Canada cowboys Family Games Jewish Life & Religion murder Saskatchewan

My Great-Grandfather, the Jewish Cowboy – Tablet Magazine

My Great-Grandfather, the Jewish Cowboy – Tablet Magazine

My great-grandmother Sarah Feinstein was murdered on Aug. 1, 1913, in Winnipeg’s “Hebrew Colony.” The town’s solely unsolved murder that yr, it made the Canadian newspapers from Toronto to Vancouver, in English and Yiddish. The Winnipeg Tribune referred to as it “doubtless some of the mysterious occurrences ever recorded within the annals of this metropolis.”

From the ‘Winnipeg Tribune,’ Aug. 1, 1913 (Courtesy the writer)

A century later, once I got down to examine this piece of my household’s historical past for a guide I’m writing concerning the homicide, I knew virtually nothing about my great-grandmother. I had only one photograph of her, taken on her wedding ceremony day. She is standing tall, stern-faced, her hair swept up, pendants hanging from her necklaces, her elbow resting on the again of a chair.

Whereas I didn’t assume a lot about it at first, this was additionally the one photograph I had of my great-grandfather David Feinstein, sitting in that chair with a trim mustache and neatly parted hair, sporting a stiff-collared shirt beneath a jacket and tie.

Sarah was simply 26 when she was killed. Though she’d had a comparatively full life within the seven years since she’d immigrated to Canada from Russia—she’d gotten married and had 4 youngsters—her story was minimize dramatically brief by her murderer, leaving valuable little of her for me to find; there have been no extra pictures to seek out.

However David lived virtually six extra many years after the homicide, lastly dying of a stroke in 1971, a couple of months after I used to be born. So what started as an investigation into my great-grandmother’s demise quickly was an investigation into my great-grandfather’s life, years of analysis that exposed many extra pictures, and tales I’d by no means heard, and family members I’d by no means met. The issues I discovered about him as I collected these pictures and tales modified how I considered not simply my circle of relatives historical past, however the story of Jewish immigrants extra broadly—a narrative that I assumed I already knew.


I traveled from New York to Winnipeg, the place I talked to historians and archivists, visited previous homes and cemeteries, and pored over census reviews and official paperwork. Immigrants from Russia, my great-grandparents lived in a modest picket home in Winnipeg’s crowded North Finish, then a largely Jewish neighborhood generally known as the Hebrew Colony, or New Jerusalem. I might image the world in these days, imagining it to be a type of miniature Decrease East Aspect—streetcars, Yiddish theaters, kosher butchers, small synagogues. My great-grandparents, I assumed, have been Yiddish-speaking urbanites dwelling in a largely Jewish neighborhood crammed with current immigrants, scrambling to get by in tiny, crowded houses. I’ve hung out on the Decrease East Aspect, I’ve visited the neighborhood’s Tenement Museum; I might think about what their lives have been like.

However as I dug deeper into the homicide and its aftermath, studying extra about my great-grandfather, I noticed his life may need appeared fairly totally different from what I’d anticipated of a newly arrived Jewish immigrant within the early 1900s.

When Sarah was murdered, David was tons of of miles away on enterprise, in Canora, Saskatchewan. It was there that he acquired a telegram telling him his spouse had been murdered, and he ought to return residence directly. The 300-mile journey took greater than 12 hours on the Canadian Northern Railway, whose acronym gave the lately included city of Canora its identify.

What was he doing there, I questioned? I’d by no means heard tales about Saskatchewan earlier than. So once I situated a number of distant cousins in Winnipeg—individuals I’d by no means heard of, a lot much less met, earlier than I began doing analysis—I requested them in the event that they knew something concerning the household’s connection to Saskatchewan. They shared pictures and tales I didn’t know—about horses and cattle, liquor and playing, organized crime and life on the prairie. The extra I discovered about my household, the extra I noticed that I’d solely discovered half the story in Winnipeg.

Saskatchewan, it seems, wasn’t only a place my great-grandfather went on enterprise. It was a key a part of our household’s forgotten story—and a spot that held a special sort of Jewish historical past for hundreds of individuals, removed from the large metropolis’s crowded Hebrew Colony. And my great-grandfather wasn’t simply an city immigrant scratching out a dwelling in a tiny home within the metropolis; he was a cowboy, driving horses out on the Canadian prairies.


The primary Jews arrived in Canora when the hamlet was based in 1905, shortly after the railroad tracks have been laid in 1904. Residential tons bought for as little as $150; advertisements for the Canora Townsite Firm, which dealt with the gross sales, touted the city as “the longer term railroad and agricultural middle of japanese Saskatchewan”—the province having been established in 1905 as properly.

Lured by low cost land and job alternatives, current Jewish immigrants from Russia arrived at different close by small cities across the similar time; my great-grandmother’s brother-in-law, for instance, opened a small grocery in Sturgis, Saskatchewan, 25 miles from Canora. In the meantime, Jewish agricultural colonies started to develop and multiply because the Jewish Colonization Affiliation bought hundreds of acres of land in Saskatchewan within the early 1900s—giving delivery to colonies like Sonnenfeld and Edenbridge, generally generally known as Yidn Bridge.

Jews shortly turned a outstanding a part of Canora, swelling to 10 % of the inhabitants inside a number of years. Samuel Korbin arrived in 1905 and opened a basic retailer; when the city was included in late 1910 he served as city councilor and in 1912 he was elected mayor. Sam Cohen, whose household had been among the many founders of Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek synagogue in 1880, opened the Canora Lodge on Important Road throughout from the practice station. Different Jewish newcomers have been butchers and shopkeepers.

My great-grandfather and his brothers arrived in 1908. They farmed three-and-a-half miles northwest of Canora, and began a enterprise as cattle sellers. Additionally they owned horses: One in every of my newfound cousins in Winnipeg informed me the brothers have been “professional horsemen.” That they had as soon as been “true cowboys,” stated one other cousin, noting that they used to interrupt wild horses and promote them to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. These tales have been fairly totally different from my mom’s reminiscences of her “Zayde Dovid” from his later years as a Yiddish-speaking, synagogue-going, bespectacled and cane-carrying grandpa.

David’s brother Harry purchased a home in Canora; the opposite brothers, who all had houses in Winnipeg, would stick with Harry once they got here on enterprise. That’s the place David was staying when he obtained the telegram that his spouse was lifeless.

However this wasn’t the top of David’s time in Saskatchewan, as I quickly found. Two years after the homicide, he married a second time, and in 1916, the entire household moved to Canora full-time so David might be nearer to the livestock that offered his livelihood. They stayed for greater than seven years.

Canora nonetheless had fewer than a thousand individuals in 1916, nevertheless it was surprisingly numerous, populated virtually solely by current immigrants: Chinese language waiters and laundrymen, Irish dressmakers and postal staff, German stenographers and carpenters, and Scottish veterinarians and cops. Alongside the Jews lived Methodists, Catholics, Anglicans, and numerous Doukhobors—radical Christian pacifists from Russia, a number of thousand of whom had settled on communes in western Canada after 1900.

By 1921, greater than 13 % of Canora’s 1,200 residents have been Jewish. The group of almost 200—representing some 30 households—began a synagogue, employed a Jewish instructor, and opened a kosher meals retailer. David and his second spouse, Bella, stayed in Canora lengthy sufficient to witness the expansion of the Jewish group; their two youngest youngsters have been born there as properly.

David’s keep in Canora coincided with Canadian, and later American, Prohibition. In accordance to some of my cousins, a number of the Feinstein brothers—probably together with my great-grandfather—have been in all probability concerned in bootlegging. There was extra than simply horses in these barns, one recommended; maybe the household’s connection to organized crime had one thing to do with the homicide? It did clarify one odd factor I’d present in my analysis: Whereas the brothers have been dealing cattle in Saskatchewan, based on a enterprise listing, they have been additionally officers of a short-lived firm in Winnipeg referred to as Manitoba Vinegar Manufacturing.

The notion that the brothers may need been concerned in unsavory endeavors was bolstered by different tales I discovered, about how they have been critical gamblers, and tax cheats; two of my great-grandfather’s brothers have been later fined in what the Tribune referred to as “Canada’s largest tax evasion case.”

Because the Jewish inhabitants of Canora began a dramatic decline within the 1920s, main as much as the Nice Melancholy—foreshadowing a development for Saskatchewan’s Jewish group as an entire, which noticed its numbers peak at 5,000 in 1931 and plummet to lower than half that immediately—David’s household returned to Winnipeg. He purchased a home on Mountain Avenue within the North Finish. That is the place my grandmother Ethel, an adolescent on the time, would later describe as her childhood house, beginning her life story in Winnipeg’s Hebrew Colony; she by no means informed her youngsters or grandchildren that she’d spent half her childhood in Saskatchewan. The household’s historical past there was forgotten, simply because the bigger Jewish group’s historical past there was largely missed.


I arrived in Canora, within the coronary heart of what’s now often known as “Good Spirit Nation,” on the final day of Might 2017, to study extra about my household, and the world’s Jewish historical past. I used to be greeted by Lesia, a 15-foot-high statue of a lady in conventional Ukrainian gown standing along side Route 10, holding a loaf of braided bread and a shaker of salt on a tray draped in material.

My great-grandfather would by no means have seen her. Lesia was erected in 1980 as a tribute to the city’s Ukrainian group, who counted among the many area’s first settlers and stay a serious demographic group at present amongst Canora’s 2,000 residents—none of whom are Jewish, in accordance with the newest census.

I turned up Foremost Road, which was adorned with maple leaf flags in honor of the upcoming celebration of 150 years of Canadian independence: Right here, in a month’s time, a pageant would function jugglers, magicians, a petting zoo, and bands enjoying every little thing from rock to nation to Ukrainian music. I noticed only one acquainted chain retailer: Tim Hortons, Canada’s ubiquitous doughnut store. There was a pizza parlor, a greenback retailer, an area financial institution, as is perhaps present in any small city. However I additionally noticed locations that solely made sense in Canora: the outside ice cream stand that serves poutine, the Chinese language restaurant that advertises its chili and pierogies within the window, the Ukrainian Heritage Museum.

On the finish of Foremost Road, I parked in entrance of the Canora Lodge, which Sam Cohen had opened a century earlier. This was a outstanding constructing—a three-story brick block that at the moment includes eight visitor rooms over a bar and restaurant—that my kinfolk would certainly have recognized nicely. They might have arrived in Canora not by street, however by practice, and as they exited the station, the primary constructing they might have seen was this lodge, throughout Railway Avenue. 100 years in the past, my great-grandfather and his brothers may need stopped for a drink within the street-level bar. Now, this was the place I’d be staying.

In contrast to my earlier analysis journey to Winnipeg, in Canora I had no previous homes, no graves, no synagogues to go to, and no relations, nevertheless distant, to satisfy. I didn’t assume I’d discover something particular to attach this place to my household’s historical past.

Canora does have a museum of native historical past, nevertheless, housed throughout from the lodge within the small practice station. Canora has the nation’s oldest Class three railway station nonetheless in operation, inbuilt 1904 for $5,000. Today the VIA Rail trains solely run twice every week to Winnipeg; the journey takes eight-and-a-half hours every means—an extended experience, however shorter than the one my great-grandfather took again in 1913 when he discovered of his spouse’s demise.

As I walked by way of the CN Station Home Museum, I noticed a number of reveals on show: an eight-foot-tall Orange Crush bottle that was used to advertise the model’s new clear soda bottles within the 1950s, memento golf shirts and DVDs, and a poster touting Canora for profitable a contest for the best-tasting municipal water in Canada. Extra alongside the strains of what I’d anticipated, there have been train-related artifacts from the previous hundred years. A quilt made throughout WWI commemorated the world’s early homesteaders, and historic pictures of the city, the place the Canora Lodge is quickly recognizable, held on the wall.

The museum was crammed with curiosities that helped me perceive Canora in a broad sense, however there wasn’t a lot that related me to my household’s particular historical past—not the quilt, or the enormous soda bottle, or the scrumptious faucet water. After which I noticed a small merchandise on show that appeared fairly previous: the practice station’s unique telegraph.

I’d discovered a bit of my historical past. It was this very machine that transmitted the message to my great-grandfather again in 1913, telling him that his spouse was lifeless, and he wanted to return to Winnipeg directly.

It was simply previous midday on a Friday when he received the message. I think about he was returning to city after spending the morning on the household farm. Distraught, he in all probability packed a suitcase as shortly as he might earlier than heading again up Major Road, previous the Canora Lodge, to this very station. The subsequent practice to Winnipeg wasn’t leaving till four:55, so he had time for the information to sink in. Perhaps he had a drink on the bar throughout the road. Perhaps he sat silently for hours on a bench on the platform, or requested the telegraph operator to ship a message again to Winnipeg to say he was on his method. Or perhaps, whereas he waited to start his lengthy journey house, he stood in entrance of the station, staring down Foremost Road at this distant prairie city the place one chapter of his life had simply come to an abrupt finish—and one other unlikely chapter of his life as a Jewish cowboy would start a couple of years later.

I haven’t discovered any pictures of David in Saskatchewan. However now that I’ve visited the city he as soon as referred to as residence, I can create a psychological picture of my very own, an image of my great-grandfather and his brothers—cowboys, gamblers, bootleggers, and cattlemen—on the prairie. It’s not how I used to image my Jewish ancestors. Nevertheless it’s one of many methods I consider them now.


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