About a year ago, I was contacted by my colleague and friend, Dorion Liebgott, the curator of Beth Tzedec’s Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum. She wanted my company to assist her committee with an exhibition that they were interested in developing, examining the history of Toronto’s Jewish restaurants. This was an ambitious initiative that hadn’t been explored or tackled before by an historian or museum. They were hoping that I could help provide them with a strategy, research, content, and advice required to help them achieve their vision.
The first step was to produce an interpretive plan, which essentially identified the purpose of the exhibition, the structure and scope, along with the themes that would be explored. The document that I produced recommended charting out the history of Jewish restaurants in the city from 1900 to the present, starting with St. John’s Ward and ending with recent eateries that have emerged in the downtown area like Fat Pasha and the People’s Eatery. The display is structured thematically, driven by a chrono-geographic scheme that charts out the evolution of these restaurants with the migration pattern of the city’s Jewish population. The six themes included: St. John’s Ward; Kensington Market (Spadina Ave. & College St.); Eglinton Avenue West; Delicatessens; Kosher Restaurants; Dairy, Bagel Restaurants & Cafes; and Trendy, Innovative & Healthy Eateries.
Since there was little or no local historical literature to draw from, it was necessary to delve into the primary sources and construct the history and stories ourselves. This proved to be a monumental task, requiring the efforts of a team that I pulled together consisting of students and young graduates in archival and museum studies. We started off by producing an Excel list for all of the Jewish restaurants that existed within the different neighbourhoods from 1900 to the present. This entailed dozens of hours of research, plowing through over a century of Toronto Directories at the Toronto Reference Library and Jewish Directories at the Ontario Jewish Archives. We also relied on data from Ancestry.ca to explore and document the families who owned the various establishments, along with the opening and closing dates for each restaurant. Once the list was completed, the Committee reviewed it and identified any omissions and issues that had to be addressed. We all worked together to refine the list in order to ensure that it was as comprehensive and accurate as possible.
The next step was to create profiles for each of the neighbourhoods and themes and locate stories associated with the individual restaurants. It was also important to get a sense of how the Toronto Jewish restaurant scene evolved as well as how it differed from other Canadian and American cities. In order to trace the origins of the industry and set the scene, I decided to conduct an in-depth investigation into the Harris Delicatessen, Toronto’s First Jewish restaurant and deli. It was established in 1900 and located on Queen Street West. This work involved conducting significant research at the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Jewish Archives. The great grandson of the owners, Jeff Rose, was also contacted and provided some wonderful stories and photographs. The insights generated from this work were used to produce an article entitled “The Spicy Story of Toronto’s First Deli” which was published in Historicist in late August of 2017. The findings, stories and visuals were also used in the display.
The third phase of the project involved locating sources documenting the families and restaurants, along with visuals and artefacts that could be featured in the display. My team conducted an on-line review of the holdings of many of the local repositories and documented the sources that would be a good fit for the exhibition. They also visited several archives and libraries in order to examine some of the records that looked promising. They took notes and ordered copies of the most promising items for me and the Committee to review. Once this work was completed, we developed a comprehensive list of sources that could be tapped into for the display. I subsequently identified the gaps that existed and highlighted the restaurants and records that should be highlighted in the exhibition.
After that phase was conducted, the Committee spent considerable time reaching out to the families that owned restaurants and negotiated the loan of photographs, artefacts and documents for the display. They also ordered many of the photos from the different repositories that were identified by my team. This outreach initiative ended up unearthing some colourful and compelling items that are showcased in the display.
The final phase involved the production of the text panels, which was part of my bailiwick. The introductory panel was intended to outline the purpose and scope of the display and the remaining six panels provided an overview of the neighbourhood involved or the genre of food covered off by the theme. The Committee members selected most of the content for the display, set up and mounted the exhibition, and produced the captions for each restaurant. Local artist, Ian Leventhal, was commissioned to produce six vibrant paintings that corresponded to the themes. His lively and whimsical pieces, situated across from the introductory panel, add tremendous colour and energy to the exhibition.
The exhibition was launched on the evening of September 6, 2017. We had a very large crowd of around 200 participants who expressed great enthusiasm and appreciation for the event and project. The display has also garnered a great deal of coverage by the mainstream and Jewish press. After the launch, Beth Tzedec organized a major culinary program called “Heymish and Hip” that was a great success. I have been helping to coordinate the final program, “From Delis to Dairy: Kibitzing about Kensington’s Early Jewish Restaurants”, which will be held on November 15th at the Lillian Smith Library. It represents a partnership between the Synagogue, the Kensington Market Historical Society and the Ontario Jewish Archives. The exhibition will run until the end of March. The public is welcome to view it during the operating hours of the Museum.