which will explore the early Jewish communities in Vancouver and how they intersected with other cultural groups, are scheduled on various Sundays throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. Tours take place in the neighbourhoods of Strathcona and Gastown, the historic home of many cultural groups, as well as Mountain View Cemetery, where many Jews and other minorities are buried.

A chunk of gold

As Schwartz explains, the story of Jews in B.C. is one that will be familiar to most ethnic groups.

“The themes of cultural identity pertain to just about every community that makes up Canada,” he says.

The Historic Walking Tours explore the history of Jewish people in 19th and 20th century Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of JMABC

Jews first settled in Victoria and what Schwartz calls the “little town of Granville.” Like many people at this time, they saw economic opportunity in the Gold Rush, recently come northwards from California.

“Somebody sent a chunk of gold from B.C. to San Francisco just as the California Gold Rush was dying down,” he says. “People saw this and came running up to B.C.”

Early Jewish settlers worked as shopkeepers and, more often, as pedlars.

“We’re speaking of immigrants,” says Schwartz. “There was a low requirement for the English language. You didn’t need a certificate.”

Pedlars roamed the farmlands of Richmond and Burnaby, collecting unwanted scraps from other settlers.

“Long before anyone thought of recycling, guys would go around with a horse and buggy. Pedlars would specifically collect metal, because there were scrapyards where they could sell it. The Hebrew Free Loan Association, which still exists today, [would] give these people a loan to buy a horse and buggy to get them started,” he says.

Schwartz points out that there was a significant amount of prejudice against Jews, as well as against other racial groups.

“There was a business called ‘White Lunch,’ a restaurant that had multiple locations that was very proud of having all white employees and only welcoming white people to eat,” he says.

But the historic tours focus on the intersection of different racial communities, not simply on the relations between whites and Jews.

“Strathcona was a neighbourhood with many ethnic communities sharing space: Jews, Chinese, Italians,” says Schwartz. “The tours are about how these communities engage with one another, sometimes very nicely, sometimes not so nicely.”

300 linear miles

Jewish history has left its physical mark on Vancouver. The tours visit several landmarks in Strathcona and Gastown, such as the first synagogue in Vancouver.

“It’s interesting,” Schwartz explains, “because the aesthetic, the structure, is still very much the same as it was.”

The Jewish Museum, too, has a large collection of Jewish material.

“We have a huge archive that has 300,000 documents, 300 linear metres of material, 200,000 photographs and over 800 interviews,” says Schwartz, who has worked at the Jewish Museum for five years.

An exciting part of the tours is making the narratives of Jewish people, often long dead, real and vibrant for the people of today.

“We all have a preconception of a cemetery as a place of death,” he says, speaking of Mountain View Cemetery. “All these people are no longer around, but in learning about their stories and what they did, they really come to life. So it doesn’t feel like Halloween, walking through this place.”

For more information, please see www.jewishmuseum.ca.