Maiden voyage: Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s first trip to present-day Jewish Toronto—after seven years of living downtown

The view from approaching the corner of Bathurst and Lawrence.

I moved to Toronto in 2015, having spent most of my life in New York City. And one of the first things that struck me about my new home was that it was basically the same but… where were the Jews?

The author, modelling the finest in parkas.

The Jewish cultural influence in day-to-day life in New York is unmistakable. Toronto seemed to lack this. I watched as people from all over the world sat, in WASPy silence, on public transit, and wondered why there wasn’t some friendly squabbling.

Peak Canadian Jewishness. It took me shamefully long to realize this was a play on “chocolate mousse.”

Moving from Queen West to Yorkville changed things slightly. There’s a touch of the Zabar’s at Pusateri’s. (I’m not trying to be New York-centric. I’m just… from there.) A teen-oriented shop in the Yorkville Village mall had a certain familiar quality, at least per its window displays. And as I got to know more and more neighbours in my apartment building, it became clear that I was far from the only Jew among us.

The bagels I bake at home, not the city’s only New York bagels, apparently.

But the New York thing (a.k.a. not driving a car) is my best explanation—well, that and lockdowns—for why it took me until Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, to finally see Toronto’s Jewish neighbourhood—or one of them, at any rate. Bathurst and Lawrence area, Lawrence Manor per Google Maps. I took the subway to the bus and sure enough, eventually, there it was!

A definite Midwood quality pervades at Bathurst and Wilson. As seen from the bus going north after the walk.

It was a strange experience, this convergence of two things I know, but had never seen overlap in quite this way. My late grandmother, from Montreal originally, wound up in Midwood, Brooklyn. Visiting her there was my main exposure growing up to a Jewish neighbourhood outside the city centre. (Toronto has no equivalent of, say, the Upper West Side. No densely-packed downtown area with a Jewish vibe.)

Toto, you’re not in Roncesvalles anymore.

Walking from Glencairn north to Baycrest was like seeing Midwood transposed onto the Toronto landscape. It made perfect sense, and felt like surely I’d been there before—except I am entirely sure that I had not.

What if Little People but Hasidic?

So I live in Roncesvalles, a West Toronto neighbourhood known for having a lot of small children. We’ve got nothing, shopping-wise, on this stretch of Bathurst. The area caters to larger families and sells an infinite supply of intriguing children’s toys, books, and knick-knacks. Hanukkah shopping, solved. I did not purchase the small plastic pious people (we have enough small plastic secular people in my home as it is) but found an intriguing book or two.

This season’s bestselling Hanukkah merch? Maybe not but I bought it.

As I’m sure you’re aware if you’re reading this, “Jewish” means many things. The sort of Jewishness of a neighbourhood like this is not the Seinfeld-inflected one I grew up in. As the extremely revealing photo of me at the top of this post shows (the jeans poking out from under the calf-length parka), I am not Orthodox.

It would be inaccurate to say this felt like home. And yet, it had a certain something Roncesvalles lacked. The matzo meal and other items on what became an ever-greater haul, but also something less tangible.

Modernity and tradition, side by side.

The field trip concluded with a delicious lunch with some colleagues at Dr. Laffa.

Lunch achievement unlocked.

And there you have it! Your intrepid not-quite-reporter left the neighbourhood, and has every intention of doing so again.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz