Robin McGrath. Salt Fish & Shmattes: A History of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1770. -

Robin McGrath. Salt Fish & Shmattes: A History of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1770.

Sonia Zylberberg
Concordia University

Creative Book Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1-89717-01-2

1 THIS BOOK IS A WELCOME addition to the growing number of texts documenting and recounting the history of Jews in Canada. From coast to coast to coast, Jewish Canadians/Canadian Jews are researching and celebrating their roots, producing histories, novels, poems, memoirs, and hybrid forms that suit the particularity of the author’s interests and personality. Robin McGrath is a poet, a folk-historian, and an archivist, and this book combines her multiple talents. Drawing from sources as diverse as B.G. Sack’s classic 1945 text History of the Jews in Canada, newspaper clippings, and archival letters, fragments, and photos, she brings the history to life.

2 The earliest Jew with a connection to Newfoundland and Labrador seems to have been mariner Joseph de la Penha. Although he never actually lived there, he was given the deed for Labrador in 1677 following his claim of the territory for England. However, in 1986, de la Penha’s descendents were definitively denied their claim by the Supreme Court of Canada.

3 The history of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador follows the same basic sequence as in the rest of Canada and North America. The first to settle were Sephardic (i.e., of Spanish ancestry) traders who began to arrive after the English conquest of 1761. Few in number, many of them had converted to Christianity, either wholeheartedly or in appearance only so as to escape persecution (this group is now referred to as "crypto-Jews"). This makes uncovering their history a difficult task; McGrath used a combination of careful tracing of archival records and educated guesswork regarding names and patterns. The most documented, and therefore the most well known, of this early group was Simon Solomon, a watchmaker and jeweller who functioned as unofficial postmaster for the region, even producing his own hand-made stamps. In fact, his name still lives on in a back alley in St. John’s called "Solomon’s Lane."

4 These earliest settlers were followed by a number of immigrant waves, much more numerous, Ashkenazi (i.e., of Central and East European ancestry), and escaping economic, social, and/or political persecution. The first such wave to arrive in North America seems to have bypassed Newfoundland and Labrador: McGrath’s book makes no mention of the Jews who arrived from Central Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. But she devotes a large amount of her book to the next wave: Eastern Europeans during the period from 1890 until World War II. In Newfoundland, most of the first members of this group became peddlers who travelled throughout the island or textile workers in the small garment industry of St. John’s. Israel Perlin was a coastal trader who travelled by boat in 1892, while Max Pink travelled by foot along the railway line which was being built; both traded salt fish and shmattes (Yiddish for "rags") with Newfoundlanders in outlying areas.

5 The World War II Holocaust changed the picture significantly. Immediately before, during, and after the war, very few Jewish immigrants were allowed into Canada at all. The few German Jews to make it to Newfoundland were treated badly by the authorities, who suspected them of being German spies. In 1948, however, Canada began to open its doors to the European Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps. McGrath tells the stories of Cylla and Joan Reichman, Ernie Mauskopf, and other survivors who ended up in Newfoundland and Labrador, giving the immense tragedy a human face and dimension.

6 The last two sections of the text focus on the Jewish community and the relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours. Here we read about synagogues, community leaders and organizations, cemeteries, etc, mostly in St. John’s but also in other locations such as Stephenville and Corner Brook.

7 This is an excellent preliminary text. As McGrath herself states, she had envisioned a pamphlet with some basic information on the Jews of the province. But the book grew to its present size and scope. The flaws of the book are therefore understandable and forgivable: for example, there are errors in the bibliographic information; the section on post-World War II contains more information about the period before the war than after; and, frustratingly, there is no index — it is therefore difficult to find specific information. But the greatest problem is the lack of numbers. Although the focus is on archival material and individual stories, demographic statistics would provide a perspective vis-à-vis the non-Jewish population of the province and a comparison with the rest of Canada. What is needed now is more fieldwork, more research, and a comprehensive text. The last two parts of McGrath’s book will be extremely useful for anyone interested in further research, either on a personal or societal level: an annotated listing of Jewish family names for Newfoundland and Labrador will help people interested in tracing their family history; and the extensive bibliography is a guide to further research. Let us hope that graduate students take up the challenge and delve further into the history of this area.

Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. ISSN: 1715-1430