How it really was: Growing up Jewish in the Toronto ghetto

In my childhood memories there was a ghetto, even if we did not know we lived in one.

The first Jewish historical site recognized by the government of Ontario, the Kiever Synagogue (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The first Jewish historical site recognized by the government of Ontario, the Kiever Synagogue
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
KOFFLER’S DRUGSTORE on College Street was in the middle of the Jewish ghetto in the 1930s and 1940s. Murray Koffler took over as a stripling of 17, while finishing his last year of high school. A business genius, Murray created the largest drugstore chain in Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart. A lover of Israel, among many philanthropic activities on its behalf, he also founded the SuperPharm chain. Now since this is not a commercial, I return to Toronto’s ghetto.
At Murray’s request, I did something I never did or do. I sacrificed a Friday evening with my family to speak to a group of Torontonians whom he was leading on a trip to Israel for the Weizmann Institute.The first words of my speech were “As someone who grew up in Toronto’s ghetto…” Afterwards, a very polite but perturbed gentleman came up to me and said, “You shouldn’t say ‘ghetto’ about Toronto. There was never a ghetto in Canada.”
Well not every potential donor is required to be literate; obviously the only ghetto he had heard about was the tragic one in Warsaw.
Since he was so polite, I was polite in my response. So polite that I have no idea what I said.
In my childhood memories there was a ghetto, even if we did not know we lived in one.
A little background - Toronto in the 1930s was as WASPy a city you could find. Its Anglo-Celtic majority was out and out antisemitic, which would range from after five o’clock lack of social interaction to fistfights and beatings. There was a pitched battle in Christie Pitts, a large public park when the Toronto Jewish tough guys came en masse to bloody the noses of the “others.” And they did, led by professional Jewish boxers. The worst antisemites were the Ulster Irishmen, a very important group of Northern Irish Protestants who hated Jews possibly even more than they hated Catholics. Toronto was so staid and Victorian, as I discovered as a youngster using the excellent streetcar system, that there was such a thing as a “Sunday Stop” in front of major churches. Much later, I found out there were “blue laws,” which kept the bars closed on Sundays.
But who knew all this then? Not I. The entire world was Jewish except for the St. Christopher’s House a few houses away.
It was a kind of early community center to help the new immigrant population acclimate.
They had activities for children, and every day – to make sure of good nutrition for these poor immigrant kids – offered a glass of milk and an arrowroot biscuit. That House was part of our lives, but an extraterritorial area. In other words, I grew up in an all-Jewish enclave. I never had a non-Jewish friend. Our world spoke Yiddish and English.
Yes, there were a few Jewish doctors and lawyers and pharmacists and accountants and wealthy merchants, but they usually left the ghetto and moved “up North,” just a few miles away from us physically and leagues apart socially. There was a numerus clausus for Jews in medicine and engineering at the University of Toronto, but the public school system was welcoming to all of us newcomers in a most magnificent way. That will be for a later column.
I spoke Yiddish before I began speaking English “on the street” with all the other Jewish kids. As a little boy of three, I loved to sit on the sidewalk curb in the sunny spring or on summer days listening to the clip-clop of the horses’ hoofs of the breadman or milkman or the “waterman” (translated from the Yiddish “vasserman”), who delivered milk and soda pop to our doors. As summer approached, the fruit and vegetable pedlars would come by sitting on the longer horse-drawn wagon, shouting “VatehmeLON VatehmeLON, Cherrrry RRRipe Cherrrrry RRRipe,” in a hypnotizing musical chant and a rolling guttural “r.”
The greatest thrill was to hear a lone airplane droning high above, its engine sound pulling my eyes skyward. An occasional car drove by, and a few years later I learned to identify the Ford and “Tcheverlette” (Chevrolet).
As a child, like most our neighbors’ kids, I would be sent to the corner store of Mr.
Nachtigal, a few houses away. By then the old-country Yiddish was invested with English, “Zay careful ven you crross de strit.”
I am not making fun of my parent’s accents, just stating a fact. As time passed, their English naturally improved. My mother would never give me a list, and I would run and keep chanting the few items so I wouldn’t forget. It always ended with “un far tzvay sent hayven.” That is transcribed in our Polish Yiddish pronunciation. To transpose it into English, that last word would be pronounced “high-ven.”
Mr. Nightingale (so he became later on) would cut a small chunk from a beige brick, wrap it in waxed paper and hand it over to me in a brown bag. Years later I discovered it was yeast, used in the baking of I do not recall what.
Our home, as most homes of people we knew, was kosher. It never occurred to me that there were non-kosher Jewish homes.
On some Shabbats, my white-bearded grandfather (he was then about 82, and walked with a cane) took me to the nearby Kiever shul.
“Zayde,” as we called him, probably knew very little English. Most likely he took me to shul to get me out of my parents’ hair for a while. It was the Havdala service marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week, which I remember best. They would stand me on a bench, holding the candle of twisted wicks high, and in the dark, the flickering light illuminated momentarily the visages of the bearded strangers – and my mostly proud grandfather. But once I knocked over the snuff box of the perfumed herbs which was part of the service, and the cloves and other spices spilled out on the table.
“Der klayner mazik”
– the little devil – “a yener takhshit” – some “jewel” (usually a term for troublemaker), these were some of the words I recall, as I hung my head in shame and tried not to cry. Zayde may not have taken me there again. Nonetheless, I have always loved Havdala.
Next door to us on Wales Avenue lived Mr. and Mrs. Campbell. They were not Scots or even Scottish Jews, and I suppose the name originally was Gimpel or the like.
Of course, they also spoke Yiddish. It was around 1935, and we had not yet acquired a radio and certainly not a record player, the kind that played those long-forgotten 12-inch black disks at 78 rpm. The Campbells invited us over to listen to records. In those days, neighbors were never addressed by their first names; it was “Mrs. Campbell, Mrs. Applebaum.”
The Yiddish record was a song of a young boy singing “Ikh vil nisht geyn in heder/ Der rebbe shlogt mikh k’seyder” (I don’t want to go to heder, the teacher keeps hitting me). I felt his pain and sobbed bitter tears. Perhaps this was the beginning of my sympathizing with the weak and powerless.
When my parents took me home, next door, and consoled me, I made my first politico- economic statement. Pouting, I said in Yiddish, “It’s not fair. The Campbells have a radio and a record player. They have two and we have nothing. They should give us one.”
In that special kvelling tone, my mother said, in Yiddish of course, “Look at him. The little communist.” I remember that distinctly although communist was an unknown, and therefore interesting word.
Mr. and Mrs. Yakubovich, the parents of that great Broadway and Hollywood actor Lou Jacobi, lived upstairs in a two or three room apartment. Lou I knew only decades later. I knew he was from Toronto when I immediately recognized his intonation in “Irma la Douce.” He was the bartender and when retelling a tale and about to begin a new one, he would end with “But tha-aat’s another story.”
My parents sent me off to kindergarten because I was hyperactive, I suppose, and, forgive the word, precocious. Probably the last straw came after I had made my mother cry miserably. She wept while pulling and cutting the chewing gum from my sealed eyelashes, through which I could see nothing.
It hurt terribly.
“Why did you do this?” “Because I wanted to know what it feels like to be blind.”
Of course. So they packed me off to kindergarten when I was four. The beginning of meeting the world. Outside the ghetto walls.
But tha-aat’s another story!