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Penny (Divinsky) Yellen/her great-grandfather, Nisen Zimmerman

By GERRY POSNER

When the history of Winnipeg Jewry is told, it usually begins in 1882 with a group of Russian Jews who came to Winnipeg and made this city their home. One of those first settlers was one Nisen Zimmerman. From him emerged a long line of Zimmerman descendants. Of course, what many people do not know about Nisen or Nathan - as he became to be known, was that his real name was Rabinovitch and he changed it to Zimmerman in order to buy a new passport to immigrate to Canada. Also of interest was that he was the uncle to the famous author Solomon Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem.

 

 

 

 


The Zimmerman family wove their way into the fabric of Winnipeg life and one of the great-grandchildren of Nathan, in this last year, came back to live in Winnipeg after a 22 year hiatus in New Haven, Connecticut. I refer to Penny Divinsky Yellen, someone who was well known in her own right when she lived here from her birth until she left with her husband, the late Barney Yellen, in 1996 for New Haven.
Her story shows the strength of the Winnipeg Jewish community as Penny reflects a feeling among many that Winnipeg is indeed the home for many ex-Peggers. Indeed, one might ask what made her return here? To answer that, it helps to get a sense of her journey.
Born and raised in Winnipeg to Esther and Micky Divinsky, Penny met her future husband, Barney Yellen, a native of Los Angeles, when they both worked at Jewish Family & Child Services in Toronto and soon they married in 1969. They settled in Winnipeg and before long Barney was working for the then Family Bureau and Penny for JCFS in Winnipeg. Then Barney, in 1979, moved over to JCFS as the Clinical Supervisor, later to become the Executive Director in 1981. Penny went to work for the Winnipeg Boys and Girls Club and Age and Opportunity. And significantly, Penny became involved with the National Council of Jewish Women - so much involved that she was the National President from 1987-1989.
In 1996, after both the Yellen daughters, Elana and Abby, had moved out and away, Barney received an enticing offer that caused the Yellens to move to New Haven, Connecticut, where Barney became the Executive Director of the Jewish Family Services of New Haven. It was tough to leave Winnipeg, but Penny observed that it was “an adventure”. Penny, not one to sit by and watch grass grow, soon had a few positions and in 2004, she worked part time for the Connecticut Mental Health Specialists and in 2006 for the Jewish Family Services of Hartford. Life in Connecticut was satisfying and might well have continued that way. Sadly, Barney became ill and died in July, 2008.
Penny and Barney had always talked about returning one day to Winnipeg. After Penny retired, she made the big decision. Even with children living in Vancouver and New York, Penny decided to follow through with her and her late husband’s vision of Winnipeg as home. Thus, in 2018, Penny came back to the community she knew and loved and where, if need be, “my family and friends here would be supportive.” It has been now close to a year since Penny became a Manitoba resident and she stays very busy, almost as if she never left in the first place. She is active in various ways. When I bumped into her quite accidentally at the Jewish Heritage Centre in June, she was going through the archives relating to the National Council of Jewish Women with respect to its starting the Golden Age Club in 1948.
Now the pioneer family of Nisen Zimmerman continues on in the form of his great-granddaughter, Penny Divinsky Yellen. Welcome home, Penny.

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