B.C.'s Jewish museum celebrates 50th anniversary as part of Jewish History Month

·3 min read
Canada's only Yiddish choir is featured in an exhibit this month at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. in Vancouver as the museum celebrates it's 50th anniversary. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Canada's only Yiddish choir is featured in an exhibit this month at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. in Vancouver as the museum celebrates it's 50th anniversary. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Canada's only Yiddish choir is the subject of an exhibit at B.C.'s Jewish Museum and Archives this month, as it celebrates both Jewish history month and the 50th anniversary of the museum's creation.

Engineer Cyril Leonoff and a small group of volunteers founded the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, now the Vancouver-based Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C., in 1971. Since then, their collection has grown to more than 900 interviews, hundreds of thousands of documents and more than 325,000 photos.

"The collection, as you can imagine, is vast and is always gathering new material and processing old material," museum director of community engagement Michael Schwartz told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Schwartz said the earliest record they have of Jewish people in B.C. is in 1858, when people came from California for the gold rush.

"Our community has been here in Victoria, in Vancouver, in all the towns and cities and settlements of the province from the very beginning of Western European presence and helped to build up these cities." he said.

"The effort that I'm making in our work is to make sure that the legacy of those contributors to society is not forgotten and to keep gathering and telling the stories of folks who are currently being a part of the community."

Canada's only Yiddish choir celebrates 40 years

An exhibit curated by Faith Jones celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, of which she is a member.

"We are Jewish in the sense that we sing Jewish material but anybody is welcome to join us," she said. "Many people in the choir are not Jewish. So it's really a choir that's open to anybody who's interested in our musical traditions."

There are about 20 members of the choir, and Jones is the only member fluent in Yiddish.

"Our director reads Yiddish but doesn't speak it, and he's got excellent pronunciation and stuff, so he's able to lead us with that," she said.

"But when there are Yiddish questions, that comes to me."

Jones learned the language as an adult, and said the last native Yiddish speaker in the choir passed away about four years ago.

Faith Jones is the only Yiddish speaking member of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir.
Faith Jones is the only Yiddish speaking member of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

There are others in the choir, however, that speak other languages and can help with translation of songs.

Although their songs are often traditional, Jones said they sometimes modernize lyrics.

"It's our tradition — we can do whatever we want with it," she said.

"I recently rewrote a song from about 100 years ago called Ale Brider, which means We Are All Brothers. I rewrote it to be gender inclusive, to have transgender inclusion, to make sure that people who don't identify as either brothers or sisters are still part of our community."

Jones said they also sing songs from the shared liturgical tradition of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

To hear Faith Jones and Michael Schwartz on CBC's The Early Edition, tap here: