Sholem Aleichem’s Winnipeg Uncle

March 11, 2022

Nissel Rabinowitsch Zimmerman

Sholem Aleichem’s Winnipeg Uncle

In this man there was lost to the world a poet; he enjoyed singing Yiddish songs, particularly those of his own creation. While he was in prison, he wrote a Yiddish poem about himself in alphabet acrostic form and he composed an original melody for it – a melody which stirred one’s soul. How many of such talents have gone lost among us, talents wholly unnoticed.

–       Sholom Aleichem describing his Fetter (Uncle) Nissel Rabinowitsch Zimmerman

The reference library of the Jewish Heritage Centre contains a collection of essays by Rabbi Arthur Chiel published in 1955 under the title Jewish Experiences in Early Manitoba. This was the precursor to his The Jews of Manitoba which was published in 1961 by the University of Toronto and issued under the auspices of The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba which later became the Manitoba Historical Society. In the words of Chief Justice Samuel Freedman who contributed the forward to Jewish Experiences, “the essays in this work are characterized by great variety… Their value is in their interest, both historical and contemporary, and in the information, they provide concerning people, places, and events of yesterday.”

Chiel’s essays include topics such as the origins of the Shaarey Zedek and Rosh Pina synagogues, an overview of the philanthropist Moses Montefiore, Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewishness, Louis Riel and his “Messianic-Jewish complex”, the story of how Chief Justice, Edmund Burke Wood, came to the defense of a Jewish immigrant named Kieva Barsky, the experiences of three Jewish messengers or solicitors of charity and a brief overview of American Jewish life as seen through the Russian-Hebrew publication Hamelitz.

Chiel’s first essay is dedicated to Nissel Rabinowitsch Zimmerman, a pioneer Winnipeg Jew best known for being the uncle (Fetter) of the renowned Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. Chiel offers a vivid and colourful depiction of Zimmerman. He identifies him as a “lively fellow…alert to the opportunities of a jest, particularly eager to entertain the

ladies with his humour”. He was part of that generation of Jews that left Russia during the pogroms of 1882. In his specific case he had spent time in prison for defending a fellow Jew who had been evicted by decree from the   town of Berezan. In letters to his family, Zimmerman was unsparing in his depiction of the difficulties of life in the new land. Sholem Aleichem writes of this in his book Fun’m Yarid (From the Fair). He took on the most arduous of jobs including chopping wood, hewing stone and laying tracks for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The tension and torment which beset Zimmerman’s psychological and physical being is best reflected in this trenchant, telling statement: “We come home at night wearied and exhausted and sleep overcomes us before we have eaten. We shall perish here and not have so much as a Jewish burial”.

Perish Zimmerman did not. With the resoluteness and determination which epitomized the indomitable Jewish spirit to make the best of difficult circumstances, Zimmerman persevered. He opened a general store and on Sabbath afternoon would read the stories of his nephew who was emerging as a significant literary figure and principal advocate of Yiddishkeit.

Zimmerman was to become an important figure in Winnipeg Jewish communal life. He   helped establish the Shaarey Zedek synagogue in 1890. Chiel notes that Zimmerman became disenchanted with the modernistic impulses of the synagogue and in 1892 helped to establish the more conservative Rosh Pina. He was also at the forefront of bringing to fruition the milchige shul (dairy synagogue) because its members were dairy farmers and which was an antithesis to other synagogues which was made up of the well-to-do. As Chiel noted: “Beautiful coincidence it was that kindred spirits as were Sholom Aleichem and his Fetter, that milchige was such a meaningful appellation to them – Sholom Aleichem with his Tevye and Fetter Nissel with his shul.

Fetter Nissel died in 1898 and was buried in Winnipeg’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the Children of Israel, which is located near the Kildonan Place shopping mall in Transcona.