Editor’s note: “Do You Know My Brother Meyer?” by Winnipeg-based author John Ginsburg is a short story centring on a Jewish family in Ottawa in 1927.
Do You Know My Brother Meyer?
By John Ginsburg
Ottawa, November 20, 1927
In 1927, Ottawa was a burgeoning city, with a population exceeding 100,000. Its Jewish community was growing too, emerging from its Eastern European immigrant roots, becoming more prosperous and more outward-looking, very much socially and politically engaged. In Jewish homes, children learned that the world was filled with inspiring heroes, like the brilliant Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, the great virtuosos Heifitz and Horowitz, and the acclaimed genius Albert Einstein, who had recently won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Not to mention the world's greatest entertainer, Al Jolson, whom you could now see and hear in talking movies.
If you'd grown up in Ottawa, like the three Gorenstein brothers, there were celebrated heroes much closer to home too. Canadian heroes. At the top of the list was the prime minister, Mackenzie King. From the Gorensteins' Stewart Street home in Sandy Hill, it was only a few minutes walk to King's residence on Laurier Avenue. If you timed it right, you could pass by the eccentric prime minister walking his dog.
As famous and important as King was, he was less of a hero to the two younger brothers, Meyer and Martin, than he was to the oldest brother Max. Max had just turned fourteen. He was a serious violin student and one of the best students in his class at Lisgar Collegiate. He was much more aware of what was going on in the world than his two younger brothers. To Meyer, who was twelve, and Martin, who was eight, life was still fun and games. They happily played on the streets and tried to avoid the adult world as much as they could. Their principal daily concern was in acquiring and consuming sweets. They knew Mackenzie King was important, and that he ran the entire country. But in their eyes, he just seemed to be a short, kindly-looking old man, someone belonging to their parents' world, who had little to do with them. Their heroes were the Ottawa Senators and their star players: King Clancy, Cy Denneny and Alec Connell.
Going to the Auditorium to see the Senators was a huge thrill for the boys. But they had to wait their turn, as their father would only take one of them at a time, and only if it wasn't on a school night. Not only that, but their father, Isser Gorenstein, was frequently away on weekends. He made his living buying and selling fur pelts. He would typically travel to Montreal by train on a Friday, buy raw pelts from indigenous traders in the outlying areas of Quebec, and return home on Monday. These pelts were transported back to Ottawa and stored in a warehouse on Kent Street, to be sold to furriers in Ottawa and other cities. In Quebec, Isser conducted all of his business in French, in which he was fluent. He used to laugh and say that he was the only person that spoke French with a Yiddish accent.
What Ottawa boy didn't idolize the Senators players? The Senators didn't just have a good team. They had a championship team. They'd won four Stanley Cups in the past seven years, including the previous season, when they beat the Boston Bruins in the finals. All three boys were at the clinching game. It was April 13, a Wednesday night, in the middle of school holidays. Luckily, it was a day before the start of Pesach. If it had been a day later, none of them would have been allowed to attend. It was so exciting! That night, the three boys, exploding with anticipation, walked from Stewart Street with their father, over the canal to O'Connor Street and out to Argyle. Two of the four tickets were standing room. Max had to stand with his dad because he was taller than Meyer and Martin. The two younger brothers got to sit in row twenty-four, right on the blue line. Cy Denneny, the team's leading scorer, scored two goals. He was Max and Martin's favourite player. Frank Finnigan also scored for Ottawa and Alec Connell was fantastic in the net. Boston's only goal came with two minutes remaining in the third period, when the game was already decided. Meyer's favourite player was King Clancy, Ottawa's talented, fast-skating defenceman. Clancy had had a fabulous season, scoring ten goals and finishing second to Denneny in team scoring. He didn't score in the cup-clinching game, but he came close.
The whole family attended the Stanley Cup parade on Wellington Street, even the boys' mother Gittel, who definitely wasn't the world's greatest hockey fan. She thought hockey was too rough a game for boys to be playing. But the parade was on a warm spring day, and she knew how excited the boys were to see the team, so she went too. Her brown-eyed, wavy-haired sons were her pride and joy, the handsomest boys in the world.
When Sunday, November 20 rolled around, the 1927-28 NHL season was well under way. Ottawa had split its first four games. It was a cold, early winter day, the ground covered with a scattered dusting of snow. A little after twelve noon, Meyer and Martin set off for cheder, as they did every Sunday at that time. Their father was at home that weekend, and their mother had made a delicious Sunday brunch for the family, a feast of pancakes, eggs and fruit.
With pocket change safely stowed for a soda on the way home, the two younger brothers walked along Stewart Street toward Cumberland. They were wearing their warm, wool coats and colourful touques that their mother had knit. As the older of the two, Meyer was responsible to take care of his younger brother and to get the two of them there and back on time. It was the same role Max had played for him for the previous five years. Now that Max's bar mitzvah had come and gone, he was no longer required to attend Sunday classes at B'nai Jacob Synagogue. So the wheels had turned, and now Meyer was counted on to be the responsible older brother.
Getting back on time was a serious matter, as Meyer and Max had found out in the past. Their mother didn't mind if they were ten or fifteen minutes late, but their zayde always made a big deal out of it. Zayde Gutkin, their mother's father, was a short and wizened old man, with a bald head and a stringy white beard. He was a strict and orthodox man, with a fiery temper. He would be waiting at the door and, if the boys were late, as soon as they stepped in the house he would lay into them. His sermonizing, angry outbursts were mostly directed at Max, because Max was the oldest. Once, when the three boys came home after sundown on shabbat, their zayde was so mad he cuffed Max on the back of his head. Meyer teased Max about it later, and Max cuffed him on the back of the head.
B'nai Jacob Synagogue was on James Street, near Bank, a forty minute walk from the Gorenstein house on Stewart Street. The boys' preferred route was to walk north on Cumberland to Rideau Street, and then across Rideau to Bank. They could have gone in the other direction, toward Laurier Avenue, but it was better to avoid that area. Not that Meyer was scared of the French kids there. Not for himself, anyway. He'd been down there often. The French kids would taunt the Jewish kids and throw stones at them, with choruses of ''Juifs'' or ''Hymie'' or ''cochons''.' But the Jewish kids weren't afraid. They threw just as many stones right back and laid on their own taunts, calling the French kids ''putz'' or ''shoyte'' or ''frog''. Sometimes the French kids would chase them, in groups. But as long as you ran, you could get away pretty easily. You just had to make sure you weren't alone. Meyer had always been with his older brother or with a bunch of his friends. Now that the weather was colder, there wouldn't be that many kids on the street anyway. But still, you had to be smart about it. After all, Martin was only eight.
There was an even better reason to go across Rideau Street. It meant they could walk by all the downtown stores and shops. Staring at the displays in the department store windows, they would decide what they most wanted. And they never failed to stop and buy a bag of penny candy, usually at a grocery store or drug store, before heading on to shul.
One of the big downtown attractions was Belmont Pharmacy, at the corner of Bank and Sparks, where there was a long lunch counter and the best soda fountain in the city. As they'd done on previous Sundays, the boys planned to stop at the Belmont for a soda on the way home, after their classes. But they also stopped to check it out on the way there, as they passed by. Even though it was a Sunday, the streets were loud and lively, with motorcars honking their horns and streetcars clattering past.
The boys lingered for a while on the sidewalk on Bank Street, noses pressed to the big front window. Belmont's was very busy, as usual, with people coming and going. As they peered in, a large, boisterous group of men approached on Bank Street, talking and laughing, all wearing topcoats and stylish hats. To the boys' great surprise and delight, they realized it was the entire Ottawa Senators hockey team!
'They must have had a practice today' said Meyer to his younger brother, authoritatively. The Senators had won the night before at the Auditorium, beating Pittsburgh, and Meyer knew that they had a free day before heading out on the road to play Detroit. Meyer knew almost everything about the Senators. He not only kept up on their schedule, he knew how many goals and assists each player had, Alec Connell's goals against average, and even the career stats of many of the players.
As the boys looked on in breathless admiration, their heroes walked right by them, only a few feet away, heading into Belmont Pharmacy. There they were: Cy Denneny, Frank Finnigan, Alec Connell and Meyer's favourite player King Clancy. Eight-year-old Martin didn't have anywhere near the knowledge about the team that Meyer did, and he didn't recognize the players like his brother. But he was just as star-struck.
The two boys stayed in place for a few minutes longer, faces glued to the window in the cold, their breath fogging the glass, trying to glimpse their heroes inside.
'I know King Clancy' Meyer said, offhandedly. This wasn't true, but Meyer thought he would take the opportunity to really impress his younger brother. Martin, while greatly admiring his older brother's comprehensive knowledge, seriously doubted this claim. 'You do not' said the eight-year-old, defiantly. 'I do so' answered Meyer, sounding very confident. 'No you don't' said Martin, trying to stand up to his brother, now motivated as much by envy as he was by doubt. 'I do so' Meyer insisted. 'Do you want me to prove it?' 'Yah. Prove it' said Martin.
Meyer's plan to supply the proof, conceived on the spur of the moment, had its merits. 'Just go into Belmont's and ask him' he said. 'Walk up to King Clancy and ask him if he knows your brother Meyer.'
Meyer may have felt reasonably confident that Martin wouldn't take up the challenge, but that's exactly what Martin did, instantly walking to the corner and into the pharmacy. He'd been in the place many times before, so he knew the layout, but he had an immediate problem. Where was King Clancy? He was sure he'd recognize Clancy when he saw him, but where should he look? It was a big place, and full of people, with a crowded lunch counter and booths all along the windows facing Bank Street, and all along the windows facing Sparks Street. Martin asked the first person he saw, a waitress behind the cash register. 'Can you please tell me where King Clancy is?' he said politely. The woman smiled. 'He's in the last booth, at the back there' she said, almost in a whisper, nodding her head in Clancy's direction. 'But don't take too long now. The boys are just ordering lunch.'
Martin walked gamely toward Clancy, passing booth after booth, all filled with unfamiliar adults, contentedly talking and eating, and for the most part ignoring him. When he reached the last booth, he saw a middle-aged waitress holding a pad, writing down the players' orders. She was wearing a navy-blue uniform and thick stockings and looked friendly enough. Martin walked right up to the table beside the woman. He recognized King Clancy right away, sitting on the inside seat and facing him.
Without any concern for interrupting the waitress, the eight-year-old boy simply came out with it, summoning up all his courage. 'Do you know my brother Meyer, Mr. Clancy?' he said. By then, everyone at the booth, including the busy waitress, was well aware of the young interloper. For the briefest of moments, there was an awkward silence, as five sets of eyes trained themselves on the youngest Gorenstein boy. The serious-looking Clancy had been studying the menu when Martin walked up. Looking up at the boy, he said 'Pardon me?' in a friendly voice. Martin politely repeated his question to Clancy. 'Do you know my brother Meyer?' Clancy smiled. 'Who?' he said. 'My brother Meyer' Martin said, again.
'He wants to know if you know his brother Meyer' said the player beside Clancy, whom Martin didn't recognize. He was broad-shouldered and taller than Clancy, and he had a crewcut. At this, all four of the players burst into laughter. Martin's confidence and determination vanished in an instant. All of a sudden he was very embarrassed.
Clancy asked the waitress if he could borrow her pencil. On the back of his paper table setting, he wrote ''Good luck from King Clancy'' and handed it to red-faced Martin. 'Now get outta here kid' said the man beside Clancy, in his gravelly voice. Martin immediately turned and walked out of the pharmacy as fast as he could. As he did, he folded up the paper and put it into his coat pocket.
When Martin walked back onto Bank Street, his brother Meyer was waiting, looking a bit peeved. 'Come on, let's go' Meyer said, impatiently. 'We're going to be late.' Without another word, the brothers headed south on Bank Street.
Thank you to Janet Cohen and Joel Ginsburg for helpful historical information.
Cover photograph: Bank Street, looking south from Wellington Street, 1926; reproduced with the kind permission of the
City of Ottawa Archives RG045-07 CA018235