Jewish Hamilton Project Launch

Jewish Hamilton Project Launched
Steve Arnold
Hamilton Jewish News
September 2009
Billy Shaffir, Dennis Haradyn and Wendy Schneider

Memories of the corned beef at Boleslavsky’s Deli, of the Jewish Community Centre on Delaware Street, or the one before that on John Street North or  the time big band leader Benny Goodman came into Hamilton looking for a minyanThe kind of memories that would have slowly disappeared into the realm of family legend if not for The Jewish Hamilton Project.

Conceived by Wendy Schneider and McMaster professor Billy Shaffir, the project has collected over the last six years onto a DVD the memories of what it was like to grow up Jewish in Hamilton in the early 20th century.

The project was born during a kitchen table conversation between two friends about a new digital camcorder.

“I asked Billy if he wanted to work on something like this and he said yes,” Schneider said. “It was just a comment I threw out, I didn’t really expect him to take me seriously.”
From that start, however, the Jewish Hamilton Project quickly started to grew.
“It all started pretty informally. We didn’t have any kind of real plan,” Schneider said. “We’d do an interview every couple of weeks and one person would tell us of another and it just kind of grew from there.”

Schneider, who previously assembled a history of her own family lined up the assistance of “freelance genius” Dennis Haradyn to handle the technical side of the project.
Although Schneider and Shaffir worked on the project for free, there were costs involved – bills that would total about $30,000 by the time they were finished. Those costs were covered by private donations and grants from the B’nai B’rith sports dinner and the Mirvish Foundation of Toronto. (Anne Mirvish, nee Macklin, was born in Hamilton.)
“Most of the money came from private individuals and we couldn’t have done it without them,” Schneider said.

To stir up interest in the project, the researchers prepared a 20-minute demonstration disk and showed it to a public gathering at the Beth Jacob synagogue – and Schneider admits she was surprised by the extent of the reaction that night.

“We thought we might get 40 or 50 people coming out, but we got more than 80 and we were just blown away by the reaction,” she said. “The atmosphere in the room was just sheer delight and we knew then we had to finish it because we finally understood how important it was.”

The story of Jewish Hamilton is told through a series of interviews grouped under the general headings of occupations, anti-Semitism, entertainment, community life and others. Interview subjects include Moishe Waxman, Marvin Goldblatt, Sam Hebscher, David Goldberg and many others.

“It became something where I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I’d just remembered something we had to add,” Schneider said. “We could have done a lot more but we knew eventually we’d have to stop.”

For Shaffir, whose previous ventures in Jewish history include a book about the infamous riot at Christie Pits, the Hamilton project was a chance to capture an important part of the community’s history before it is lost forever.

“We did this because we felt it was important to get something for the record,” he said. “We wanted to show that this is, and was, a very vibrant community.”
For Shaffir, the most rewarding part of the project was the chance to see their interview subjects light up as they recalled important aspects of their lives.

“The people who whom we spoke just came alive when they were talking about the tightly knit community they’d grown up in,” he said. “The real idea here was to help them remember.

“We wanted to do something to preserve a segment of Jewish life in Hamilton we knew was going to disappear.”

An edited version of the project was unveiled in September at two showings at Shalom Village to universal praise. 
“The most rewarding thing for me was seeing people’s reactions,” Schneider said. “We know we were able to give so much pleasure to so many people and got so much pleasure ourselves in return.”

While many of the memories are delightful – Rabbi Morton Green recalling his first Shabbat at Adas Israel, tea dances on Sunday afternoons, the contributions of remarkable people like Max Rotman – there are also painful memories of anti-Semitism and restrictions on property sales and club memberships.

What emerges from the disk is a picture of a complex and varied community struggling to find its footing in a world that wasn’t always welcoming – a community both united and divided by a common religion.

“There has always been some fragmentation in Hamilton, but but there was also a sense that Hamilton was a great place to grow up – and I still have that feeling.
 “These are universal stories that tell the history of my family, my community, my city.”
In the first burning 200 copies of the DVD were made – about 80 have been sold so far and several more were given to donors, Hamilton’s synagogues Jewish schools, Shalom Village and the public library. 

Copies are available for purchase at Shalom Village or Beth Jacob Synagogue or by calling 905-628-0058.To hear an interview with the creators of the