Norman Hamburg lives his life in the Saint John, New Brunswick Jewish tradition.
“My family story mirrors many other Jewish families in the city,” he explained with a clear, methodical voice during our phone interview.
At 77 years old, Hamburg has lived in Saint John since he was five weeks old.
“I’m one of the three Hamburg boys. I knew I would be the one to take over the family business and my leaning was to do business as I got a commerce degree at university. I just knew I’d come back,” Hamburg recalled.
In 1967, he joined his parent’s clothing store, Dreskin’s, which sold women’s wear. A year later, he opened his own store location, and in 1976, he took it over when his parents retired. His family business was like many other Jewish families who first immigrated to Saint John, as most began work as peddlers and tailors, slowly growing their businesses over time to become a vibrant part of the city’s culture and tour de force in the local economy.
From 1920 to the early 1960s the Jewish community was at the height of its power with 250 to 300 families in the city.
Hamburg remembered not being able to find seats on the High Holy Days.
“It was a bustling thriving Jewish community. It was the Glory Days in the 1950s. We had successful merchants, doctors, dentists and started to have lawyers. By this time we had always been accepted very easily with a few exceptions,” he said. “We were very much a part of the growth of Saint John. It was easy to be Jewish in the city from what I can tell and from the stories I was told.”
The first wave of Jewish immigration to Saint John came from England in 1858 with cigar makers Solomon Hart and Nathan Green. Many were looking for new opportunities, and because Saint John had a port, it was easy to ship out tobacco and other goods.
“They would get it from the Eastern U.S. or there were also connections to Cuba,” Katherine Biggs-Craft, Executive Director and Curator of Saint John Jewish Historical Museum said.
By the 1890s there were around 20 to 25 Jewish families in the city, with professions consisting mainly of cigar makers and liquor dealers. It was around this time that the second wave of Jewsh immigration took place, with many new arrivals coming from Eastern Europe escaping antisemitism and the pogroms.
“The men would come first and then send for their families,” Biggs-Craft said. “Many were peddlers and tailors and overtime they were able to open their own small stores, and it expanded to shoe making and grocers.”
The first synagogue was opened in 1899 with the establishment of the Ahavith Achim Synagogue. A second synagogue was formed in 1906, called, The Haven Avenue Synagogue, it formalized the social-cultural division between long-established well-educated English-speaking Jews and newly arrived Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Both congregations were Orthodox, both had rabbis, and both had religious teaching for the children.
The third synagogue was the result of the amalgamation of the two previous congregations. This took place in 1919 when the former Calvin Presbyterian Church was purchased. This congregation was named Shaarei Zedek—Gates of Righteousness—and continues to operate today, but in a different building that was purchased in 2008. One can still see the old synagogue, but it’s been renovated for new office space.
By 1920, just after Shaarei Zedek was created, there were around 200 Jewish families and in 1925 there were 100 children in the Hebrew school.
It was during the turn of the century that Hamburg’s family first moved to Saint John with the second immigration wave. His grandfather, Abe Dreskin, fled Russia and lived in England as a teenager, becoming a tailor. He then moved to Saint John in the early 1900s. He settled in the Jewish Ghetto that was right by the port. Many Jews lived there to offer assistance to new immigrants who only spoke Yiddish or to offer some Jewish connection to the newcomers.
Abe worked as a tailor and had two children with his wife Nettie, the second being Hamburg’s mother, Belle, born in 1910. Three years later they were due to have a third child, but Nettie died during childbirth. Not too long after, his grandfather remarried to Eta, who became Mrs. Dreskin, “that’s the grandmother I knew,” Hamburg explained. “She could not read or write English but was very clever.”
Eta helped the family income by pedaling women’s wear and her business grew to the point where she was selling clothing out of her living room. In 1926 Hamburg’s mother graduated high school and Dreskin’s was born in order for his mother to have a place to work.
In 1938, his mother got married to his father, Phil Hamburg, who joined the family business.
While the Jews in Saint John saw increasing prosperity for three generations, it began to decline around the late 1960s.
“That was the beginning of The Exodus,” Biggs-Craft said. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s this was the third generation and almost every child went to university, which wouldn’t have been in Saint John as there wasn’t a full degree granting institution until 1974.”
Biggs-Craft added that the younger generation went to school in Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, and Toronto. Once the degree was done, many found there wasn’t enough opportunity to bring them back to their home city.
“By the time I got involved with the museum, there wasn’t much optimism and many thought in 20 to 30 years the Jewish community will be gone.”
In 1986, there were 50 Jewish families left in the city with the demographic largely among the older generation. There was one multigrade Hebrew class.
By 2008, the synagogue building was sold, as the rent was too expensive to maintain, and as Hamburg stated, “it was becoming very evident we were shrinking quickly.”
During this time, the province had an immigration program called New Brunswick Provincial Nominee Program, to boost the population of the province. Because of this, Hamburg said the Jewish community began to look for Israeli families wanting to move to Canada.
“We would tell them we were rebuilding our congregation and could help them settle here,” he said.
Around 40 young families have moved to the city over the last decade and “love Canada and love Saint John.”
According to Hamburg, many are active, young participants in the community. However there are slight cultural differences, as the Israeli families prefer to celebrate the holidays at home with family instead of attending services.
Currently, the city doesn’t have a rabbi and members of the community lead services on Friday nights and occasional Saturday’s. Before the pandemic, rabbis, cantors, or rabbinical students would come lead the High Holiday services.
While some of the Israeli families do not attend the services, Hamburg said he just wants there to be a healthy Jewish community that the younger generation can “fly with.” However, he noted the history and Jewish culture of Saint John must be respected, and newcomers need to understand how the community came to be and what was done to keep it surviving.
“We’re excited because we know the Jewish community won’t die,” Hamburg said. “We are now looking at another generation of Jews in Saint John.”
Header image is of the entrance to Shaarei Zedek Cemetery. (Louis I. Michelson Archives, Saint John Jewish Historical Society Inc., Saint John, NB).