I first started looking through back issues of the Porcupine Advance newspaper after I stumbled across some old family photos and couldn’t quite figure out who all the people were. I hoped looking through a local paper’s archives would provide me with, at the very least, some answers.
My maternal grandfather came from Russia and my maternal grandmother came from Lithuania. They married in Canada in the early 1900s and eventually settled in the town of Ansonville which is not too far from Timmins—the Porcupine Advance was its local paper.
Engagement photograph of Winkler’s grandparents, Alex Abramson and Polly Levitt, from 1933. Photograph courtesy of Helen Winkler.
While reading the articles, The Purim Ball caught my attention. I became very interested in the history of both the Jewish community in Northern Ontario, as well as with the cultural world and how dance fit into it (I have a dance background in international folk dance, Israeli folk dance, and I am on the steering committee for the Ontario Folk Dance Association).
Purim is not as well known outside of Jewish circles as other holidays are. It commemorates Queen Esther saving the Persian Jewish community from the evil Haman. It is a celebratory occasion where people party and often dress in costume. Which must be why, in 1931, the leaders of the Timmins Jewish community decided Purim would be a great occasion and opportunity to bring together the Jewish and non-Jewish community. And thus was born The Purim Ball.
This unique event drew guests from Timmins and the surrounding area. With attendance in the hundreds for several years, the ball was hugely successful. Considering there were no more than about 160 Jewish families residing in Timmins at its peak in 1950, this was an outstanding turnout.
The soiree included a beauty pageant with the crowning of a Queen Esther along with several ladies-in-waiting. Most years, the winner of this contest was not a member of the Jewish community. In fact, ads in the local paper encouraged all women to purchase new ball gowns so that they too could have a chance to win the crown. The panel of male judges often found it stressful to judge the pageant, so in 1938, the committee decided to have female judges instead.
There is also frequent mention of Rebecca at the Well being an important feature of the Purim Ball, though she appears in Genesis. It was Rebecca’s kindness Eliezar witnessed at the well when she gave him water that made him believe she was the perfect match for Isaac. After searching through many newspaper articles, I finally determined that Rebecca at the Well was a beverage station, with a young woman presumably dressed as biblical Rebecca serving refreshing amber liquid.
But there was no mention of Yiddish dances—such as the freylekhs, broiges (dance of anger), or sher—occurring at the ball. The main Jewish dance at the time was the freylekhs, which is largely an improvised dance done in an open circle. In Yiddish dance, it’s more about the style and stance than about memorizing steps. The most important aspect is how to move rather than exactly where to step. The dance would provide a feeling of heaviness in the lower body and lightness in the upper body. There is a subtle bounce in the shoulders. Many of the arm movements are extensions of Jewish gestures from how people move their hands when they speak. While the broiges dance is a pantomime dance where two individuals quarrel and make up. It was first danced by mothers-in-law at weddings, but went on to be danced at different community events in Eastern European circles (though there has been no evidence of the dance occurring in Timmins’ Jewish community). The sher on the other hand, is a square/quadrille dance done to klezmer music, modelled on similar dances done in European cultures, but once again, it is the way Jews moved rather than steps that mattered.
Instead, the social dances popular during the period were most likely performed by the attendees. The floor show, on the other hand, could include folk dances of various communities.
The ball continued until at least 1950. I have not found the records for when the event officially ceased, but the Jewish community declined as the next generation moved to the big cities. The Purim Ball marked a chapter of life in the Canadian north that probably will not be repeated but is worth remembering.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Folk Dancer Magazine published by the Ontario Folk Dance Association.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. The black and white photograph of the women in ball gowns is from Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.