Reflections on Volunteering at the OJA

By Bronwyn Cragg

Entering my final year as an undergraduate, I have hit the inevitable crossroads: what should I be doing with the rest of my life? For the past four years, I have been studying at the University of Toronto. I had originally majored in history–I had a dream in high school of becoming a Holocaust researcher–but over time my interests expanded, and I found myself switching to Jewish studies. Minoring in art history and German studies, my skillset and interests have drawn me to two options: continuing in academia or becoming an archivist. Thus, the OJA felt like a natural choice: here I could get a feel for the field while still engaged in subjects that I’m interested in.

I had initially sent in a request to volunteer sometime in 2018 but was encouraged to email back the following summer. Still excited about the idea of volunteering, I emailed back the following year and was asked to come in around August to get a feel for what I would be working on. For the past month, I have been getting a taste of a whole slew of archival work: At first, I was tasked with creating posts for the OJA’s social media accounts, and for the first two weeks I worked on sorting through and scanning items relating to Camp Yungvelt, a Yiddish summer camp established in 1925 that was once nestled in the woodland of Pickering.

Photograph of J.B. Salsberg participating in a presentation for young adults in 1938, with Soviet-style imagery of factories, workers, and Stalin in the background. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 92, series 4, file 23.By the next day I had moved onto the J. B. Salsberg fonds, which provided both a fascinating and intimate look at the history of Communist politics in Toronto, alongside a healthy amount of mid-century graphics. On my supervisor Faye’s suggestion, I even completed a weeks’ worth of posts about the history of Jewish cinema in Ontario, the archives hosting a decent collection of photographs of the glitzy art deco architecture of twentieth-century theatres.

With newly-acquired experience in scanning and filing items, I then began to process accessions. Though perhaps one of the more tedious parts of working at the OJA, I had fun sorting through boxes, figuring out how to best organize items, and finding a way to enter details in the system that would make the files easily accessible to researchers. Our acquisitions from Canadian Young Judaea provided a glimpse into the history of Zionist movements in Canada and even youth aliyah, and my interest in the Yiddish language led me to a number of related boxes, including the archives of the Toronto-based Friends of Yiddish, for which I organized photographs, flyers, and administrative records. I was also able to work on several family archives and was even able to flex my language skills by translating letters, documents, and photograph captions from Yiddish, German, and Polish. (I thought Yiddish handwriting could be a stress to decipher, but 1920s Polish handwriting was something else!)

Bronwyn Cragg,
A series of photographs that particularly stuck with me: Photobooth pictures of Jerry Glass, age 5, in 1943. - Bronwyn Cragg

One of the more personally-rewarding aspects of working at the Ontario Jewish Archives has been sifting through family photo albums. Quaint, tender, and at times heart-bursting, piecing together family stories through photographs and scraps was, to me, one of the most compelling parts of the job. I have experienced my fair share of listening to others’ family stories and poking around photographs and files. But as a student whose focus has been Holocaust studies, I’ve barely had the chance to consume average, candid, slice-of-life narratives. To discover individual histories of immigration, failures and successes, family growth, and Jewish contributions to Ontario culture was immensely satisfying, even if it did mean that I had to sort past the occasional illegible postcard or utilities bill.

Though I feel like my time at the Ontario Jewish Archives was much too short, it has certainly cemented my desire to go into archival- or research-based work. This August I was able to use a whole host of my skills–from languages to administrative skills, to knowledge of Jewish history and making use of my art history-trained eyes–but there was never any point where I felt tapped out or bored. My time at the OJA has helped me to expand my interests to (perhaps ironically) a local scale. And though I still feel the panic of having eight months to figure out the rest of my life and career, I now know that I can make an informed decision and that archival work is a fulfilling and exciting choice. I look forward to potential future involvement with the archives, whether that be continuing my volunteer work or using it as the vast and rich research resource that it is.

Bronwyn Cragg, 2019. Courtesy of Brownyn Cragg.Bronwyn Cragg is a fourth year undergraduate student of Jewish studies, German, and art history at the University of Toronto. His present research interests include fascism and the Holocaust in WWII Romania, and he has recently written works on art, aesthetics, and nation building in Mandatory Palestine. Bronwyn is currently studying Yiddish and seeks to continue his studies through translation, original research, and archival work.

Meet the OJA's Inaugural Penny Rubinoff Fellow: Renée Saucier

Renée Saucier.Starting this week, instead of biking past the Miles Nadal JCC on my way to the University of Toronto’s St George campus, I’ll be taking the Bathurst bus north to the Ontario Jewish Archives. I recently graduated from the University of Toronto’s Master of Information program, where I specialized in archives and records management. I spent the past two years working at the University of Toronto Libraries’ web archiving program, and the past year volunteering at The ArQuives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives), where I am currently processing the Inside Out LGBT+ Film Festival fonds.

As an archivist with a special interest in web archiving and community archives, I’m particularly concerned with the preservation of the very recent past and present. I was immediately drawn to the Penny Rubinoff Fellowship as an opportunity to continue to do this work, as well as to further develop my skills and acquire a deeper understanding of the operational aspects of a community archive. Having become familiar with Toronto’s early Jewish community while conducting research for the History of the Hospital for Sick Children project, I am curious to learn more about Jewish history throughout Ontario, and how this community archive works to build relationships with and preserve the histories of these many diverse communities.

Over the next four months, I will be engaged in all aspects of the Ontario Jewish Archives: accessioning materials, assisting researchers with reference requests, planning community collaborations, spotlighting materials on the website, and gaining insight into the operational aspects of the OJA. I am particularly excited to be on board to observe how the archive team plans and prepares to adopt a new digital preservation system. I have been warmly welcomed into the organization, and look forward to all that the next few months have to offer.

Practicum Experience: Ndali Maureen Ugboma

Photo: Ndali Ugboma
Photo: Ndali Ugboma

The time I spent at the OJA was the greatest adventure ever. I was a practicum student and volunteered for 105 hours. As a future information professional and a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I was happy to be a part of the OJA family because being part of a family makes you feel appreciated and proud of yourself. And I am really grateful for being part of the family.

I decided to take the practicum course because one of my course mates (Ritchie Singh) recommended it. Before volunteering, I kept wondering how I could gain Canadian work experience, and I always imagined what the social work sphere would be like if I finally had the opportunity. However, when I got the chance to volunteer at the OJA, Michael Friesen (my supervisor and boss), I will admit, I admired his work efficiency and accuracy. If I could choose a supervisor again, I would choose him all over again. Oh, did I forget to mention Donna and Faye? They were terrific and accommodating. I could remember the uncountable times I approached Faye for answers. These three people made sure that my time at the OJA was worth it. 

Okay, let’s get into it! My early days at work, my nerves were on the edge. Although I studied the theoretical aspect of recordkeeping, putting it into practice was a difficult task. I didn't know where to start from -- it all started from trial-and-error. As time went on, I finally got my balance.

I started by completing the background of the organization, including its history and activities. I re-arranged the documents and created finding aids, assessed the condition of the records, created a file-level finding aid, and transferred all the records to acid-free boxes. Using Rules for Archival Description, I also arranged the records into files and series, created item-level descriptions, and assisted in creating a fonds-level description in the recordkeeping database.

To me, the work made me feel like an investigator, especially the administrative history. I tried to put some pieces of information together to make sense of what I was proposing to my supervisor. However, I can say I feel differently toward my career as a future archivist because I know what my expectations are for the future.

My observation: I am not exactly sure about this, but are all archivists very quiet at work? OJA is one of the quietest workplaces I have ever been to, and I loved it. Well, if I should be truthful about who I am, I like a very calm place where I can be in my world, and I was glad to be placed there. At OJA, you could only hear keyboard clicks for hours and all eyes on computers. But there is a fun part: During working hours, I used my headphones to keep myself busy while working on my assignments. Overall, it was worth the ride.

Preserving the Koffler Legacy

Photo: Steve Isozaki (Dad)

Kara Isozaki.

Photo: Steve Isozaki (Dad)

Last Sunday, I packed up my life in Vancouver to start at the Ontario Jewish Archives the next day, chugging coffee to keep the jet-lag at bay. I was in Vancouver for a year interning at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia and working in Japanese Canadian heritage. I moved out there right after graduating from the University of Toronto’s archives and museums masters programs. But when I saw the Ontario Jewish Archives’ job posting to process the Murray and Marvelle Koffler Fonds, I had to apply. I wanted to learn more about the Jewish community in my home city and specifically about a couple who contributed so much to it.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

Marvelle and Murray on their honeymoon to Cuba, 1950.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

I also saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the Jewish community in the way I know best. During and after WWII, Japanese Canadians were considered enemy aliens by the government and were forced to leave the West Coast. Many came to Toronto, including my grandparents, where they continued to face discrimination. Jewish community members offered them housing and jobs, allowing them to gain their footing in this new, unknown place. By the time I was born, my community was strong with deep roots in the city. When I felt ready to explore my often painful heritage, I volunteered at my community’s archive where I heard these stories of compassion towards Japanese Canadians. As I learned how my community’s past molded my identity as a Japanese Canadian and as a Torontonian, my desire to pursue a career in community heritage grew. So today, I am joyously wading through thousands of photos, documents, and audio-visual materials telling the incredible story of Murray and Marvelle Koffler who helped shape my home.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

Murray in a Shoppers Drug Mart store, Oshawa, [197-?].

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

Over the next six months, I have the privilege of preserving and making the fonds accessible online and in person. Right now, I am conducting preliminary research and perusing the materials to understand the stories behind them. As a Torontonian, I am familiar with the Koffler name, but I did not understand the extent of their local, national, and international impact. In addition to creating Shoppers Drug Mart, Super-Pharm in Israel, and the Four Seasons Hotels, they contributed to countless projects with lasting legacies like the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, the International Weizmann Women for Science, and The Canadian Jewish News. I am struck by the diversity of their business and philanthropic interests and their ability to recognize a need and meet it.

All the while, they were raising a huge family of five children and many, many grandchildren – resulting in truly epic matching t-shirts for family trips. What most excites me about the fonds is that it not only tells the story of Marvelle and Murray’s partnership in work but in life. I’ve never used this to describe an archival fonds before but, honestly, #relationshipgoals. I am so honoured to help preserve and promote their story.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

The Koffler family, August 1989.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 127.

Scandal Rocks the Toronto Jewish Community: Multiple Stories Unfold

By Nessiya Freedman

Man examining poster, [Jerusalem], [1973?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2018-11-1.

Man looking at public notices (including one about an upcoming demonstration) in Mea She'arim.

Man examining poster, [Jerusalem], [1973?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2018-11-1. Photo: Nir Bareket.

At first glance, it was an innocuous folder. It contained one set of yellowed flyers pertaining to kashrut, written in Yiddish, with no information to mark their origin save a single name: E. Miller or E. Mitler. The flyers resemble the style still popular today in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighbourhood: a large, bold heading, followed by smaller text broken up by lines in medium to large sizes for emphasis, put up as public notices of various sorts to the neighbourhood at large.

This set of flyers, however, is from Toronto. It bears familiar street names: Spadina, Brunswick, Kensington, Queen, Dundas… The flyers also repeatedly mention a place known to those who grew up in Toronto in the last century: the Labour Lyceum at 346 Spadina Avenue, meeting place for unions and other members of the community until 1971. In the flyers, the Labor Lyceum serves as the location for mass meetings for causes as diverse as meat strikes and the formation of a new organization for the supervision of poultry kashrut, to protests against Hitler’s prosecution of the Communist Party of Germany in the wake of the Reichstag fire of 1933.

By the fifth document, a story familiar to the Toronto Jews of 1930 begins to coalesce. An outcry is arising from the community about butcher shops which have been operating outside of the supervision of the Toronto Rabbinical Board (or even outside of rabbinical supervision altogether), and therefore selling meat that is considered by the Kehillah treif (unkosher) and thus unfit to eat. Similar scandals rocked the Toronto Jewish community throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century: At first, there were butchers operating outside of rabbinic supervision, and possibly without even the proper certification for butchering kosher meat. The Kehillah, meaning “community”, of Toronto was an organization formed in 1923 specifically to oversee kashrut and thus eliminate the problem of treif meat being sold as kosher; however, the Kehillah faced so many problems that a rival organization, the Va’ad Ho’ir, was formed just under a decade later in an attempt to improve upon its efforts. (In Europe, kehillot were not limited to kashrut alone, but rather oversaw everything from education to the certification of rabbis, judges, and other public Jewish figures, and could even sometimes levy taxes. The Kehillah of Toronto was limited to ensuring the kashrut of meat from the start.)

Manes Greenblatt, [ca 1929-1930]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 56.

Manes Greenblatt, a Canadian Packers masgiach (supervisor) who was also active within the Kehillah and other organizations.

Manes Greenblatt, [ca 1929-1930]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 56. Photo: Unknown.

In the flyers, Toronto Jews are reminded repeatedly that the only kosher meat is that which bears the Kehillah of Toronto kashrut stamp: no other stamps are valid. Lists are given of the butcher shops that are still under control of the Toronto Rabbinical Board (Va’ad HaRabbonim), with names and addresses. This listing of shops is repeated through so many kosher meat scandals that the Abram Brothers appear to have had enough time to expand from three shops to six.  The scandal continues through the folder: “…[T]reif meat looks cheaper than kosher in all times, but even the poorest Jews would never, kholile, think to weaken our holy ways by paying a cent for it…” There is even a flyer begging Jewish women in particular not to buy meat that does not bear the community stamp (and to further tell their butchers, should they not be on the list of approved butchers, that they will buy no more meat from them).

It doesn’t end there: a flyer titled “Will the Call be Heard?” publicly chastises the rabbis and the butchers for their inaction in resolving the problem. The flyer is signed, “the Jews who still believe there can be kashrut instituted in Toronto.” Another flyer addresses the rabbis of Toronto, bemoaning their inaction and the false information floating around the community. (This flyer may well have been written after one in which the Rabbinical Board itself addresses the rumours running rampant in the community with a list of facts.) It ends by inviting delegates from all the organizations, unions, synagogues, and societies to “a conference of the entire city,” to be held on the 23rd of December, 2 p.m. sharp, at 350 Dundas Street West. It is signed, “a committee of city homeowners.” Yet another flyer calls upon the rabbis to make peace with the community over their alleged inaction during the kashrut scandal.

To date the flyers and the events they contain requires a certain amount of detective work. While some flyers mention weekday, day, and month, very few include the year, and many bear no date at all. It is also not so simple to identify them by event: Throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, there were multiple butchery scandals with similar causes and even some of the same names. This makes it difficult to conclusively divide all the flyers even by decade. Certain clues do exist, such as the presence of the Va’ad Ho’ir (which was founded ca 1929 or 1930), and names like those of Rabbis Gordon and Weinreb (whose time in Toronto and involvement in various events are documented).

However, overall, similar issues resurfaced so many times that no flyer lacking such clues can immediately be identified with its decade of origin. Even the flyers reference the resurgence of similar issues, in such forms as accusations that the wholesalers profit every time there is an argument over butchery practices, as they become exempt from paying certain fees, or claims that with every strike the butchers’ union learns more about how to fight and the associated rabbis profit. A potential method for dating more of these flyers precisely would be to track down and examine the same documents and flyers that Stephen A. Speisman used to research his book The Jews of Toronto (which has been invaluable in identifying key players and events) and compare them with the contents of this folder.

There are several secondary threads within the folder. One is the price of meat, which was so high at fifteen cents per pound in 1933 or 1939 that it led to a strike. The strike raged, with meetings at the Labor Lyceum, and women joining the picketing even before the flyer that called them to come out in full force to picket for a success. A second outraged flyer called for the picketing of every butcher’s store after a group of women picketers, leaving an evening mass strike meeting to picket on College Street and others, was attacked by a group of “butcher-ruffians” (“butcher-khuliganes”) wielding knives. To the joy of the strike committee (and, presumably, the masses), the strike was won. The price of beef and calf meat was lowered to twelve cents per pound.

However, that was not to be the end: in the same flyer announcing their win, the strike committee takes up the cause of the community butchers. According to the committee, the popular cry that the butchers make thousands of dollars is “a hoax.” Instead, fifty percent is taken by the Butchers’-[Financial] Trust; thirty-five percent goes to the rabbis; and, of the remaining fifteen percent, a thousand dollars per year goes to a lawyer, forty-five dollars per week goes to a secretary, and thousands of dollars are used for advertising and miscellaneous costs. What, the committee asks, can possibly remain for the butchers themselves? They call the masses to a meeting, promising that they will be “astounded” when they hear all the facts about the Kosher-Meat Trust.

Man carrying sandwich board of the Ontario Poultry Buyers strike, Kensington Market, Toronto. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 3875.

Image from the Ontario Poultry Buyers strike in 1939.

Man carrying sandwich board of the Ontario Poultry Buyers strike, Kensington Market, Toronto. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 3875. Photo: Unknown.

The argument that the butchers themselves saw very little of the money earned from their products bears similarities to the old struggle with the wholesalers, which had raged even in the previous decade. At various points in the 1920s and 1930s, public sentiment (at least as portrayed in the flyers from various communal organizations) was very much against wholesalers and private businesses. One such flyer, likely from the 1920s, contains the description of rich wholesalers “who stock their packets with poor [people’s] money.” The same flyer accuses wholesalers of profiting every time an argument about kashrut arises, presumably by managing to turn higher profits in the confusion.

Adding to the ill will against wholesalers, there had been since at the least the 1920s a problem of rabbis from outside (and even sometimes from within) the Va’ad HaRabbonim splitting off to certify the products of specific butchers and sometimes setting up private businesses, which earned more than the butchers who were part of the union and worked with the Va’ad HaRabbonim. At one point, even Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, spiritual leader of the Polish Jewish community in Toronto since 1920, was accused of having taken six butchers and started up a business, thus effectively declaring war against the Butchers’ Union and the Kehillah. A presumably later flyer included in this folder contains the community response to his newly published Sefer Zikorn, or memoir. It begins: “Polish Jews, Hear a Horror!” In tones of absolute outrage, Graubart is taken to task for allegedly leveling accusations in this book which are more antisemitic than have been heard even from the greatest enemies of the Jews. The flyer ends with a call to the Polish Jews not to let this offence stand. The resolution is unfortunately neither included nor easy to track down; however, given that Graubart is remembered today as a great and learned rabbi and leader, it seems likely that, at the very least, the event did not ruin his reputation beyond repair.

There are other documents in the folder, covering such topics as protest meetings about Hitler’s actions in 1933 against the Communist Party of Germany; a commemoration evening marking the tenth anniversary of the Lithuanian-Latvian Jews’ annihilation (held at the Londoner Shul, which merged with Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda in 1975), the flyer for which entreats the community to “come all as one”; and a four-page memo from 1936 about yet more problems within the kosher meat industry. The most interesting is the longest and largest flyer in the folder: an open letter from the poultry butchers of Toronto to the community at large, ca the early 1920s. So big the original collector folded it in half to fit, the poultry butchers’ open letter to the community is well worth a thorough read. It teems with dramatic hyperbole and religious quotations and covers not only complaints but a sequence of events.

The letter first introduces the poultry butchers themselves, describing their poor working conditions. Unlike other workers with reasonable hours, it claims, the butchers must work throughout the day and night. And the job entails far more than meets the eye: They must bring the chickens to the right place, prepare them, deal with the expense of checking them—and all while being yelled at to “hurry up!” “Is this humane? Is this kosher?” Come to Kensington or Bathurst on a Sunday, the letter says; you will see butchers pulling wagons piled high with chicken coops!

In Europe and all of America, the letter continues, butchers are already “doing their holy work with a system”; only Toronto is still behind the times. The letter details how the butchers asked the Kehillah and the Toronto rabbis for help, but ultimately found them ineffective; they even obtained a ruling from the New York rabbinical association stating that poultry kashrut must be overseen by the Toronto rabbis and Kehillah, to no lasting success.

At this point, the topic changes. A man named Abraham Horwitz enters the scene. He has refused to sign the latest bargaining paper, when he had previously signed all of them and even taken responsibility for writing them. In the wake of this action his fellow butchers have decided to denounce him as an insolent man who always pushed boundaries. His actions, they claim, might be because he has four thousand dollars in the bank. They believe, however, that this is no excuse. Horwitz had even kept his shop open at a time when all others were closed awaiting arbitration. When he was called to a meeting where Rabbis Graubart, Weinreb, Gordon, and Levi were presiding, he allegedly responded by telling them they could all go to hell. Religious texts are then quoted by the butchers to the effect that a person with such behaviour is wicked, and that if said person is a butcher, he should be investigated by his community.

The letter ends in outcry: “Jews! Whoever is for God, follow me! Don’t be enablers of sinners! Jewish hearts! Should the Jewish feeling of mercy persist inside you, save forty families from being forever enslaved and ruined; help us! It will cost you no money to ensure we don’t have to work twenty-two hours out of every twenty-four—do not profit by the blood of your fellow! (Lev. 19:16). Give us a little clean air, free to breathe, so that our lives shouldn’t be consumptive and rheumatic, kholile.

“With bloody tears, we ask you to allow us to live! Our wives and children shouldn’t have to cry—have pity—we are living corpses! Hear our true and holy earnest voices! Help, Jews! Help us!”

It is signed, “the embittered, enslaved butchers of Toronto.”

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre.

Nessiya hard at work

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre. Photo: Faye Blum.

Details regarding community history (particularly dates and some full names) were gleaned from Stephen A. Speisman’s The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937, particularly chapter 17. All other details come from translation and analysis of the flyers themselves.

“Whoever is for God, follow me!” – the rallying cry of the Maccabees.

The translation of the Leviticus quote is from Sefaria.org.

Nessiya Freedman is a recent graduate from York University's BA Hon. Jewish Studies program. She is a language enthusiast and creative writer who has been volunteering at the OJA, and is now going to seek her fortune in Israel.