The Rise of the Toronto Jewish

From: Polyphony Vol.6, 1984 pp. 59-63
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Before 1900 the Jewish working class in Toronto was insignificant in size and influence. Poor as they were, the immigrants found it easier then to turn to middle-class pursuits-such as peddling and retail selling-for their livelihood. Small stores catering to the special needs of Jewish customers were opened in the downtown area of the city. There were Kosher butcher shops for Jews to shop in, bakery stores in which chalah and the familiar beigel could be bought, small creameries in which kosher dairy products could be purchased. At first the pedlars did their business with fellow Jews, but as their knowledge of English improved, they ventured more and more into gentile neighbourhoods, sometimes journeying to adjacent towns and villages to buy and sell.

The first Jewish bakery in Toronto was opened by Rubin on York Street, the first Jewish butcher shop by Mr. M. Cohen on the same street. Mordechai Dickman was the first local Shochet, joined the same year by a second, Rev. I. Halpern. The first junk shops were started by Mendel Granatstein and Leo Frankel. Shortly afterwards Shloime Godfrey, Moishe Siegal, and a number of others went into the same business. Most of the employees in these Junk shops were pious Jews who refused to take any jobs where it was necessary to work on the Sabbath. Consequently they were sometimes shamelessly exploited by callous employers. They were forced to work in the shops Saturday evenings, when the Sabbath was over, sometimes very late into the night. Occasionally they had to work on Sundays- behind locked doors, of course-in order to make enough to live on.

To meet the widespread poverty among the Jewish population attempts were made to organise relief. Slight as the success of these efforts was, they were, nevertheless, the first organised activities in the young community. For example, a small dispensary was opened at 218 Simcoe Street, and free medicine distributed to the needy. In the same three-storey house, there was also an orphanage, taking up two rooms. One of these rooms was used as a cheder, where the children were given an elementary Jewish education; the other was reserved for the staff, which consisted of one supervisor. The house had originally been rented at $25 a month and was eventually bought for $11,000. When, six months after the building was bought, the first payment fell due-the amount was exactly $50-there was not enough money on hand. Fortunately, an employee of the Chestnut Street branch of the Crown Bank, Joseph Gurofsky, offered to provide the money if he were given a promissory note signed by several respectable men. Ten persons came forwatd to endorse the note, each guaranteeing to pay $5 if it was not redeemed. Mr. Gurofsky then gave the money, and the interest on the house was paid. When the note was finally redeemed it was given to Mr. S. Fremes, a local jeweller, in whose keeping it has since remained. For the Jewish worker this was a surprising state of affairs. At, home in Eurpoe, he had grown accustomed to the constant struggle between workers and employers. He had helped organise unions, taken part in strikes, he had stood the picket line distributing strike literature. No wonder then that he couldn't stomach the letharhy of the native-born Canadians factory workers and turned to orgainised unions of his own. This factor explains the rapid rise of small Jewish unions for each trade, or a branch of a trade, and their feverish political activity.

In this first decade of the present century, from 1900-10, the Jewish population of Toronto showed very little interest in politics. The City if Toronto, like the rest of the province, was solidly conservative. Despite some oposition from the LIberals, the Conservative candidates were always elected to office with overwhelming majorities. There was no Socialist party to vote for and the workers seldom put forth a candidate if their own. The more well-to-do Jews, the assimilated Yehudim and the parvenu rich invariably backed the conservatives. Somethimes, when an issue affecting the interest of the local Jewish population would arise, a few of these individuals would step forward, unbidden, as representatives of the community. In time these self-appointed Jewish leaders became the recognized intermediaries between the civic administration and the local Jewish community. They were befriended by politicians seeking office and utilized as vote-getters. In return for political favors these so-called leaders of the community would promise to get the Jewish vote for their candidate. On his side of the candidate, in his campaign speeches, would promise to defend the interests of his Jewish constituents if elected to office.

Apart from these professional Jews, however, few Jews took an active interest in politics, whether municipal, provincial, or national. They saw little difference between the two parties or their candidates. One waas as good or bad as the other, and in any case, they felt that both parties represented the same interests. Furthermore, the immigrant could not understanf the English sppechs of the rival candidates, the issues were obscure to them, and there was no Jewish candidate running who would appeal to this national pride.

The centre of the immigrants' political activivty, forty or fifty years ago, was to be found in the numerous ice-cream parlours, the Jewish soft-drink pubs that had sprung up, like mushrooms after a rain, all through the Jewish district of the city. As soon as an immigrant has mangaed to accumulate a few dollars he would sink his savings into one of these ice-cream parlors. The sale of ice cream was actually a very small fraction of the storekeeper's business. Here it was possible to get a meat sandwhich or a hot cup of tea, a package of ciggarettes or a glass of siphon water, the popular drink at the time (today's bottled drinks were unknown). In the back of the store were a few small tables for the customers. Here they could sit down and order a meal. However, most of the time, the regular customers kust sat and talked, or read the newspapers, or played a game of dominos, or cards. The discussions were always lively and often stormy, with everyone in the store taking part. Jewish problems were carefully analysed; political affairs were discussed noisily with no pretense and objectivity. Tempers often flared and it was not uncommon to have and arguement end in a brawl. Young suiters courted their belles under the benevolent eyes of the sotrekeeper and his customers. Not a few hapy marrages had their beginnings in these ice-cream parlours.

A few of these places were frequented exculusivley by the local Jewish intelligents. After work, intellectuals of every type, Xionist and socialists, Genossen and Cheverum would drop in for a cup of tea or a game of chess, often staying long into the night, talking or arguing, each trying to prove the superiority of this group or ideology. One of the most popular places stood at the cornor of Louisa and Elizabeth streets, in the very heart of the Jewish neighbourhod. There are good grounds for believing thier cheif reason for opening the store was to provide a social centre for immigrant intellectuals. Themselves workers -- the two Rosenfields made a comfortable living as carpenters and Mr. Koldofsky ran a small business with some success -- the owners were eager to promote the intellectual life of the young community. When their day's work was over, these gentlemen liked to repair to the store and wait on the customers, at the same time listening to the various discussions going on. Some evenings the customers were entertained with more formal discussions, with readings from Yiddish classics and talks on Zionism, territorialism and other subjects of special Jewish interest.

But literature and politics were not the sole interest of the habitués. Chess was very popular, and tournaments were held frequently. One of the most interesting players was a Mr. I. Rosen, a bookkeeper by trade. He was always the first to come and the last to leave and was looked up to as a great athority on all matters relating to chess. He spent all his time at the chessboard, opnly very occasionally absenting himself to take some little job that he couldn't very well refuse.

Another such store, belonging to Chanan and Boris Dvorkin, was located at the corner of Albert and Chestnut Streets.It was later moved to 64 Elizabeth Stree. The proprietors extended credit to their regular customers and their generosity soon brought them a larger trade. The customers coming here were, generally speaking, bitter opponents of Jewish nationalism, being mainly bundists, anarchists and other anti-Zionists.

A third store, located at 102 Agnes Street (today's Dundas Street) was owned by Yitzchak Herman, a native from Wolin, Poland. An intellectual, Mr. Herman was still a very naïve person. Watching the customers queuing up at his counter for cigarettes amd tobacco, Mr. Herman decided thst the retail tobacoo business had a great future. When he learnt further thar the Imperial Tobacco Company made huge profits buying tobacco and making their own cigarettes, he decided that there was no earthly reason her could not do the same. He began to package and sell his own tobacco, using the trade name of the Imperial Tobacco Company. He sold his tobacco a few cents cheaper per package and watched with elation as sales rose sharply. He became inebriated with visions of getting rich qucik. Unfortunatly, however, he was visited a week after he launched his scheme fromt he Exise and Revenue Branch of the dominion governement. Mr. Herman now discovered, to his dismay, that the violation of patent rights was a serious matter and the evaision of excise duties even more serious. Mr. Herman had a hard time convincing the authorities of the innocence of his scheme. The legal suit cost him a tidy sum, but he was lucky to escape with his skin. Before this incident took place, Mr. Herman had worked in a local shoe factory. Now he was forced to return to his old job, leaving the management of the store to his wife. Their store was a favourite rendezvous for Poali Zionists, Talmudic students who liked a game of chess and various young men starved for the life of the mind.

A fourth ice-cream parlour was openedat the corner of Armoury and Chestnut Streets by Mr. Greisman. Most of Mr. Greisman's customers were Galician Jews who had come from the part of Poland annexed by Austria after the First World War.

Also, another ice cream parlour was Michaelson's at 97 Agnes Street, which became the headquarters for Romanian Jews and meeting-place for young men and women with a passion for theatre. Having acted on the stage in Romania, Mr. Michaelson, the owner of the store, never stopped talking about his past theatrical glories. He was always reminiscing about the good old days when his appearance on the stage was the signal for tremendous applause. Vanity apart, however, Mr. Michaelson's interest in the theatre was genuine. He was, in fact, the first person in Toronto to produce a Yiddish play. In 1904 he orgainised an amateur theatrical group with himself as director. And a year later in 1905, he was responsible, along wiht Mr. Abramov, for bringing to Toronto a cast of actors from New York, thus lying the groundwork for the legitimate Jewish theatre which later arose in the city. The ocmpany gave a series of preformances of famous Yidish classics in a hall rented for the occasion by Mr. Michaelson. But community interest was slight and the group had to disband after a few months.

In 1900 Toronto had two Jewish restaurants. One, at 119 Elizabeth street, was run by Mrs. Tucker;l the other, on Teraulay Street, was managed by Mr. M. Goldenberg. These restaurants had their regular customers who used to stay on after meals to talk with friends. But these restaurants never equalled in popularity the less pretentious ice-cream parlours as centres for social gatherings. In fact, apart from the few few synagogues and a small sociaslist club on Queen Streem there was no Jewish centre at all for people to meet and spend an evening together in a friendly atmosphere. The situation didn't improve until two Toronto Jews -- Mr. S. Fleishman, a local musician, and Mr. David Sussman, one of the founders of the Ostrovitzer Synagogue -- realising the needs of the growing Jewish population of the city, got together and opened the Centre Palace Hall on Elm Street.

From 1902-05 the small Jewish community of Toronto had many serious problems to cope with. The most pressing one was, of course, how to absorb the large number of immigrants that were steadily arriving. The housing situation in the city was serious. Accommodation for the newcomers had to be found at once, and food and clothes. The vast majority of the arrivals were wretchedly poor with their worldly possessions literally on their backs in the form of heavy bundles. Their tattered suitcases bulged with hand-sewn pillowcases, feather-filled bedding, heavy woollen underclothes and the traditional pair of silver candlesticks. They had no money to speak of. Their clothes were old and worn, their bellies empty, their spirits low.
There was then no Canadian Jewish Congress or Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These and similar organisations did not arise until much later. At that time the small Jewish community in Toronto had no organisations to look after the needs of the immigrant. There were no experienced social workers to meet the immigrant as he came off the boat, to provide him with lodgings, however temporary, and to advise him as to choice of occupation. The immigrant then had to rely on his own resources, on his own initiative and enterprise.

The first two sick benefit societies in Toronto were founded by Polish and Russian immigrants in 1904. These were the Mozirer Sick Benefit Society, which was organised in the home of a Mozirer landsman, Mr. Bregman, and the Pride of Israel Sick Benefit Society, today the largest organisation of its kind in Toronto. The years between 1905-14, when the First World War broke out, were a period of phenomenal growth for the Jewish community of Toronto. The older Jewish residential quarter, becoming more and more congested, gradually began spilling over into neighbouring gentile districts. Slowly Jews began moving away from Elizabeth, Edward, Chestnut, Elm and Simcoe Streets, and Centre Avenue, making their way as far west as Spadina Avenue and as far north as Bloor Street.

From 1905-07 Canada was in the grip of an economic crisis. The Jewish population was especially hard hit. The majority had lived in Canada for only a short time and were bewildered by the turn of events. They had come here hoping to find work and opportunities and security; now many of the newcomers were thrown out of employment, jobs were scarce, their savings gone. Some roamed the streets, hungry, weary and penniless. Anxious to alleviate their distress, a number of public-spirited working people-a few tailors, carpenters and small businessmen-got together and organised an emergency kitchen to look after feeding the unemployed. A large house on Teraulay Street was leased for the purpose by David Levine, one of the initiators of the project. The rental fee was $6 a month. Shortly afterwards, at the beginning of 1906, the first Jewish public kitchen in Toronto was officially opened. Furniture, dinnerware, kitchen utensils and cutlery came from a variety of sources. The Shomrei Shabos Synagogue on Chestnut Street donated wooden benches. Tables were donated by the Kiever landsleit, many of whom were second-hand furniture dealers. Hershel Wilder, Ben Zion Nussbaum and Mr. S. Weber supplied the glassware and cutlery. Carpenters and painters donated their labour, repairing furniture, washing floors and painting walls. A few people volunteered as waiters and dishwashers. Mrs. Tucker and Mrs. Solway, two prominent Toronto ladies, undertook to look after the cooking. Meals were served twice daily, at noontime and in the evening. Because of the scarcity of dishes it became necessary to serve the unemployed in groups of twenty-five only.

Most of the money to maintain the kitchen came from the poor; the more well-to-do ignored the undertaking. The money was raised by public subscription, the majority of subscribers paying five cents weekly. Several subscription lists show the highest individual contribution to be fifty cents. Many donations were in the form of gifts of food. The following items appear in a typical list:

2 loaves of bread
(a single loaf cost 4¢ and a double loaf 7¢)
1/4 bag of potatoes (a bag cost 12 1/2¢)
3 Ibs of meat (cost 20¢)
2 Ibs of onions (cost 5¢)

The regular collectors were Cantor M. Caplan and Moishe Caplan, a pants presser. The latter devoted most of his time and energy to his voluntarily assumed task. A few of the leading workers were Joseph Layefsky, Abraham Layefsky, Mr. M. Blechman, Mr L. Tredler and Mr. M. Langbord.

There were some, however, who, though hungry and without money to buy food, were, nevertheless, reluctant to come to the kitchen. Ashamed of having to accept public assistance, they felt it a further humiliation to have to eat their charity meals before the eyes of strangers. In deference to their feelings, an innovation was made in the manner of distributing relief thanks to a garment worker, Leibish Finkelstein, who thought of a way overcome their reluctance. At his suggestion it was decided to prepare box lunches containing sandwiches, soup and meat to distributed once a day to needy persons calling for it.

After a short time the kitchen had to close owing to lack of funds and lack of experienced personnel. A second attempt to run a kitchen was made a year later. This time the chief sponsors were businessmen and insurance agents. A large, run-down house was leased, and a hostel added to provide free lodgings. But, though money was more abundant this time, it too had to close down and was not reopened until three years later in 1911.

At one time or another during the early years of the present century, most Jewish tailors in Toronto had worked for the T. Eaton Company. In 1900 the company-with the largest store in the British Empire and ranking first in retail merchandising- opened a factory in Toronto and began manufacturing men' s and ladies' clothes. There was at all times a heavy demand for ready-made clothing, and as the T. Eaton Company could not manufacture enough in its own factory to meet the constant demand, it was forced to farm out unfinished garments to private contractors and individuals for finishing. With the large influx of Jewish immigrants into Canada at the turn of the century, many of them experienced tailors, there was a sharp increase in the number of Jews working for the company. Eaton's was anxious to enlarge its factory and increase production, so it hired almost anybody with some tailoring experience. At first many immigrants applying for a job gave their origin as German, believing that they would be hired more quickly if their true origin was unknown. But the T. Eaton Company, as a matter of fact, did not discriminate in hiring people to work in its factory. Indeed for many years Jews made up an impressive part of the personnel in the factory.

Employees were paid by the piece-work system, and it was a rule that a worker in the factory must earn no less than $5 a week if single and $7.50 a week if married. Naturally a slow or incompetent worker who did not earn this minimum would not stay long on the job. The firm was strongly opposed to unionism and forbade any form of union organisation among its employees. It refused to recognise any official labour holidays. An employee who absented himself on such a day was, more likely than not, to be fired when he showed up the next day. Nevertheless, the Jewish workers formed a union, and in 1912, when factory conditions were particularly bad, they went on strike. Although the strike had, from the very first, little chance of success -- the union was too small and weak to be able to wage a successful fight against so wealthy a firm-- it was a hard and heroic struggle.

The whole Jewish population rallied behind the strikers. Out of sympathy with them Jewish housewives organised a boycott of the firm's stores, refusing to buy any goods there until a settlement was reached. Clashes occurred between Jewish strikers and Jewish strike-breakers, but despite all the efforts of workers and unions, the strike was lost. It is interesting to note here, that many of the future Jewish cloak manufacturers of Toronto took an active part in this strike, either as strikers or strike-breakers. Two of the most active figures in the union at the time were Mr. Lubedsky, a designer in charge of organising the cloaks section, and Mr. Harry Waxman, who looked after the men's wear. A few of the leaders of this 1912 strike were Max Shore, Abraham Nissenwater, Abraham Kirzner, Mr. B. Wilkowsky, Max Finkelstein, Moishe Goodman, Abraham Rovner and Shlome Zietz.

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