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October, 2007

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“Circle” played vital role in immigrant life
Irwin Block
Special to The Senior Times
In the days before the computer and virtual communities, lots of people – especially immigrants – formed social and cultural self-help groups to facilitate and enrich their lives.
Among the most active in Montreal was the Arbeiter Ring, or Workman’s Circle, as it was known then, which next month celebrates the centenary of its establishment here as a fraternal organization dedica ­ted the to twin goals of advancing secular Yiddish culture and pooling resources and energy to build better lives for working people.
Liba Augenfeld, a partisan from the Vilna Ghetto who was among thousands of survivors who found refuge in Montreal after the Second World War, recalled the important role the group played in her family ’s life when she arrived here in 1948.
“The group was founded by a group of socialists, mainly, part of an organization that was based in New York City. It helped people get acquainted with the country, to get work. It was a social institution and a cultural institution. ”
Club members pooled their resources to look after basic needs. In those pre-medicare times, there was a physician whom they could see for a nominal fee. Education was always high on the group ’s agenda. The Workman’s Circle choir was one of its most successful activities.
Members could, and still can, sign up for a cemetery plot, traditionally important, even for secular Jews.
“A lot of people in the early part of the last century came here from small-town Eastern Europe and were in some cases not able to read, ” Augenfeld said.
There were classes in English for them and a range of after-school Yiddish classes for  their children.
These were known as the Abraham Reisen schools, named after the prolific Yiddish poet and essayist who lived most of his life in New York City, where he died in 1953.
Most of these activities were centered at the group’s former building on St. Laurent, between St. Joseph and Villeneuve  in the heart of the old district. Most Jews lived there until the mid-late 1950s, when many moved to Snowdon, Chomedey and C ôte St. Luc. (The auditorium is now the Sala Rossa concert hall.)
There were concerts and readings there, performances of Purim plays by the school ’s students, cultural evenings, and social gatherings. This allowed members and their children to socialize in Yiddish, the lingua franca of central and east European Jewry.
These activities continued at the group’s present headquarters, a duplex at 5165 Isabella that has hosted several generations. It was the first Jewish group to commemorate the heroic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, starting in 1947. This winter the event will be held there April 13. Members of the Jewish Labour Bund, the political movement that thrived in Europe until its ranks were decimated in the war, attend this memorial. All members of the Bund were in the Workers Circle, member Judy Eastman pointed out, but not all in the Workers Circle were Bund members.
But time has eroded the Yiddish language, which is no longer in use as a vernacular among the children and grandchildren of the group ’s members. From a high of 1,200 in the 1960s, membership is down to 387. Older members are dying, and fully 150 in the “younger” group – those in the 50-70 age bracket – are part of the Heritage club, where English is the lingua franca.
Yiddish classes were offered until a few years ago, but discontinued because not enough students showed up to make it economically feasible. Recent attempts to maintain a choir suffered a similar fate.
The group also severed links with the Workman’s Circle in New York City for financial reasons and adopted a gender-neutral name, Montreal Workers Circle.
But compared to the virtual demise of other groups, the Workers Circle continues to show resiliency as a social and cultural organization that has goals other than religious or Zionist. The opening meeting on October 14 at the Isabella Ave. building features Israeli folk dancing led by Peter Smolash, with a buffet-style supper. Members pay $10, guests $15. A classical trio performs May 1 at 7:45 p.m. to mark May Day.
The Workers Circle centenary celebration will be held Sunday, November 4 at 2 p.m. Writer Joe King will offer a historical sketch of the group in English, while Liba Augenfeld will do the same in Yiddish. Raizel Candib, Aaron Gonshor and Elan Kunin will sing Yiddish songs, with Rachel Rosenstein at the piano. Refreshments will be served. Admission is $5. Call 514-733-9221.


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