I was first acquainted with Banff when two good friends married in a spectacular mountaintop setting there about a decade ago. I still remember her twirling in a red dress, the vivid scarlet contrasting with the brilliant white of Alberta’s snowcapped Rockies.
Ten years and two children later, the couple is divorced. But the beauty of Canada’s wild mountain region endures. And while there is nothing especially Jewish in Banff— save for vacationing skiers and the occasional bride or groom — the nearest city, Calgary, is a pleasant home base with a proud community of prairie Jews.
Banff is a stunning mountain resort, fresh and green in summer, mad with skiers in winter. Calgary is a very Canadian city — clean, modern, well-organized, a little chilly even in the middle of summer. It has a nice zoo, a rich Jewish heritage, summer rodeos, dance halls full of cowboys, and an Olympic afterglow that lends itself to outdoor recreation all year long.
Calgary was chosen to host the 1988 Winter Olympic Games for its strategic location: It is the urban gateway to the Canadian Rockies. A scenic 90-minute drive along the Trans-Canada highway takes you from Calgary to Banff; once there, you can explore the shops and restaurants along Banff Avenue, the resort town’s lively main thoroughfare, or head directly into the wild, dramatic landscapes of Banff National Park.
But Banff offers more than just mountains and views. All summer long, the Banff Summer Arts Festival hosts dozens of free performances at venues throughout the city. The largest event of its kind in the region, the festival presents visual art exhibits alongside concerts by local musicians; dance, opera and theater featuring renowned artists; and lectures and book talks that bring some of Canada’s best-known writers, many Jewish, to the mountains.
Those of us who remember Calgary’s Winter Olympics — the first many of us had ever heard of the city — might enjoy a visit to the Calgary Olympic Park, where the original torch is on display alongside plenty of pictures. Highlights include the memorable victories of figure skaters Brian Boitano and the East German Katarina Witt. More popular than memorabilia, however, are the present-day activities: zip-line, mini golf, a luge installation, summer bobsled rides, and mountain biking, among others.
While you’re outdoors, consider a visit to one of the city’s prime attractions: Calgary Heritage Park Historic Village, a sort of Canadian Sturbridge Village that’s fun for kids and those of us who enjoyed grade-school field trips. The Jewish draw here, however, is arguably Alberta’s signature Jewish landmark: the Little Synagogue on the Prairie, a vintage 1916 wooden temple built in classic frontier style, which was installed in the park with great fanfare in 2009.
The Little Synagogue was originally built on the remote Saskatchewan border to serve a community of about three dozen pioneering Jewish families who were known as the “Montefiore” colony of immigrants — named to honor Sir Moses Montefiore, the Italian-born British-Jewish banker and Zionist whose philanthropy supported Jewish communities far and wide.
Used as a private residence for most of the 20th century, the structure is today recognized as one of the few surviving examples of prairie synagogue architecture. It’s an enlightening addition to hands-on installations that include the Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Trading Fort, a railway prairie town, and reconstructions of settlements from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The perfect Jewish complement to all this history is a visit to Calgary’s fascinating Glenbow Museum, a uniquely Canadian institution devoted to telling the story of Canada’s indigenous and immigrant communities through history and artifacts — from galleries focusing on native peoples to paintings by contemporary local artists. The museum’s Jewish cultural collection is a treasure trove of old photographs, audio recordings of interviews with Alberta Jewish pioneers, ritual objects like kippot and tallit bags, and vintage clothing and household items that make tangible the daily life of Canada’s early Jews.
Today, the Jewish community of Calgary is vibrant and varied, proud of its New World history and Old World roots. The descendants of those early prairie fur traders, merchants and scholars today maintain a range of synagogues and institutions, with events nearly every day of the week and a warm welcome for visiting Jews.
Whether you come to ski, hike, tour history, or witness mountaintop nuptials, it’s hard to leave Alberta without an appreciation for the way Canada’s frontier has welcomed diverse communities. And amid one of North America’s loveliest landscapes, it’s easy to see why the Jewish settlers stayed.