Edmonton – a shining star on Canada’s western prairie

Though numbering only about 5,000, the community’s relatively small size masks its underlying communal identity and strength.

Edmonton 311 (photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
Edmonton 311
(photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
EDMONTON, Alberta – At a Friday night Shabbat dinner, one of the guests at the table lovingly referred to “our shtetl Edmonton.” It’s a sign of the strong sense of community that Jews feel in this northern Alberta city on the western Canadian prairie.
Though numbering only about 5,000, the community’s relatively small size masks its underlying communal identity and strength.
“What happens in the smaller centers,” said Russ Joseph, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Jewish Federation, “is that Jews tend to come together with other Jews, for the most part.”
Karen Leibovici, an Edmonton city council member who moved here from Montreal over 30 years ago and who is the incoming president of the Canadian Association of Municipalities, noted that because so many of Edmonton’s Jews have migrated in from other cities, they become an extended family.
“We become each other’s family in a lot of respects,” said Leibovici, who recently saw her son off on the Israel Birthright program.
A Jewish visitor appreciates this special side of Edmonton while enjoying everything else the city has to offer – from a flourishing art scene and festivals galore, to sophisticated cuisine and more shopping than you could ever imagine.
To quote Stephen Mandel, Edmonton’s third-term mayor and past president of the Jewish Federation, “I think culturally and economically there are few places that can match the opportunities that exist in our city.”
From a Jewish perspective, Edmonton supports a rich mix of institutions, from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues to a kollel and ORT and Hadassah chapters.
It boasts two Jewish day schools, the Talmud Torah School and the Menorah Academy, an Orthodox school with separate classes for boys and girls.
In May of 2012, the Talmud Torah School will celebrate its 100th anniversary as the oldest continuously-operating Jewish day school in Canada.
For many visitors to this city, a “must-see” before anything else is the West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping and entertainment center, a truly amazing place, which also includes the Fantasyland Hotel.
The mall was the brainchild of the Ghermezian brothers, members of a prominent Edmonton Jewish family at one time in the Persian rug business in Montreal.
With over 800 stores, it really does embody the motto, “shop till you drop.” But there are other inviting attractions at the mall, like the world’s largest indoor lake (including a replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria); Galaxyland, the world’s largest (400,000- square-feet) indoor amusement park, including the Mindbender, the world’s largest indoor triple-loop roller coaster; an NHL-sized ice rink; a gaming casino; a trained seal act; and, to my mind, the pièce de résistance – the world’s largest indoor wave pool, complete with monster water slides, bungee cord jumping, beach chairs and a tiki-style bar! Indeed, taking a break from shopping, we changed into swim suits in a dressing room and then waded into the water, where adults and children were frolicking with large, blue inner tubes.
Then it was time to relax on a beach chair! The mall’s themed shopping streets – Bourbon Street, Chinatown and Europa Boulevard – add a nice touch.
For lunch, we enjoyed tasty salmon and rice at Café Levi, a kosher dairy place on Europa Boulevard. (The restaurant is closed on Shabbat).
As a city, Edmonton enjoys a prized location in the picturesque North Saskatchewan River Valley, urban parkland 22 times larger than New York City’s Central Park, which slices through the city with miles of multi-use trails for walking, cross-country skiing, and cycling.
The river valley, which was visible from our room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, was also the site of Edmonton’s annual Folk Music Festival, where thousands gathered on the grassy, sloping hills of Gallagher Park to enjoy musical greats like the multi-talented Andrew Bird, West Africa’s Angelique Kidjo (in whose melodies we could hear traces of the Caribbean), and the Preservation Jazz Band.
And who can forget Grammy Award-winning Lyle Lovett, or Edmonton’s very own k.d. lang, an amazing talent who closed the show! Many in the audience, young and old and even couples with babies, sat on blue tarps or folding chairs emblazoned with the maple leaf of Canada, enjoying a taste of Canada’s “Festival City.”
With all the fun, one tends to build up an appetite, so a good bet is d’Lish Urban Kitchen & Wine Bar, an intimate place near the art galleries around 124th Street.
Here we sampled the “Have Faith” menu, a “surprise,” five-course vegetarian affair prepared by executive chef Jason Durling.
There were dishes like mellow sweet potato soup, zucchini canalone stuffed with mushrooms, red peppers and onions, and green zucchini squash filled with quinoa pear-and-apricot puree.
A side dish of Cold Lake, Alberta, trout came with seasoned orzo, sautéed choy, and seasonal vegetable coleslaw with celery root.
One soon discovers during a visit to Edmonton that this is a city of colorful neighborhoods, like Old Strathcona, where a unique place to eat is the Dadeo Diner & Bar on 82nd (Whyte) Avenue.
The restaurant’s vinyl booths and mini-juke boxes reminded me of places I used to frequent years ago when I was much younger.
Old Strathcona is also where to find Edmonton’s great farmers’ market, held every Saturday from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. in an old building at 10310 – 83rd Avenue.
Besides all the fresh foods and ready-to-eat items at sitdown tables, the market also features craftspeople and street performers.
One of the craftspeople we met was Carolan Fuhr, who uses recycled glass and showed off her beautiful, mosaiccovered guitar.
And there was Brian N. McEvoy, a professional wood turner, who transforms pieces of wood into functional items and art.
“There isn’t much that I don’t try,” said McEvoy, who displayed a formidable Native American piece crafted from Alaskan yellow cedar.
McEvoy has taught wood turning around the world and will teach at the San Jose, California convention center in June of 2012.
It soon becomes very clear that Edmonton loves its farmers’ markets, and there’s another, though smaller, outdoor market worth visiting on Saturday at 104th Street at the corner of Jasper Avenue in the city’s Warehouse District.
Downtown Edmonton also has a surprising number of dining options.
The Blue Plate Diner on 104th Street serves items like Maple-Glazed Cornbread, Pozole Enchiladas, and popular Mac-n-Cheese.
Or how about Crab Crusted Cedar-Planked Salmon with gnocchi, asparagus, shiitakes and Sauce Americaine, and one of over 500 wines in a former well-known hardware store called the Hardware Grill on Jasper Avenue? Meanwhile, at the Wildflower Grill on 107th Street, Chef Yoshi Chubachi serves up specialties like Coconut Buttered Tiger Prawns and Rack of Alberta Lamb along with Canadian wines.
And lest we forget, for dessert there’s the Queen of Tarts on 104th Street.
Another highlight of any visit to Edmonton is, of course, its flourishing art world.

My Banff, an exhibition of large photographs by Sarah Fuller of some of the “ordinary” people of Banff, was featured at the Art Gallery of Alberta, a modernistic building with striking angular windows and bold steel at Sir Winston Churchill Square.
Fuller’s interesting goal was to portray what she believes is the “real” Banff, its everyday people, instead of the Banff we all know somewhat superficially as the popular tourist destination.
Meanwhile, Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory showcased a subtropical jungle, a dry desert, a temperate forest, and a lovely floral paradise in four large pyramidshaped structures, permanent structures which make up the site.
At Muttart, it was amazing to learn that today’s Alberta – where temperatures really do drop in the winter – was actually subtropical in the time of the dinosaurs! For more recent history, there’s Fort Edmonton Park, a 158- acre living museum and old fur trading post on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River.
Here you can drop into some of Edmonton’s key periods – a fur trading fort at the end of the 18th century, and streets from 1885, 1905 and the 1920’s.
From the park entrance, a vintage Canadian Northern steam train takes you the short distance to the fort, where actors in period costumes perform for you “in character,” like the fellow who demonstrated how they chopped wood way back when.
If you’re a film buff, it’s interesting to note that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, was filmed at the park in 2005.
While urban Edmonton has much to offer, the city sits on the edge of nature in all its glory, so we escaped to the world of camping, hiking, and herds of bison at Elk Island National Park, which is about an hour’s drive away by car on a good highway.
At the park visitor center, a friendly group of seniors from the Rocky Mountain Seniors Ski Club was getting ready for a bike ride.

After some friendly banter, we each went our separate ways, we joining Evelyn Henke of the park staff on a tour with close encounters – from the safety of our car, of course – with park bison, who forced us to give them the right-of-way as they crossed our path.
Along the way, we stopped by a park lake and also peeked in at a campsite with unique Indian tee-pee lodging, a really alternative way to camp! Whether one comes to Edmonton for its urban treasures or for the wonders of nature, this city is, to be sure, a shining star on Canada’s western prairie.
For more information about Edmonton, visit www.edmonton.com; For information about the province of Alberta, visit www.travelalberta.com.

A good overview of Edmonton festivals is found at www.festivalcity.ca.

George Medovoy writes on travel at www.postcardsforyou.com