TORONTO — Stephen Speisman, who founded the Ontario Jewish archives in 1974 and had an unparalleled knowledge of Toronto’s Jewish history, died Oct. 22 of a heart attack at his home in Thornhill. He was 65.
Stephen Speisman is seen at his desk at the Ontario Jewish Archives in 2001. [CJN file photo]
Speisman retired in May of this year as executive director of Toronto Hebrew Memorial Park/Pardes Shalom Cemetery following a medical leave of absence that began almost three years ago after he underwent surgery for cancer.
He had taken on the cemetery position on a part-time basis in 1999, and left the archives two years later to devote himself to the job full time.
A native of Toronto who grew up near Bathurst Street and Dovercourt Road before moving to North York as a young teenager, Speisman was educated at the University of Toronto, where he studied American history as an undergraduate, changing focus for his PhD.
His doctoral thesis served as the basis for his book, The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937, a winner of the 1980 City of Toronto Book Award.
An active member of Adath IsraelCongregation in his teenage and young adult years, Speisman taught bar mitzvah and Sunday high school classes there. In a 2004 lecture, he credited the shul “in great measure” for his observance of mitzvot.
Rabbi Erwin Schild, rabbi emeritus of Adath Israel, recalls Speisman’s “enthusiastic participation” in services.
On a personal note, he told The CJN about a family car trip to Florida when the Schilds invited the then-teenage Speisman, who was friendly with their son, to join them. “It was admirable how he knew the historical significance of all the cities we passed through… It was so enjoyable to travel with him and hear his commentary. He was a very great mind, a wonderful historian and a very reliable person.”
Although Speisman was “strictly Orthodox in his private life,” he understood and related well to people who were not, his wife, CJN reporter Leila Speisman, said in an interview.
As well, she recalled, he stood behind her when she reported on controversial issues, taking pride in her work.
The son of a klezmer musician who later became a barber, Speisman was a fan of chazzanut and classical music, especially baroque. He was also a family man who invented fanciful bedtime stories for his three now-grown daughters, telling them about the adventures of three little girls who lived in a magic land.
More recently, he took his oldest grandson to visit a fire station, and he also planned to visit his daughter Joanna Stavsky’s Grade 3 class at Eitz Chaim Schools to talk to her students about Jewish pioneers.
Speisman was the “consummate chasan Torah” in terms of his passion for learning and the way he “lived Torah,” said Rabbi Baruch Taub of Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto Congregation in a eulogy, referring to one of two special honours given on Simchat Torah, the day of Speisman’s death.
As well, said the rabbi, Speisman was a “chasan Bereshis” who demonstrated by example that one could “be a Torah Jew in the world at large. Steve insisted with tenacity that both were holy.”
Speisman’s funeral was held at the synagogue, where he was an active member from the day it opened, serving as gabbai, chevrah kadisha member and the shul’s longest-standing board member. As well, he led prayers for almost three decades, the rabbi said.
In the larger community, Speisman was known for the walking tours he gave of old Jewish Toronto, creating impressions that were so vivid “one could see the mothers bustling on Friday preparing for Shabbos,” Rabbi Taub said.
Seymour Epstein, senior vice-president of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education (the Mercaz), knew Speisman as a teenager from their days in Adath Israel’s youth group.
“He was a pretty serious guy. He was always excited about history. I think what really came through was the sweetness of his soul,” Epstein recalled.
Speisman leaves Leila, his wife of 36 years; daughters Joanna Stavsky, Tammy Speisman and Shevi Urbach; grandchildren Yitzchak and Eliezer Stavsky, and his sister Susan Lebow.