Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment
By Gerald Tulchinsky
University of Toronto Press
Gerald Tulchinsky – a professor emeritus at Queen’s University – has long been a distinguished historian of Jewish life in Canada. His latest book, Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment is a biography of Joseph Baruch “J.W.” Salsberg, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for the Toronto-area riding of St. Andrew from 1943 to 1955.
Tulchinsky begins with Salsberg at the height of his career, walking along Spadina Avenue, the main street of Toronto’s Jewish district in those days. Meeting, greeting and schmoozing with his constituents, he visits delis and coffee shops, offering to help the people he meets. The narrative follows.
Salsberg was born in 1902 in Lagow, a Polish shtetl, to frum parents where young Yosele (as he was known) had a cheder education. He also learned something about anti-Semitism: “There were places you didn’t go.”
In 1913, the Salsbergs, by then including Yosele’s two younger sisters, immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto where they remained religious Jews and the family grew to include seven children.
In Toronto, Salsberg’s cheder education continued and he also attended Lansdowne Public School whose students were mostly Jewish and from low-income families. Two years after his arrival at the school, Salsberg foreshadowed his later career by organizing a student strike to protest against the required singing of Christmas carols.
In 1916, not yet 14, Salsberg quit school to work in the needle trades to help his family. He became a skilled tradesman, but, by the 1920s, he moved into trade union activity, aiming to protect workers against harsh conditions.
He became interested in politics, moving left from religious Zionism through Labour Zionism to communism. In 1938, he was elected alderman for Toronto’s Ward Four, but lost the next year.
The Communist Party was outlawed following the Hitler-Stalin pact and the start of the Second World War in 1939, and Salsberg went into hiding. In 1942, after the Soviet Union became an ally, he gave himself up and was jailed for a short time. After his release, he helped form the Labour-Progressive Party and was elected MPP for St. Andrew in 1943, a seat he held until 1955.
In discussing Salsberg’s 12 years in the Legislature, Tulchinsky shows him advocating on behalf of human rights and working class causes and generally refusing to be drawn by anti-Semitic and red-baiting barbs.
Salsberg lost the 1955 election, partly because of Cold War pressures, but also because postwar prosperity meant many Jewish voters were moving out of St. Andrew.
Out of office, Salsberg had to face something that had troubled him for years. Marxist doctrine held that anti-Semitism was the result of capitalist exploitation and Yiddish culture had been encouraged in the early years of the U.S.S.R. However, by 1939, he realized that Jewish institutions there were withering away. Wondering why, he travelled to Moscow to see for himself. He asked questions but got only evasions.
In 1948, he tried to visit the Soviet Union again to investigate the Jewish question, but was denied entry. He went to Lagow, his home shtetl, and wept at what he saw.
Within the Communist Party, he continued to ask questions, but maintained party discipline outside, even as the evidence of Soviet anti-Semitism became overwhelming. In 1953, when Stalin died, Salsberg delivered a eulogy in the Ontario legislature. Only after the Khrushchev revelations in 1956, and even then, only after a meeting in Moscow that included anti-Semitic barbs by Khrushchev himself, did Salsberg resign from the party.
Tulchinsky struggles with Salsberg’s conduct, as he did himself and gives specific examples of Salsberg’s “dishonest” public statements denying Soviet anti-Semitism. He also says Salsberg was moved to communism by calls for justice in the writings of the Prophets.
Salsberg eventually came in from the cold. He returned to Labour Zionism, was an advocate for secular Yiddishkeit, and wrote columns for Canadian Jewish News. Salsberg died in 1998.
Salsberg’s life story is the story of 20th century Jewish immigration, and Tulchinsky shows the connection from his own life. Early on, Salsberg’s father is shown plying his trade as junkman, driving his horse and wagon around downtown Toronto, “perhaps with Yosele sitting wide-eyed by his side,” calling for “boddles, rags, iron.” In a note at the back of the book, Tulchinsky recalls that, as a young boy in Brantford, he sometimes accompanied his zayda on his rounds and was “absolutely thrilled by the adventure.”