This blog post is the second in a series highlighting books available in our Merritt’s Mercantile, reviewed by the Museum’s Curator, Kathleen Powell.
For this installment of our Curator’s pick of books from our gift shop, I would like to highlight the book A Future in Doubt: The rise and demise of one small Jewish community and what it says about the future of synagogues everywhere, by Howard Slepkov. Published in January 2021, this book is not only a great history of the St. Catharines Jewish community and the building of the local synagogue, but it is also a really wonderful look at Jewish life in Canada in the 20th century.
Slepkov’s book, which comes in at just over 300 pages, is packed full of detail related to day-to-day life as a part of the Jewish community, synagogue life and routine, and the in-depth story of the local Jewish community from their arrival to the present day.
This book really provides an interesting look at the growth and change in community life over time. Slepkov notes that many early Jewish arrivals to St. Catharines began their working lives as junk sellers or in customer service oriented business such as shoemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, etc. Made up of many Jewish immigrants who had fled persecution and difficult lives in Central and Eastern Europe, this small community of families found solace in Niagara and built new lives and made significant impacts on City life over time.
Slepkov’s book does not shy away from difficult and controversial topics and experiences, but provides insight into how these difficulties shaped the lives and experiences of the local Jewish families. Of special note is the resourcefulness of the Jewish community to shape their own local institutions to be able to provide the support they needed as they lived their lives through the Jewish faith.
The Jewish community in St. Catharines has continued to thrive today and to evolve as the overall community has changed and Howard Slepkov has used his book to challenge the reader to consider where the community will go in the future. He makes it clear that readers should take from his book not only an understanding of the past, but also how that past can shape the forward momentum of the local Jewish community and other synagogues.
I highly recommend a read of this book, it is an interesting look at local history in the broader context of the world and a terrific work by a local author and community leader. The book is available in Merritt’s Mercantile.
Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services / Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.