It was Hamilton’s “Mayberry”

April 2024
Helaine Ortmann

It is part of family folklore that when, in the mid-1950s, our mother told her mother that she, her husband and their two pitzels were moving to west Hamilton, our Bubba, still ensconced in what was left of the downtown Jewish community, cried, fearing she might never see her daughter again. 

To Bessie, a Yiddish-speaking urbanite, once surrounded by Jewish delis, butchers, stores, schuls and community, the west end of the city, past McMaster at the junction of Dundas and Ancaster, must have looked bleak; not exactly “wild” but mostly open field around this Ainslie Wood neighbourhood, yet to be fully developed.

Whenever my siblings and I reminisce about our house, neighbours and formative years on Elizabeth Court, it is with affectionate nostalgia for what seemed to be our very own Mayberry; the safe and close-knit fictional community of the 1960 Andy Griffith sitcom. 

Five houses down lived the venerable Abeles couple. Two doors away, Mrs. Cohen, a grandmotherly woman, produced fresh sugar cookies on a two-tiered silver plate every time I dropped in. Her daughter Lee worked full-time and golfed on weekends. I knew no other woman who played golf except for Lee and her best friend Gloria; both regulars in our mom’s Mah-jong group. Lee drove a light-brown convertible. (Whose mother did that? For that matter, whose mother drove?) The Blooms, who owned a clothing store on York Street, lived next door; Estelle a convenient fourth for Mah-jong. 

My best times growing up were spent on Elizabeth Court.

A small family (my sister was born 10 years after me) living in a small house, we swelled in size and volume when our cousins, aunts and uncles arrived at holiday times and simchas like the Sunday “bash” after our brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Or special occasions like when our Rochester cousins came to town or the much-anticipated annual visits of our dad’s eldest sister Mary from Brooklyn. This aunt of ours sported a different wig each time she returned home and could be counted on to bring gifts that, back in the day, were the “latest” in terms of U.S. technology and know-how. 

Family get-togethers at our dining room table and in our living room were legendary; evocative of the energy and activity of the subjects in a Bruegel painting.

Our mother Ethel, bless her, put out quite a spread, blending Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. As a new wife, she watched her mother-in-law Vinucha in the kitchen, measured each ingredient before our grandmother threw it into the pot or dish, and wrote down the recipes to preserve them. 

Our table was the best of the Levy-Kessler union: from hot stuffed peppers, roasted rice, frijalda (a coil of pastry filled with creamy cheese), pastel (ground meat pie), miringena (eggplant spread), and oil and vinegar peppers blackened on the grill to remove the skins … to … gefilte fish, chicken soup with knaidlach and lokshen, breaded chicken, brisket, kugel and vegetables. Seasonally, to appease our father’s middle sister Rae, there was corn on the cob; an à la carte dish sometimes left forgotten in its pot on the kitchen stove, so much was there to remember. Desserts, of course, were never left behind.

If one of the ways our mother distinguished herself was at the dining room table, the maple Heintzman upright piano in the corner of the living room was how our father Syd ascended. Entertaining us for hours on end, fingers flying across the keys to cover every genre from jazz, boogie-woogie, popular to classical, our father played, and sang in that basso profundo voice of his. 

In fact, each relative brought something special to the cabaret at Elizabeth Court, either as patron or performer such as Aunt Mary, a trained opera singer; uncle Joe, warbling his signature O Sole Mio; uncle David, a Toronto Beth Tzedek choir member and cantorial singer; and cousin Rosie, coaxed by our father to bedazzle us with her sultry rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’. 

In his late teen years/early twenties, cousin Eugene brought his guitar to play folk songs, duetted ever so sweetly with our dad on Plaisir d’amour, and regaled us with hilarious bits that had us in stitches; this long before he became the internationally-recognized comic actor, writer, performer and producer he is today.

And so it was on Elizabeth Court, this venue of hospitality, fun and music, where we were always glad our family came.