Canadian Rock Star Steven Page Explores His Musical Jewish Roots

— Reprinted with permission from CBC/Radio-Canada

Steven Page, musician, and former lead-singer, guitarist and principal songwriter for the internationally acclaimed pop band the Barenaked Ladies (BNL), grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, feeling like he was the only Jew in the neighbourhood, and thus an outsider. He began his search into his ancestry with the goal of uncovering why his Jewish identity has played such an important part of his life.

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Steven was born in 1970 to a Jewish mother, Jo-Anne (Simmons), and an Anglo-Protestant father, Victor Page. When Jo-Anne and Victor married in the 1960s, Victor converted to Judaism to appease Jo-Anne’s strict grandparents, Nuchum and Chava Greenbaum. But it wasn’t enough; they disowned Jo-Anne, and as a result, Steven never met his great-grandparents.

According to Steven’s great aunts Annette and Beulah, Nuchum came to Canada from Poland in 1909. Later, he brought Chava and their daughter Shirley to join him. They lived in the Kensington Market district of Toronto, then a thriving Jewish community, and had seven more children.

Steven decided to investigate the Greenbaum side of the family by searching the 1911 Canadian census online. He discovered that Kalman Greenbaum, Nuchum’s father, was born in Russia/Poland in 1866. Kalman came alone to Canada in 1903. After being naturalized in 1909, he brought his family from Poland to join him, including Nuchum. When Kalman first arrived, he lived in an area of Toronto called St. John’s Ward, on Chestnut Street.

What was life like for Jewish immigrants at that time? Steven met with the historian of Jewish Toronto, Stephen Speisman, at the Toronto City Archives. At the turn of the century, a Fifth Census of Canada 1911 showed that a huge influx of Jewish immigrants moved to Toronto. Inside ten years, the Jewish population of the city grew from 3,000 to 32,000. Out of necessity, most settled in St. John’s Ward, a slum with affordable rents. As soon as Kalman earned enough money as a peddler, he bought a house in Kensington Market, where he and his family lived for many years.

To learn more about Kalman, Steven visited his mother’s cousin Henry Green, a professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. Henry has discovered that Kalman belonged to the Hasidic dynasty of the Modzhitz, a group known as the singing Hasidim, who turned Hasidic melody into an art form. Steven never knew the Greenbaum side of his family was connected to music; it is exciting for him to discover he is part of a musical dynasty.

According to Steven’s great aunt Annette, poverty wasn’t the only challenge faced by the Greenbaum family. A tragic house-fire in 1928 took the lives of Nuchum’s sister Sarah, her husband, and two of her three children. Steven verified this information by searching the Toronto Star’s Pages of the Past. There, he finds a front-page story, headlined, “Parents and Two Children Perish in Fire: dying girl declares family was menaced by threats of enemy.” Steven was shocked to discover that the article suggests the fire resulted from a family or business feud. Chava was never the same after the tragedy.

Given the hardships they faced in Canada, Steven wondered why his family left Poland. He found a clue in Nuchum’s 1905 diary, where Nuchum referred to “a year of curses.” Steven decided to go to Poland to investigate.

Steven’s first stop was the regional office of the Polish State Archives in the city of Kielce, where the birth, marriage and death records of Kielce’s Jews are stored. In 1897, approximately 83,000 Jews were living in Kielce, constituting 28% of the city’s population. Steven found Nuchum’s 1894 birth record, and was surprised to see it is written in Russian.

In 1894, Poland was part of the Russian Empire. Discrimination against Jews was widespread. In Poland, Jews paid double taxes and were forbidden to lease land or go to university. Despite this, Jewish men aged 18 were still liable for conscription into the Russian army. When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, in 1881, the Jews were blamed. Throughout the Empire, Jews were attacked in an infamous spate of officially condoned violence, known to history as the pogroms. It was out of this climate of fear that a massive wave of Jewish immigration to North America emerged. Leading up to the First World War, about two million Polish Jews left for North America.

Steven next visited Rakow, the hometown of his great-grandmother Chava. Before the Holocaust, over half of the population of Rakow was Jewish. No Jews currently live in the town, so Steven visited a group of Poles called “Friends of Rakow.” The group, dedicated to remembering the town’s Jewish past, cooks Jewish meals and maintains a memorial at Rakow’s former Jewish cemetery. Steven ended the journey into his ancestry at this cemetery. His trip to Poland has been powerful and disturbing. While Steven is moved by the efforts of the Poles to honour the memory of their Jewish friends, he finds little testament to just how horrible life was for Jews in Poland. His family, he now knows, was lucky to survive.


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