Museum full of stories about Jewish prairie life

CALGARY — Every person has an idea of what constitutes an adventure. Some would consider a trek through Tibet as being pretty exciting. Others a shopping trip to Milan. Personally, visiting the archives of a museum is my idea of fun. Having loved museums all my life, I was thrilled when I was recently invited to see Calgary’s Glenbow Museum’s Jewish cultural collection.

Ear trumpet used by Jacob Switzer, Collection of Glenbow Museum

Lorain Lounsberry, senior curator of cultural history at Glenbow, was my tour guide. Walking through the massive warehouse, I soon realized how much work Lounsberry had to do to prepare for my visit. It was no simple matter of walking into the archives and just finding stuff there. The location of the objects had to be researched in advance given the size of the collection.

Among its many collections, Calgary’s largest museum houses a cultural history collection of about 100,000 objects that tell the story of how we live our daily lives. The collection covers many ethnic and religious groups including about 200 items from the Jewish community of southern Alberta.

Items are archived according to how they were used. We start under the category of “faith” and look at Israel Ziselman’s tallit. There are tfillin, kippot, and pharmacist Gerry Nep’s B’nai Brith cap.

The most amusing item belonged to Boris Rochman, who after having served in a hard labour camp in Siberia, managed to come to Calgary in 1957. Eventually, he bought Harry’s News & Tobacco Shop and successfully invested in other real estate ventures. He donated his tie clip to the museum with the following letters: YCDBSOYA. What does it mean, I ask? We laugh at the answer: You Can’t Do Business Sitting On Your Ass.

So true.

Other practitioners of the ­YCDBSOYA philosophy were the Cohen Brothers who brought Sony to Canada after World War II. Harry Cohen settled in Calgary, and he and his wife, Martha, became major philanthropists. They were the first couple to receive the Order of Canada together. The archives hold a few items owned by Harry and Martha Cohen, including bronzed ballet slippers, which they received in 1987 in honour of their support of Alberta Ballet.

The oddest item belonged to Jacob Switzer. To avoid military service in the Russian army, he damaged his own hearing and had to use an ear horn for the rest of his life. It is believed that Switzer bought the item in Warsaw sometime around 1916. From the vantage point of a 21st-century mind, it’s hard to imagine sticking something into your ear that resembles a trumpet.

Since I love clothes and accessories, my favourite items are handbags once owned by Marcia Goldberg, who was a driving force behind Calgary Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women for almost four decades starting in the 1920s. A few of her luxurious pieces have been left with the museum. I can almost see Mrs. Goldberg stepping into her car in her lace-up boots, purse in hand, dress shimmering, wearing a fur coat and driving to the Palace Theatre to hear violinist Jascha Heifetz perform.

There are connections to the Jewish Prairie farming experience, something that’s close to my heart. The museum holds the original, and now very fragile, parochet (the curtain that covered the Ark)from the Beth Jacob Synagogue in the Sonnenfeld Colony in Saskatchewan. Ladies of Rimon Calgary, a Jewish needlework guild, used this original parochet to create a replica that is now used in the Little Synagogue at Calgary’s Heritage Park. The parochet was once owned by Sam Frohlich of Edmonton, who also donated the Torah Ark from the Sonnenfeld Colony to the Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project.

Lounsberry explained that the museum is open to collecting more items, but it accepts only about five per cent of artefacts that are offered. “The item has to fit into the collecting plan to guide the growth of the collection, to keep it focused, and it must be based on human history. Sometimes people are quite surprised as to what we do collect and don’t collect.” Lounsberry added that the key to acquisition is, “the story behind the item.”

If you have an object that you would like to have considered for Calgary’s Glenbow Museum’s cultural history collection, please contact Lorain Lounsberry at 403-268-4152.

Irena Karshenbaum is the founding president of The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society [email protected]