Why it’s Hanukkah until at least January in the Quebec town of Disraeli

Post mark
Ottawa designer Irv Osterer shows his new Jewish postmark on top of this year's Hanukkah postage stamp and a first day cover with his own design of Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, for whom the Quebec town was named. (Ellin Bessner photo).

Canada Post has brought Hanukkah to a small Quebec town named after a former Jewish prime minister of Great Britain.

The only post office in Disraeli, with a population of about 2,500 people, is now the home of the first-ever permanent Jewish postmark to be created for mail in Canada, showing four dreidels and a fully lit menorah.

Disraeli is located about an hour away from Sherbrooke. Nathalie Fortier is the postmaster, and she admits she had never heard of Hanukkah before, nor about the politician, who later identified as Christian—which allowed him to pursue a career in public office.

But that’s all changed since Irv Osterer, an Ottawa stamp enthusiast, wrote to her about his project to create Canada’s first-ever Jewish “special pictorial cancel,” as they’re called.

“I agreed to participate because I hadn’t known about the story of Disraeli, and I was very fortunate to do it, even though there are no Jewish people in this area,” Fortier told The CJN.

Osterer is a retired Ottawa school teacher. He’s also a graphic designer. Three years ago, he approached Canada Post to do a Jewish special postmark. There are about 50 communities in Canada that have their own unique year-round postmarks, including the most famous one at the post office in Vulcan, Alberta: in 2016, theirs honoured the late Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor who played Spock.

“When I was teaching high school, I used to involve my students with doing Christmas postmarks at Christmas Island (Nova Scotia), and the Valentine ones at Love, Saskatchewan,” Osterer said. “The postmasters at these places love getting letters from all over the world. It’s a celebration of our diversity in this country.”

Edenbridge, Sask. or Disraeli, Que.?

Osterer had to find a location that resonated with Canadian Jews, or had a Jewish-sounding name. At first, he thought of Vulcan, but they had one, so he considered Edenbridge, a former Jewish farm colony in Saskatchewan.

One of Osterer’s friends, the late Motti Feldman, had family from there. Jews from Lithuania arrived via South Africa at the turn of the 20th century to establish a farming community near Brooksby—and came up with a name that would be meaningful to them, but still accepted by the province.

“There used to be a post office there, but it is no more,” Osterer said, explaining why he needed to come up with a Plan B.

“Then I’m looking through and I remember there’s a place in Quebec named after Benjamin Disraeli. And how more Jewish can the name be, then?”

Disraeli was born to a Jewish family in England in 1804, and although the Victorian-era figure was converted to Christianity as a teenager, the Conservative politician remained proud of his Jewish roots. He suffered from antisemitism during his long career in politics. He was close to the Rothschilds and supported a homeland for the Jewish people.

“So I thought, if it couldn’t be Edenbridge, Disraeli sounds like a great name.”

Design shows dreidels and a menorah

In October, Canada Post notified Osterer that the proposal had been accepted. Usually, in-house designers do up the special artistic postmarks, but Osterer wanted to make sure it would be done correctly, according to Jewish traditions.

In 2017, a series of Hanukkah postage stamps had to be hastily recalled on the day Canada Post put them on sale because the booklet cover showed a yellow Star of David—an embarrassing detail which was presumably only noticed after the fact.

“I’m going to do it so that you can use it and you’re not going to have any troubles with it,” Osterer said. “And they sort of hemmed and hawed and I said, ‘I want to do this, especially in memory of Rabbi [Reuven] Bulka because Rabbi Bulka was involved with the production of [our country’s] Hanukkah stamps [after the 2017 fiasco].”

The design needed to be about the size of a Toonie, the Canadian two dollar coin. Osterer put in four dreidels at the bottom, with Nes Gadol Haya Sham, and a fully lit menorah with eight flames and the centre flame for the shamash.

There is plenty of space left for the date, and the town’s name.

Canada Post didn’t pay for the work. A spokesperson said the whole postmark project cost about $100.

Disraeli, Quebec’s new permanent special postmark designed by Irv Osterer of Ottawa issued on Nov. 8, 2021. (Canada Post photo)

Nearly two dozen requests so far

According to Elia Anoia, the manager of stamp services for Canada Post, this was the first time a design has been adopted from someone outside of the postal service and the first time the post office adopted a permanent pictorial postmark with a Jewish theme.

The postmaster, Nathalie Fortier, actually applies the postmark by hand, herself, using an ink stamp. The cards and letters don’t go through a machine, and are given “handle with care” treatment to avoid smudging the postmark.

So far, she has received requests from about twenty customers, from Western Canada, the United States, Japan and Siberia.

Some, like Osterer, asked her to cancel envelopes with the new 2021 Hanukkah stamps on them, which he will then send as gifts to other stamp enthusiasts and collectors.

Fortier believes some of the requests contained greeting cards for Hannukah being sent by Jewish people to their Jewish relatives.

Although she typically processes 200 to 300 pieces of mail a day in Disraeli, she’s using the Hanukkah pictoral postmark on all of it, even Christmas cards.

“People can see it, and can learn about Hanukkah,” Fortier said, adding that her post office also sells the seasonal stamp booklets, which contain information about the Jewish holiday and its corresponding customs. “We are Catholic but we are welcoming souls and we are open to learning about other religions, because it is fun to learn these things.”

She knows that Hanukkah ends on Dec. 6 this year, but she intends to keep the postmark in use for a long time—well into January, and also beyond.

post mark Disraeli
Nathalie Fortier, postmaster of the Disraeli, Quebec post office, where the first special pictoral postmark for Hanukkah is now in use. (Submitted photo)

Demand to increase next year

With this year’s earlier November start to Hanukkah, and not much publicity being given by Canada Post to this new Disraeli initiative, Irv Osterer is hoping to give the postmaster a lot more business by the time of the next celebration.

He’ll be spreading the word himself, with articles submitted to international philately journals, and the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society newsletter, and to his network of stamp enthusiasts around the world.

And he hopes Jewish schools will get involved, having students learn about geography and Jewish history by sending letters and cards to Disraeli for this unique postmark.

“I think next year she [Fortier] will see at least double, if not more, of the number of letters that come her way. And I think she’s probably getting a kick out of it, too.”

To get the Hanukkah postmark, send a stamped envelope to this address containing your letters or cards, with the correct postage already on them:

Måitre de Poste

210 rue St.-Joseph Est.

Disraeli, Quebec

G0N 1E0