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Jewish Life in Canada, seen through the eyes of William Kurelek

By IRENA KARSHENBAUM In December, as I was running up a steep hill in the bitter Calgary cold, which is not as bitter as the Winnipeg cold, I was cursing myself for not having covered my brilliant head with a woollen scarf.

 Wearing my 1916 prairie costume, underneath a 25 year-old sheep skin coat that now passes for historic, I scaled the hill at Heritage Park while worrying I might suffer a heart attack triggered by too much vigorous movement in the frigid cold. The angle of the hill dropped down and my brisk pace turned into a slow, penguin-like waddle to steady myself on the ice.

My eyes looked up and facing me, as if on the palm of my hand, was a scene from another time. The sun danced on the dazzling, white snow and in the near distance, across the railroad tracks, stood a little, yellow false-front building, once called the Montefiore Institute, framed by naked, trembling trees, and where I was headed. A horse-drawn wagon turned the corner and slowly crossed along the path. Not being satisfied with just savouring the moment, I grabbed my phone. An image emerged on my screen, worthy of a cozy children’s book, or a William Kurelek painting. 

My vision was prescient. 

That afternoon, on my volunteer shift as an interpreter, in the kitchen of the Montefiore Institute, which also served as the cheder, I looked through the sideboard buffet that housed a small library. I was searching for a Hanukkah story to read to the children when my eyes rested on Jewish Life in Canada, by William Kurelek and Abraham Arnold. 

I flipped the pages of this old book and even though I was familiar with Kurelek’s work, I suddenly could see that the artist’s paintings depicting early Canadian Jewish life looked an awful lot like us, the costumed interpreters bringing Jewish life, to life, to the guests visiting the restored 1916 prairie synagogue. I was momentarily confused, was I a subject of a William Kurelek painting that had magically come alive? 

Not wanting the other interpreters to think I am some kind of a book thief (which, of course, I am!) I announced, loudly, that I will be borrowing the book to write my latest story about an out-of-print book — Bernie didn’t know this yet — with promises to return it.

At home, I read the book. Divided into two parts, the first half being the works of William Kurelek (1927-1977), with his own writings about each painting, and the second by, Abraham Arnold (1922-2011) — who served as the founding Executive Director of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada — and who contributed a series of essays about various aspects of Jewish life, that read more like a text book.

Kurelek credits “the two Abes of Winnipeg” — Arnold and Abe Schwartz — in his introduction for giving him the support he needed to bring the book project to life.

Kurelek recounts how, in 1973, the idea for the book emerged and was meant as an expression of thanks to the Jewish community for his success as an artist. It was Winnipeg-native, Avrom Isaacs (1926-2016), who first discovered the artist and took the risk of exhibiting his work, a break Kurelek desperately needed having for ten years tried “in vain on my own for recognition.” Isaacs gave Kurelek two opening nights, the first being sponsored by a Jewish women’s organization (he doesn’t say which one) that also bought a few of his pieces. He states that in fact his first art patrons were Jewish and only later, “followed by those of British origin.”

Jewish Life in Canada contains 16 of Kurelek’s paintings, all of which as indicated in the book, are held in the collection of a Mr. and Mrs. Jules Loeb, and was published by Hurtig Publishers of Edmonton in 1976. The book is out of print and unavailable, except through maybe a lucky find at a used book store or on Amazon. My search for a used copy, surprisingly, brought up information that a new edition of a Jewish Life in Canada, this time with writing by Sarah Milroy, will be published by Goose Lane Editions of Fredericton in May of 2023.

Through his paintings, Kurelek, born to a Ukrainian family in Whitford, Alberta, depicts Jewish life in Canada from the east coast, “Jewish Doctor’s Family Celebrating Passover in Halifax,” to the prairies in “Baker’s Family Celebrating the Sabbath in Edmonton” and “Jewish Wedding in Calgary” set in front of the original House of Jacob synagogue, to the west with, “General Store in Vancouver Before World War One.”

Having converted to Catholicism in adulthood, Kurelek doesn’t shy away from religious subjects displaying remarkable knowledge about Judaism’s religious practices. In “Yom Kippur” he shows what the Holy Day looks like with congregants immersed deep in prayer, men wearing their tallis, women praying in the women’s balcony. He paints a white parochet explaining that, “White, symbol of purity, is the dominant colour of this solemn day.” He used Toronto’s Kiever Synagogue as the basis for this work.

Kurelek shows how Jews toiled in their new land with works like “Morosnick’s Market, Dufferin Street, Winnipeg,” “Teperman’s Wrecking Firm in Toronto” with men sorting scrap metal, men sewing in “Jews in the Clothing Business in Winnipeg” and “Jewish Scrap Collector Questioned by a Toronto Policeman,” a composite work inspired by Kurelek’s memories and multiple photographs including one from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. 

Four of Kurelek’s paintings depict Jewish farming life.

In “Pioneering at Edenbridge, Saskatchewan,” Kurelek writes about the history of the colony, which was settled in 1906 by 20 Jewish immigrants, originally from Lithuania, who decided to leave their new-found home in South Africa for a second migration to fertile farm lands along the Carrot River. It is this painting, with its horse-drawn wagon and wooden homes in the distance, that reminded me of the view I encountered at Heritage Park that December day.

In “Bender Hamlet, the Farming Colony that Failed,” Kurelek displays good knowledge of Jewish prairie history, listing all the farm colonies of Saskatchewan and Alberta, even mentioning my beloved Montefiore where the Montefiore Institute originally stood, also Camper, Pine Ridge and Bender Hamlet of Manitoba. He paints Bender Hamlet, founded in 1903, with a few, far away, grey buildings set against a vast sky and yellow, grassy fields littered with rocks. The inspiration for the painting, he notes, came from Abe Schwartz, who gave Kurelek his great-aunt’s diary describing her life farming in North Dakota. Kurelek explains how he incorporated pieces of the diary into the picture frame, “I want to convey the idea that these memories are like voices in the wind as it sighs through the thistles of the overgrown fields and through the chinks of abandoned buildings.”

Kurelek’s Jewish Life in Canada is more than a thanks to the Jewish community, but a gift of memory that reveals a life that once was to future generations.

Irena Karshenbaum, founder of the project that gifted the restored Montefiore Institute to Calgary’s Heritage Park, volunteers as an interpreter in the synagogue and writes. www.irenakarshenbaum.com 

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