This article was first published in the October 10, 2011 issue of The Jerusalem Report.
As she strolls along College Street, at the northern edge of Kensington Market in downtown Toronto, Sarah Brodbar-Nemzer sometimes imagines that she is walking back in time. Focusing on the past is strange for the 27-year-old Jewish community professional, but the way she sees it, she wouldn’t be where she is, professionally, personally and even geographically, if she were not walking in the shoes of others, who did the very same thing in the very same place about a century ago.
At a time when the Toronto Jewish community is generally expanding ever north- ward along Bathurst Street into new suburbs that were open farmland until recently, thousands of young Jews, most in their 20s and 30s, have been purposefully returning to and revitalizing Jewish life in the adjacent inner city neighborhoods, long-abandoned by their parents and grandparents, of Kensington Market and The Annex.
Arriving in Toronto initially from England and Germany and then, by the late 19th cen- tury, primarily from Eastern Europe to escape poverty and persecution, Jews settled in the area known as the The Ward. A small square area, Kensington Market was soon popularly known as “the Jewish Market,” and by the 1930s was home to as many as 50,000 Jews. But even by the first decade of the 20th cen- tury, The Ward had become an overcrowded slum filled with Jews and immigrants from other countries, especially Ireland and Italy. Those Jews who could moved westward to the streets surrounding Kensington Market.
The Annex, located several blocks to the north of Kensington Market and bordering the University of Toronto campus, was also home to many Jewish families. Most of the immi- grants lived in small row houses, or in larger Victorian and Edwardian-era brick houses converted into multi-family dwellings.
Today, Kensington Market has a youthful, bohemian, multicultural cachet, with an open- air market along with cafés and funky second- hand clothing boutiques and bookshops that draw crowds of local visitors and tourists, especially on weekends. The Annex is now a gentrified, residential neighborhood mainly for the upper-middle class, who can afford the expensive downtown real estate prices.
The grittier, cacophonous, pedestrian and bicycling-oriented downtown lifestyle is not for everyone. Nor was it self-evident that downtown would be a source for Jewish revival.
“Kensington Market was an exotic destination and a historical site to visit with your day school or Hebrew school class,” recalls Brodbar-Nemzer. And Stephen Reich, 45, an earring-sporting legal strategy consultant and actor, says that when he told older Jews he was moving to downtown Toronto, friends told him that they were surprised he was “was moving back to the slums.”
But downtown definitely does suit a growing group of young Jews who do want to embrace Jewish pluralism, creativity and diversity, while also living in close proximity to Toronto’s cultural and civic centers. “This isn’t the shtetl. This is not where you live if you want an all-encompassing Jewish life,” says Reich, who relocated to The Annex from Winnipeg 20 years ago. “But now there is an option in Canada if you want hip, urbane, Jewish community.”
Indeed, downtown Toronto has become a magnet for young, educated, creative Jews who yearn for connection with Jewish community – but on their own terms. Uninterested in the preponderantly traditional, conservative Toronto Jewish community (Canada’s largest), they have returned to its cradle to enact a rebirth of sorts. It is on the old streets and through the historic buildings and institutions that these young liberal and progressive Jews are connecting with their roots. Unwilling to simply transport uptown Judaism downtown, they are reinvigorating, and even reinventing, the 25 synagogues and cultural and community centers in the area.
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© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
Tags: Bayla Chaikoff, Bram Belzberg, Canadian Jews, Diane Flacks, downtown Toronto, Harold Troper, Hindy Hirt, Kensington Market, Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, Rabbi Aaron Levy, Rhonda Rosenheck, Richard Meloff, Sarah Brodbar-Nemzer, Scott McGrath, Stephen Reich, The Annex, Toronto Jews, Yacov Fruchter