Reflections on the Southern African Legacy project

Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of meeting with over 100 immigrants from South Africa and Zimbabwe as part of the OJA’s Southern African Legacy Project  [read more about SALP here]. The people I have met have lived fascinating and varied lives in Canada – from one man who started a museum on the history of contraception, to another who is a doctor and travelled the world on medical missions, to a prominent female entrepreneur who invented her own line of mirrors. With each shared photograph, document, and story, the larger history and legacy of this immigrant community as leaders, philanthropists and community builders begins to emerge. The records also reveal the community’s unique sense of humour, friendliness and warmth.

I am so grateful to all the people who have welcomed me into their homes or taken the time to visit me at the archives. It has been a fascinating experience and I have learned so much along the way. As we approach the final phase of this project, I thought it would be fitting to share some of the interesting facts I have learned alongside my own personal observations:

Eli Bloch in South Africa during the Boer War, [1900?]. OJA, accession #2016-7/9.
Eli Bloch in South Africa during the Boer War, [1900?]. OJA, accession #2016-7/9.
  • The earliest Jewish South African immigrant to Ontario I have learned about is Eli Bloch. He arrived in Toronto in 1907 while working as a travelling salesman selling ostrich feathers (a fashion trend at the time). He met his future wife here and stayed.

  • When leaving South Africa in the later half of the 1900s, there was a restriction on how much money emigrants could take with them out of the country. As a result, many brought non-perishable items with them or other valuable items, such as rugs and jewelry, which they could sell in Canada.
  • Canada often wasn’t the first or only place immigrants considered (many considered Israel, the USA or Australia). The decision to move to Canada was carefully planned and thought through. Some even travelled to various destinations before choosing where to go (called a “look-see” trip).
  • Most of the people I have met have immediate family members spread out in various parts of the world – mostly in Australia, Israel, England, and South Africa.
  • All the people I met had maids and/or gardeners in South Africa. When they arrived in Canada many South Africans had to adjust to the new lifestyle without this help. One woman explained to me that she has still never cooked herself a meal (she arrived in early 1980s when she was in her 60s)
Hilton Silberg in his pharmacy in Dundas, ON, in 1984. OJA, accession #2015-9/2.
Hilton Silberg in his pharmacy in Dundas, ON, in 1984. OJA, accession #2015-9/2.
  • All the South Africans I have spoken to have impressed upon me how violent it was there. For instance, one woman from Zimbabwe explained that when they went on road trips, they always drove in large caravans with armoured vehicles. Nearly all tell me how lucky I am to live in Canada.
  • Everyone I met who immigrated to Canada after the 1950s left South Africa due to its Apartheid politics and/or the worsening violence in the country. Most people described how they did not want to raise their children in that environment and saw no future for them there.
  • Most of the people I have met went to a Jewish Day School in South Africa. Their positive experiences led many of them to send their children to Jewish Day Schools in Canada.
  • Many of the people I have met have been incredibly successful in their lives in Canada. Many became leaders in their fields, worked hard to grow successful businesses and build a new life in Canada, and are committed to volunteer and philanthropic activities.
  • Everyone I have met is proud to live in Canada. Most people tell me it is the best place in the world to live.

The project has been a tremendous success, with dozens of recorded oral history interviews and thousands of collected photographs and documents for the archives collection. In fall 2017, we will be launching a dynamic online exhibition showcasing these incredible stories. I encourage anyone who would like to participate to contact me at mcaza@ujafed.org or 416-635-5391 x. 5110.

Melissa Caza

Archivist, Ontario Jewish Archives

Intersections in the Archives: Finding my Bubbie’s Handwriting in the OJA Collection

Ontario Jewish Archives, Toronto. 11 Nisan 5776.

Three days until the first seder, and I’m sifting through Box 45-7 H-16, feeling vaguely rushed. There’s no real urgency, but somehow the days just before Passover always seem shorter. Maybe it’s all the cooking and preparing and paranoid cleaning. But there’s always that sense of rushing toward something you’ve anticipated, and then it happening so quickly you don’t even get to enjoy those last few moments of waiting. I bet the Exodus felt the same way, but with the added disappointment of wasting so much perfectly good dough.

Thumbing through Box 45-7 H-16, I’m skimming past folders and folders. I’m looking for files with Yiddish on them, but I’ll stop if something else seems interesting. “Orphanage – Poland” doesn’t strike me at first (it’s too tangential to my search, not relevant enough, not Yiddish), but as I glance past I notice the pages are a thick faded blue cardstock – rare, in this collection. I pause and pull the folder, a collection of files on kids in an orphanage in Poland after the war. The documents are in Polish, but attached to each file is a handwritten English translation. Skimming a few, I take note of the English handwriting: not the looped rhythmic patterns of the Palmer Method, but a kind of jagged cursive with the harsher edges and points that I associate with early 20th-century European penmanship. My Polish grandmother wrote in exactly the same style. It always seemed messy to me, but suddenly I realize that it must have been taught; clearly other Polish-speakers also wrote this way. I take a quick snapshot of the file and make a mental note to mention this later to my mother, who will appreciate both the sobering content of the documents and the handwriting quirk, and file the folder back into its box, return it to its shelf, and move on to the next H-box on Shelf 45-7. There is more Yiddish in H-17 and H-18.

As I walk out of the archive, I remember to text my mother the photo. “Just like Bubbie’s handwriting!” I write. “It was a style.” “Gott in himmel!!!” she responds, “How could that NOT be her writing!?!!?” A few minutes later I send her another larger handwriting sample and then a photo of one of the blue orphan files. “From a collection of files on kids in an orphanage in Poland. Most born in 1936-1942,” I say. And she says, “Omg. That’s my mom’s.”

My mother remembers, sometime in the 1990s, her mother intersecting with the owner of a photo album from this orphanage, and later, with the owner of these files, and she remembers her translating them into English. My grandmother often did translation work; we’ve lost track of most of it. But on this particular day, in this particular H-box, I went looking for Yiddish documents, and instead stumbled onto my own grandmother’s handwriting – and recognized it. The only question now is whether I can recognize my responsibility to do something with it, to finish the story or at least find out where it begins.

After a few years immersed in rabbinic text and narratology, Miriam graduated from the University of Toronto as a Specialist in Jewish Studies, packed up, and headed for the north of England to take a break, try some great cheeses, and live among the sheep and rolling green hills. She returned to Toronto to pursue an M.A. in Yiddish (expected graduation 2017), and along the way discovered an amazing opportunity to examine Yiddish in the OJA collection. Currently, she is exploring Yiddish among Toronto’s 20th-century Jews, specifically in the Kensington Market neighbourhood, and still eating a lot of great cheese.

Written by: Miriam Borden

After a few years immersed in rabbinic text and narratology, Miriam graduated from the University of Toronto as a Specialist in Jewish Studies, packed up, and headed for the north of England to take a break, try some great cheeses, and live among the sheep and rolling green hills. She returned to Toronto to pursue an M.A. in Yiddish (expected graduation 2017), and along the way discovered an amazing opportunity to examine Yiddish in the OJA collection. Currently, she is exploring Yiddish among Toronto’s 20th-century Jews, specifically in the Kensington Market neighbourhood, and still eating a lot of great cheese.

Voices of the Past Remind us of our Relevance Today

The voices on this recording illuminate the achievement of the Jewish community in the late 1950s when they built the Bathurst JCC at 4600 Bathurst Street. As the community moved northward, there was a need for a new athletic and cultural centre to service the families living in the surrounding neighbourhoods.  The new Northern ‘Y’ was dedicated in 1961 at Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue in a beautiful ravine.

Fourteen years later, a new cultural and physical education wing was added to better serve the needs of its members. This included the addition of the Leah Posluns Theatre and the Koffler Centre of the Arts. The BJCC thrived for decades, offering members a place to gather, socialize, play sports, nosh, exercise, dance, swim, and build community.

In late August of this year, the OJA received an exciting donation of audio recordings from the company Kay Radio. Included is a recording of the North Y groundbreaking ceremonies from the winter of 1958 when community leaders, rabbis, and local politicians gathered to celebrate this moment. Some of the individuals identified speaking are: Rabbi Feinberg, Ellis I. Shapiro, Sam Granatstein, Kelso Roberts (Attorney General of Ontario), Fred Gardiner, Vernon Singer, and Mayor Nathan Phillips.

When you listen to the audio, you can hear the praise for the community's “forward-thinkingness” in building a "Y" on this property by those who spoke at this ceremony. And, their words remain relevant today as the community embarks on rebuilding this campus for the current and future generations.

A Brand Spanking New ScanPro 3000!!

The OJA gets a new Microfiche Scanner and Reader

The OJA has purchased a new state-of-the-art Microfiche Scanner and Reader--The ScanPro 3000 (yes! That is the actual name!!) Our old scanner was in desperate need of replacement and one of our frequent researchers was troubled by how cumbersome it was to use. This happened to be Bill Gladstone, local historian, CJN writer, and executive member of the Agudas Hamishpocha. They are a family organization founded in 1928 that still meets regularly and raises money to support various Jewish causes. Bill worked with the organization to make a substantial donation to the OJA to cover the expenses of a new Micofiche Scanner and Reader. As an historian and writer, Bill understands the importance of microfilm in archives and of making this material accessible. The OJA is grateful to Bill, the Agudas, and the Foundation of Jewish Toronto for making this gift possible.

Microfilm is still considered an important format for long-term preservation of delicate originals with high erosion rates (such as newspapers) or for those records that are requested so frequently that they are at risk of damage through constant handling. Micrographic scanners have advanced tremendously over the past several years. Commonly known as microfilm readers, these machines are an invaluable research tool for archives and libraries, whose collections often consist of microfilmed or microfiched records.

Many of the OJA’s most requested collections are on microfilm, particularly our periodicals. This includes:

The Yiddisher Zhurnal (1915-1959)
Der kamf : Der veg : Vochenblatt (1924-1972)
The Canadian Jewish News (1960-1996)
The Jewish Times (1897-1914)
Goel Tzedec Congregation minutes (1889-1917)
Holy Blossom Temple minutes, ledgers books, birth, marriage and burial registers (1856-1969)
Beth Jacob Synagogue (Hamilton) marriage register (1924-1940)
Numerous scrapbooks and diaries of individuals.

The ScanPro 3000 is the top-of-the-line model from ScanPro, the most widely used scanner in archives and libraries. It features a 26 megapixel optical camera capturing the smallest details on the page; high resolution scanning, the capability for in-text searching in multiple languages including Yiddish and Hebrew type; and automatic page scanning capabilities, which can scan entire rolls or partial rolls at up to 10 images per minute.

With a new and robust micrographic scanner, the OJA will better serve our researchers into the future. In addition, the scanning software will enable us to create text-searchable PDFs that can be emailed. We will also be able to link these pdfs to our online database so that users can access the content by keyword searching our database. Providing accessibility to this content to remote users is an extraordinary leap in making the OJA's rich collections available to users across the globe.

Thank you Bill Gladstone and Agudas Hamishpocha!

The Removal and Preservation of the Mandel's Creamery Window


The word “community” is the wireless password at Bicerin, the charming coffee place, a few stores down from 29 Baldwin Street where this morning, the Ontario Jewish Archives oversaw the careful removal of the original hand-painted Yiddish sign from Mandel’s Creamery that had remained there for over 70 years. 

As I walked away with my coffee, I smiled at this chosen password, given what we were about to do in the next hour. Baldwin Village, a designated heritage neighbourhood, is a thriving assortment of independent bookstores, record shops, noodle houses, new age boutiques, an Asian Gelateria. This is indeed a community, and an increasingly rare one in our Starbucks-saturated city.

I began to consider the various meanings of the word “community” that we toss around so frequently. I think about the heartfelt and helpful response of the community when the OJA first raised awareness about the potential threat to this last Yiddish sign of the once thriving Jewish neighbourhood.

When, just 10 days ago, the OJA was asked by the owners of Formocha, the incoming business at 29 Baldwin Street, to remove the window, a very different community came together to ensure its safe removal. Within hours, through the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Real Estate Division, led by David Sadowski, the Ontario Jewish Archives was connected with a trustworthy glass company who brought their best people out to do the job. And through the OJA’s connections with the Heritage Community, we had a number of consultants eagerly sharing their expertise on how to handle the removal and ensure its long term preservation. They, too, sent their people this morning to aid with this job. For this community of people that quickly reacted and responded, we are grateful.

And, of course, I think about this Jewish community of new immigrants that once thrived on these streets--the community that used to buy their butter and cheese at Mandel’s Creamery, their blueberry buns and Shabbat Challahs at various bakeries, the street peddlers, the legendary live chickens. The smells of the community! And, I hear the sounds as well—the Yiddish that was once spoken on these streets. During this period (roughly 1920-50s), there were three Yiddish newspapers printed and read locally in Toronto, including a daily—The Yiddisher Zshurnal. It was the mother tongue that brought all these immigrants together in this community. Unfortunately, it was not passed on to their children as the parents wanted their children to assimilate—to learn English, to be Canadian, part of that community. Gey Gezunt.

The Yiddish language is long gone from this neighbourhood. And, the removal of this sign—the last remnant—saddens me. However, we will work with Formocha to install a reproduction of the window so that the origins of its  location is remembered. And, the OJA will preserve the sign and find a way to create a tribute to this language of the past in Baldwin Village, to remind us of the many layers that make up our city of newcomers.

The OJA is incredibly grateful for the cooperation of the owners of Formocha and the considerable support received from the Mandel family. And, as always, I am grateful for my OJA community--Archivists Donna Bernardo-Ceriz and Melissa Caza. If you have further questions, please contact ojainquiries@ujafed.org.  

Dara Solomon

Director, Ontario Jewish Archives

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