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Leible Hershfield, gym display, YMHA, 91 Albert Street, 1937 Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

A Review of Leible Hershfield's book: The Jewish Athlete: A Nostalgic View

by Noel Hershfield Dec 1, 2020


There has been a great amount of literature on the internet  about Jews and sports. Most of these reviews did not mention Canadian Jews, and it’s pretty obvious that the writers did not review  Leible Hershfield’s book titled The Jewish Athlete: A Nostalgic View, published in 1980.


The book outlines the activities of the Winnipeg  YMHA, especially in soccer and baseball.


In his preface Leible states that “my personal philosophy has always been that one of the great unifiers of all ethnic groups is the common expression that is attained through athletics.”  


In the book, Leible reminds us that there are many examples in the Bible and Midrash of the attention our ancestors gave to physical fitness. He mentions the Geeboreem  and Samson the Great who according our Torah beat off an entire band of Philistines single-handedly.


He points out that the Jews who emigrated to Canada and Manitoba in the latter part of the 19th century were excited about the fact that they had freedoms that they never before found in the countries where they were born in Europe. They could not be included in any sporting activities where they were living, and Leible states that the fact that they were now able to compete in this free country, was a major reason for their success. And they took part in every sport including basketball, curling, baseball, fencing, track and field (in which Leible himself won gold medals while he was in high school).


He mentions that in 1906 they began playing in the school championships and actually won three of them when they were attending  Strathcona School in Winnipeg.


All of the Y home games were played at the Aberdeen school grounds, and thousands of people would come out and watch them and cheer for them. Leibl does note that on too many occasions there was an anti-Semitic crowd and they had to play under severe circumstances. As soon as the game was over, they climbed into a truck and escaped. There were many fights on the field and he tells us a butcher named Beryl Friedman and other Jewish men used to run out of the crowd and take part in the “festivities.” He told me personally that one of them would scream “schloog de Goyim” when he took part in these activities. (If you don’t know Yiddish that means Beat The Gentiles! Doing that where they came from would certainly lead to imprisonment and maybe death!).


Another anecdote that should be told, was about a fan who always stood behind the opposition goal. Whenever a Jewish player had a chance to score, he would yell “SHEESE AREIN!” And the goalie would turn his head to see what the disturbance was and usually the Jewish team would score. For those of you don’t understand Yiddish that term means ‘Shoot It In.”


The first game that they played outside of Winnipeg was against a team from Saskatoon, which drew a huge crowd and the team defeated the Saskatoon team by  4-1. They also played in Prince Albert and other Saskatchewan towns and apparently did not lose a game. They also played a game in Regina which was terminated because of a riot induced by a group of anti-Semites. Leible said he has never forgiven the Regina Sports Association.


The Canadian Nazi party was very prominent in Winnipeg at the time and frequently harassed Jews, and other immigrants. They were very active at Jewish sporting events and frequently there were confrontations. The YMHA senior team  withdrew from city competition and never returned. Leible did not agree with this approach but he was voted down. He worried that Jewish children would not excel in sports thereafter. 


There was an exhibition game between West Ham United the champions of England and the Hakoah  team from Vienna, Austria. Because they were not allowed to play gentile teams, the Jews of Vienna formed named  Hakoah and won the state championship. They then travelled to England and beat the English champions by a score 5-0.


When the Hakoah team stepped on the field there were only a few members of the original team that left Vienna. The rest of the players defected and stayed on in the United States. The game was played at Carruthers Park in Winnipeg in front of a record crowd. A fight broke out in the field which was overrun by spectators crying out anti-Semitic remarks. The police had to come in and escort the Jewish team to the dressing room. Apparently there was chaos in the stands and it took quite a long time to settle things down, but the Jews never appeared in any provincial activities again and only by invitation.  They returned from time to time before the beginning of the Second World War, apparently by invitation only.


 After World War II many European Jewish children were left homeless. The Canadian Jewish Congress rescued many of them and brought them to Canada. A  number went to Montréal and Toronto and the rest continued and ended up in Winnipeg. I recall at that time that I was taking care of the tennis courts at the Winnipeg Jewish Orphanage.  I met some of these young  children , incuding John Hirsch , who eventually came to be the Director of the Stratford Festival and also internationally including the United States, France, and Britain. He also was awarded the Order of Canada.


During the severe polio epidemics in the 50s, Leible was part of a volunteer team to assist in the rehabilitation of  patients. For this service he was given an award from the provincial government. I remember his humanitarian care taking care of these patients, of which I was one.


During the summer The YMHA  returned to baseball. The YMHA team also won many championships in Winnipeg and in Western Canada. Leibl mentions a number of excellent players during this time. Leible Hershfield was an excellent player and never used a glove. He made one catch that the local sportswriters called a classic Willie Mays catch. Leible said that the only difference between him and Willie Mays is that Leible never wore a glove! 


The team won consecutive championships in Winnipeg between 1924- 1930 and were almost unbeatable. Apparently over 8000 people would attend some of these games! The best athlete on the team was given a gift certificate worth four dollars to buy a hat!


In 1936 to 1938 the Y won the championships in consecutive years again. One of the participants was Morley Meredith who changed his name from Morley Margulis and became a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. Another of the athletes mentioned was Chick Zamick whose family had 12 children and so they were called CHICKLETS  after the chewing gum packages which contained 12 pieces of gum. Chick went to England and was an excellent hockey player and he was considered to be the Wayne Gretzky of British hockey. He actually became president of the British Hockey League. He also was very successful in business and became very prominent in the city of Nottingham. I met him when I was in medical school in Dublin, with his brother Paul Zamick, who was also an excellent player and played for the Racing Club of Paris before he went to medical school. He ended up being a trauma surgeon and worked for the United States Public Health service. He was sent to Kosovo  and was killed in the operating room by terrorists. I was never able to corroborate this after a long search including the United States Armed Forces publications. If any of the Zamicks read this, I would appreciate their communication.


Leible documents  every sport in which the Jewish teams participated in those years ( all the uniforms were labeled with the Star of David). There are some terrific athletes-- many of them made the All-Star teams. They participated in hockey, lacrosse, rugby football, tennis even though they were not allowed to play at the Winnipeg tennis club  They also excelled in bowling and when my father was the president the bowling team won the Canadian championship in the late 30s. My cousin Morley Drucker actually was made a member of the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club which at that time was anti-Semitic, and he won a number of championships including the Western Canadian Senior Men’s Tennis Championships before he moved to California in the late 40s.


They also played Canadian football and five of the members of the Y joined the Blue Bombers Grey Cup Team .They were the first Western team to win the Grey Cup. Members of that team were Lou Adelman, Lou Mogul, Ed Kushner, and Ed Kaminski. Other famous players were  Norman Geller and Curly Feldman.   Len Meltzer from Winnipeg played for the Bombers and then for Vancouver where he lined up with the British Columbia Lions.  Larry Fleisher, another Y alumnus, played for the Edmonton Eskimos.       


In 1927 the  YMHA team captured a soccer trophy in a  juvenile tournament in Manitoba in 1938.


I should mention that Benny Hatskin was president of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and eventually became president of the Canadian Football League.


Leible reviews the Y MHA in those days and mentions that we all had clubs and mine was called the Trojans and two of us, Lowell  Hurwitz and myself ended up playing junior football for the Winnipeg Light Infantry.


In 1976 the famous athlete Jesse Owens was a  guest speaker at the Y sportsmen’s dinner. He  mentioned that two Jews Marty Glickman, who became a very famous sports announcer and Sam Stoller,  were omitted from the Olympic Games in Germany because they were Jewish.


In hockey he mentions Max Leibovitz who played for the New York Rangers and New Haven Eagles. Leibl was part of the Toledo Mercury’s which captured the United States semipro championship in 1952 .His relation, Lou Labovitz played in the Vancouver professional league and became the physical instructor at the Royal Canadian Air Force between 1946 and 1948.


Tenpin bowling was also very popular amongst the Jewish boys, and Leibl mentioned that the Y team won the Canadian Young Mens’s Hebrew Association championship in both 1920 and 1921.  Many of us played basketball  on Sunday morning in the gym at the YMHA which had a pole in the middle of the gym and the baskets were at opposite corners.  


Curling also became a very important sport for Jews in Winnipeg and Ralph Hamovitch was an extremely devoted developer of the Maple leaf curling club and also an excellent curler.        


The Braunstein brothers were runners-up to the Canadian Championship in in 1958. The Braunstein family were excellent athletes.


Hersh Lerner represented Manitoba in the Canadian curling championships in Brandon in 1963. He led Manitoba again, in the Canadian Briar in Halifax in 1963 and was third in the final standings. Hersh was also the Western Canadian intercollegiate champion of all golfers in 1957. Apparently at that time he shot 68 at the Southwood Country Club, and his score of 68 at that time still stood at the Southwood golf course when the book was written.


Bobby Robinson was a top-class athlete and perhaps one of the best athletes at the time. Leible says he may have been one of the best athletes to come out of Winnipeg. He was  an excellent golfer and won many University of Manitoba championships, and was the winner of the Glendale Golf And Country club title six times between 1957 and 1967. In 1957 and 1959 he won the Canadian left-handed title. He also won the medal in 1967 for the Manitoba interclub championship.


It was in curling that Bob excelled. Between 1953 and 1966 he won five championships. In 1967 he was second in the Berks event and a finalist in the Portage la Prairie bonspiel and he won the Bonanza event. In 1968 he was a finalist in the Manitoba Curling Association bonspiel. In 1969 he won the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel. 1970 Bob excelled and played and won the Manitoba Curling Association event. He was also a finalist in the Wheaton Event Manitoba Curling Association bonspiel in 1971 and  he was the winner for the same organization and also won the Canario invitational bonspiel in 1972. And finally in 1973 he won the Eaton event in the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel.To top it all off Bob has become a master bridge player.


Leibl's book is not an easy book to review because there is so much information available. My personal opinion is that this book should be republished and distributed among Hebrew schools in the cities.  Assimilation and equality in this country has come true!


The only thing that is missing is an index. I am currently finding that an index manufacturer actually exists (!), who I hope can index this wonderful book. I personally would be very happy to fund a reproduction of the book.


Finally I would mention that if any reader is interested, there are a number of websites that specialize in the accomplishments of Jewish athletes worldwide.


Currently I am attempting to convince the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Jewish Sports Hall of Fame to accept Leible into their ranks.






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