Moose Jews

A forgotten community in Saskatchewan remembered.

moose jew 88 298 (photo credit: Lauren Kramer)
moose jew 88 298
(photo credit: Lauren Kramer)
It's Friday night and I'm in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, standing outside the House of Israel Synagogue and wishing there was a service I could attend. As it happens, I'm late - by more than 15 years. This synagogue closed its doors in September 1990, leaving only a cement plaque outside as evidence that it was, indeed, a synagogue, serving a Jewish community in this small prairie town since 1926. Today it's a dance school, with windows boarded up against the sunlight and weeds growing prolifically around the building. But there was a time when the House of Israel Synagogue was a hub of activity, with regular Shabbat services and social get-togethers. "Everybody pitched in and was friendly in our Jewish community, it was like a big family," recalls Sam Cohen, who lived in Moose Jaw from 1957 until 1988. "We had a Hadassah that was very active and a B'nai B'rith that did a lot of work in the gentile community. We kept kosher, and we knew we were Jews, but ultimately the community disintegrated because you brought up the children to leave. You didn't want them staying, you wanted them in more of a Jewish environment." His brother, Jack Cohen, who owned a pharmacy with Sam, agrees. "Moose Jaw was a good place to be a Jew between the '50s and the '70s, except that there weren't enough kids for our children to socialize with," he reflects. "But we had lots of fun as a community. I remember we'd have dances, picnics, card games and lots of get-togethers. There would be services Friday nights and some Saturday mornings, and there was a Jewish heder for the children after regular school hours." Lillian Butts remembers that heder well, even at the ripe age of 85. The daughter of a Russian-born father and a Romanian mother, she was born in this town in 1921 and lived there until 1943. "We had to go to heder three times a week, and I hated it," she says with a gleam in her eyes. "My mother, Rose Schwartz, was one of the few Jews who kept a kosher home in Moose Jaw, so when Jewish travelers came to town and required kosher meals, they came to us. My mother would be up at 5 a.m. on Fridays baking halla, and all week we'd look forward to our traditional Shabbat dinner of chicken soup and meat." Butts remembers a childhood marked by poverty as her father, a junk dealer, struggled to make a living. "In a way, Moose Jaw was a sad place, we being the only Jewish family at our school," she says. "One neighbor took to chasing me home every day because I was Jewish and we 'killed Jesus.' There were a lot of anti-Semites in town when I was growing up, but I thought to myself, I have just as much right to be here as you have." Still, she has good memories of her life in Moose Jaw and of attending dances at the Temple Gardens Dance Hall with her friends as a young adult. She recalls the natural spring well that was discovered accidentally in 1910 when someone was drilling for oil. When she lived there, a natatorium was built around it and "everyone went there for health baths," she says. The dance hall has long been demolished, but its name lives on as the Temple Gardens Mineral Springs Resort, attracting a wide range of travelers who come to experience its hot mineral water drawn from more than 4,500 feet beneath the earth's surface. They come to luxuriate in the hot water and to explore the Tunnels of Moose Jaw, a series of underground interconnected passages that snake their way beneath the city's downtown roads and stores. "When I lived there, I was not aware that the tunnels existed," Butts confesses. "We knew there were bootleggers in town at one point, but not how they dealt or where exactly they were located." That's because for some 75 years, Moose Jaw city leaders denied the tunnels' existence, hoping to keep their unkosher history under wraps. Their plan was foiled in 1985, when a heavy truck traveling downtown on Main Street disappeared into a hole after the pavement collapsed under its weight. After that, the tunnels were transformed into the town's hottest attraction. Today, the Tunnels of Moose Jaw offer tourists two theatrical-style tours that aim to educate and entertain simultaneously. One discusses the living conditions of impoverished Chinese laborers who lived in the tunnels in the early 1900s; the second describes the bootlegging history of the tunnels during the Prohibition years. Perched at the end of the Soo Line that runs to this day to Chicago, Moose Jaw became a convenient retreat for the mob. The tour insinuates that Al Capone came to town at least once and the legend of his visit lives on, despite substantial historical evidence. Still, it provides good comedy during the tour, rich imaginative fodder for visitors and a convenient theme for city hotels, restaurants and bars. Between the tunnels and the mineral springs, Moose Jaw has regained some of its vibrancy. The mayor's office estimates that the tunnels alone bring $15 million a year into the local economy. One thing they cannot bring back to this town, however, is its Jewish community, whose descendants are now scattered throughout Canada's large cities, with only five remaining in town. Before he left town and headed to Vancouver in 1988, Sam Cohen considered the fate of the synagogue and tried to inscribe its history into Canadian Jewish archives. "I wrote to the Jewish Historical Society in Winnipeg and to the Canadian Jewish Congress, but we couldn't find anybody who was interested in Moose Jaw's Jewish history," he says. "Eventually our Torah scrolls went to Kelowna, British Columbia, but nobody seemed to care what happened to our synagogue."