It was a mere accident of history that the routine commercial Yiddish sign that once graced the window of Mandel’s Dairy Shop on Toronto’s Baldwin Street – “Butter, Cheese, Cream, Eggs: Fresh Every Day” – has become a precious relic.
The lettering was visible in the creamery window from about the 1920s to the 1970s, when Mandel’s closed. But then, instead of being scraped away and destroyed, the sign was given an extended lease on life, because the next tenant, John’s Italian Cafe, decided to keep it in place.
After John’s Italian Cafe closed last summer, the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre quickly intervened to rescue the sign, which had become virtually the last of its kind in the once predominantly Jewish Spadina corridor.
“We had a professional glass company come and safely crate the window and put it in our storage,” said OJA director Dara Solomon.
The now-iconic window was revisited Aug. 14 in a new art installation at the Fentster Gallery at 402 College St. near Lippincott. It seems altogether fitting that Fentster is Yiddish for “window,” because, in this case, the main event is not behind the window but painted onto the glass itself: a near-replica of the creamery sign that has replaced the words “Fresh Every Day” with “Only Memories.”
In keeping with the mix of Yiddish and English words (“Yinglish”) on the original sign, the word “Memories” appears as an English word transliterated into Yiddish characters.
The installation, titled Mandel’s Dreamery, also features an enlarged 1920s-era archival photograph of Trachter’s, a dairy store that operated on Kensington Avenue, as well as an informational panel providing historical context. The panel includes references to and photographs of other food shops that were formerly in the area, such as Walerstein’s Ice Cream Parlour, Gary’s Groceries, United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, and Gryfe’s and Perlmutar’s bakeries.
The installation was curated by Evelyn Tauben and Solomon as a joint project of the OJA, Fentster and the Ashkenaz Festival, which is highlighting the foods of eastern European Jews this year.
It was the association with food that made Tauben think of the Mandel’s Creamery sign, “which caused such a stir last summer and struck like a lightning bolt for those of us interested in preserving the Jewish heritage of the city.”
The sign “is very evocative not just of the history of the neighbourhood, but of the immigrant population who were absorbing English into everyday life in their own idiomatic way,” Tauben said.
According to Solomon, the installation is the first step in the OJA’s goal of raising awareness for a public monument in celebration of the former Yiddish language and culture that once proliferated along the Spadina corridor.
“When we removed the window from Baldwin Street, ideally we would have loved for it to stay in the neighbourhood,” she said. “We’re trying to think of a way to bring Yiddish back to the neighbourhood in some permanent way.”
The main floor of 402 College Street is the home of Makom, a space dedicated to “creative downtown Judaism.” Mandel’s Dreamery remains on display in the Fentster window until Oct. 30. A free public reception takes place at 402 College on Monday, Aug. 29, 5 to 8 p.m.