TORONTO — Forty years ago Stephen Speisman, then a history student at the University of Toronto, launched the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) in a room in the basement of Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue – a room that was sometimes used in the evenings by waitresses to change into their uniforms before synagogue social events.
This month the archives takes over a room perhaps only marginally bigger in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre to display an exhibit of 29 photographs on the occasion of the archives’ 40th anniversary.
Director Dara Solomon chose the photos from the OJA’s massive collection of about 100,000 photographs. “It took me quite a bit of time to narrow it down,” she said. “I talked with the other archivists at the OJA and found out some of their favourites. We wanted to avoid showing the ones that get published over and over again, and show some that had never been seen before, including some new acquisitions.”
Although small, the exhibit touches strategically on many important aspects of Jewish communal life, not only in Toronto, which is its main focus, but also in the towns of Hamilton, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Jackson’s Point and Owen Sound, which are represented by one photo apiece. “Each photo was chosen to help tell a larger story,” Solomon said.
Appropriately, considering the time of year, the earliest photo (1910) shows a large group of Jews lined up along the Toronto lakefront for the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich, symbolically casting one’s sins into the water.
While there are no photos of the old Ward neighbourhood where most of the Jews of Toronto lived in the World War I era, there are numerous photos of Kensington Market in the 1920s, 1930s and later. Subjects include Perlmutar’s Bakery, the Kiever Synagogue, a fruit market on Augusta Avenue, a creamery on Kensington and a picketer wearing a Yiddish-language sandwich-board for an Ontario Poultry Buyers strike in 1939.
Several photos of women and women’s organizations trace changing fashions as well as the community’s move northward in the postwar era. There is a group photo of Pioneer Women (later Na’amat) in stylish hats in 1940, a woman proudly showing off a cabbage roll at the Hadassah Bazaar in 1959, and ladies crowding the kosher meat counter at the newly opened Steinberg’s supermarket at Sheppard Avenue and Bathurst Street in 1968.
The exhibit also includes samples from the works of photographers Al Gilbert, Nir Bareket, Sylvia Schwartz and John Ackerman, taken from larger collections in the OJA’s holding. The late John Ackerman was a dentist who took his camera nearly everywhere he went; the OJA recently acquired hundreds of his photographs. One outstanding Ackerman photo shows a large celebratory parade on College Street in 1948, days after Israel declared its independence. Some 20,000 people joined the march and subsequent rally at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The exhibit is far too small to adequately reflect what’s in the OJA’s vaults, but it offers a nice foretaste. As many as 25,000 photos are expected to become viewable online after the OJA launches its new website, an event scheduled for next January.
The Ontario Jewish Archives at Forty: Four Decades of Collecting and Sharing Our Community’s History continues at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Gallery, Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue, until Oct. 3. Admission is free. Prints of most of the photos are available for $50.