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When Jews were tough

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Christie Pits. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Anti-Semitism flourished in Kensington Market and its outlying streets in the 1920s and ’30s, and acts of aggression against Jews were commonplace in the entire city of Toronto at the time.  

Tough Jews, a new play by Michael Ross Albert about a Jewish family living in Kensington during that era, draws upon the Christie Pits riot, examining that violent reaction to intolerance and anti-Semitism. Hundreds of Jews and Nazi sympathizers fought in the park for nearly six hours in August 1933. 

Tough Jews’ director Michael Ross Albert

Albert heard about the riot from his late grandfather, Nathan Starr, who used to regale his family with stories about Toronto’s past, which sparked his grandson’s imagination. 

“My parents made sure that I spoke to my grandfather about the riot at Christie Pits, which is featured pretty heavily in the play and is a source of both pride and a little bit of contention,” he said. Jews felt a sense of pride because they fought back, according to Cyrill Levitt in his book about the riot. 

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Tough Jews is having its world premiere at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the city. “It really never crossed my mind when I was writing the play that this type of culture would be on the rise in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world,” Albert  said. “It does mean that the production and creative team are really treating it with that kind of current  insight.”   

The play is a black comedy about the Wolfman family, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe who live in the market from 1929 to ’33, the worst years of the Great Depression.

“There weren’t labour laws and families who didn’t speak English were relegated to menial jobs in factories, making less than a nickel an hour,” Albert said. 

The Wolfman family are would-be criminals who wish to rise above their economic circumstances. Thieves, gamblers, pimps, hookers, bookies and bootleggers were active in Kensington area at the time. The Wolfmans already have a foot outside the law since they serve liquor illegally in a “blind pig” in their basement during Prohibition. “It was more survival than wanting to create a criminal empire, the American counterpart, “ Albert said.   

The play’s first act takes place over Yom Kippur in 1929, 10 days before the stock market crash, and the second act coincides with Yom Kippur in 1933, just after the Christie Pits riot.

“We get to see this family in two very extreme moments in their history – these two events that really shape the course of their future,” Albert said. Tough Jews is essentially about family, he added.

“The anti-Semitic theme that comes into play really does not have as much weight as the struggle and necessity to keep a family together. As an immigrant family, he said the Wolfmans “struggle with remembering and honouring the culture they came from, while trying to build their own new life and new identity in this country.”

A Storefront Theatre production, in association with the Spadina Avenue Gang, Tough Jews is running in the basement of a building in  Kensington Market, a former punk club that’s being transformed into the Wolfmans’ speakeasy.

“We’re renovating the space so the audience feels they’re entering a living, breathing time machine, so there’s a back-alley entrance that will take the audience down the stairs to the underbelly of Kensington, where they’ll feel as though they’re immersed in history,” Albert said. 

Tough Jews, directed by Benjamin Blais, features Theresa Tova as the family’s matriarch, Ida;  Luis Fernandes, Blue Bigwood-Mallin and G Kyle Shields are the three brothers; Maaor Ziv is the sister, Rose. Stephen Joffe plays their cousin, Ziggie, and Anne Van Leeuwen has the role of the fiancée of one of the brothers.  It runs from March 31 to April 16 at Kensington Hall, 56K Kensington Ave.

For tickets, visit http://toughjews.brownpapertickets.com/.