Taube: ‘Life is an eternal mystery’

The Junction Shul in Toronto. (Google Street View photo)

Life is often enjoyable, but has its moments of unpredictability. The slightest twist, turn or quirk of fate can sometimes lead one down a path of discovery, revelation and intrigue, as recently happened to me.

Last summer, I met up with Maddie Di Muccio, a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and fellow columnist and political commentator. We had just parted ways after having lunch. I was heading back to my car, but decided to reverse course and walk through Newmarket’s downtown core.

I immediately came across the Neon Flamingo, one of the few downtown establishments I’d never wandered into. When I noticed that it sells rare books and first editions, alarm bells immediately went off – they’re one of my great weaknesses!

So I went in and looked around. There were some signed volumes, old works of fiction and classic children’s books. Interesting, but nothing that struck my fancy.

I eventually found some titles related to politics and history. Those are some of my main areas of interest, and two volumes looked like early candidates to join my collection.

That was until I came across Lorne S. Miller and Neil Ross’ One Hundred Years at the Junction Shul.

Published by ECW Press in 2011, it’s a detailed examination of Knesseth Israel, one of Toronto’s oldest synagogues, which is located on Maria Street. As it happens, there’s a personal connection: my mother’s grandfather, Boris Alexandroff, was one of its founders and its first president.

He grew up in Odessa and was conscripted into the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War. In a 1969 recording, he claimed to have “just ran away from there,” because they would “put me again back in the army” (although my uncle, Alan Alexandroff, said that Boris had survived a “scuffle” with an on-duty guard and had had enough). Either way, he made his way through Europe in 1905, and headed to Montreal. He worked in North Bay, Ont., as a lumberman, and in Toronto as a moulder, produce deliveryman and wrecking contractor. It was in the latter city that he built up a successful family business.

Knesseth Israel’s early congregation members, like my great-grandfather, were mostly from eastern Europe. They worked as tailors, cabinet makers, peddlers and scrap collectors. “The members … were intimately involved in every aspect of their shul’s construction,” Miller and Ross wrote. “They raised funds, retained a leading architect and provided a great deal of the labour and much of the building materials for its construction.”

The book also includes colour photos of the synagogue’s lavish artwork and stained glass windows, historical records, profiles of other founding members and their families (including Abraham Tanenbaum, the grandfather of Joey and Larry Tanenbaum) and modern-day accounts. Former NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who I’ve appeared with on numerous radio panels, is also in a photo.

Here’s the bizarre part of this story: I’d never heard of this book before.

ECW Press is a decent-sized publishing house, so it should have been available in bookstores – and maybe it was. My father wasn’t aware of this book, and neither was my mother, who died in 2013. If they were, a copy would have been in their home. Any family members who knew about it obviously forgot to mention it – the book wasn’t the second coming of the King James Bible, after all.

Yet, I found it in a small store in Newmarket, without any other books or products related specifically to Judaism. Go figure.

When I mentioned this to Di Muccio, she said that, “It’s so amazing how the stars fall into place.” Indeed, we almost rescheduled our meeting the day before. If so, I likely wouldn’t have entered the Neon Flamingo – and, quite possibly, would never have come across this book.

Although I left the faith decades ago, it’s nice to have something on my shelves that relates to my family.

Life is an eternal mystery, indeed.