Jewish Culture North Of The Border


Toronto is one of those cities that people who live there rave about. They’ll tell you about the cultural diversity, the fabulous ethnic food, the great public transit.

Throw in the street-level energy of Canada’s most cosmopolitan city and you hardly need another reason to visit.

Well, actually, I need another reason. I can find all these urban amenities in dozens of other cities — including my own. As New York is to America, Toronto is to Canada: the country’s financial and cultural capital. Like New York, it is also home to a large and diverse Jewish population, including a substantial community of ex-Soviet newcomers.

So with a growing number of Toronto friends to visit, I decided to investigate what’s going on in Toronto this spring — something interesting enough to lure me out of my New York complacency and across our cold northern border.

“We have a food truck called Fidel Gastro’s,” one of these Torontonians told me, thinking the combination of Cuban sandwiches and groaner puns might do the trick. I admit I was intrigued.

I find that local niche festivals can be a great way to make a big, anonymous city feel like home. With a bit of inquiry, I discovered that the Canadian spring is the season for Toronto’s flurry of Jewish festivals: film, dance, music and literature.

Take the Toronto Israel Dance Festival 2013, a three-day event at the end of June that features workshops by top Israeli choreographers like Rafi Ziv and Victor Gabbay. Now eight years old, the festival is an annual highlight for Toronto’s very active Israeli folk-dancing community. This year’s focus is an 80th birthday tribute to the beloved folk-dance icon Danny Uziel.

Toronto may be better known for film, since it frequently poses as New York in the movies. Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival was a highlight of April. But mid-May brings “Jewish Music Week in Toronto: From Bible to Broadway,” eight days of concerts and lecture presentations on everything from the rock band Kiss to the music of Portugal’s crypto-Jews.

You can catch Music Week concerts at lunch hour, in the afternoon and in a series of evening galas featuring Jewish bluegrass (really), Yiddish swing and varieties of klezmer. I looked at the lineup and saw more puns: Resa’s Pieces (a Toronto concert band), What’s Nu in Jewish Jazz. Could incessant wordplay be a Toronto thing as well?

That’s a topic up for discussion at the Toronto Jewish Literary Festival, where a key event is Fania Oz-Salzberger’s discussion of “Jews and Words,” the book she co-wrote with her father, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. The festival is an outgrowth of the venerable Toronto Jewish Book Fair, which last year merged with the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards.

This year will bring late-night poetry readings, a debate on Yiddish women writers and a local angle in the form of Pierre Anctil, whose “Jacob-Isaac Segal 1896-1954, A Montreal Yiddish Poet and His Milieu” is the winner of this year’s Vine Award in Yiddish Literature.

Both festivals emphasize Canadian contributions, underlining the pride local Jews take in their cultural scene. Many of the Music Week concerts, for instance, are part of a Victoria Day Music Marathon, a celebration of that most Canadian of holidays and an opportunity to check out one of Toronto’s newly revitalized public spaces: Nathan Phillips Square, a central plaza just in front of City Hall.

Named for Toronto’s first Jewish mayor (he served from 1955-1962), Nathan Phillips Square is where Toronto residents have gathered for decades to play chess, protest, or take in the sun. Three years ago, the square unveiled the first phase of a major redesign that updates the space for a more cosmopolitan era. The statue of Winston Churchill and the Peace Garden have been joined by a major sculpture by Henry Moore, a vast reflecting pool, seasonal skating rinks, a new rooftop garden and weekly farmer’s markets.

I always like to time my visits with local holidays if possible. In addition to Victoria Day, I was intrigued by how more than a dozen Jewish institutions will celebrate Shavuot: by sponsoring one of the more original Jewish events I’ve come across, the Fifth Annual All-Night Downtown Jewish Learning Festival, Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

The timeframe is no exaggeration. On May 14, at 8 p.m., Jews of all ages will gather to study Torah and Talmud, cook up Sephardic dishes, meditate, and participate in other activities more exciting than another night of sleep. This will go on at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center until 6 the following morning, when the event concludes with a sunrise rooftop ceremony.

Of course, I already live in the city that never sleeps. But with so much going on up North, my Toronto friends make a pretty good case for a change of scenery.