Jewish food'Eating at the deli was viewed as a sign of prosperity'

From Latkes to Laffas: The evolution of the Toronto deli

New exhibition showcases 120 years of nosh in display dedicated to the city’s dozens of Jewish eateries of yesterday and today

1915 photo on the front steps of United Bakers in Toronto. (Ontario Jewish Archives)
1915 photo on the front steps of United Bakers in Toronto. (Ontario Jewish Archives)

TORONTO — If you don’t have to be Jewish to like bagels, blintzes, matzo ball soup and pastrami, you also don’t have to be from Toronto to appreciate a new exhibition on the city’s Jewish restaurants.

All that’s needed is an interest in food, entrepreneurship, urban sociology and the 20th century immigrant experience in North America.

“From Latkes to Laffas” is the first-ever retrospective on Toronto’s many Jewish eateries over the past 120 years. It’s now on view at the Reuben and Helene Dennis Museum at Beth Tzedec Congregation, Canada’s largest synagogue. The stories it tells reflect the evolution of a community that today numbers more than 200,000 Jews and is one of the fastest growing in the western hemisphere.

Nearly a year in the making, the exhibition is divided into seven categories, presented in chronological order. It spotlights 75 eateries — current and long gone, kosher and treif, dairy and meat-based, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, downtown and suburban, those serving breakfast and lunch, others lunch and dinner; restaurants, delis and diners.

Many of their names — Paskowitz’s; Coleman’s; Druxy’s; Shopsy’s; Moe’s and Joe’s; Switzer’s; Yitz’s; Katz’s; Goldenberg’s; Zuchter’s; Pancer’s; Bregman’s; Caplansky’s — evoke colorful characters with a penchant for eponymous branding. Unlike some North American Jews who back in the day often denuded their names hoping it would help their careers, these restaurateurs not only kept their names “Jewish” but featured them boldly on signs, menus, business cards as an intrinsic part of their business.

Gella Rothstein (left) co-chair of the Beth Tzedec Reuben and Helene Dennis Museum and Dorion Liebgott, curator of the museum, at the October 19 event Heymish and Hip. (Bernie Liebgott)

On a recent visit to the museum, curator Dorion Liebgott walked this reporter through the exhibit, displayed on Beth Tzedec’s main floor and mezzanine.

Having frequented some of the featured eateries in her youth and associating many warm memories with them, mounting the installation was a labor of love for her and others involved. This was evident in the pleasure she took in showing off the vast array of photos, documents, advertising, signs, artifacts and other memorabilia such as recipe cards used to prepare specific dishes.

Given the special relationship Jews have always had with their food and the vital role these restaurants have played in the daily life of the community, it’s little surprise From Latkes to Laffas has already attracted such strong interest, including in the local non-Jewish media.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, this will likely be the most popular exhibition I’ve worked on over the past 26 years,” says Liebgott, who’s been involved with more than 50 exhibits at the museum since 1991. “I’d say it’s also the most important one we’ve done along with the exhibit we did on Toronto’s garment industry in 2004.”

The exhibit’s informative texts help trace the community’s culinary heritage, from the city’s first Jewish eatery at the outset of the 20th century through the present day.

“Food has always occupied a central and delicious part of Jewish culture,” states the introductory panel. “In some respects, it has served as the glue or schmaltz that binds families and communities together… It’s been a common practice to deride Toronto’s Jewish culinary offerings compared to other major North American cities such as Montreal, New York and Chicago. The intent of this exhibition is to address these misconceptions by recounting the extensive, extraordinary and compelling story of Jewish Toronto’s restaurants.”

New York Lunch Room, downtown Toronto in The Ward neighborhood, 1912. (City of Toronto Archives)

The exhibition begins with six evocative paintings the museum commissioned for the event from Toronto artist Ian Leventhal, whose parents met at a local Jewish restaurant in the 1940s. Each depicts a part of the city where Jews settled with their corresponding eateries. Together the paintings reflect the Jewish migration from downtown northward along the Bathurst Street corridor and up the socio-economic ladder.

The first is of the original Jewish enclave, St. John’s Ward, known as The Ward. Other paintings show Kensington Market, Forest Hill, Bathurst/Lawrence and Bathurst/Wilson. The final one captures several northern districts, from Bathurst/Sheppard to Thornhill and Vaughan, which 60 years ago was largely farmland and today is built up and home to many of Toronto’s 65,000 expatriate Israelis.

Digging up good eats from yesteryear

Putting the show together was anything but a casual endeavor. Most challenging was finding relevant information and tangible items for establishments that closed their doors long ago. It required extensive research, an almost obsessive attention to details, resourcefulness and consulting multiple sources.

One of a six-panel series depicting different parts of Toronto where Jews lived and frequented Jewish restaurants over the years, painted for the exhibition by Toronto artist Ian Leventhal. (Courtesy)

Last year, once the museum committee decided to do such an exhibition, Gella Rothstein, committee co-chair and chief researcher, got the ball rolling. She compiled a preliminary list of restaurants based on her knowledge, people’s suggestions and what she uncovered at Toronto’s main reference library. Rothstein went there seven times, spending around three hours on each visit pouring over old documents, especially the annual city and Jewish directories and old newspapers.

“I enjoyed the process,” says Rothstein, who’s also a member of the Jewish Genealogy Society, for which she’s done research work. “To find what you’re looking for, you have to be almost like a detective. It demands a dogged pursuit of information and a commitment to make sure it’s accurate. There was also a need to track down people who were involved in past restaurants to see if they had material we could use in the exhibition. I loved the challenge.”

A deli in Toronto. (Ontario Jewish Archives)

Like the people she was seeking, some of the desired paraphernalia proved readily available, other items far more elusive. Rothstein also reached out to the City of Toronto Archives, the Ontario Jewish Archives and personal contacts in the community. As part of the process, the museum hired historian Ellen Scheinberg to assist with aspects of the exhibition including writing the main texts.

Few people visiting the exhibition will mistake the restaurants on view for purveyors of high-end gastronomy. Especially in the early decades, most people in the community didn’t have the money for sophisticated dining out. Convenience, fair prices, basic fare and a friendly, heimish (homestyle) environment were the priority.

When East European Yiddish-speaking immigrants Sam and Sarah Harris opened Toronto’s first Jewish eatery in 1900, it was a bold move as few other ethnic restaurants existed in what was then a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant city. The Harris Delicatessen, situated in The Ward close to City Hall, specialized in kosher smoked meat and food products imported from the US and Europe.

Over the next 15 years, more Jewish restaurants — Goldenberg’s; Altman’s; the New York Kosher Restaurant; Jacob Cohen’s; Paskowitz’s — opened in The Ward, serving Ashkenazi cuisine to the growing number of Jewish immigrants. Most were small, family-run eateries, often operated out of ground floor premises of the owners’ homes.

Many, according to the exhibition, served traditional Jewish dairy dishes like borscht, blintzes, kugel and cabbage rolls along with baked goods and fish dishes such as gefilte fish, lox and smoked white fish.

In 1910, approximately 80 percent of The Ward’s 19,000 residents were Jews — mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe leading a hardscrabble existence in their new country. Thousands were employed as garment workers in local factories. For many, the restaurants served as a temporary respite from their overcrowded, noisy living conditions where they could meet friends and enjoy a quick nosh or meal of Jewish comfort food.

Historical photo of St. John’s Ward in Toronto. (Ontario Jewish Archives)

In 1912, a year after their wedding, Aaron and Sarah Ladovsky, both immigrants from Poland, opened a bakery and coffee shop in The Ward with the desire to recapture the flavors of the life they left behind in the old country. They called their business United Bakers where they sold coffee for five cents a cup.

Just over a decade after Toronto’s first Jewish deli opened, 21 such establishments operated in the city. By the early 1930s, when the local Jewish population had reached 47,000, the number of delis had jumped to 41, heralding the start of the city’s golden age of delis during which they proliferated. It reached a peak in the early 1960s when there were 140 delis, many owned by non-Jews.

“The local deli was a neutral space where Jews of all backgrounds and occupations could congregate, schmooze and enjoy a sandwich with a soda and dill pickle,” states one of the exhibition panels. “To many new immigrants, eating deli was viewed as a sign of prosperity and living the Canadian dream.”

An Israeli influence

Today, 105 years since its modest inception, United Bakers Dairy Restaurant is an institution in the Jewish community and one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in Canada. Aaron and Sarah’s grandchildren Philip and Ruthie Ladovsky are at the helm in much larger premises, far removed geographically from the two initial downtown locations, having moved north in 1984. Its menu has also expanded, now including Israeli dishes such as shakshuka, humus, falafel and Israeli salad.

A display case at the From Latkes to Laffas exhibition at the Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. (Courtesy)

With a substantial, and constantly growing, Israeli community, its influence is increasingly felt in the local restaurant scene, hence the “laffas” (flatbread) in the name of the exhibition.

In recent years, various Israeli-style eateries have opened along with several places specializing in laffas. Not to mention two Israeli imports, the Aroma coffee chain which now operates 38 locations in the Toronto area and Café Landwer which opened its first local branch earlier this year, with more planned for the future.

It’s hard to imagine the city’s Jewish community without its extensive network of restaurants. While an analogous story may exist in other major Diaspora communities, this exhibition should increase the sense of pride Toronto Jews take in their culinary landscape.

“These restaurants and the stories behind them are part of our heritage,” says Liebgott, who cites fondly The Noshery, Town House, the Bagel King and Coleman’s as places she liked growing up.

“They make you feel part of something bigger than yourself,” she says. “It’s a cultural thing that conjures up so many memories. You remember people you met in a certain restaurant or how delicious a pastrami sandwich or cabbage soup tasted when you were younger, or maybe you remember the waitresses at a particular place. You don’t forget those things. They stay with you for life.”

Exterior of one of Toronto’s many Aroma Espresso Bar locations. (Courtesy)

While the exhibition has appealed to more young people and non-Jewish visitors than organizers expected, it’s resonating most, not surprisingly, with longtime local residents who have a historical connection to many of the places exhibited.

“In working on this project and seeing how people have responded to it, I’ve learned that nostalgia is a very important part of our emotions and who we are,” says Rothstein. “And food is sometimes part of that, especially when it reminds you of the tastes and flavors of past times.”

As part of the exhibition, the museum hosted a symposium on October 19 called Heymish and Hip: Eating Jewish in Toronto. Organized by Rothstein, the event was moderated by David Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” Panelists included several Jewish restaurateurs and well-known food writer Bonnie Stern.

David Sax, author of ‘Save the Deli,’ moderating the October 19 Heymish and Hip symposium on eating Jewish in Toronto. (Courtesy)

If much of the exhibit concentrates on late, lamented Jewish restaurants from Toronto’s past, it also highlights current ones that many people see as part of a resurgence of Jewish food in Canada.

With a spate of new eateries in recent years — including Fat Pasha, Caplansky’s, Dr. Laffa, Schmaltz Appetizing, Aish Tanoor, Mika Fresh and Ba-Li Laffa — the future of Toronto’s Jewish restaurant scene seems bright, especially as the community, in contrast to most in the Diaspora, is growing.

“I’m optimistic,” says Liebgott. “In the last five years, there’s been a real upsurge and greater interest in the arrival of new Jewish restaurants, many of them kosher, many serving Israeli-style food.”

From Latkes to Laffas will be on display until March 30, 2018 at Beth Tzedec Congregation, Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum, 1700 Bathurst Street, Toronto.

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