Transcendental Canada

Aron and Judy Hirt-Manheimer

Last June, we returned to the enchanting city where, almost 30 years ago, we stood together under an outdoor chuppah. Our sightseeing began at Vancouver's renovated international airport, which features Bill Reid's native Indian sculpture, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii," a nearly 20-foot-long canoe filled to overflowing with anthropomorphic characters of Haida mythology - the Raven, the Eagle, the Grizzly, the Mouse Woman, and the Dogfish Woman, among others. Many of Reid's carvings, a collection of vintage totem poles, and other native masterpieces can be found only minutes from the airport at the University of British Columbia's Anthropology Museum.

Later in the day, we checked into The Four Seasons hotel, where we were treated with the hospitality and friendliness that are hallmarks of Canadian culture. The staff went to great lengths to attend to our every need. And the striving for excellence - another Canadian characteristic - was evident in everything from the choice of setting (our room looked out onto the dazzling Vancouver skyline against the backdrop of the ocean and mountains) to the décor (the Chartwell Restaurant is furnished in the style of a British country house) to the cuisine (a "tasting menu" of four to six light entrees of regional foods and wines). And even in the most posh places we stayed during our week-long visit to British Columbia, the atmosphere was relaxed and unpretentious.

In the morning, Tamara Scholemann of Rockwood Adventures guided us on a walk through the temperate rainforest on Vancouver's north shore. It is well known that much of British Columbia's wealth is in its lumber production, but we were stunned to discover that its trees - so large that an entire house can be constructed from just one giant Douglas fir - are rooted in only six to 18 inches of spongy, compost-like soil, under which lies impenetrable granite stone. What keeps the Douglas firs, cedars, and hemlocks from crashing to the ground - except in a storm - is the intertwining of their roots, extending as far as 75 feet in all directions. Infused with the spirit of the rainforest, we contemplated how all of humanity is similarly interconnected, how interdependence can be both a source of strength...and vulnerability.

Later in downtown Vancouver, we explored roots of a different kind. Walking with Cyril Leonoff, author of Pioneers, Peddlers, and Prayer Shawls: The Jewish Communities in British Columbia and the Yukon, we learned that Jewish settlement in British Columbia had begun with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858. About 100 Jewish men and women, many of them having participated in the California gold rush nearly a decade earlier, settled in the port city of Victoria in the colony of Vancouver Island. Some tried their luck prospecting for gold, but most made a living as traders, wholesalers, and merchants. In 1860, the first Jewish cemetery in British Columbia was established in Victoria, followed three years later by the consecration of Temple Emanu-El, which has served the community without interruption to this day.

Among the early Jewish settlers to British Columbia were the German-born Oppenheimer brothers--Meyer, Charles, Godfrey, David, and Isaac - who established Oppenheimer general stores in Yale, Barkerville, and Victoria to serve the miners. Brothers Isaac and David later became the largest private landowners in Vancouver and, in 1888, David was sworn in as Vancouver's mayor. Serving four terms without salary, he oversaw the development of the city's basic infrastructure, presided over the dedication of one of its most famous landmarks - Stanley Park - and became known as the "father of Vancouver." On one occasion, Cyril told us, members of the Oppenheim Indian family, who believe that they are the mayor's mishpachah (family), traveled from the interior of B.C. to visit the statue of David Oppenheimer at the entrance to Stanley Park. Seeing that it had been defiled by birds, they cleansed the monument. History confirms that a Jewish merchant from Yale named Oppenheim married a first-nation woman and raised an Indian family. Whether Oppenheim was related to Oppenheimer, no one knows.

Jewish communal observance in Vancouver began in 1887 with Sabbath services held in Gastown, the old commercial district. The city's first congregation, Agudas Achim (Orthodox), was founded there four years later by Eastern European immigrants. High Holy Day services were held in a Knights of Pythias lodge (which is now part of the Jewish-owned Army and Navy department store). It would take another 20 years before the congregation could afford to build a synagogue.

Reform Judaism made its appearance in Vancouver in 1894, when Rabbi Solomon Philo left Victoria's Congregation Emanu-El for the mainland. But, because the majority of the early settlers were Orthodox East Europeans, it took another 70 years for the community to build its first Reform synagogue--Temple Sholom. Today, Temple Sholom, which describes itself as a "Reform congregation with a deep sense of tradition," serves nearly 600 member households; offers a full range of worship, life-cycle, and educational services; and continues to flourish under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Philip Bregman.

Since coming to Vancouver in 1980 from Toronto, Rabbi Bregman has moved the congregation in the direction of more traditional observance. He characterizes his view of Reform Judaism as one in which "the noun [Judaism] is more important than the adjective [Reform]." "Our shul's impressive growth," he says, is due to its adherence to a particular brand of Canadian liberal Judaism--one that embraces the principles of gender equality and freedom of religious choice, but also encourages "honoring Jewish traditions" (dietary laws, halachic conversions, wearing kippot and tallitot) in order not to put "stumbling blocks" in the path of Jewish observance. "My hope," he says, "is to enable our congregants to feel comfortable as Jews anywhere in the world, not only within our community."

Although Temple Sholom - like Vancouver's largest Conservative and Orthodox congregations - is situated on Oak Street in the more affluent, western part of the city, Jewish life in Vancouver began in the older, commercial and residential neighborhoods of the "East End."

On the East End, we visited Ferrera Court--once the home of Vancouver tailor David Marks. It was here that in 1922 vaudeville comedian Benny Kubelsky met thirteen-year-old Sadie Marks. "At the time," Cyril explained, "Benny was playing the Orpheum circuit with the Marx Brothers. Sadie's older sister Babe, a vaudeville groupie, invited Zeppo Marx to her home for the Passover seder. Zeppo brought Benny, who fell in love with Sadie...and it all happened right here." Five years later, Benny and Sadie were married. They adopted the stage names Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, and became one of the world's most renowned comedy teams.

We concluded our tour with a visit to the Jewish cemetery at Mountain View, established in 1887. One of the oldest tombstones memorializes Nathan Weinrobe, who had moved with his parents to Vancouver from Montreal and died of diphtheria at age eight. His sister Gertrude, born three months later, is believed to be the first Jewish child born in Vancouver; she lived until 1975 and is buried next to Nathan.

Today, the spirited 25,000-member Jewish community of Vancouver enjoys a full range of Jewish programs, including synagogues of all denominations, a community center, summer camps, women's organizations, and social service agencies. Jews participate actively in the arts, academia, and politics. One Jewish political activist of the New Democratic Party, Dave Barrett, whose family ran a produce market on the East End, was elected premier of British Columbia in 1972.

After two days in Vancouver, we boarded the B.C. Ferry to the T'sawwassen terminal on Vancouver Island. The breezy, ninety-minute ride was made all the more enjoyable by a delicious buffet lunch of fresh salad, baked salmon, squash, and rice pudding - all we could eat for under $13 U.S. (The very favorable rate of exchange makes travel to Canada a bargain.) Walking off the meal on the observation deck, we spotted a group of passing whales.

From T'sawwassen, we took a short drive to the Butchart Gardens, a must-see for landscape lovers and flower aficionados. One of the main attractions is the Sunken Garden, a stone-quarry crater transformed into an idyllic setting--the perfect backdrop for wedding photos.

In Victoria, we settled into The Fairmont Empress, a hotel that must have been built with royalty in mind. Queen Elizabeth II herself once took "Afternoon Tea" at the Empress, as have the king and queen of Siam and 100,000 international visitors each year. This tradition is attributed to the Duchess of Bedford, who is said to have discovered the perfect medicine for her five PM melancholia; she would invite friends to the manor for a spot of tea, buttered bread (crusts deleted), and little cakes. "Afternoon Tea" at the Empress is held from 12:30-5:00 PM daily in the stained-glass dome of the Palm Court, overlooking Victoria's inner harbor. The rite begins with fresh seasonal berries and the hotel's special blend of three teas--China, black, and Darjeeling. Next comes a three-tiered Royal Doulton china rack with, from bottom to top, an assortment of square-shaped sandwiches of smoked salmon and cream cheese, carrot and ginger, egg salad and cucumber; fresh scones, homemade strawberry preserves, and thick Jersey cream; topped off with an assortment of light pastries. The final touch of class: live harp music fills the tearoom with a spirit of serenity.

The Empress Room, with its tapestry-covered walls and carved mahogany ceiling, is one of the stops along Vancouver Island's "Gourmet Trail," five hotel/inn restaurants distinguished for their commitment to regional food and wine, matched with spectacular scenery. The Empress Room offers a prix-fixe dinner--select among a choice of seven appetizers, nine main courses, and eight desserts for about $40 U.S.

Victoria's main Jewish attraction is Congregation Emanu-El, the oldest extant synagogue in Canada and the oldest in Pacific North America. Built in 1863, then modernized in 1948, the Conservative synagogue was restored to its original beauty 30 years ago, and in 1983 the Canadian government designated it as a national historic site.

A more recent Jewish milestone in Victoria was the establishment in 1996 of its first Reform congregation, Kalot Mayim. A year earlier, founding president Joel Fagan, a pediatrician who moved from Calgary to Victoria, had phoned the Jewish Community Center asking if anyone had expressed an interest in Reform Judaism. "It turned out that the center had recorded the names of everyone who had called asking the same question," Joel told us. "I then contacted each person and arranged a get-together. About 20 of us gathered at the Jewish Community Center and decided to meet once a month for Shabbat services." Kalot Mayim soon joined the UAHC, and last year was blessed with its first student rabbi, Mari Chernoff, a former folksinger. Louis Sherman, a retired musician who found himself the beneficiary of a significant inheritance, donated $15,000 for the purchase of a 100-year-old, fully restored Torah scroll. Louis had been unaffiliated for many years, but upon hearing that a Reform congregation had formed, he came to services, loved the nonjudgmental atmosphere and folk music Mari had introduced, and finally found a spiritual home.

Joel Fagan says the congregation - which has doubled in size since that first meeting  is "motivated primarily by spirituality, communal prayer, and Torah study." In the coming year, Kalot Mayim will celebrate the b'nai mitzvah of seven youths, a sign, he says, that the fledgling Reform community has a promising future. He should know. Twenty-six years ago, he and his wife Sandy were among the seven families that founded Temple B'nai Tikvah in Calgary, a Reform congregation which has since grown to more than 200 member families.

Our next stop along Vancouver Island's "Gourmet Trail" was The Aerie, a mountaintop Mediterranean-style resort with 29 rooms that offer an eagle's-eye view of the winding fjord below. Ranked by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the second "Top North American Small Hotel," The Aerie combines European elegance with Canadian Pacific earthiness; guests can forage for wild mushrooms and have the chef prepare them for dinner--paired, of course, with the perfect B.C. wine.

Our third destination on the Gourmet Trail was Sooke Harbor House, located on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Upon our arrival, innkeeper Sinclair Philip personally lifted our luggage onto a hand-wrought cast-iron cart (the inn has its own blacksmith), then accompanied us on a walking tour of the Spit, a narrow stretch of land that extends into the sea. Along the way, he plucked a variety of wild plants from the sandy ground for us to taste, explaining how each had been used by Indians in cooking and healing. He then escorted us through the edible organic landscape that surrounds his clapboard inn--more than 500 herbs, flowers, vegetables, and fruits from which the chef personally selects in preparing the cuisine of the day. Sinclair's intimate knowledge of nature and history, coupled with his insistence on presenting his guests with an authentic taste of the island's bounty, has won Sooke Harbour House an international reputation for excellence. Readers of Gourmet magazine have voted Sooke Harbour House the second best hotel in the world, and number three for casual dining. Wine Spectator magazine recognized its wine list as one of the best in the world, and The National Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper, named it "Best Restaurant in the World for Authentic, Local Cuisine."

We stayed in "The Victor Newman Longhouse Room," named after a first-nation artist and decorated with museum-quality Indian carvings, prints, masks, and musical instruments. In place of a television, reading material was provided, including the comments of previous guests. One wrote: "Sitting on the deck, gazing out onto the shimmering sea, seals dive in and out of the water fishing for breakfast, a rabbit finds something tasty in the lawn, birds chirping, a wide-winged bird passes overhead - a heron perhaps...."

Our final stop on the island's Gourmet Trail was the famed Wickaninnish Inn, a four-hour drive northwest of Victoria along cloud-covered mountain roads and mirror lakes. Every room comes equipped with binoculars for guest-gazing at sea mammals and soaring eagles. The glass-enclosed Pointe Restaurant is built atop a rocky promontory; visitors hear the waves breaking underneath and outside microphones pump in the sound of sea frogs croaking in the ponds below. The restaurant also provides a front-row seat for winter-storm watching from November through February (most of the year, the island enjoys comfortable temperate weather). Imagine tasting a white chocolate basil mousse pyramid with mocha sauce and raspberry puree while taking in the sights and sounds of a Pacific thunderstorm.

The Empress, Aerie, Sooke, and Wickaninnish all have well-deserved international reputations for turning tourism into an art form. But beyond aesthetics, comfort, and cuisine, they have found the formula for evoking in their guests the feeling of being in perfect harmony with the environment. And in this exquisitely beautiful part of the world, one can truly sense the transcendent.