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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Art project documents working families

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The Balinson family circa 1936-37

HAMILTON — Joan Balinson was grateful to find a place to share and preserve the story of her husband’s printing press. That’s why she participated in Working Family Stories and Treasures (WFST) of the Hamilton Jewish Community.

“I didn’t want my husband’s thoughts to be gone. I don’t know how much longer he will be able to share them. That generation is dying. Unfortunately, that’s the truth,” Balinson said.

Melinda Richter is an arts consultant who is the co-ordinator and curator of WFST, which was organized by Lyn Center and Kathryn Petersen. The workshop-based community art project was designed to tell the stories of Jewish working families and how they built a community in Hamilton.

“I give great thanks to people like Melinda who are making efforts to find the balance of what’s happening today and what’s the heritage of what allowed everything to happen today,” Balinson said.

The stories in WFST include tales from thriving downtown businesses such as the Chicken Roost, the Pagoda, Gavin’s Hardware Store, Vine’s Delicatessen and Dorsen’s Shoes.

In 1911, at age 24, Henry Balinson immigrated to Canada from Russia, where he had worked as a typesetter. He later started the International Press on King Street West in Hamilton and published the Jewish Voice of Hamilton, a Yiddish language newspaper, in the 1930s.

He was an educated and engaged man, and his newspaper served as an outlet for his opinions and observations, including his column, “Mein shpatsir iber Hamilton” (My stroll around Hamilton). Henry used this space to deliver commentary on Jewish Hamilton and garnered much positive and critical feedback from readers.

In addition to the Jewish Voice, International Press attracted business from other organizations because of its typeset services in languages including Russian, Ukrainian and Hungarian.

Henry’s son, Morley – Joan’s husband, was taken out of school to help run the business, with his siblings Robert, Alex, Norman and Goldie, who at age five was collating jobs in the shop. Morley was the only one who continued to work in the shop.

When Morley and Joan did their recording for the Working Families project, Morley pulled out and operated his old letter press, wire inserter and guillotine cutter to show what sounds used to emanate from his King Street shop.

Participants learned how to share these types of stories through a series of workshops in which artists led them from researching their family history to expressing their favourite family stories in creative ways.

The project was funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and UJA Federation of Hamilton, as well as private donors.

All artwork was exhibited at participating locations and at the You Me gallery on James Street North. Now, the stories, recordings and photos have all been collected on a website, where visitors can learn the stories, as well as submit their own.

“It’s a place where people can find resources on how to capture community history and add more stories,” Richter said. “It can also help people who want to do a similar project.”

Richter, who grew up in Hamilton, said she found it amazing to hear about the vibrant Jewish community of decades ago.

“I was interested in telling the stories of what went into building the community and why the community looks like it does now. It was really exciting and helped me with my own personal history.”

Richter believes it’s especially important to share the stories of Jewish printers, farmers and scrap metal families.

“A lot of history is institutional,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of stories of people who picked up wheelbarrows or collected scrap metal to build the synagogues and schools.”

To read and hear the stories, and view the photos, of the Working Family Stories and Treasures of the Hamilton Jewish Community, visit

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