'Logical Family

by Andrea Taylor

David Gruber, 1960. Photograph by Sylvia Schwartz. OJA, fonds 80Not all of us are born into our families. In my case, and in the case of my adoptive dad, David Gruber, our families are mostly made up of people who chose one another; assemblages of dear friends, and often times their families. I grew up hearing fantastic tales of my dad’s Aunts Sylvia, Ruth, and Jewel Schwartz, and friends and extended families within the Toronto Jewish community. Stories of Jewel’s shop and the artists who moved through their lives, halcyon summers at the family cottage in Bobcaygeon where kids were free to fish and swim and canoe and roam under the watchful eyes of adults, the very best of life, days we would all live for.

David Gruber, 1955. Photograph by Sylvia Schwartz. OJA, fonds 80When David – who I met when I was just 14 - died in March of 2022, the vacuum of loss he left behind led me on a search for ties to his past.  Who he was and where he comes from has become who I am, and where I will go. The reach of my words ends when I think of the day I found these photos of my dad, digitized, and preserved by the Ontario Jewish Archives. His memories were suddenly made real. These documents, and photos of people’s lives, with their loves and their losses are alive in the stories we can tell and pass along. The world is a better place for having had them in it, and I believe it remains good with each remembrance of them.

The Taylor-Gruber family, Hanukkah 2020Andrea Taylor is completing a thesis for a Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management while working with the Canadian Red Cross 2021 BC Floods Recovery Team. She and her rescue dog live next door to her son at their home in the west Kootenays. Photo caption: The Taylor-Gruber family, Hanukkah 2020. Identified from left, Dorito, Josh, Andrea, and David 

Caption: Portaits of David Gruber in 1960 (top) and 1955. Photographs by Sylvia Schwartz. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 80.

Looking back on my iPraktikum Internship with the OJA

By Graeme Myers

As a student of Yiddish, I was immediately drawn to the opportunity presented by an internship at the Ontario Jewish Archives. The chance to work with historical Yiddish documents while improving my language and translation skills was extremely exciting. This opportunity at the OJA allowed me to build upon two years of studying the Yiddish language by gaining practical experience working with older texts.

My time at the OJA began with the examination of an 1927 issue of the Toronto Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) Youth Magazine, Yungvarb. On the pages shared with me, I discovered a beautiful poem written by Yitzhak Katzenelson—the well-known poet. Working on the text was a true test of my knowledge of the Yiddish language and translation skills. While I had much previous experience translating Spanish texts, Yiddish poetry provides an entirely different kind of challenge, with rhyme structure, word choice and etymology, as well as syntax all adding extra considerations and layers of complexity to the process. Reading it over and over, I slowly worked through the translation line-by-line, doing my best to preserve the meaning of the text alongside its feel and flow. A beautiful poem deserves an equally well-considered translation, which I strived to achieve.

Header from the March-April 1927 issue of Yungvarb

Next, I turned to the handwritten documents, a series of letters, which presented new and much more trying challenges. While I was familiar with Yiddish handwritten texts, historical script and calligraphy can be daunting to attempt to read, let alone translate. In many cases, these letters contained non-standard orthography and spelling, as well as faded script and styles I wasn’t familiar with. So, I set out to find some materials for reference.

While researching examples of older Yiddish handwriting, I discovered the work of the Dybbuk Project. Based out of the University of Haifa, they had spent the last few years building a model for the analysis of Yiddish handwritten texts. Using the software Transkribus and the Dybbuk model to analyze the letters’ handwriting, I began to work through the first of the letters from the OJA collection, reading slowly through each line and comparing any words I couldn’t make out initially with the analysis from the Dybbuk model. Though slow-going and requiring long periods of focus, this process allowed me to begin to recognize certain patterns within the letter— from the way certain letters were written, or contractions were used, to spellings that differed from the standardized forms I had learned. The Dybbuk Project’s model allowed me to create multiple reference points and better understand these documents as I worked through them.

An example of one of the handwritten Yiddish letters from the Ontario Jewish Archives, 1899. Toronto Hebrew Benevolent Society fonds 54, file 1, item, 6.On a personal note, examining and working with the OJA’s documents has been both difficult and extremely rewarding, with content that ranges from the deeply upsetting to the humorous or joyous. The study of Yiddish is important to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was the language of much of my family and my grandfather still speaks it. But beyond individual ties, translating Yiddish archival documents for today’s audience provides an important opportunity to preserve individual stories, moments of joy and sadness, that can resonate with all of us. To paraphrase my first Yiddish professor: you can say anything and everything in Yiddish. Preserving and sharing these words with a broader audience is a task I’m honoured to have played the smallest of parts in.

I’d like to thank the OJA once more for the opportunity to take part in the internship program!

 Photo of Graeme MyersGraeme Myers, Master’s Student, Centre for Comparative Literature & Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto

Scrap, Salvage and Sell

Scrap, Salvage and Sell: the Scrap Metal Trade in London, Ontario

If you have working-class Jewish ancestors who immigrated to Canada between the 1890s and 1930s, there is a good chance that one of your ancestors “started out” by selling second-hand goods or collecting junk (scrap).

In the early 1890s, my great-great grandfather Moses Leff and my great-grandfather William Leff settled in London, Ontario. They started by collecting scrap, rags, and second-hand goods. In 1898, William became a scrap dealer and founded his own business, “William Leff & Company”. My great-uncle Hyman Leff started a salvage business in the 1930s, and both businesses were in the family until the early 1970s. I was fortunate because I grew up hearing family stories about their lives in London, Ontario and about the scrap trade. However, I yearned to learn more.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 2436.

W. Leff & Co. truck (London, ON), 1937.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 2436.

This past year, I participated in the Morris Winchvesky Centre’s, Adult B’(nai) Mitzvah class, and was presented with a challenge of doing a project. I chose to do a project about my maternal family and their connection to the scrap business. The project can be found on the website: Scrap, Salvage, and Sell: the story of a Jewish family and their scrap businesses in London, Ontario.

During my research and interviews, I heard stories that I knew before: how my great-grandparents were the first marriage in the B’nai Israel Synagogue; how my great-grandfather William Leff co-founded the B’nai Moses synagogue; and that my great-grandmother Jennie co-founded the first Hadassah chapter in London.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2010-8-1.

B'nai Moses Ben Judah window.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2010-8-1.

I also uncovered new stories that I didn’t know before like how William and his employees were charged and fined for breaking the Sunday labour law in 1909. By diving into street directories and the census, I learned that in the 1920s, 90% of the scrap business owners and scrap collectors in London were Jewish. From a photo at the OJA, I learned that Max Lerner, a contemporary of my great-grandfather, started out as a scrap collector, and then became London’s first Jewish alderman. From my cousin ‘Aunt’ Ida, I learned how my great-uncle Hyman was “let go” from William Leff Company because he was blind. Not to be deterred, Hyman started his own scrap and building material company named the Hyman Leff Company. From newspaper articles and interviews, I learned about targeted arson attacks against the two businesses, and other Jewish owned scrap yards in 1948.

As part of the research project, I interviewed family members who have connections to both William and Hyman Leff’s businesses. These interviews shed light on their day-to-day operations, as well as what it was like to be a child of scrap and salvage brokers. These interviews form part the story on the website I created. When I finish editing and transcribing the interviews, I will be donating the interviews to the OJA, which will enrich their holdings on the Jewish-owned scrap industry.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 6056.

Max Lerner, junk peddler (London, ON), [ca. 1904].

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 6056.

The Value of Digitized Photos

Many of the photographs in “Scrap, Salvage, and Sell” are from three archival donations to the Ontario Jewish Archives. The photos of the William Leff & Company business were donated by Zara Leff (daughter in-law of William Leff) in 1978. The photo of Max Lerner (former alderman in London, Ontario) was donated by Judge Mayer Lerner in 1993, and the stained-glass window from the B’nai Moses Synagogue was donated in 2000. Due to the past efforts of the OJA to digitize their photograph collections, I was able find these photos on the OJA website and use them for my own research.

As a researcher, I love the serendipity of finding hidden gems in digital libraries and archives. I am always grateful that someone had the foresight to donate photos, papers, and other documents to archives, so researchers can access them in the future.

In the past few decades many libraries, and archives, the OJA included, have been digitizing photographs with the goal of making their collections accessible to a wider audience. To date, the OJA has scanned upwards of 8,000 photos and documents from their collections which represents only a small fraction of their entire photographic holdings. Why have so few items been scanned? The answer is simple: it takes time, people, and funds to digitize collections. Sustained funding through donations is key to ensuring that even more documents and photos are processed, scanned, described, and made available for use.

Rosa Orlandini is a Data Services Librarian at York University Libraries. 

Family History Research Leads to Priceless Find

Discovering Altman’s Deli by Mitch Altman

There was always a family story about Altman's at College and Brunswick. Famous customers legend says:­­ ­­the Three Stooges, Myrna Loy, inexpensive meals, and a friendship with Sam Shopsowitz. My great grandfather Herman Altman owned it. It was later briefly run by my grandfather George Altman before he sold it. His brother-in-law was Hans Fread of Sign of the Steer fame; “Hans Fread's Folly,” as I learned recently. He and my grandfather bought the building at Dupont and Dufferin that is now South Hill Home Interiors, where they moved the wildly successful Sign of the Steer. They couldn't keep up and it closed quickly after opening.

Bellevue Theatre

I have often searched both the Ontario Jewish Archives and the City of Toronto Archives for “Altman's Deli,” as I always knew it. I found scant references but definitely a few mentions. My mother sent me an article about long-gone Toronto restaurants, and there was a mention of Sign of the Steer. Well, that got me started on my search again and I spent the entire weekend exploring archival records. As, I was looking at architectural records of College Street I found a series on old theatres in the city. The Bellevue on College was a very crisp image. When I noted the address, I looked closely at the storefront next door—the image I had found was very blurry—but the sign clearly showed Altman's. What a lucky coincidence, as there was no individual cataloguing of the businesses that appeared on either side of the theatre, so the name wasn't noted.

Caption: Bellevue Theatre (Toronto), [1937?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Harold S. Kaplan fonds 27, series 1, file 8.

I cannot tell you how joyful I felt all weekend—and even still today—to finally see a picture of it. Such a wonderful, truly priceless find. I felt like a detective who had finally cracked a decades-long case.

Caption: Mitch Altman’s grandfather, George Altman (right) with Ed Sullivan. George Altman was the Chief Barker (Chair of the Board) of the Variety Club that year. "We always used to do the Bike-a-Thon".   Courtesy of Mitch Altman.


"One of my most cherished possessions is one of the two remaining Altman's knives that have somehow survived". Courtesy of Mitch Altman.


I was born in Cincinnati but grew up in Thornhill while it was still farmland. Spent some years in Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles before finally returning in 2004. I work with my wife, Interior Designer Shirley Meisels. Lousy golfer, decent husband, and good dad. I love to cook, BBQ, golf and play guitar.

Practicum Experience: Yujia Wu

Photo: Yujia Wu
Photo: Yujia Wu

Last September, I joined the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) as a practicum student and started my first digital preservation project in an archival setting. First, please let me introduce myself. I am a master of information student at the University of Toronto, studying archives and records management and human-centred data science. As an emerging information professional, I have always been excited about applying all the knowledge and skills that I have learned at the university to real-world practices. Fortunately, the OJA offered a practicum project, and I was able to join the OJA team and contribute to their Digital Preservation Project. This practicum project also gave me an opportunity to get hands-on experience before I start my professional career in archives management.

Over the past few months, I have been working to preserve the digital versions of thirty-five oral histories. The world has accepted the digitalization of various services and items that we use in everyday life, and digitization is becoming one of the standard forms for preserving the information contained within organic and fragile materials in archives to ensure that valuable information will be viewable and retrievable for future reference. Therefore, the preservation of digital materials has become one of the main responsibilities of archival repositories in the twenty-first century. The oral histories represent a small but significant part of the OJA’s digital assets and need to be uploaded to and preserved in a cloud-based digital preservation system (Preservica) to ensure that they remain accessible to future generations for decades to come.

My work procedure included the following key actions: first, preparing the digital files by editing and tidying up the entries, transcripts, and interview logs; second, ingesting all digital files of each oral history into Preservica and creating descriptive metadata; and finally, updating the database and catalogue in DB/Textworks (a database management system).

I tried to pay more attention to details and be as cautious as possible, especially when assigning descriptive metadata to each oral history. Descriptive metadata can be vital for digital assets because they describe the resources for identification and discovery purposes; one mistake can make the digital assets unidentifiable, thereby decreasing their accessibility. The transcripts editing was also a fun part of this project. I will have to admit that it can be a bit time-consuming sometimes, but I found my way of enjoying it. By going through the interview logs and transcripts, I was able to read the life stories of people in the Jewish communities, some of which concerned refugees who immigrated to Canada during the Second World War. I got to know more about Jewish history, traditions, and culture, as well as the world situation in the early twentieth century. It became a great way of broadening my knowledge.

The most rewarding part of this project was not only about completing it. It safeguarded these oral histories and preserved the memories of Jewish people in Ontario. Besides, it also enhanced the accessibility of the OJA’s digital assets and allowed users to reach oral histories in a more flexible way. More importantly, the completion of this project can help foster the recognition of Ontario’s Jewish community and enhance the multiculturalism of our society.

It has been my pleasure to participate in this wonderful and meaningful project. I gained a deeper understanding of the sociocultural responsibilities of archival professionals and the critical role that archivists played in supporting the social and cultural development of society. It was a great experience, and I will continue developing my professional knowledge and skills and go further in this career.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Michael Friesen, for helping and supporting me throughout this project; and I would also like to thank Donna, Dara, and Faye, for having me as part of the team. Unfortunately, I was not able to work in the archives due to the ongoing pandemic situation, but I do hope that I can visit the OJA someday after the pandemic ends and meet each of you in person.

1 2 3 ... 15 Next »