Yom Kippur Dances

September 24, 2020

Does a full day of fasting and praying make you want to dance? Maybe not, but dancing and other entertainments drew hundreds of Winnipeg Jews to hotel ballrooms, night clubs, and restaurants from the 1920s to the 1960s. These were not anti-religious Jews like the Londoners who organized a full-day buffet with entertainment as an alternative to synagogue and their counterparts in New York and Montreal. Rather these were individuals and members of establishment organizations who wanted a change of pace.

The YMHA probably took the lead in organizing entertainment that began more than an hour after the final Yom Kippur prayer service and continued until well after midnight.  For example, in 1925, the Y booked Moore’s London Orchestra and the Alhambra Dance Gardens on Fort Street for “a delightful evening of sociability and excellent dance music.” The profits went to support Talmud Torah. By 1929, the Y had moved its Yom Kippur festivities to the Royal Alexandra Hotel, promising “dancing till late.” In the same year, the Young Women’s Knesseth Israel Sisterhood organized a competing session at the Roseland Dance Gardens on Portage Avenue with a waltz competition. Profits went to charity.

           The drive for entertainment grew after World War II. The YMHA switched to the Fort Garry Hotel and B’nai Brith’s Maple Leaf Lodge took over “two spacious ballrooms” in the Royal Alexandra to present the Irvin Plumm and Jack Shapira Orchestras. Bob Byron, a professional impersonator, served as emcee. Prizes, novelties, noisemakers, and balloons were provided. Soon, B’nai Brith claimed “the biggest dance ever held in Winnipeg.” Enthusiasts could buy tickets at nineteen different outlets as well as the B’nai Brith office.

Commercial establishments competed with Jewish community groups in offering Yom Kippur entertainment in the 1950s. Nightclubs such as Café (later Rancho) Don Carlos, The Highwayman, and the Copacabana organized their own Yom Kippur events. Ormiston, Portage, and Academy Florists urged men to “send her a corsage for the Yom Kippur Dance” and those who chose not to dance were invited to celebrate Yom Kippur Night at the Shanghai, the Nanking, Jack’s Place, and Gundy Di Cosimo’s Spaghetti House.  Visiting entertainers included Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Other community groups sponsoring events at various times included different branches of the Pioneer Women’s Organization, Hadassah, B’nai Abraham Sisterhood, Herzlia and Biryah, the Hebrew Fraternal Lodge, B’nai Brith Brandeis Lodge, and the Seers Club.

 Criticism of Yom Kippur entertainment in 1950 by Melvin Fenson, the editor of the Jewish Post, may have reflected broader misgivings. Fenson decried “the unfeeling mauling given the whole concept of Yom Kippur” and called on “Winnipeg’s own corps of spiritual advisers [to] educate the community away from such practices.”  Whether due to this or other causes, post-Yom Kippur entertainment declined in the later 1950s and disappeared in the 1960s.