Michael Wolfson, son of Avraham, was only seven years old when he died in 1925 in Nova Scotia. A teacher surnamed Voldman who was the father of two died the following year at the age of twenty-six.
Their graves are in a Jewish cemetery in Whitney Pier, a suburb of Sydney on Cape Breton Island.
In March 2011 a request appeared on an international copy editors forum for a pro bono translation of Hebrew tombstones in Nova Scotia for the local genealogical and historical association.
“A member has photographed approximately 10 headstones in a Hebrew Cemetery in Cape Breton,” read the message from Margaret McLean. “Their Temple [Sons of] Israel is closed and no one is available to do a transcription.”
Cape Breton is at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, and Whitney Pier is at the northeastern tip of the island. Fascinated by the fact that Jews lived in this far-flung spot, I volunteered. Margaret referred me to Roger Tobin, who handles the content of the society’s Web site. He told me that most of the tombstones were in English and that he had called the two local synagogues for help in translating the Hebrew ones, but had received no response. The one functioning synagogue was closing, he said, because it no longer had enough men to make up the minimum needed for services.
Actually, it should be no surprise that there were Jews on Cape Breton. According to the magazine Reform Judaism, 1 million immigrants entered Canada through the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1928 and 1971. But in 2007, the magazine reports, Cape Breton had only 100 Jewish residents, with an average age of sixty.
“Most are descendants of Jews who arrived from Poland, Russia, and Lithuania at the turn of the 19th century during an economic boom fueled by the island’s mines and coal-fueled factories,” the magazine reports.
By the 1940s, there were 935 families; after that the number dropped, especially after the coal mines and steel plant closed in the 1980s. The last rabbi left in 1986, and the synagogue in Whitney Pier, Adath Israel, is now home to the Whitney Pier Historical Museum.
But the twenty or thirty Jewish families still in Sydney maintain the large Temple Sons of Israel and now allow women to be counted so that they will have a quorum for services.
The earliest of the Hebrew tombstones was that of Chaya Sadofsky, daughter of Reb Zussman, who died at thirty-eight in 1915. The details on this and other tombstones suggest that life on Cape Breton was short in the first half of the twentieth century.
One of the tombstones was that of a young man, Binyamin Zakheim, son of Dov, who died in 1929. A quatrain describes him thus:
An innocent yeshiva student
Young in years [literally young in days]
As in the spring of his youth
In the thirtieth year of his life
Another man who died young the same year was Zelig Falk, son of Yehoshua. He was forty-five.
The tombstone of Reb Shmuel Nahum Waltzer, son of Reb Dov Berish, indicates that he was a prayer leader and ritual slaughterer from Waterford, about 365 miles southwest of Whitney Point. He died in 1952.
Part of the process of immigration was adopting an identity suitable for the New World. Thus, Shimon Zechariah Rubinowitz, son of Groness, became S. Rubin, as shown by the line of English on his tombstone, and Binyamin Zakheim’s surname became Zaken. One stone bears the name Robertson, surely a New World name.
Some of the letters on the tombstones are poorly formed and hard to decipher, suggesting that the stonemason did not know Hebrew. The last of the Hebrew tombstones is from 1953. Perhaps after that there were no longer any people who knew enough Hebrew.
Now that I have “met” some of Cape Breton’s former Jewish residents, I hope someday to visit those who are still alive and learn more about this distant community.
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.