Whatever were they thinking when they named the only Jewish museum in Atlantic Canada the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum?
Yes, it is located in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada’s oldest city, but to give a Jewish institution the name of a Catholic saint is unusual. Since the museum is unique in the province, it could have been called the New Brunswick Jewish Historical Museum, or simply the Jewish Historical Museum. The name gives a hint that this is no ordinary museum and that Saint John is no ordinary city.
Founded in 1986, Saint John Jewish Historical Museum was created and is maintained by the dwindling congregation of Shaarei Zedek Synagogue as a loving tribute to the heritage of the Jewish community and to the city that befriended it.
The museum occupies an impressive stone building at 91 Leinster Street. When it was built in 1897 by a ship owner as a wedding gift for his bride, it was reputed to be the best home in the city. It is prominently featured on the self-guided Victorian Stroll, which includes such noteworthy edifices as the elaborate Second Empire house at 167 King Street East and the massive Italianate row houses on Orange Street.
In the heart of the city, the museum is popular with travelers from all over the world, especially passengers on the cruise ships that dock at Market Square. It is many people’s first contact with Jewish culture, and the high school student guides answer questions about Jewish ritual and the lifecycle events portrayed in the galleries – a table set for the Passover seder, a video of a woman making bagels, a marriage ketubah.
Visitors often are curious about the theater seats in the sanctuary. Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer, who was born in the Ukraine, grew up in Saint John and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the synagogue. His mother, Sarah, was known as the first lady of Shaarei Zedek. After Mayer established himself in the movie business, he shared his good fortune with friends. Congregants became film distributors and owners of theater chains. One donated the sanctuary seats.
The Jewish community contributed to Saint John’s cultural life in many ways. A poster in the corridor commemorates life at Millie and Ben Guss’ home, which was a hub for music lovers. Everyone in the family sang and played an instrument. During the many years that Ben was president of the community concert series, guest artists often practiced in their living room. Daughter Faith recalled that “when Glenn Gould practiced on our piano we sat on the steps to the second floor landing … like quiet little mice with huge ears.” Son Jonathan remembered that “Yitzchak Pearlman spent the afternoon at the house before a concert. He played chess with me at the dining room table…. He was very good.” These are the intimate memories that the heimisch museum aims to preserve.
Brushing aside old memories, 90-yearold Isadore Davis, who celebrated his bar mitzvah in the synagogue, proudly declared that today Shaarei Zedek is “Conservative and egalitarian.” But the first Jews in the port city were Orthodox. Solomon and Alice Hart, who emigrated from England and came to Saint John in 1858 by way of New York, are considered the first permanent Jewish settlers there. The Harts prospered from Solomon’s tobacco business, and as more British Jews followed, the city became a cigar manufacturing center. For a while, the Harts held religious services in their home. When they lost a young daughter in 1873, they dedicated land for a Jewish cemetery.
In 1881, there were 15 Jewish families in Saint John. Using contributions from people of all faiths, they built the city’s first synagogue, aptly named Ahavith Achim (brotherly love). Alice opened a nursery and taught in the Hebrew school. The following year, she organized Daughters of Israel “to help the needy and nurture the sick.” In 1882, their daughter Elizabeth married her English cousin Louis Green in Saint John’s first Jewish wedding.
By 1891, there were 43 Jewish families in the city. A decade later, the census shows nearly 300. The influx of Ashkenazim, fleeing Eastern Europe and the pogroms of the Russian empire, introduced an exotic flavor to the city. They practiced customs the locals did not understand. They spoke little or no English, only Yiddish. The men, who were mostly peddlers, dressed in black and had long beards; the women covered their heads with kerchiefs and dressed in the peasant clothes of the shtetl. Nevertheless, they found a comfortable home in Saint John, and in 1906 they founded the Hazen Avenue Synagogue. Although both congregations were Orthodox, they had little to do with one another. They reflected different cultures; their customs were different; there were class differences; they spoke different languages. Their services were different and each had its own rabbi.
Both congregations thrived and outgrew their buildings. When the city’s handsome neo-Gothic Presbyterian church became available in 1919, they managed to set aside their differences to merge, launching a golden era. The combined congregation, comprised of about 200 male members, chose the new name Shaarei Zedek.
Jews participated in the vibrant life of Saint John. They founded successful businesses. In 1977, the city elected Samuel Davis as its first Jewish mayor. (His father, Harry, a cabinetmaker, crafted the ark and reading table in the museum.) Benjamin R. Guss became the first Jewish judge and Erminie Cohen the first Jewish senator.
In the 1950s, however, younger people began drifting away. To be more modern, Shaarei Zedek affiliated with the Conservative movement. But the pull of opportunity in the big cities was strong. Membership declined to about 40. There has been no rabbi since 1982. In 2008, the congregation sold the church building, its home for almost 100 years.
Shaarei Zedeck has functioned for years under the able administration of Dan Elman, a lay reader, who organizes services, sends out yahrzeit reminders, leads classes to teach adults how to conduct services, and fills in as the Hebrew school teacher.
The museum’s success has ushered in a new optimism. Marcia Koven, a descendant of an early 20th century immigrant, established the museum and was its first curator. She began by hiring Katherine Biggs-Craft, a college classmate who is not Jewish and by her own admission “knew virtually nothing about Judaism.” It was a fortuitous choice nonetheless, and when Koven retired, Biggs- Craft became curator. The museum archives now attract scholars from all over the world. The American Association for State and Local Libraries, the Church and Synagogue Library Association, and the province of New Brunswick all have honored it with awards.