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The 'Shtetl' of ... Edmonton?

November 15, 2011 By:
George Medovoy | JE Feature
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The Muttart Conservatory is another Edmonton attraction
At a Friday night Shabbat dinner, one of the guests at the table lovingly refers to "our shtetl Edmonton."
 
It's a sign of the strong sense of community that Jews feel in this northern Alberta city on the western Canadian prairie. Though numbering only about 5,000, the community's relatively small size masks an underlying communal strength.
 
"What happens in the smaller centers," says Russ Joseph, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Jewish Federation, "is that Jews tend to come together with other Jews for the most part."
 
Karen Leibovici, an Edmonton city council member and incoming president of the Canadian Association of Municipalities, notes that because so many of Edmonton's Jews have migrated in from other cities, they become an extended family.
 
"We become each other's family in a lot of respects," says Leibovici, who recently saw her son off on the Israel Birthright program.
 
A Jewish visitor appreciates this special side of Edmonton while enjoying everything else the city has to offer -- from a flourishing art scene and festivals galore, to sophisticated cuisine and more shopping than you could ever imagine.
Art Gallery of Alberta
 
To quote Stephen Mandel, Edmonton's third-term mayor and past president of the Jewish Federation, "I think culturally and economically there are few places that can match the opportunities that exist in our city."
 
From a Jewish perspective, Edmonton supports a mix of institutions, from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues to ORT and Hadassah chapters.
 
It boasts two Jewish day schools -- the Talmud Torah School and the Menorah Academy, an Orthodox school with separate classes for boys and girls.
 
For many visitors, a "must-see" before anything else is the West Edmonton Mall, North America's largest shopping and entertainment center.
 
The mall was the brainchild of the Ghermezian brothers, members of a prominent Edmonton Jewish family at one time in the Persian rug business in Montreal. With over 800 stores, it really does embody the motto, "Shop till you drop."
 
But there are other inviting attractions at the mall, like the world's largest indoor lake (including a replica of Christopher Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria); Galaxyland, the world's largest, 400,000-square-feet, indoor amusement park, including the Mindbender, the world's largest indoor triple-loop roller coaster; an NHL-sized ice rink; a gaming casino; a trained seal act; and, to my mind, the "piece de resistance" -- the world's largest indoor wave pool.
Set sail -- or just take a look -- at a replica of Christopher Columbus' "Santa Maria" at the West Edmonton Mall.
 
Indeed, taking a break from this summer shopping, we changed into swim suits in a dressing room and then waded into the water, where adults and children were frolicking with large, blue inner tubes.
 
The mall's themed shopping streets -- Bourbon Street, Chinatown and Europa Boulevard -- add a nice touch.
 
For lunch, we enjoyed tasty salmon and rice at Cafe Levi, a kosher dairy place on Europa Boulevard. (The restaurant is closed on Shabbat).
 
As a city, Edmonton enjoys a prized location in the picturesque North Saskatchewan River Valley, an urban parkland 22 times larger than New York City's Central Park, with miles of multiuse trails for walking, cross-country skiing and cycling.
 
The river valley, which was visible from our room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, was also the site of Edmonton's annual summer Folk Music Festival, where thousands gathered on the grassy, sloping hills of Gallagher Park to enjoy musical greats like the multi-talented Andrew Bird, West Africa's Angelique Kidjo (in whose melodies we could hear traces of the Caribbean), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
 
And who can forget Grammy Award-winning Lyle Lovett, or Edmonton's very own k.d. lang, an amazing talent who closed the show.
 
With all the fun, one tends to build up an appetite, so a good bet is d'Lish Urban Kitchen & Wine Bar, an intimate place near the art galleries around 124th Street. Here we sampled the "Have Faith" menu, a "surprise," five-course vegetarian affair prepared by executive chef Jason Durling.
The Muttart Conservatory is another Edmonton attraction
 
There were dishes like mellow sweet potato soup, zucchini cannelloni stuffed with mushrooms, red peppers and onions, and green zucchini squash filled with quinoa pear-and-apricot puree.
 
Edmonton is a city of colorful neighborhoods, like Old Strathcona, where an unusual place to eat is the Dadeo Diner & Bar. The restaurant's vinyl booths and mini-jukeboxes reminded me of places I used to frequent years ago.
 
Old Strathcona is also where to find Edmonton's great farmers market, held every Saturday morning in an old building. One of the craftspeople we met at the market was Carolan Fuhr, who uses recycled glass and showed off her beautiful, mosaic-covered guitar. Downtown Edmonton also has a surprising number of dining options: The Blue Plate Diner serves items like maple-glazed corn bread and the popular "Mac-n-Cheese."
 
Another highlight of any visit to Edmonton is, of course, its flourishing art world. "My Banff," large photographs by Sarah Fuller of some of the "ordinary" people of Banff, was featured at the Art Gallery of Alberta, a modernistic building with striking angular windows and bold steel at Sir Winston Churchill Square.
 
Meanwhile, Edmonton's Muttart Conservatory showcased a subtropical jungle, a dry desert, a temperate forest and a lovely floral paradise in four large, pyramid-shaped structures.
 
For more "recent" history, there's Fort Edmonton Park, a 158-acre living museum and old fur trading post on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River.
 
Here you can drop into some of Edmonton's key periods -- a fur trading fort at the end of the 18th century, and streets from 1885, 1905 and the 1920s.
 
While urban Edmonton has much to offer, the city sits on the edge of nature in all its glory, so we escaped to the world of summer camping -- and herds of bison at Elk Island National Park, about an hour away by car.
 
Whether one comes to Edmonton for its urban treasures or for the wonders of nature, this city -- this shtetl, if you will -- is a shining star on Canada's western prairie.
 
For more information about Edmonton, visit: www.edmonton.com; for information about the province of Alberta, see: www.travelalberta.com.
 

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