HAMILTON — Two friends have preserved the history of Hamilton’s Jewish community with an oral history in DVD format about Jewish life in Steeltown from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Hamilton’s Yiddish schule of the Jewish Board of Education, circa 1950.
The Jewish Hamilton Project was started five years ago and had its launch on Sept. 13 at the Shalom Village nursing home. It contains numerous interviews with Jewish Hamiltonians recounting their experiences and fond memories of growing up and living in the southern Ontario city.
The creators, producers and directors of the project are Billy Shaffir, a sociology professor at McMaster University, and Wendy Schneider, editor of the Hamilton Jewish News.
Schneider, who has an interest in Jewish family history, borrowed Shaffir’s camcorder one day to record her own family’s history and the idea for the Jewish Hamilton Project was born.
Shaffir came to Hamilton in the early 1970s from Montreal. He became a frequent visitor to his adopted home’s Jewish community centre, where he heard many stories about what a wonderful place Hamilton had been and how the JCC had flourished.
“When I came here, [the Jewish community] was a shadow of its former self,” he said. “People were talking about how Hamilton was a great place to grow up in.”
The interactive DVD is divided thematically into sections about topics such as anti-Semitism, business and occupations, education, entertainment, “in the military,” organizations, personalities, shuls, the JCC, and the war years. The entire DVD is approximately two hours long.
Both Shaffir and Schneider noted how people came alive as they reminisced about their city’s past on camera.
Sam Hebscher recounts a story about the legendary clarinettist Benny Goodman and big-band leader, who was once playing a gig in Hamilton and attended a yahrzeit service at one of the synagogues afterward.
He gave a $20 bill to whomever was in charge after he finished his prayers, which caused great excitement, as this was a lot of money back in the 1940s.
Helen Yellin talks about one of the original synagogues on Canon Street. Her eyes light up with pride as she describes the beauty of the shul, which was built at the time by pedlars and poor people, and how it housed three magnificent chandeliers that she believes now hang in ritzy Toronto restaurants.
Cuppy Katz talks about Jerry’s Men’s Shop which open in 1916, on James Street North, where the family lived above the store. After three generations, it’s still thriving.
Unfortunately, there could also be a dark side to living in Hamilton.
Moishe Waxman tells a story about a group of boys who pelted him with stones one day as he walked to his bar mitzvah class after school. The next day Waxman saw two of the boys. “I grabbed them by the back of their necks, banged their heads together and told them that if they ever threw another stone at me, they’d lose their arms. That was the end of that problem,” Waxman said.
Shaffir and Schneider, who had to fundraise for the project, said the only way they were able to complete it was because of the many private donations they received.
They even received a couple of donations from Toronto, including from the Mirvish family. (David Mirvish’s mother, Anne, was originally from Hamilton.) They also received funds from the B’nai Brith Sports Dinner, a large fundraiser held annually in Hamilton.
“This is a magnificent, beautiful product, and that is due to Dennis Haradyn, who did a masterful job at the art, the design, the DVD and the presentation,” Schneider said.
She and Shaffir donated copies of the DVD to the JCC, as well as to each of the city’s three synagogues and the Hamilton Hebrew Academy, among other Jewish gathering places.
The DVD is also on sale at Hamilton’s Beth Jacob Synagogue and Shalom Village.
Shaffir said he hoped, however, that the DVD wouldn’t be the last chronicle of Hamilton Jewry.
“Someone else will do more,” he said. “There are always people that you should have spoken to, stories that other people want to tell.”