Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Labor Lyceum Heritage Plaquing Event

Last Wednesday evening, with a crowd of about 100 people, Heritage Toronto in partnership with UJA Federation’s Ontario Jewish Archives unveiled a new Heritage Toronto plaque for the Labor Lyceum, the epicentre of political activism for Toronto’s textile workers from the 1920s through the 1960s. J.B. Salsberg, a lifelong labour activist, wrote that “no single institution and no single building on Spadina – the main street of Jewish Toronto – was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew” than was the Labor Lyceum. 

The plaque will be installed at the southwest corner of Spadina and St. Andrew. Due to the rain, the event was held inside the beautiful “Minsker” synagogue. Remarks were made by OJA chair Eric Slavens who previously served on the board of Heritage Toronto where he initiated the Jewish plaquing initiative and raised the funds to make it possible.

Toronto city council member Adam Vaughan reminisced about his early days as a councilor when former city councilor Howard Moscoe drove him up Bathurst to see the current-day shuls and then took him down to the Market to show him where the community originated. MPP Mike Colle spoke about the significance of Jewish Heritage Month.

Guest speaker Harry Arthurs, former dean of Osgoode Law School, labour historian, and grandson of Henry Dworkin, founder of the Labor Lyceum, spoke eloquently about the role his grandfather, an enterprising businessman, played in the community. The Dworkin Travel agency helped bring hundreds of Jewish immigrants to Toronto from the looming dangers of Europe. Additionally, Dworkin along with his partner Sam Easser, encouraged garment union workers to purchase shares for the construction of the Labor Lyceum Association at five dollars each. In 1924, the Association purchased two houses at 344 and 246 Spadina Avenue. Five years later, they added meeting rooms. In addition to the labour activity, the seasonal nature of the textile industry meant that workers could socialize and strategize at the Labor Lyceum during slow work periods.

The plaque commemoration was followed by the Ontario Jewish Archives’ Sense of Spadina tour that focused on the role Jews played in the garment district and union movement. Participants enjoyed seeing the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood and learning about Toronto Jewish life in the Kensington Market area. Sign up for an upcoming public tour:

Attendees in front of the Anshei Minsk Synagogue, May 22, 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Toronto’s First Israel Parade Through the Lens of Dr. John Ackerman

Ackerman family, ca. 1937.
Photo courtesy David Ackerman.
The OJA recently acquired hundreds of photographs and films taken by Dr. John Ackerman (1921-2008). Born in Toronto to Jacob and Mindel Ackerman, Dr. Ackerman took up photography as a hobby in his teens. In 1939, he won a photo contest during the visit of King George VI by capturing a winning shot of the royal. With the prize money he purchased a better camera and darkroom supplies. Although he later became a dentist, he remained passionate about photography throughout his life and brought his camera with him, it seems, everywhere he went. For over 60 years he photographed family and community events, his neighborhood near Dundas and Elizabeth Street, trips to popular summer destinations such as Crystal Beach and Belle Ewart, his parent’s grocery store business, and his time in the Canadian military.

Ackerman, ca. 1944.
OJA, accession #2012-9/7.
Included among these remarkable photographs are rare images of Toronto’s first Israel parade, which took place on Sunday May 16, 1948 – two days after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence. The parade, sponsored by the United Zionist Council of Toronto, was both a celebration of Israel’s formation and a demonstration asking Canada to recognize the Jewish state and help it become a member of the United Nations. Dr. Ackerman was among the estimated 20,000 people who took part in this historic celebration, which moved along College Street to Maple Leaf Gardens where it culminated in a massive rally. The photos Dr. Ackerman took on this day are not only remarkable for their professional quality and composition, but also because the range of photographs he took (over 25 images) capture various facets of the day.

OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
 OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
Looking through the images one is struck by the parade’s massive scale. Throngs of people can be seen not only taking part in the parade, but also lining the streets and watching from the windows of nearby buildings. Also seen is the large range of Jewish organizations that took part, including B’nai Brith, United Jewish Peoples Order, the Jewish Folk School, and a group of veterans who fought in Palestine during the First World War.

The photos capture the sense of excitement and pride felt by the community after its 2,000 year long struggle for a Jewish state: Israeli flags are seen displayed in the windows of Jewish owned shops, a man enthusiastically waves the newspaper announcement towards Dr. Ackerman’s camera, a marching band performs for onlookers, a truck used by S. Mirsky for his moving business is seen outfitted for the occasion with loud speakers and signs of jubilee, and both young and old community members can be spotted celebrating together. Taken together, these images bring to life the parade’s sights, sounds, and general atmosphere of celebration. This group of photos is a major acquisition for the Ontario Jewish Archives, as it documents the local response to an event of global significance.

OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
Today, Toronto’s Jewish community continues to rally together in support of Israel in UJA Federation’s annual Walk With Israel. The Walk, which takes place this year on May 26th, raises funds to sustain UJA’s social welfare and educational programs in the state and provide aid to vulnerable regions. The photos Dr. Ackerman captured 65 years ago, serve as a reminder of the community’s continuing solidarity with Israel. Register here for this year’s walk: