Growing up with the Rabbi

April 2023
Judith R. Baskin 

My family differed from most of Hamilton’s Jewish families in the 1950s and 1960s because my parents had highly visible public roles. In addition, Rabbi Bernard Baskin (1920-2023) and Marjorie Shatz Baskin (1927-2005), born and educated in the United States, were not Canadian citizens during my childhood. They did not become Canadians until almost 20 years after their 1949 arrival in Hamilton. 

My parents brought forward-looking political, civic, and social attitudes to Hamilton, rooted in their experiences as American Jews. Their outsider status in relation to Canadian Jewry in general, and the Hamilton community in particular, allowed them to move beyond a customary and perhaps expected Jewish reticence in those years. Rabbi Baskin established the centrality of public affairs and larger social, literary, and artistic concerns on the synagogue’s agenda and he consistently demonstrated a strong congregational commitment to interfaith dialogue. 

My father served Temple Anshe Sholom for 40 years, an indication of the mutual satisfaction and esteem which existed between rabbi and congregation, and he continued as Rabbi Emeritus for almost three additional decades. However, a rabbinical family, even after such long residence, is rarely a full part of the community in which it lives. In the end, the rabbi, often transient, is always an employee, and the rabbi and the rabbi’s family always maintain a certain degree of distance from congregants. And a rabbi is rarely perceived as an ordinary person. My friends were always awed to encounter my father in our home setting; tongue tied and abashed, they were astonished by his levity and jokes. And, certainly, we children were aware of our parents’ expectations about proper behavior since, at various levels, we represented our family and the Temple in the eyes of the Jewish community. 

I was born in Hamilton (Hamilton General), as were my brother David and sister Susan (Saint Joseph’s). Jewish identity was not a source of confusion in my childhood. Rather it was our family’s defining characteristic: we were model Jews in a Canadian industrial city in which our co-religionists were few.  My parents took this responsibility seriously. The Temple, like many Reform synagogues of that era, would often welcome members of local Protestant churches to Friday evening worship. I vividly remember my father talking to such groups in the sanctuary following the service, explaining Jewish symbols and practices, and answering the questions of the mostly female visitors. He was a frequent speaker at local organizations of all kinds, public school graduations, and at churches of many denominations throughout the decades of his rabbinate. 

My father continued to the last years of his life to write articles for The Hamilton Spectator on Jewish observances and issues of Jewish concern. At the same time, for many years he also reviewed books and contributed opinion pieces to The Spectator and The Canadian Jewish News on general topics of all kinds, gathering a following of admiring readers. 

From their arrival in Hamilton, my parents were involved in civic activities and agencies beyond the purview of the Jewish community. The Children’s Aid Society, the Social Planning Research Council, the Hamilton Symphony, the Hamilton Art Gallery, and the Hamilton Public Library were among the organizations on whose boards my parents served. 

My father was named to the Board of Governors of McMaster University, from which he received an honorary degree in 1969, in addition to numerous other civic honors. Ultimately, he and my mother became Canadian citizens, a decision motivated in great part by their desire to continue and enhance their community service activities and opportunities. My mother was an elected official on the Wentworth County Board of Education for almost two decades.

My parents practiced a form of observant Reform Judaism for our household and congregation that was based on family practice, synagogue worship, Jewish education, social involvement, and community activism. The central event of our weekly domestic observance was Friday night dinner, rendered special by the rituals of candle lighting, kiddush, and challah. 

However, Shabbat dinner was not a leisurely repast since my parents had to be at Temple in good time for the 8:15 p.m. service. Our Jewish world was not only the family but the Temple and its members, around 90 families when my parents arrived in Hamilton in 1949, and 350 by 1967.  And our comfort zone was the west end of the city, distant from earlier areas of Jewish settlement.

When I was a teenager, social groupings tended to be determined by synagogue affiliation.  Synagogue youth groups, linked to larger regional networks, provided much of our social life, as well as exposure to a larger world. The meeting ground for all sectors of the community was the Jewish Community Center, especially Camp Kadimah. Here, children, as well as the teenagers who served as staff, came together from the city’s various synagogues and enclaves and found common cause, singing Ha-Tikvah together at the end of the day. 

After high school, I, like most of my Jewish peers, left Hamilton for university. Only some returned to Hamilton, often to work in a family vocation of one kind or another. For me, and for the larger number of my peers, Hamilton was a pleasant and safe place in which to be children, to receive a good education (thank you, Dalewood and Westdale), and to construct a Jewish identity through synagogue religious schools, youth groups, and Jewish communal activities. For a number of us, close connections were forged in those years that endure a number of decades later. 

Although my siblings and I, as well as most of our childhood friends, have lived elsewhere for many years, we remember our Hamilton origins and many of us keep track of one another to an extent that surprises others from larger Jewish communities. We were a wonderfully fortunate generation and we look back with gratitude to our parents, teachers, and religious and communal leaders.

Judith R. Baskin, Ph.D., Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities Emerita, University of Oregon, lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband Warren Ginsberg. They have two children and one grandchild.