- Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment by Gerald Tulchinsky
Gerald Tulchinsky’s fascinating biography of Joe Salsberg explores the multifaceted nature of this prominent activist’s complex life. Born in a small town in Poland in 1902, Salsberg immigrated to Canada in 1913 and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish environment. In Toronto, he began a full-time job as a clothing worker at the age of thirteen and became a committed trade unionist. As Tulchinsky demonstrates, Salsberg’s subsequent life of intense activism revolved around two identities: his Jewishness and his working-class culture of solidarity.
Drawn at first to the Left Labour Zionist movement as a response to deep currents of anti-Semitism in both the Old and New Worlds, Salsberg joined the Communist Party of Canada in 1926 largely because of his growing conviction that the Soviet Union would not only advance the cause of the working class but would also create an environment where anti-Semitism would be completely condemned and Yiddish culture would thrive. As a committed Communist, he became a leading – but by no means orthodox – Party figure, playing an especially prominent role building the Workers’ Unity League (wul) during the first half of the Great Depression. As Tulchinsky stresses, Salsberg stayed in the Party until 1957 despite the fact that, as early as the 1930s, he began to have serious misgivings about the treatment of Jews in the USSR. Tulchinsky also examines Salsberg’s stint as city councillor (intermittently in the late 1930s and early 1940s) and as an openly Communist member of the Ontario Legislature from 1943 to 1955. The last section of the book then focuses on Salsberg’s later years as a journalist for the Canadian Jewish News and as a Jewish activist who strove to confront the influence of the “allrightniks” (those who were upwardly mobile and forgot their working-class roots) within Canada’s Jewish community. In this phase of his life, Salsberg struggled against the narrow religiosity and consumerism that he believed were becoming so influential in the Jewish mainstream.
A highly prominent scholar of Canadian Jewish history, Tulchinsky is perceptive when elucidating Salsberg’s Jewish concerns. One of the important strengths of the book is the way in which the author captures the sounds and the flavour of the yiddishe gassen, the neighbourhood along Toronto’s Spadina Avenue where so many immigrant Jews congregated in the early years. Highlighting this neighbour-hood culture, Tulchinsky explains why many non-Communist Jews continued [End Page 217] to vote for the charismatic Salsberg well into the Cold War period.
Tulchinsky also grapples with why Salsberg continued to stay in the Party for so long despite his growing awareness of the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. Salsberg refrained from publicly criticizing the increasing Soviet anti-Semitism until he finally broke with the Party completely in the wake of the Stalin Revelations. Tulchinsky provides a fascinating account of the growing evidence of Soviet anti-Semitism and the searing debates among Jewish Communists and some of their leading non-Jewish counterparts about how to interpret these developments and how to react them. He details Salsberg’s determined efforts, in the mid-1950s, to build pressure within the Party to force a change in Soviet policy toward Jews, and he explains how Salsberg finally gave up these efforts when he reluctantly concluded that the policy would not change enough under Khrushchev.
Tulchinsky also provides an important overview of Salsberg’s actions in the provincial parliament. While he parried anti-Semitic barbs and red-baiting within the legislature, Salsberg supported such causes as an increased minimum wage, better factory safety standards, improved old age pensions, prison reform, and day nurseries for the children of working mothers. In advance of the rise of left nationalism in this country, he criticized the extension of US power and economic interests in Canada. As Tulchinsky also emphasizes, Salsberg worked intensely to promote anti-discrimination legislation, yet the author might also have highlighted the fact that Salsberg’s efforts along these lines were not always welcomed...