Jewish Heritage Month Week Three: The Talmud Torah, Biela Lepkin and the Children’s Hebrew Theatre

May 27, 2022

The Talmud Torah, Biela Lepkin and the Children’s Hebrew Theatre

The Theatre helps the children relive and experience the historical events, customs, and traditions of our holidays,

current history of Israel, and so becomes an aid to the classroom. It gives the children an opportunity to use the living

Hebrew tongue, as a spoken language, in play outside of school. It gives them an outlet for their energy in their time

of leisure. But apart from all that, the Theatre is developing the child as an individual, able to express his creative ability…

Give your child the joy of becoming a member of the Hebrew Theatre. Enroll him in the Talmud Torah day school and make him happy!

-Talmud Torah presents Purim Pageant and Year Book

(Sunday March 5th, 1950) (JHC 25 F.14)

The history of community schools is central to an understanding of the social and cultural history of Winnipeg Jewry. Since the early 1880s, Jews were assiduous in creating educational programs which sought to preserve and promote a Jewish identity nurtured and fashioned by an eclectic range of values and mores that spanned the linguistic idioms of Yiddish and Hebrew and reflective of rich and varied religious and secular perspectives and worldviews. Though Hebrew education had already made its appearance in Jewish community life with the emergence of the Shaarey Zedek Hebrew School (which later was renamed King Edward Hebrew School) and B’nai Zion Hebrew School it was the amalgamation of the two which created the Winnipeg Free Hebrew School or Talmud Torah in 1907 that represented a noticeable turning point in the evolution of Hebrew education. In 1912, the community had secured enough funds to purchase a lot on the corner of Flora and Charles which was to become the site of the school. One of the speakers at the cornerstone-laying ceremony was Rabbi Israel Kahanovitch, the Chief Rabbi of Western Canada who, in the words of Rabbi Arthur Chiel, urged the community “to avoid the error which might tempt them to forget the faith and the traditions of their fathers, and to remember they were the chosen people of God, and to do all in their power to preserve the language, the teachings, the ideals and the aspirations of Judaism…”

In addition to serving as a school, the Talmud Torah was also a bustling community centre, which attracted Jews and non-Jews from various social backgrounds and ideological and political perspectives, and where a cacophony of sounds would emanate from a plethora of lectures, concerts and recreational activities. Quoting community activist Moses Finkelstein, Arthur Chiel noted, “a visitor will be gratified to find under the same roof a sombre charity board meeting down below, a fiery nationalist gathering in an upstairs classroom, a caustic socialist assembly in an adjoining room, and a delightful ball in the concert hall above.” Due to the burgeoning educational needs of the community and with changing population trends over the years several branches were established throughout the city.

Imbued with a Zionist ethos, the Talmud Torah was a contrast to the intellectual, moral, and philosophical postulates of the secular and socialist strains that sought to establish a counter hegemonic value system. The proliferation of the Hebrew language was one of many instruments the Talmud Torah deployed to win the hearts and minds of the community, especially youth. In 1944, the school instituted a day school and by 1956, some 400 students were enrolled in this program.

In 1947, under the auspices of the school’s Parents-Teachers Association and the decisive and energetic role of Biela Lepkin, the Talmud Torah Children’s Hebrew Theatre (Te’atron Ha’Ivri) was created with the desired objective of promoting the Hebrew language and fostering children’s creative capacities, intellect, and emotional development through song and dance, and other forms of expression widespread in the world of theatre. An ardent Zionist and former student of Talmud Torah, Lepkin was unequivocal in her commitment to offering a contrasting view to socialist principles. She wrote: “Perhaps that excellent grounding I had received from the teachings in the Talmud Torah caused me to choose to work as a general Zionist – ‘general’ with a small ‘g’ if you please – rather than a ‘colored’ Zionist, (i.e.) a Poalei-Zionist in the Habonim movement whose groups were then meeting in the Folk Shule. Was it not the love I had for the Hebrew language, the understanding of a Zionism, pure, sufficient unto itself…was this not the mysterious thread which drew me to work there rather than to-me-alien Yiddish-speaking atmosphere of Zionist-mixed-with-socialism that was part of the Folk Shule”?

Biela Lepkin made it her life-long mission to promote the importance of creative drama as a key device for promoting the Hebrew language and education and the spiritual and historical legacy of Judaism. She wrote several books on the topic including Creative Drama in the Hebrew School which is in the reference library of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

In 1951, she moved to Israel with her husband Nathan, daughter Arza and sons Dani and Asher, where she pioneered the creative drama movement and lived out the rest of her life.

Suggested reading: 

Chiel, Arthur. “History of Talmud Torah” in Talmud Torah Golden Jubilee Journal, Winnipeg, 1957.

Chisvin, Sharon. Our Musical Heritage. A Century of Jewish Musicians and Music in Winnipeg, Winnipeg, 2000.

“Inscribe Lepkins in Golden Book.” Jewish Post, March 15, 1951, p.8.

Lepkin, Biela. Creative Drama in the Hebrew School. Haifa: Pinath-Hasefer, 1978.

“N. Lepkin to Open Israel Tire Re-tread Plant” in Jewish Post, March 1, 1951, p.10.