In the late 1860's and early 1870's, enterprising Jewish peddlers from Europe were passing through the town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, plying their wares. Little is known about them except that they were always looking for a Jewish home where they could have a good Shabbat dinner, and there was at least one resident Jewish couple in Yarmouth, Ketty and Louis Lieberman.

As time went on, permanent Jewish settlers arrived, and one of them was an Orthodox Jewish haberdasher named Joseph Whitehouse. His clothing store was closed on Shabbat and his gentile customers waited in line when he reopened his shop Saturday night.

There were part-time farmers and even a Hebrew teacherMore Jewish families arrived and some of them settled in Wellington, which is about six miles from Yarmouth. There were part-time farmers and even a Hebrew teacher, but they all had to supplement their meager earnings by peddling rags or whatever else they could find to sell. The Hebrew teacher eventually got fed up and returned to Europe.

Louis B. Mayer arrived as a junk peddler, didn't succeed very well, and went to the United States, where he eventually founded Metro Goldwyn Meyer. George Fox also sold junk in Nova Scotia until he went to Boston and founded the Fox Fur Company. Once the first shochet, kosher slaughterer, arrived, in the early 20th century, a small, stable Jewish community began to live and thrive as merchants in Yarmouth.

There are wonderful stories about the early settlers. Joseph Nelson was a very pious Jew. He once sold one of his horses to a gentile but the horse refused to work on the Jewish Shabbat.

Today, almost all of the Jews of Yarmouth have migrated to the U.S. and Israel or to larger Canadian cities where they can get a suitable education and find spouses. The "Cohen Apartments," once the nicest apartments in town, still provides housing, but without the flash or the Cohen's. A Jewish cemetery still exists inside the Yarmouth Mountain Cemetery, and there was a burial as recently as 2007, but most of the descendents of the deceased—the Shapiros, Shanes, Pinks, Webbers, Lubins, Garsons, Cohens, Margolians, Smofskies, Rubins and Slovitts—have moved away.

I went to visit Victor Indig and Rosalie Cohen in their comfortable, spacious, impeccably clean Yarmouth house. They told me that the synagogue closed in 2006 because there weren't enough people to support it.

They spoke fondly about their Yarmouth ancestors and the Jewish stores that once lined Main Street. There was Lynch's Men's Wear, Margolian's Department Store, William Star and Sons Men's Wear, HFS Discount Store. Dick Shapiro, especially, is mourned by the locals of all religions. He presided at Louie Shapiro's Men's wear shop and, I was told, folks counted on him for excellent quality and customer service. He remembered everyone's inseam and their sartorial preferences.

He remembered everyone's inseam and their sartorial preferencesI made an impromptu call on Sharon and Byron Sachs. She was a native Yarmouthian who grew up eating kosher. Her father, who had a dry cleaning store, died at age forty-two and her mother took it over. Sharon's mother remarried "the only Jewish guy around, Maurice Attis, the kosher butcher."

 Now re-purposed for apartment living, this building was Yarmouth, Nova Scotia’s synagogue for many years.
Now re-purposed for apartment living, this building was Yarmouth, Nova Scotia’s synagogue for many years.
Sharon thinks there are fewer than ten Jews left in Yarmouth. They get together for holidays, and at least one of them, Ruth Pink, brings in kosher food from Toronto.

After leaving the friendly duo, I drove to the sprawling IMO Foods Ltd. building, where kippers are smoked, cooked and canned. A rabbi goes there several times a year to supervise the production and make sure everything is kosher before the fish is shipped and exported.

If the Jewish community in Yarmouth is dying, the one in Halifax, Nova Scotia is thriving. Mendel Feldman, the young, affable, open-hearted Chabad rabbi, has been there for fifteen years. "When I first came, I ran around on Shabbat morning knocking on doors, pulling people out of bed, sweating to get a group of ten men, a minyan," the rabbi recalled.

"A few years ago, there were a handful of Jewish students in Halifax," he continued. "Then a trend began for Jews from Toronto to come to study here. Dalhousie University-where they went–wasn't near our house. On Friday nights, we had dinner for fifty to seventy students and it was very difficult for my wife, Bassie. She had to pack up all the food for a four-course meal and we had to check into a hotel. Then, after Shabbat, she had to pack it all up and schlep it home. Over the last seven or eight years, the Jewish student population at Dalhousie has grown to between 500 and 600. We felt it would be great for us to service the Jews on campus."

The Feldman's looked for a house for several years, and finally found a dilapidated abode on an ample lot near the downtown university. They tore the house down and began to build. When I visited the Feldman's a few weeks ago, they had just opened the Chabad House. Their community already has a minyan once a month, welcomed more than l00 people for a Passover seder, and is looking forward to more growth. There is a small kosher section in the supermarket and about fifty families order kosher meat. "Fifty or so years ago," the Rabbi said, "Jews in Halifax could not own property or go into clubs. Now a Jewish lady, Myra Freeman, was the first female Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. And the President of Dalhousie University is a Jewish man."

He held onto his black hat as he jumped down into the cemeteryAt the end of the day, I felt so comfortable with the rabbi that I asked him to do me a favor. I had heard that there was a gravesite for the Jews who had perished in the wreck of the Titanic. Apparently, they were buried in Halifax when their bodies were found in the ocean.

Rabbi Mendel Feldman sounds the shofar.
Rabbi Mendel Feldman sounds the shofar.
"I've heard about the grave site being in the Baron de Hirsch cemetery, near the synagogue, and I have performed funerals there, but I have never seen the site," the Rabbi said. "It's Sunday, and the cemetery is closed. The man who has the key is out of town." He paused for a moment and looked at me, "Would you be willing to jump the wall?"

Half an hour later, the rabbi went first, and I followed him. He held onto his black hat as he jumped down into the cemetery. There–in a special area–we found a panel which told the story of the Jews from the Titanic. Nearby were ten identical headstones, about eighteen inches high. Each bore the date April 15, 1912 – the day the Titanic went under. There were no names on the stones, rather, numbers, which were used to identify the deceased after the shipwreck. The Jewish cemetery plots hold the remains of numbers 264, 144, 248, 291, 136. Only two names were subsequently found out and, oddly, neither of them were Jewish.

"So that means eight Jews from the Titanic were buried here," I murmured to the Rabbi. "How did they know the deceased were Jewish?"

He shrugged. I shrugged. It's all part of the intriguing story of the Jewish presence in Nova Scotia.