Toronto’s synagogues: Keeping collective memories alive

Art deco-designed Holy Blossom Temple


Jennifer Drinkwater

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date:10 Sep 2009

Photo: Art deco-designed Holy Blossom Temple

Collective memory is cultural memory – what is remembered about an event by a social or cultural group that experienced it and by those to whom members of the group have passed on their memories. Collective memories form part of a community’s identity, its heritage.

Places, practices and objects can be “sites of memory,” which can also become part of a community’s heritage. Sites of memory can include physical places like archives, museums, places of worship, cemeteries and memorials; concepts embedded in mottos and practices like commemorations and rituals; or objects such as inherited property, monuments, emblems, texts and symbols. The memories themselves can be personal, connected with an individual’s life history, or cognitive, not necessarily about the past, but something learned that helps an individual or a group interpret the past, present and future. Collective memory is conveyed and maintained by rituals and other cultural activities of commemoration.

Places of worship such as Knesseth Israel, Holy Blossom and Anshei Minsk synagogues in Toronto play vital roles in the cultural memory of the city, the individual communities in which they reside and the religious groups that have built and worshipped in them.

Knesseth Israel, also known as the Junction Shul, after its neighbourhood, is the oldest purpose-built synagogue still used as a synagogue in Ontario. Architects Ellis and Connery designed the building, and construction began in 1911. The exterior is simple, but the interior walls are elaborately decorated with scenes representing the Land of Israel and musical instruments played by the Levites in the Temple. The domed ceiling is painted like a blue sky with clouds, and incorporates the signs of the zodiac representing the months of the Hebrew calendar. The millwork was reputedly done by cabinetmakers from the nearby Heitzman piano factory. The building retains remnants of its days as an Orthodox synagogue. There is a separate women’s gallery, the remains of the former mikva (ritual bath) in the basement, a chapel that was used for daily services and a schoolroom. Throughout the building, fragments of memories are on display: photographs, a newspaper article, plaques and a list of fallen soldiers who were members of the congregation. In 2001, the Ontario Heritage Trust recognized the synagogue with a provincial plaque, supported by local philanthropists Joey and Toby Tanenbaum in memory of their grandparents.

Holy Blossom Temple is home to the first Jewish congregation in Canada West (Ontario), established in 1856. For 20 years, it held services in a rented space above Coombe’s drugstore at Yonge and Richmond streets. In 1876, members built their first synagogue; by 1897 a new one was erected on Bond Street. The present Holy Blossom Temple on Bathurst Street, designed by architects Chapman and Oxley, officially opened in 1938. Inside, the memories of the congregation are proudly displayed. Photographs of past presidents, rabbis, cantors and other prominent members of the congregation dating back to 1856 hang on the walls. Interpretive panels relate the congregation’s history. Holy Blossom has its own archives, which contains board minutes dating back to 1856 and temple bulletins starting from 1923-24. The archives also keep newspaper articles about the synagogue, prayer books and Torahs. Their collection includes a yad (a pointer used on the Torah scroll) given to them from the Asher family in Montreal. The yads inscription is said to be the source of the temple’s name. In 2001, the Ontario Heritage Trust erected a plaque at Holy Blossom commemorating Ontario’s first Jewish congregation.

The Anshei Minsk synagogue is also an important site of memory. Toronto’s Toronto’s synagogues: Keeping collective memories alive By Jennifer Drinkwater Art Deco-designed Holy Blossom Temple. Kensington Market, a National Historic Site, is known for its diverse ethnic history. In the 1920s and 1930s, the market was predominately Jewish. Anshei Minsk’s building at 10 St. Andrew Street was designed by architects Kaplan and Sprachman, and completed by 1930. The design is similar to other synagogues in the area. Interior paintings include a passage from Pirkei Avot and klezmer instruments. Members have donated tables, bookcases and cabinets in memory of their loved ones. Relatives’ names in Yiddish adorn the basement walls. The Jewish presence in Kensington started to decline in the 1950s and early 1960s, but Anshei Minsk remained open. By the late 1980s, it was the only downtown synagogue offering daily prayer services. Anshei Minsk is both a reminder of how Toronto once was and an important part of the city’s present dynamic.

Each of these historic places of worship is a repository for a community’s collective memories, and an important part of Toronto’s history.

Exterior of Knesseth Israel Synagogue, also called “The Junction Shul”

Photo: Exterior of Knesseth Israel Synagogue, also called “The Junction Shul”

Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque unveiled at Knesseth Israel Synagogue on September 6, 2001

Photo: Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque unveiled at Knesseth Israel Synagogue on September 6, 2001