Toronto’s (Not So) Jewish Suburbs

by Aaron Kreuter

Aaron Kreuter is the author of the poetry collection Arguments for Lawn Chairs (Guernica Editions, 2016), and the forthcoming short story collection You and Me, Belonging (Tightrope Books). His work has appeared in Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, Vallum, Grain, JewishFiction.net, Best Canadian Poetry, The Puritan, and, most recently, The Temz Review. He lives in Toronto.

One.

The suburbs, in the cultural imaginary, adhere to a particular script. According to this script, the suburbs emerge due to white flight from the urban core—a mixture of racism, inter-generational upward mobility, and car culture, and consist of closed communities of standalone houses, manicured lawns, upper-middle class ennui, and men heading to the city on the train. Think Mad Men. Think Cheever and Updike. Think Edward Scissorhands. And while this version of the suburbs—symbolic for so much that is wrong in 20th– and 21st-century life—might have real world parallels, it does not tell the story of the suburbs of Toronto (at least, not the whole story). In Brampton, in Mississauga, in Scarborough, this is not the story. In the suburb I grew up in—Thornhill, sitting just north of the city’s borders—this is not the story.

Two.

According to the 2011 Census, over half of Thornhill’s 139,440 inhabitants are immigrants. In Vaughan (Vaughan is the city that Thornhill—which is technically a postal district—is a part of; I think you might need to be from Thornhill to really understand this supremely nuanced and significant distinction), there are 40,000 Italian speakers, 18,000 Russian, and 5,000 speakers each of Punjabi, Tagalog, Persian, Chinese, and Urdu. There are also 4,620 Hebrew speakers—Israelis living in diaspora from the nation-state that was supposed to be the end of diaspora.

The elementary school I attended for eight years of my life is still the most ethnically diverse institutional space I have inhabited (the classes I teach at York University would be a close second). Thornhill is a suburb of churches, mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, Catholic schools. Mostly, though, for me, it is a place of Jewish schools, Jewish cultural buildings, synagogues, of that elusive thing that is Jewish community.

The sheer diversity of Jewish denominations you can belong to in Thornhill—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Hasidic, really Orthodox, Reconstruction, Humanitarian—reveals the varied political, cultural, religious, and social manifestations of suburban Jews. And this is just those Jewish families that belong to a synagogue; many don’t. Whether secular, religious, or somewhere in-between, the Jews of Thornhill are the outcome of a visible historical process, a historical process paralleled in other North American cities. Landed as poor immigrants in the poor immigrant sections of Toronto—St. John’s Ward, Kensington Market—in three generations we steadily ascended Bathurst, leaving neighbourhoods, communities, kosher restaurants, and bagel places in our wake. This ascent went hand-in-hand with our journey into whiteness (at least for us Ashkenazi Jews, who were allowed into whiteness).

Now, on Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and any of the many holidays, the streets of Thornhill are full of the Orthodox families on their way to synagogues. I spent many Saturday mornings and weekday nights at the Reform synagogue that my family joined sometime before my Bar Mitzvah—not for religious reasons necessarily, but for community, tradition, friendship, and love. From ages 12 to 14, who knows how many Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties I went to. On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, we used to walk with the rest of our Reform congregation to Centre Pond, where we would throw bread into the water, to represent sloughing off the past year’s mistakes, failures, sins. My family hasn’t done that in many years.

Three.

In Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, a novel about the tensions between deep religiosity and artistic passion, Potok evocatively fictionalizes the geography of young Asher’s world: the Hasidic Brooklyn neighbourhood he grew up in, the trees on the parkway, the bay window his mother is constantly looking out of, waiting—for his father to return, for her dead brother, for Asher himself.

What would my chronotope look like in a fictionalized version of my life? Growing up on the bulbous court of a dead-end street, a five-minute walk from my elementary school, a five-minute walk from the mall, the closest thing we had to a commons (before we started congregating at the new Silver City megaplex, before driver’s licenses). The odd, pyramidal buildings at Centre and Bathurst, kitty-corner to the mall, a sort of aquatic green colour, where my orthodontist was, where for many years I would go once a month to have my elastics changed. The bearded Orthodox Jews who would stand in the Sobey’s plaza in suits and hats, asking every man who walked by if they were Jewish so they could offer the Mitzvah of praying with Tefellin and during Sukkot, of shaking the lulav and the etrog. Countless parks, parkettes that I can still see when I close my eyes, even if I don’t remember their names or exactly where they are in the winding streets, crescents, and cul-de-sacs. Sidewalked paths between neighbourhoods. The hydro corridor behind Centre. The East Don river that spilled into a hydro dam that we called “the ravine.”

My Name is Asher Lev climaxes with Asher painting his mother as if she were being crucified at their apartment window. For this sacrilege, Asher gets excommunicated from his Hasidic community and ruins his relationship with his parents. For his art, though, the truth he painted as if in a trance—it was worth it.

Four.

More and more, like Asher, I find myself returning to Thornhill in my fiction. What better place to explore the issues and themes I find myself drawn to over and over again—unrequited love, the Jewish experience, human and non-human geographies, settler colonialism—than a suburb just north of Toronto that is half created by my memories and emotions, half imagined? Every time I go up there and I see the signs promoting Israel as the natural, innocent home of all Jews worldwide, I am reminded of the strange stranglehold that Israel has over us—a stranglehold I attempt to work against in both my creative and academic work. In my short story “Isaac Babel Elementary,” about a scandal that breaks out at a Thornhill Jewish parochial school when the principal’s supposedly offensive self-published poetry gets anonymously disseminated through the school, I have a character muse on the symbolic meaning of these signs. A single example of the osmosis from suburb to fiction.

What better place to explore the issues and themes I find myself drawn to over and over again—unrequited love, the Jewish experience, human and non-human geographies, settler colonialism—than a suburb just north of Toronto that is half created by my memories and emotions, half imagined?

In high school, one night we could be drinking and smoking at a veritable mansion, the entire sprawling basement ours. The next, we could be at a small apartment beside the mall, filled with siblings and adults, smoking out of a bear-shaped honey container that’d been turned into a billy in the cement stairwell. The next week, we could be at a narrow townhouse in Glen Shields, the parents speaking nothing but Russian and always at work, and the next in my own basement bedroom, blowing bong smoke out the small window, listening to Phish—the band I would spend a decent portion of the next decade passionately obsessed with.

Jesse Dickson, a friend from my midtown high school, came up to Thornhill only once. My parents were away. Jesse was the leader of our social group, a snowboarder and skateboarder who grew bushels of marijuana in the summer and excelled in school. We walked the streets, tagged mailboxes and fences, laughed at my younger brother who was so stoned he couldn’t open the milk carton and when we returned to the kitchen he had finished it, along with an entire box of Cheerios. We sat in my basement bedroom and listened to a 52-minute Moe. song.

In September of the next year, Jesse would die, killed in a hit-and-run in Haliburton. A death I still carry around.

Five.

Visiting my parents for a Jewish holiday or a birthday or because it’s the weekend, I walk the dog along streets I’ve walked, biked, and driven since I was a little boy. I marvel at the power of time, embodied by the condos, big box stores, restaurants, and parking spaces that 15 years ago were fields and wood. I close my eyes and see the gravel lot I stood on as a very young boy that, not soon after, became a house. Walking, I think: this is what people get wrong about the suburbs, about anywhere where people live. I think: we are guests on this land. I think: Jews know something about being guests; it is perhaps our most defining historical and ethical characteristic. Our greatest strength, our greatest weakness, abused by both those who want us dead and those who want others dead in our name. I shake my head, turn back to the houses, the ravines, the dog sniffing and marking her way through a world that is the same and yet unimaginably different from mine. I think: the rivers remember far more than we’d like them to.

Six.

The houses of people I will never see again. The street corner that will always remind me of my first girlfriend. The first time I walked down the street with a dime bag of marijuana stuffed into my sock, petrified with fear. The time Brad Wiseman and I were smoking from my blue bong in the garage and the bong’s bottom end broke off from the shaft in Brad’s hand and so, to celebrate the end of an era—I’d bought the bong in a Burlington, Vermont headshop when I was 16. When my father and I were crossing the border back to Canada, he said we had nothing to declare, then rolled the window back up and exclaimed, “Except a bong the size of Michigan!” I died from shock, embarrassment, and relief—we biked to the Mac’s Milk, bought a brick of hash, rolled it into five joints, and methodically smoked them. When I switched to a small, liberal arts high school in the city, at Yonge and Eglinton, halfway through grade ten—I had gotten into trouble with some drug dealers and my parents were worried and possessed the income to pursue it—I got to ride the subway every morning, started to learn the subtle balance of suburbs and city. From the suburbs, I brought an imagination I could barely control, a heady mix of social anxiety, self-consciousness, and the wild desire to belong. I’m not sure what exactly the city gave me; if anything, it refined what was already there.

Seven.

My parents still live in the house I grew up in. When I go up there, it is like stepping back into my childhood. Even having the ability to do that speaks to my relentless privilege. I drive up Dufferin, leaving Parkdale. The traffic slows as we approach Eglinton, under construction for the Light Rail Transit that will change the face of the ever-changing city. Onto the Allen, the highway to nowhere, a cauterized embodiment of successful civic uprising. Subway trains keep pace with us to our left, we pass Yorkdale, which, when it opened, was surrounded by fields. People moved there so they could work in the mall. An old boss who grew up here told me about the daily beatings he would receive for being Jewish, how one time his father chased away his assailants wielding a baseball bat, his own small Christie Pitts Riot, forgotten, uncommemorated. The traffic stops again as we edge along G. Ross Lord park, the river hidden behind a ridge of trees. Once we’re in our suburb, we’re greeted by lawn signs boldly promoting Israel (the more facile the signs get, the more nuanced my anger, the more resolute my commitment to break us free from the scourge of ethnic nationalism).

From Steeles, the northern-most limit of Toronto, it’s a left turn, a series of lights, a left turn and an immediate right onto the court I’ve entered and exited thousands of times. Past the king crimson maples and into the driveway. I haven’t lived there in 15 years. Nonetheless, I’m home.

 


Aaron Kreuter is the author of the poetry collection Arguments for Lawn Chairs (Guernica Editions, 2016), and the forthcoming short story collection You and Me, Belonging (Tightrope Books). His work has appeared in Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, Vallum, Grain, JewishFiction.net, Best Canadian Poetry, The Puritan, and, most recently, The Temz Review. He lives in Toronto.

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