Jewish Hamilton Project

'The Way We Were' documents Jewish life in Hamilton

by Wilf Gerofsky

Abraham and Bella Freeman and family circa 1950

'Someone ought to write a book.’


How often people who have lived through interesting, emotional or funny times have expressed this yearning for them to be recorded for future generations. Memory fades, details are forgotten, and those who held these memories dear eventually die off.

The genesis for the creation of just such a record occurred when Wendy Schneider was interviewing Aaron Shiffman for an article in the HJN. Her friend Billy Shaffir had a digital camcorder and she asked him if he would like to record the interview as a keepsake for Aaron’s family.

The idea of recording an oral history of Jewish Hamilton emerged from that collaboration of Schneider and Shaffir. It was to become a series of recollections of older members of our community about ‘The Way We Were’, Jewish life in Hamilton in the early years of the last century. Shaffir, a McMaster Professor of Sociology, had come to Hamilton in the early 70’s and raised his family here. He had a strong connection to the community and shared Schneider’s enthusiasm for local Jewish history. Together they developed the idea of recording this history, not in a book, but on a professionally produced DVD.

The first part of the project deals with the original centre of Hamilton’s Jewish settlement, roughly York Street to Barton, and John Street to Bay. It was a vibrant neighbourhood, the centre of community, commerce, education and religious observance for around 2500 Jews who made up the community at that time

Boleslawsky’s Delicatessen was the acknowledged centre of Jewish Social life. As Edie Rochkin recalls

“Everyone who came to Hamilton came to Boleslawsky’s. It was like a club at night. People would buy a bottle of pop, and sit and kibitz for hours.”

And the story still is told about the guy who came in and bought a coke for a nickel and gave a $100. bill to Ziskind Boleslawsky in payment. No comment from Ziskind. He just went upstairs and returned with $99.95 change.

Not that “Boles” was the only deli. As Shannon Shapiro recalls there were delis run by Mrs. Platt, Mrs. Zucker, Cohen & Sax, and Mrs. Lax, among others. Butchers like Gelber’s and Scott’s, several fruit companies like Wright’s and Netkin’s thrived in the area. Chuck Matchen recalled Mrs. Rosenberg’s grocery store at York near Caroline was another great gathering place.

Fond memories of the JCC in its several reincarnations on Vine Street, John Street and Delaware Avenue were recalled by Paul Hanover, Cuppy Katz, Abe Lebow, Frank Shapiro and Norm Bennett.

“I was only there five and a half days a week” says Cuppy.

“It was closed for Shabbat on the other day and a half.” It was the real centre of Jewish life for the teens who went there to meet each other, dance, play organized sports, do arts and crafts, act in plays and go to summer camp. Inspirational leaders like Bill Stern and Max Rotman gave top rate leadership. As Norm Bennett puts it

“All our days and evenings were spent there. Wrestlers like Martin Hutzler and Jack Laskin trained there and Pinky Lewis was trainer for the Ticat football players. It was really a great spot. I have no regrets growing up in Hamilton and having the JCC there.”

As part of his keen recall of the religious life of the time, Aaron Shiffman remembers Rabbi Levine, whom he calls ‘the Rov of Hamilton’. Rabbi Levine, brought here around1906 by the Hess St. congregation, was a unifying force in the community, visiting different Shuls each week. He established the Talmud Torah in 1911. Rabbi Morton Green came to the Adas Israel in 1958, and was advised that his scholarly sermons given in English were not relevant to the lives of the Yiddish speaking peddlers who made up the bulk of the ‘Paelisha Shul’membership, and he soon made them more so. The Ferguson Avenue shul was known as the “broigasa shul’ because anyone who was angry with one of the other religious institutions would go there. Anshe Sholom, established in the 1850’s was the oldest Liberal congregation in Canada, presided over by Rabbi Arthur Feldman.

Helen Yellin’s many warm recollections included the custom of giving nicknames, like Mr. How Much , constantly wanting to know the price of things, or Shakespeare Bornstein, always full of stories.

Jewish education took place at the Talmud Torah, a spartan red brick building at 58 Vine St. Sophie Kroch and Joshua Katz were two of the teachers. Aaron Shiffman recalls that the kids took advantage of the teachers mercilessly, and on one occasion a teacher picked up Aaron’s cousin by the scruff of the neck sending desks and chairs flying. Aaron ran home and told his mother that he was never going to Talmud Torah again.

These stories and many others have been very professionally organized onto a demo disc which will be part of an expanded DVD that will incorporate memories of the commercial development of Jewish stores and businesses on King St and Ottawa St. as well as residential development of Jewish neighbourhoods in the east end and other parts of the city. When complete it will be available to purchase and if the finished DVD is anywhere near as interesting as the demo, it should be a sellout.

The interview and camera work continues to be done ‘for the love of it’ by Wendy Schneider and Billy Shaffir, who make personal house calls to the narrators’ homes on their own time to gather the raw footage of the tales they have to tell. This has to be professionally edited and organized and put together on DVD format complete with music, titles, sound effects and graphics.

The total cost of the project will be about $30,000. Those who saw the preview of the demo disc at the Beth Jacob last month were very enthusiastic, and $12,000 has been raised so far. Schneider and Shaffir continue to contribute their time gratis, but donations of all sizes are needed to complete this most exciting project. For more information or to make a tax-receiptable donation call 905-628-4842 or 905-628-0058.



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