The first Jews in Canada

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - AL­LAN LEVINE

When Canada first be­came a coun­try, 150 years ago, there were slightly less than 1,200 Jews liv­ing here. But Jewish set­tle­ment in French, and then Bri­tish, North America, goes back much fur­ther.

In 1677, Joseph de la Penha, a young Sephardi Jewish mer­chant, ship owner and fi­nancier of pri­va­teers from Rot­ter­dam, Nether­lands, landed on the coast of Labrador and claimed the ter­ri­tory for the Stadtholder Wil­liam of Orange. Some years later, one ver­sion of this story goes, when Wil­liam be­came King Wil­liam III of England, de la Penha saved the king from drown­ing dur­ing a stormy sea voy­age. An­other ver­sion has it that one of de la Penha’s ships had pro­tected the English coast from at­tack by the French in 1696. In any event, to show his grat­i­tude, Wil­liam be­queathed de la Penha all of Labrador. This gen­er­ous gift was con­firmed in an of­fi­cial doc­u­ment in 1697.

More than three cen­turies later, in 1927, when the Ju­di­cial Com­mit­tee of the Privy Coun­cil ruled that Labrador be­longed to the then colony of New­found­land, Isaac de la Penha, the can­tor at Mon­treal’s Span­ish and Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue and one of Joseph de la Penha’s di­rect de­scen­dants, filed a law­suit claim­ing Labrador for the fam­ily. The case stalled, but was restarted in 1950 by a group of de la Penha’s de­scen­dants in Europe and Is­rael. Noth­ing came of that, ei­ther. Then, in 1983, Daniel de la Penha, a re­tired physi­cian in South Carolina who was also a de­scen­dant, launched a third claim for part of Labrador in the New­found­land courts. Af­ter los­ing his first chal­lenge, he ap­pealed to the prov­ince’s Supreme Court. Alas, New­found­land chief jus­tice Alex Hick­man ruled that de la Penha did not have suf­fi­cient proof “that he was en­ti­tled to a piece of Labrador.” De la Penha ap­pealed his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the court re­fused to con­sider it.

De­ter­min­ing who was truly the first Jew to call Canada home is a toss up be­tween two en­tre­pre­neur­ial traders: Sa­muel Ja­cobs … and Aaron Hart

The most well­known story of a Jew at­tempt­ing to set­tle in New France is the tale of 23-year-old Es­ther Bran­deau.

Catholic pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary France ab­so­lutely for­bade non-catholics – in­clud­ing Huguenots, other French Protes­tants and Jews – from set­tling in New France and most other over­seas colonies. Still, large num­bers of Huguenots man­aged to im­mi­grate to the An­tilles dur­ing the 17th cen­tury, and some, at least briefly, made it to New France, as well. So, too, did a hand­ful of Jews.

The most well-known story of a Jew at­tempt­ing to set­tle New France is the tale of 23-year-old Es­ther Bran­deau, ex­cept she tried to elude the author­i­ties dis­guised as a young man named Jacque La Far­gue. Once she ar­rived in Quebec in 1738, she decided that con­tin­u­ing her cha­rade was not prac­ti­cal and re­vealed her true iden­tity as a Jewish woman. At first, she de­clared her in­ten­tion to con­vert to Catholi­cism, yet within a few months, she be­gan to have sec­ond thoughts, which ag­gra­vated the in­ten­dant (the colony’s chief ad­min­is­tra­tor), Gilles Hoc­quart. By the fall of 1739, Hoc­quart, an­noyed by her “fri­vol­ity” and “stub­born­ness,” de­ported her back to France, where she van­ished from the his­tor­i­cal record.

De­ter­min­ing who was truly the first Jew to call Canada home is a toss up be­tween two en­tre­pre­neur­ial traders: Sa­muel Ja­cobs, a re­source­ful mer­chant and ac­com­plished fid­dle player, and Aaron Hart, the pa­tri­arch of the cel­e­brated Hart (orig­i­nally Hertz) fam­ily, whose il­lus­tri­ous mem­bers ap­pear so promi­nently in the an­nals of Quebec. In this con­test, the his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence sug­gests that Ja­cobs was most likely “Canada’s first Jewish set­tler,” yet Hart can claim the ti­tle of the “fa­ther of Cana­dian Jewry,” as De­nis Vaugeios, the Hart fam­ily’s bi­og­ra­pher has ar­gued.

Like many of their Jewish con­tem­po­raries in Bri­tish North America, both men were born in cen­tral Europe, prob­a­bly in the early 1720s – Ja­cobs in Al­sace and Hart in Bavaria (or pos­si­bly England). As young

Dor­fju­den – vil­lage Jews of Ashke­nazi an­ces­try, who spoke Ger­man, Yid­dish or English – both these men came to North America in search of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, ad­ven­ture and the rel­a­tive free­dom that was of­fered to Jews in the Bri­tish colonies.

Ja­cobs and Hart jour­neyed to North America and found work as pur­vey­ors to the Bri­tish army dur­ing the Seven Years War in the years be­fore the Bri­tish con­quest of New France in 1759-60. Sup­ply­ing the armies of Europe was a prof­itable en­ter­prise that at­tracted nu­mer­ous Jewish mer­chants dur­ing this era. Yet Ja­cobs, Hart and other Jewish mer­chants who wound up in Nova Sco­tia and Quebec af­ter 1760, had to make their way in a Chris­tian world – a world filled with prej­u­dice, dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­nu­mer­able ob­sta­cles.

Both Ja­cobs and Hart were as­sim­i­lated and not overtly re­li­gious. (It goes with­out say­ing that truly ob­ser­vant Jews would have stayed in Europe with es­tab­lished Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, syn­a­gogues and ac­cess to kosher food). Ja­cobs, like some of his other fel­low Jewish traders, mar­ried a French-cana­dian Catholic woman, Marie-josette Audet dit La­pointe, while Hart re­turned to England to seek a Jewish wife, Dorothea (or Dorothy) Ju­dah, his cousin. Both had large fam­i­lies and sons who caused them headaches. Hart was by all ac­counts more con­scious of his Jewish re­li­gious du­ties, though Ja­cobs had a rudi­men­tary un­der­stand­ing of the He­brew lan­guage and of­ten signed his name as “She­muel.” Swept up in the times, the vast ma­jor­ity of both of their de­scen­dants did not end up re­main­ing Jewish. (This did not in­clude Ce­cil Hart, the great-great­grand­son of Aaron Hart, who coached the Mon­treal Canadiens in the 1930s. In 1923, his fa­ther, Dr. David Hart, do­nated the Hart Tro­phy, to be awarded to the “player judged most valu­able to his team.” Af­ter Ce­cil died in 1940, the tro­phy was re­named the Hart Memo­rial Tro­phy in his hon­our.)

Ja­cobs moved from New Brunswick to Quebec by 1760. Set­tling along the Riche­lieu River in Saint-de­nis, he pros­pered as a mer­chant and landowner. Ja­cobs, who died around 1786, did not be­long to a syn­a­gogue, nor did he ever make a do­na­tion to the syn­a­gogue in Mon­treal. He raised his chil­dren as Chris­tians. Yet, he never stopped think­ing of him­self as a Jew. “I was dis­put­ing all last night with a Ger­man of­fi­cer about re­li­gion,” he wrote a non-jewish friend in 1778. “I am not a wan­der­ing Jew, yet I am a stir­ring one.” In other words, there was no com­mer­cial chal­lenge or is­sue that scared him.

Based in Trois-riv­ières by 1762, Aaron Hart enjoyed life as a pi­o­neer aris­to­crat un­til the day he died in late 1800. He also was a suc­cess­ful mer­chant and landowner, and wisely in­vested in the fur trade, part­ner­ing with other Jewish traders. Un­like Sa­muel Ja­cobs, Hart and his wife raised their large fam­ily in a Jewish home, as much as that was pos­si­ble in Trois-riv­ières.

In Au­gust 1763, Fred­er­ick Haldimand, the mil­i­tary gover­nor of Trois-riv­ières, had to ap­point an English-speak­ing post­mas­ter in a pre­dom­i­nately French-cana­dian vil­lage. The choice came down to a se­lec­tion be­tween what he de­scribed as “a Jew, a (Bri­tish) sergeant and an Ir­ish sol­dier on half pay.” He se­lected the Jew, Aaron Hart – “my Jew,” as he re­ferred to him. This ap­point­ment meant that Hart was in all prob­a­bil­ity the first Jew to hold a public of­fice in Quebec af­ter the Bri­tish had as­sumed con­trol of the ter­ri­tory.

His­to­rian and writer Al­lan Levine’s next book, Seek­ing the Fa­bled City: The Cana­dian Jewish Ex­pe­ri­ence will be published in 2018 by Mcclel­land & Ste­wart, a di­vi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada.


Jewish im­mi­grants on board the Gen­eral Stur­gis ar­rive in Hal­i­fax in 1948.


Out­side a Je­suit cathe­dral in Quebec. Catholic pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary France for­bade non-catholics, in­clud­ing Jews, to set­tle in New France.


Aaron Hart was one of the first Jews to set­tle in Lower Canada.

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