Home Perspectives Farber: The songs that kept our dreams alive

Farber: The songs that kept our dreams alive

Friends at Smith's Bay House, 1944. (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre. Photo taken by John E. Ackerman)

Today’s world is replete with a form of populism that seems to take its cues from nativist hatred and percolating xenophobia, and Canada has not been exempt.

Some political leaders create false narratives that vilify refugees and immigrants, while others play footsie with white nationalists. Meanwhile, the more extreme actors on the world stage become radicalized through social media platforms and end up committing acts of violence and mass murder.

Many of us yearn for a simpler time. A time long ago when, even though our families struggled to make ends meet and were no strangers to anti-Semitism, hope seemed just around the corner.

Recently, I met with an old friend, David Buchbinder, who is engaged in an initiative that gives me faith that the future is redeemable.

Buchbinder is a Juno Award-winning musician and the founder of the Ashkenaz Festival, who is driven by the immense richness offered by cross-cultural opportunities. He was nominated this year for a Grammy Award, as part of the Yiddish Glory project. This was a collaborative effort that brought Anna Shternshis, a CJN columnist and professor of Yiddish studies at the University of Toronto, together with Buchbinder and other musicians to put music to Yiddish song lyrics that survived the Holocaust. This passionate effort to resurrect music that many people thought had been lost forever led to a renewed interest in the Yiddish language.

Buchbinder’s new project rings a similar tune. The Ward Cabaret was work-shopped last year at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. The show was inspired by the best-selling 2015 anthology, The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, which was co-edited by journalist John Lorinc, architect Michael McClelland, heritage writer Tatum Taylor and Ellen Scheinberg, the former executive director of the Ontario Jewish Archives.

The anthology traces the stories and origins of a scrappy downtown neighbourhood, which is now the site of Nathan Phillips Square, where African-American refugees, Italian labourers, eastern European Jews and Chinese migrants settled between the 1850s and the 1960s.

The hidden history of this long-erased part of Toronto is inspiring in so many ways and helps us understand how the city evolved into such an extraordinarily diverse place.

When Buchbinder discovered the book, however, he immediately recognized how music fits into the narrative. The crowded streets of the Ward echoed, at various times, with cantorial music from the area’s many synagogues, spirituals from black churches, folk music sung by Italian street musicians and the haunting ballads of Cantonese opera. Many of Toronto’s old burlesque houses were owned by Jews and were not permitted to open on Sundays (the Lord’s Day). Some rented their theatres to Toronto’s Chinese community, whose members staged the wonderfully entrancing Cantonese operas.

Buchbinder’s inspiring vision focuses on four immigrant communities in the rough and tumble Toronto that was home to a new and growing multicultural Canada. Through their experiences, he explores how music and immigrant narratives brought ordinary people from very disparate places together, thus creating not just communal bonds, but also a way of co-existing and thriving in a fast-growing city.


Music and theatre have always been part of the immigrant community experience. Klezmer followed the Jewish community from the poverty-stricken shtetlach of eastern Europe, to the “goldene medina” of North America. The raucous tunes – the fiddles, trumpets and drums – kept our dreams alive as we struggled to create a new life. With a sentiment similar to the hit play Come from Away, Buchbinder transposes the theatre into a musical and lyrical tapestry of the past.

Along with a diverse team of co-creators and collaborators, Buchbinder is mounting The Ward Cabaret in December for a full run at Harbourfront Centre. It may very well celebrate a time long ago, but we can look to this past to explain our present,
and even bring hope for our future.