Esther Starkman

Biography – Video

Esther Starkman discusses her life as part of Edmonton’s Jewish community, as an educator, and as a school board trustee.

My roots with the City of Edmonton’s synagogues are long and deep. My paternal grandfather, Solomon Estrin, was the “sexton” or the shammash of the old Beth Israel synagogue on 95th Street. He did that in about the 1920s and his primarily religious duties made it the job of his dreams. When they sold the homestead and came into Calgary, it was very difficult for him to get a job because he wouldn’t work on Shabbat. When he got this job in Edmonton, it was amazing. From the information I’ve gleaned from his obituary, written by Mr. Jacob Baltzan, he was fulfilled and happy in that position until his death in 1932. Actually in the written material, it was apparently the largest Jewish funeral of that time. Solomon was beloved and respected for his knowledge of Torah and for his people skills. Our grandfather Solomon bought a small two-story house next to the synagogue on 95th Street. I have a copy of the invitation for my parents’ wedding which took place at that synagogue on July 5th, 1925 at 5 pm 101110 95th Street, and the reception following at 9510101 Street or Avenue (I’m not sure which one it is today).

My siblings, three of them, were born and lived in that house along with our grandparents until 1939 when the house was sold. The family moved three miles west to 122nd Street, which was then the “new West End”. It was a better house, a better neighborhood, and a more affluent lifestyle. Lots of Jewish families moved to that area from the East End and we were surrounded in our neighborhood by, if I recollect correctly, the Superstein family, the Taradish family, the Ritches, the Shtabskys, Dr. Shlain and his mother, and on and on. I personally was born on January 7th, 1940 and was transported to that home on 122nd Street. It was a small-ish two-story yellow stucco house and it was in the location where Paul Kane Park is today. The corner was Christ Church, where I attended Brownies, and one block away was Robertson Church, so you can identify it. Our house was also in proximity to what was going to be the “new” Beth Israel synagogue on 119th Street, but it hadn’t been built yet. It was also close to the Glenora Figure Skating Club on 120th Street where I spent every day after school doing figure eights and three jumps trying to improve. I think I was then in grade six and seven at Oliver School. On the same street, on 120th Street, was the Glenora Figure Skating Club and next to it was the Royal Curling Club. They actually merged and became the Royal Glenora Club, which is in our River Valley today and where Howard and I have membership and enjoyed a lot of athletic activities with our children in the coming years. I do have a few memories of the old Beth Israel on 95th Street: one memory is of my mother, Rebecca [Becky], and I climbing the stairs to sit in the balcony with the other ladies where we could throw candies at the Bar Mitzvah boys below. I also have a memory of standing with my father close to the front of the synagogue underneath the balcony and he was holding my hand. I was surrounded by lots of elderly men with tallesim on and one of which I think was Mr. Nelson, who was then the shammash of the shul on 95th Street. In that front corner there were benches and you lifted up. almost like a shelf, it was on a hinge and underneath that hinged piece were the siddurim and the tallesim. That’s how they were stored then and those are my memories of that synagogue, even though I was a very small girl at the time.

In the early 50s, our parents moved again to the “new West End” and their new home was at 13822 Ravine Drive and they designed and built that home. They were not the only ones — all of those people mentioned before all moved to the “new West End” again. We were surrounded again by many people: the Rollinghers, the Bernsteins, the Laskins, the Pekarskys. So many people bought homes in that area at that time. I guess when we moved I was in grade eight and I was enrolled at the new Westminster Junior High School. When I went there, I have to say I loved the school, I loved my teachers, I loved my classmates, and I think it was there, I believe, that I learned to love school. My destiny was set — it was going to be education and ultimately, teaching. Westminster at that point had been open for about a year, and I was tasked with writing the school constitution for Westminster School. Well the good news was that I had a brother, Saul, who was then enrolled in law school at the University of Alberta. Together we produced the constitution. Much later in life, well not so much later, I returned to that school, Westminster and I was a teacher there of Drama and English. One of my star students in Drama was Fred Singer. I enjoyed my time there, really enjoyed. My children were junior high age and it was just a pleasure to teach junior high students then. Much, much later our granddaughters Molly and Hannah picked Westminster as their school of choice for junior high school, so it does have meaning for us. 

I mentioned the store and I think that’s kind of interesting and that you might like to hear about that. When I said that my dad worked six days a week, he owned one of the wooden stores on 101st Street between the King George Hotel and the CN tracks. That stretch had a multitude of Jewish men selling goods, from fur and hides to hardware, all along that strip. My father’s store was called the Standard Exchange and the sign above it read “we buy and sell anything of value”. After many years of making a very nice living there he replaced his wooden store with a smart new brick structure. He sold that building at 10235-37 101st Street to a developer who was developing the Four Seasons Hotel, which is now the Sandman where Chops is located. I’ve actually got the cornerstone of that building in my garden. 

I’m going to go back a little and transition from that Westminster school that I told you about. When it was time for me to go to high school most of the Jewish kids went to Westglen High School. Very few went to other schools, a couple did, but Westglen was the key place for Jewish kids. It turned out that Westglen was way overcrowded and they were going to build the school Ross Sheppard then. In the interim a certain group of young people were asked to go to Victoria Composite High School and I was designated as having lived in the area which would go to Vic. It was the newest and largest high school. It was called Vic Composite then because it had a big academic building in the front and at the back, were tons of buildings where they provided education in the trades. You could study plumbing there, you could study any of the trades, and so it was really a huge school. Anyway, I was in the academic section and I came in and I spotted an individual. At that point I thought to myself “I think this guy (who was then the president of Vic) is going to be my life companion”. Sure enough, it was Howard Starkman and he did become my life companion. Some years later I returned to Victoria School and I taught there. I was an English teacher there. Then a third reiteration, I actually came back to Victoria School in Continuing Education. It’s interesting to note that the old Vic School, the predecessor of this giant composite school, educated most of the children of the Jewish families from the East End. That’s the school that Joseph Shoctor, who founded the Citadel, went to, that’s the school that Arthur Hiller, the famous director, went to, and so it does have a huge history for our Jewish families and for the city of Edmonton. 

My first teaching position was at Queen Elizabeth High School where I taught English and Drama. That first year I had grade twelve students who were almost as old as I was, and certainly larger and very much taller, even when I wore my three-inch heels, which in those days teachers wore, believe it or not. We produced our first year play which was “Arsenic and Old Lace” and my then fiance Howard sold out the house to everyone he knew, his relatives, his friends, other articling students, other lawyers, and we jam-packed the place.

At that school where I taught, Queen Elizabeth High School, I first met and worked with Mr. Michael Strembitsky and he went on to become the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools. He was superintendent during my tenure as school trustee. If we’re talking buildings, one of the buildings that means part of my essence and part of my being and where I reinforce my support for excellence in public education, is the big blue building on Kingsway in 101st Street.

I have to say that I believe strongly in a high quality public education system based on fairness, inclusiveness, accessibility, fiscal accountability, and a commitment to excellence for all students. I was really thrilled to be elected to serve on the public school board for two terms and part of that as board chair. So needless to say, that blue building became a home to me every Tuesday night, and sometimes more often, for about eight years. So it’s a place of quiet, it’s a place of intelligence, it’s a place that I like to come to, and even now, I’ve been privileged to work on a diversity day conference for youth. I come back to that building to work with some of the staff and I’m always pleased to be there.

I was a teacher for over 30 years, but in 1975 I took a little bit of a slight career change. I went into Continuing Education teaching adult upgrading first at Vic and later at Alberta Vocational College, now Norquest. What is adult education? Well at the beginning, when I worked in those two places, we were adapting high school courses for adults. You can’t teach the same literature and you can’t have the same stories or perspective for adults that you have for young students, so that was our challenge. AVC, as it was known, was located on 108th Street and 102nd Avenue, it’s still there but it’s greatly expanded. They have almost taken over all of 108th Street between 102nd and 103rd Avenues. It was a return to a downtown school from the old Talmud Torah to AVC where I worked for more than 15 years. 

It might interest you to note that Alberta Vocational College was established for army veterans who came back and wished to have some retraining. That was the beginning of that school and it subsequently has maintained its main purpose of retraining, but of course has added things since that time. I had fun there. I did teach some regular classes teaching English to the equivalent of grades 11 and 12. I also did some Continuing Education in the sense that I developed an English program for Russian physicians. They were young kids in their 20s who were already accepted at a medical school in Canada and we worked for the improvement of their language skills before they went to Dalhousie to take their medical training. I also did, which was kind of ahead of its time, I created and managed a cross-cultural training program with an Aboriginal focus for a power company. We were teaching them how to deal with their customers when they went out to deal with power issues. 

In 1989, I was elected as a public school trustee. In the fall, when civic elections are on and sometime late September, just after the election, I was called into my senior supervisor at the college. I thought I had really done something wrong and that I was in trouble but it turned out that he asked me, now that I was an elected school trustee, if I could coordinate an initiative for literacy. He had been involved in an adult literacy group, along with a chap from Edmonton Catholic Schools and they wanted to have a major bang-up initiative because 1990 was declared the International Year of Literacy by the United Nations. There’s been another one since, but that was the one. So he said “because you’re a trustee, maybe you can get Edmonton Public Schools involved and we can do something”. My answer to him was that I didn’t want to do any fundraising, but would be happy to do other things. I went back to my school board people and actually the idea caught fire. This was the first initiative and the only initiative, really, for school children to hold hands with adults and to preach literacy. It had always been adult illiteracy and the schools looked after literacy, because that’s what schools are about. The project started with Alberta Vocational College, Edmonton Public Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools, probably the first time they joined hands to do anything of this nature. There was no cost — everything was done by the personnel of those three organizations. In those years AVC had a printing shop and we did the print there. It came into being, some time later we were joined by the Edmonton Public Library, by Grant MacEwan College, by the University of Alberta, by the Francophone School District, and one year even by the Royal Bank. It became a weekly annual celebration of literacy. So every year, the first week in October, schools throughout the city (Public, Catholic, Francophone) celebrate Read In Week. 

Read In, which I was lucky enough to create and share and participate in over the years, is a city-wide initiative which raises public awareness for literacy and its important role in the success of individuals and communities. The event is an annual week-long celebration during the first week in October, There’s usually about a hundred thousand students and volunteers reading in schools, libraries, and other public places. One year, we bungee jumped for Read In, one year we did poetry at an Edmonton Eskimos football game, and we had an opening at the beginning of the week and a closing at the end of the week. In more than 75% of the times over the years, the Minister of Education would come. People just loved reading and they loved to participate. It was a great opportunity for adults who hadn’t been to school for a long time to come into a school, to talk to the kids, read them stories, and get feedback from the kids. It is great for the kids to find out what they do in real life and how important literacy is for them. I was very fortunate to be in attendance and to participate in 2019 when we had a huge celebration for the 30th anniversary of Read In, in the public school which bears my name. I have to say, there are not many initiatives which last, now, 32 years — it’s been a long run for Read In.

In 1996, you may find this interesting, I was honored to be named ship sponsor of HMCS Edmonton. I had the great thrill of cracking a champagne bottle to launch the ship in Halifax and then the next summer, to commission the ship in Esquimalt, BC at the other coast. I believe that I’m the only Jewish person to have launched a Canadian naval vessel. The ship is an adjunct to the City of Edmonton and proudly represents our city wherever it sails. If you don’t get out to the West Coast to see the HMCS Edmonton in dock, you can go to City Hall here and you can see a perfect two-scale model of it done the year that it was commissioned. It was flattering to me and it was exciting that some of the sailors from the HMCS Edmonton were so inspired by Read In — one captain whose wife was a teacher, decided to have a Read In at her school and the winners who read a certain number of lines and books were invited to be take a trip on the HMCS Edmonton to have a scavenger hunt there. Another year, the sailors who always donate a certain amount to charity, took their money and three sailors came to Edmonton and spoke to the kids at Read In. Then donated x number of books to the Read In, so it was really very interesting to have those two initiatives cross paths. 

I guess it’s no secret to say that not only my vocation but my passion in life was and continues to be education. The old mantra “free education with the addition of excellence” remains part of my advocacy. When I’m privileged to speak to the young sailors at Esquimalt, I advocate for and reflect on the benefits of life-long learning, which they’re doing as they man these ships. Our children’s future and, indeed, our country’s future is dependent on the fundamental core value endorsed by so many and certainly by so many of our Jewish faith. We are called the People of the Book. Following my years as a public school trustee and chair of the board, I’m so humbled and appreciative to have my name associated with a very successful K-9 public school in Terwillegar. It was opened in 2010. The Esther Starkman School may pay tribute to me on a personal level, but it should be noted that it reflects as well the inclusiveness of our community of Edmonton, inasmuch as I am identified as Jewish by faith. Thank you.

Esther Starkman discusses memories of the Talmud Torah in its original location.

I did start school at the old Talmud Torah. It was on 103rd Street, just south of Jasper Avenue in the business district of Edmonton. It was a two-story brick building with the classrooms on the main floor and the office on the second floor, as well as a large room which was used as a multi-purpose room. I think as students we used it as a gym as well. In fact, that space was rented out to Jewish families and it was where Beth Shalom first started before they had their own building. As well, it was there where my parents, who had been married in the old [Beth Israel] synagogue, celebrated their 25th anniversary, in the Talmud Torah. They also celebrated the engagement of my sister Phyllis to Dr. Tom Hardin, which would have been in 1950, when I was 10 years old. 

The schoolyard had the sidewalk in the middle with shale on either side. We often fell on that shale and scraped our knees. We sort of were worried about the neighbors — there was actually a house on either side of the Talmud Torah and if our balls or any of our equipment went over the fence, we thought the people were really mean because they kept the equipment. Those were wonderful years and I remember well. Many of the students that I went to school with; Dr. Marvin Weisler, Dr. Marvin Levant, Rona Margolis, Cyril Shapiro, Doreen Pakes, Evelyn Prepas, Florie Rubin now Axler… these were mainstays of the Jewish community and children of the mainstays. I also have a memory in the old Talmud Torah of it having a basement and in the basement there was a suite for Mike and Lisa and their daughter, who were the cooks. They prepared the food for us. As well, there was a small office which was pretty smoke filled and that’s where the Young Judeans hung out. Of course, my brother Tevie, Dr. Tevie Estrin, was one of those kids who hung out at the Young Judea office in the basement of that school.

Going home from the school, and mothers didn’t drive in those days, so we used the streetcars system and buses when they came along. My friend and I would walk from the Talmud Torah on South of 103rd and Jasper to 104th Street, where this wonderful place called the Palace of Sweets was. We would walk down the roads looking for things that we would buy and usually it was seafoam. We would take that home with us until the next day. In addition to what I’ve told you about the Talmud Torah, they also held junior congregation services at that school. My dad was appointed from the board to look after the junior congregation, so the junior congregation had a pretty strong place in my life. We would go in the morning, have the service and then my brothers were responsible for me. So we would walk to a downtown bowling alley where my mother had given us lunch, we’d eat our lunch, I would watch the boys bowl, and then the procedure was to go to a matinee at either the Capitol Theater or the Rialto Theater. That was their duty and it was freedom for my mom.
My mom was sort of a woman ahead of her time. She decided that my musical talent was pretty deficient, so she decided to give me elocution lessons. Those were at the Alberta College which was then, and I think still is, located on 100th Avenue, not far from where the old Talmud Torah was. Those elocution lessons, I think, sort of defined my life. I came to do a lot of public speaking and of course, in my teaching I was always presenting to a class. I have to say that across from the Talmud Torah was the Masonic temple where all the music competitions were held. I remember competing in “speech arts” as they called it and my poem was from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it began “Ooh eyes so wicked”. Of course, I had to learn to roll my eyes to match my speech and there were a couple of interesting incidents from that time that I still remember, but I’m going to move on. I do think that those lessons really affected my life.

Esther Starkman discusses memories of the Talmud Torah school in its second and current locations.

I talked a little bit about the early Talmud Torah and I want to go back to the Talmud Torah. All three buildings; 103rd, 133rd, and now the new Talmud Torah, well relatively new, on 172nd Street played a major role in my life. It started with my father’s belief, which he talked about when we were at the table or in the house that if all Jewish children attended Talmud Torah elementary school, there would be less of a divide in the Jewish community. I think he, for a man of his time, looked at it in a broad way. I think that even today, one might think about that a little more.

We know stories of my mother telling me that in the early years of Talmud Torah, she and her friends would go out collecting for milk and things like that for the kids at school. Remember, it was a private school and it was totally supported by the community. Her fundraising, I think, morphed into the famous “Magen David Bridge Club” where 12 ladies met once a week to play cards and raised money for the Talmud Torah. They would raise money to buy a projector, or in those years a copy machine, which we then called a Gestetner. When you used it, you got purple ink all over your hands. That’s the kind of thing that those ladies did, and that was, of course, prior to the new school. It was a good thing that the community had something to work toward. They always had something to work toward, but it felt as if they were a part of it.

I was in the school recently, the beautiful school, and I looked up at some of the plaques that were on the wall. As Chief Dan George said, my heart swelled: there was my mother’s name as president of Mother’s Auxiliary, there was my sister’s name, Phyllis Hardin, as president of Mother’s Auxiliary, and there was my name as president of Mother’s Auxiliary. I think it all came from the dedication of our parents to the school. Although, I have to say, the plaques are a little different at the beginning. If you look at the plaques, all the women go by their husband’s name; it was Mrs. Abraham Estrin or Mrs. Tom Hardin. As you go down, it could be Mrs. Esther Starkman. So they changed just as society changed. 

We were dedicated to to the Talmud Torah. I guess we were imbued with it and imbued it at home. Our children, Hillary, Georgina, and Daniel, attended the school on 133rd Street. Who can forget those lineups of cars waiting to drop kids off or waiting to pick pick children up. Even though that was our children’s school, we were very happy to contribute to, along with our respective families, the building of the new school on 172nd Street.

Again, as Talmud Torah’s close to my heart, it was a great honor for me to co-chair the Talmud Torah’s 75th anniversary with Daniel Pekarsky, now of Vancouver, whose father was one of the major principals at the Talmud Torah. Later on, I am thrilled and, I have to say, honored again to have been co-chair of the hundredth anniversary with Stacey Wright. So the Talmud Torah has been meaningful to me. As a couple, Howard and I did a lot of things as a couple. I think that we both in our own way were huge supporters of Talmud Torah. He was a two-term president and on the board during the period when Talmud Torah school became a program under Edmonton Public Schools. I remember well the evening when Howard shared that fateful meeting. The gym on 133rd Street was packed to the rafters and there were a lot of detractors who did not want the Talmud Torah to lose its independence. Ultimately, it led to an acquiescent vote favoring Talmud Torah coming under the umbrella of Edmonton Public Schools. I think great thanks and kudos to the board of the time who were a very strong board, and to the staff under then Superintendent Strembitsky who made it happen. We were the only Hebrew school in North America to receive that kind of per-pupil funding and that kind of educational support that only a very large educational system could give, so it was a major step forward.

Esther Starkman discusses her connection to the Edmonton Jewish Cemetery and Chevra Kadisha.

I’m sure Paula, that many of the people that you’ve talked to have talked about the cemetery as being important to them, how amazing it was that those early pioneers created the cemetery right in the first years of coming to Edmonton. It’s a special place for me in particular, because all my family have that cemetery as their final resting place. Solomon, the man I talked about that was the shammash at 95th Street [Beth Israel], his first wife, Mariasha, became ill on the homestead. Many Jewish families homesteaded, they were given land and homesteaded, but it was very hard for them. Most sold their interests and moved to two cities. But she became ill on the homestead and is buried there. Solomon’s second wife, Esther Gofsky Estrin for whom I’m named, is buried there. My parents Abraham and Rebecca Estrin are there, and a child that was born to them and died at two years old is there. Of course, my beloved sister, Phyllis Estrin Hardin, was laid to rest there as well. 
But the cemetery also has another connection for me. It also represents Chevra Kadisha and, as my brother Dr. Teviah Estrin wrote in his book Travels and Travails, our father worked six days a week from 8-7 in the store [Standard Exchange]. On Sundays he would pack his Chevra Kadisha briefcase and head out the door for a 10 a.m meeting, for either Chevra Kadisha or Talmud Torah. Two Sundays a month you could find him at those meetings. Dad was secretary of Chevra Kadisha for 40 years and a member of the Talmud Torah board in various capacities, including board chair, for 35 years. The other two Sundays, one might find him at the steam bath on 95th Street, right next to the Flatiron Building, which has been recreated and is still there. I think it’s a City of Edmonton building there, but right next to that was a steam bath. Many of the Jewish men went there from time to time and I think on the other two Sundays my dad could be found playing cards and schmoozing with the boys there. I do have a memory that sticks in my mind: my mother, being so proud that my dad was a member of the Chevra Kadisha and she so respected that work that when, once a year, they had a seuda, it was like one of the highlights of her social calendar, so to speak, to go to that seuda. She felt that that work was so important and so honorable.

Esther Starkman discusses memories of Beth Israel Synagogue’s second and current locations.

In 1953, the new Beth Israel, on 119th Street and 102nd Avenue, became our family’s spiritual home. Howard and I were married there in 1962, as were our daughters, Hillary to Dr. Lyle Gorenstein, Georgina to Daniel Danzig, and then once again, the Jewish community moved to the new West End. The third iteration of the Beth Israel was built on 170th Street in Wolf Willow. Not to leave out our son, he was our third wedding at Beth Israel, but the new Beth Israel. Daniel and Marina were married there on June 18, 2000 and they were the first wedding in the new building at that time.

My husband Howard was president of Beth Israel during the transition between the 119th Street shul and the new one in Wolf Willow. He and his board actually stick handled a lot of challenges in the time of the move from one synagogue to another. There were many, many issues at that time. 

In keeping with the tradition in my family and my commitment to the Jewish community, I was active at the synagogue. I chaired with my lifelong friend, Marilyn Cohen, a very successful and high-profile 95th anniversary dinner for Beth Israel. I did serve on the board from 2003 to 2009, and in 2014 Howard and I were honored, along with Michael and Jodi Zabludowsk,i by the synagogue.