Jewish Neighborhoods: Toronto

The first record of Jewish immigration to Toronto dates back to the early 19th century, when English and German Jewish merchants came to Canada in hopes of expanding their businesses. While most of these merchants stayed only temporarily, by 1856 there were at least 100 Jewish residents in Toronto, and the first synagogue, the Holy Blossom Temple, had been established.

A larger wave of Jewish immigration to Toronto began in the 1880s. By 1911, 18,000 Jews lived in Toronto—a number that nearly doubled over the following decade. Over the first half of the 20th century, a thriving Jewish life in Toronto flourished through a vibrant network of social, cultural, and political organizations. Yiddish-speaking Jews congregated at delicatessens and ice cream parlors to discuss politics, literature, and culture. Two Yiddish theaters were established between 1907 and 1922; in their prime, these theaters, which seated audiences of close to one thousand people, were packed full of Jewish theatergoers. Two Yiddish schools were founded in 1911 and 1928, one of which, the Morris Winchevsky School, still exists; a third Yiddish school, the Bialik Hebrew Day School, was established in 1961 and continues to offer Yiddish classes today.

Media was also an important instrument in the development of Yiddish culture in Toronto. The Toronto Yiddish Radio Hour, which centered around Yiddish music but also discussed culture, poetry, politics, and news, ran from 1936 to 1955. Toronto Jews connected to global Yiddish culture through publications like The Forward, and several local Yiddish newspapers, such as Der yidisher zhurnal (The Yiddish Journal), Keneder yidisher vokhenblat (Canadian Jewish Weekly), and Kanade nayes (Canada News) began appearing as early as 1910.

In addition to their active involvement in Toronto’s garment workers unions, Toronto Jews formed their own political organizations, including the Toronto chapter of the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) and its associated summer camp, Camp Yungvelt; various landsmanshaftn (associations of immigrants originally from the same region); the Labour League Mutual Benefit Society, which re-emerged, with the Arbeter Ring, in 1944 as the left-wing secular Yiddishist United Jewish People’s Order; and philanthropic groups like the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society and the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy, the latter of which remains active today.

While restrictive immigration laws in the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s brought Jewish immigration to a near halt, these restrictions loosened after World War II, and tens of thousands of Jewish refugees came to Toronto; by the late 1970s, Toronto became the city in Canada with the largest Jewish population. Toronto continues to be an important Yiddish hub through groups like Ontario Yiddishkayt and the Committee for Yiddish.

"Nous parlons Français, mir redn yidish"

Yiddish scholar and folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett discusses the immigrant neighborhood in Toronto where she grew up. She describes a sign hanging in the window of her father’s store written in five languages: Polish, Hebrew, French, Yiddish, and German.

Memories of Camp Yungvelt

Toronto Yiddish educator Ethel Sum Cooper describes her childhood experiences at Camp Yungvelt, an Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) getaway where many Jewish children from Toronto spent their summers. Although the camp’s facilities were limited, the children made their own fun through creative means.

Tensions within Toronto’s Jewish Communities

Marlene Hait, raised in a Yiddish-speaking home by Holocaust survivors, reflects on the complicated relationship between Toronto’s earlier Jewish immigrants and newer, postwar arrivals. She recounts a time in the mid-sixties when Holocaust survivors in the city came together to fight back against a neo-Nazi rally.

My Father, the Rabbi, and Yiddish

Shulamith (Shami) Kligman Zimmerman, Yiddish teacher and daughter of Yiddishist Joseph Kligman, shares a story of her father meeting a Yiddish-speaking rabbi. She explains how this encounter highlighted the vibrancy of Toronto as a Jewish community with many diverse cultural strands.

Cover image is the letterhead of the Toronto Bureau of Jewish Education from the top of a letter written to Sh. M. Zeltshen, courtesy of Hanni Dorn.