The mysterious sign-annotator of Roncesvalles: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on daily life in a not-very-Jewish part of Toronto

Roncesvalles, where I have lived since 2020, is a historically Polish neighbourhood in the west of Toronto. It’s still somewhat Polish, going by a handful of the businesses in the area; the language spoken by many elderly residents; and the ginormous annual Roncesvalles Polish Festival, which in 2022 almost lost the “Polish” in its name, to much controversy.

The not-Polish population consists mainly, I guess, of white yuppies, plus some racialized yuppies, plus some edgier-looking 20-somethings, in the rental apartments, who will age into being the yuppies whether or not they’ve come to terms with this fact.

Roncesvalles is next to, but quite different from, Parkdale, which is far superior for vintage shops, cafés, and general interestingness of walking around, but which has very much the issue Jeremy Stern writes about in Tablet regarding his own former Los Angeles neighbourhood (“the young man slowly killing himself with heroin in our driveway in the afternoons”). You can live there to raise your yuppie family (also, the houses are prettier than in Roncesvalles), but you might become a notorious gentrifier for doing so. Easier to just go to the half-suburban area to its north, and I say “half” because the shops are only on one side of the street, probably a permitting issue, I am not dwelling on this.

Compared to Parkdale, it’s poshville. It is not, though, one of the rich parts of Toronto, which I sometimes forget, and then a kid’s doctor’s appointment or something brings me to one of those and it’s like, right. Is upper middle class still a thing? Maybe that’s what this is.

People tell me that there are tons of Jews in Roncesvalles, and maybe there are, but the hints are subtle. The Moroccan rug store had a menorah in the window. There are other Jewish families at my kid’s school. All that come to mind are, as mine is, interfaith households, and indeed it occurs to me that much of the racial or ethnic diversity at the school is in the form of someone who isn’t a white Christian married to someone who is.

I could relate to much of Stern’s description of “buying a house in an essentially Jew-free neighborhood in one of the greatest Jewish cities in the diaspora.” Not the tough-on-crime part (Roncesvalles has its share of anti-cop signage, albeit some a relic of 2020, like the signs about masking), but other aspects. The way living in a not-so-Jewish area seemed like no big deal—an unavoidable quirk of real estate markets and the need to live somewhere—and then, after Oct. 7, like something a bit more consequential.

When Hamas attacked Israel, it became clear to me just how much not-a-Jewish-neighbourhood this is. I immediately started seeing rather white-looking people wearing keffiyehs (which is their right!) and the smug expressions of people who know they’re on the right side of history. I saw, on my street, one of those pro-Hamas paraglider flyers, this before Israel had even had a chance to fight back.

We never had hostage-sign discourse in Roncesvalles. No one was tearing down the flyers of Israelis and others held captive by Hamas, because such flyers never went up here to begin with. What did go up were “ceasefire” and “let Gaza live” and variants of the same, sometimes multiple posted side-by-side. We did not get the original hostage flyers, but we did get the pro-Palestinian counter-flyers, with photos of killed Palestinians, superimposed in heart lockets.

Going by what you see on the street—signs and scarves, oh and the local social-justice-oriented bookstore’s window display—one would think this area was all in for the Palestinian cause, this despite not being, to put it mildly, a Palestinian (or Arab, or Muslim) neighbourhood. Going by actual conversations with fellow residents—conversations biased by the fact that people who know me tend to… know who it is they’re speaking with—things are rather more mixed. There are Israel supporters around.

I am not, in this article, getting into the details of what it means to be An Israel Supporter—that is, whether it implies, in late December, a stance either way regarding a ceasefire. (If you were insisting on one in mid-October yeah it might have had different implications.) But bare minimum, the world is divided between those who do and don’t wish Jews well (with, allegedly, some people who don’t give Jews much thought either way). And while it doesn’t always fall along those lines, the most reliable proxy for ‘person who wishes Jews well’ is ‘Jewish person.’

I do not get the sense, walking around Roncesvalles, that this is a community that wishes Jews ill, exactly—a new design store included a Hanukkah-themed embroidered pillow in its elaborate Christmas display—there’s something in the visual near-unanimity since Oct. 7 that makes me feel mighty conscious of being Jewish, and not in a reassuring way. As though everyone already thought, ugh, Israel, even when Israeli civilians had just been horrifically attacked.

Someone—not me, obviously, or what I’m about to say would make no sense—has been annotating the pro-Palestinian signs with a Sharpie. “Let Gaza Live” becomes “Let Gaza Live FREE OF HAMAS.” Things of that nature. It’s throughout the main drag, presumably the same person, but I am not a CCTV camera, I have not seen anyone doing this, I don’t know which person or persons are behind it.

But I sure wish I did. I want to meet you, Sharpie-wielder of Roncesvalles. I want to ask you, all Chabad-like, Are you Jewish? If not, what motivated you? Are you a group, do we have allies? I want to know whether this was premeditated commentary or whether you felt moved, as I often had, to reply to certain signage, but that for whatever reason, you carry around a marker (which I do not) and have the disposition to do something along these lines.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.