jewish kensington market

Kensington Market's Jewish roots still run deep

When Danny Zimmerman, who used to run Zimmerman's Discounts with his father, walks down Augusta, in the heart of Kensington Market, it's as if he's amongst friends. He waves hello to passersby as we make our way down the street from 4 Life Natural Foods (in the old Zimmerman's Discounts space) to grab a coffee at the Via Mercanti Food Shop.

"This is the new King of Kensington, right here," says a man, referring to Danny, as he grabs an espresso to go. Danny started working in the market back in 1973 when he was 13 years old. His father moved to the area after surviving the Holocaust.

jewish kensington market

But even before that, the neighbourhood was a Jewish enclave. In the early 1900s, Jews started moving west out of The Ward into the area now known as Kensington Market.

"By the end of the First World World War," writes Stephen Speisman in The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937, "an outdoor market had begun to develop on the western streets - Kensington, Augusta, Baldwin, Nassau - and a shtetl atmosphere... had been created."

While Kensington Market may not resemble a shtetl (a small Jewish village) anymore, the area still maintains vestiges of Jewish life through various restaurants, synagogues and community groups.

kiever synagogue

The Kiever Synagogue, which opened its doors in 1927, isn't very busy most of the year. But, around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it's packed as families flock to the market to doven (pray) in this historic space. While the synagogue also holds weekly Sabbath services, board member Dr. Benjamin Cooperband says he wants even more people to use it.

The neighbourhood's home to other synagogues too, including the Anshei Minsk in the market and the nearby Congregation Shaarei Tzedec (or the Markham Street Shul).

Relative newcomer Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism hasn't been in the neighbourhood for quite as long. This grassroots community group sprung up in January 2009 and moved to a permanent storefront on College this past March. It's "bringing back vital, multi-faceted, and creative Jewish life to a place where it once thrived," according to its website.

Rabbi Aaron Levy tells me it's no coincidence Makom's centred in Kensington. "It's certainly where the Jewish community grew and flourished from the early 1900s to mid-century," he says.

"It's a place that has both a lot of history in terms of buildings but also in terms of memories for Jews in Toronto and a lot of really great associations. And so as a downtown community, it really made sense for us to be based in and around the market."

jewish kensington market

While he's dedicated to helping revitalize downtown Jewish life, the community has always maintained its presence. But over the past few years, it's become even more visible. Makom's front window hosts Fentster, an installation space currently displaying a version of the Mandel's Creamery sign. And it's just down the street from Free Times Cafe as well as Caplansky's, one of our city's most overt Jewish deli.

But owner Zane Caplansky started small. "When I first opened at the Monarch Tavern, I quickly became aware of a sense of nostalgia that a lot of people had for the area," says Caplansky.

"I was acutely aware, even from my first day in business, waving the Jewish flag in downtown Toronto was a big part of what I was all about. And really, as the guy who brought that down to the area, it was really important to me."

jewish kensington market

Restaurants aside, memories of Jewish Kensington still reverberate. On a recent tour led by the Ontario Jewish Archives, I stop in a laneways where a shochet (Jewish butcher) used to slaughter chickens as well as a former Jewish bootlegging joint.

Archivist Donna Bernardo-Ceriz says the OJA worked with Heritage Toronto a few years ago to put up commemorative plaques at certain landmarks around the market. But even more stories emerge after Jewish seniors take the OJA tours and share what they remember about the market.

jewish kensington market

And in a sense, notes Benardo-Ceriz, despite multiple waves of immigration and changing demographics, the market still feels insular and small (but you just need to watch Danny Zimmerman walking down the street to see that).

"I think it's a very romantic place in a way," she says, "because it transports you back to that time, still."

Photos via Fentster, the Toronto Archives, ocarmona, and Jess Milns.

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