The "J"CR and the Refectory: The History of Jewish Student Life at University College

Franklin Bialystok
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With the creation of the UC Alumni of Influence awards in 2012, 134 former students have been honoured of whom, from my imperfect assessment (based on name recognition and bibliographic information), 58 are Jews. Further, given that few Jews attended university until after World War I, of the 122 honourees who graduated after 1927, 64 seem not to be Jews. While we do not have concrete statistics of Jewish enrollment at UC, it is unlikely that Jews ever constituted a majority. Consequently, it would not be an overstatement that the impact of Jewish alumni has been out of proportion to their numbers. This discussion is a glimpse at Jewish student life at UC from its documented onset to the present, within the context of the evolution of ethno-cultural diversity in Canadian society.  This discussion also posits that Jews were the vanguard of diversity at UC – the first of many ethnic or other groups which contributed to the composition of the College.

The great migration of Jews and other Europeans from the 1890s to the early 1920s contributed to Toronto’s emergence. In 1891, there were some 1400 Jews, representing less than 1% of the city’s population; 30 years later, there were 35,000, constituting 6.7% of the population. University education was a dream for the immigrant community, so it wasn’t until the 1920s that we have some sense of a Jewish presence at U of T. Enrollment rose through the 30s, although many potential candidates had to leave their studies to support their families during the Depression. Nevertheless, 7.2 % of the first-year students at U of T in 1935 were Jewish, by far the largest representation of ethno-cultural minorities in the city. They were vastly overrepresented in certain fields, notably medicine, where in 1932 they comprised 27% of the student body.

University College opened in 1853 as a non-denominational college. As the University grew in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, colleges with affiliations to various Christian denominations federated with U of T (notably Victoria, St. Michael’s, and Trinity), though UC remained the only non-sectarian option for arts and science students until the 1960s.

Thus when the children of the first wave of Jewish immigrants first started attending U of T, during the inter-war years, in a period of rising antisemitism, they did not have an option but to enroll at UC. Even so, the atmosphere for Jewish students at U of T was not easy. The University, for instance, kept a tally of “Hebrews” in the 1920s, and its president, H.J. Cody, was a Fascist sympathizer. While there were no established quotas for entrance, there were few opportunities for career positions. The Toronto General Hospital allowed only one Jewish resident per year while established engineering and architectural firms were closed to Jewish candidates.

Yet, it appears that UC provided a haven. While anti-Jewish sentiment may have been expressed, the children of immigrants became comfortable within their collective. Some were elected to the Literary and Athletic Society. Louis Rasminsky (BA 1928 UC), Bora Laskin (BA 1933 UC), Reva Gerstein (BA 1938 UC), and Rose Wolfe (BA 1938 UC) are among notable College graduates. The most detailed documentation of Jewish enrollment in this period is a notebook kept by Evelyn McAndrew, an employee in the UC Registrar’s Office. Her survey found that there were 161 “Hebrews” enrolled in 1941-2, representing 17% of the student body.[i]

In the immediate postwar decade, the immigrant community along Spadina was in transit to tonier neighbourhoods in the boroughs of York and North York. Alan Borovoy (BA 1953 UC), a graduate of Harbord Collegiate, the major source of Jewish students, went “up the hill,” as it was called, to St. Clair. He recalls that in 1950, there was “a feeling of inhibition” by Jewish students, “a reluctance” to come out fully as Jewish. Borovoy feels that while there was a sizeable Jewish presence at UC, by 1953, there was a “free flowing relationship across ethnic boundaries” and that “Jews and non-Jews collaborated in extra-curricular activities.” Indeed the Lit Executive had a growing Jewish membership. Martin Friedland’s (BCom 1955 UC) election as its president was indicative of this trend.

In this period, the gradual erosion of traditional barriers to Jews in employment and opportunity and their socioeconomic ascendance meant that a high proportion of Jews went on to post-secondary education. As such, UC developed a reputation as “the Jewish College.” A cursory glance of the Junior Common Room (JCR) wall’s list of the members of the Lit Executive reveals that, from 1958 to 1966, about 55% of its representatives were Jewish. Michael Bliss (BA 1962 UC), in his memoir, remembers that the JCR was referred to as “the Jewish Common Room,” not in a disparaging tone, but as a matter of fact.

The Colleges were a beehive of extra-curricular activity. From athletics to music to drama, they were an essential aspect of the student experience. At UC, the activity most associated with Jewish students was the annual Follies. They were a series of comic sketches, performed over three consecutive days in November at the Hart House Theatre. They were produced, composed, and written by the students, and behind the scenes were students involved in sales, publicity, costumes, lighting, and set construction.

It’s unclear when the Follies began and when they ceased production (at some point in the 1970s, though they were revived in the 1990s as a theatre troupe). From the 1930s, there was a strong Jewish presence and flavour to the Follies. In 1938, the Follies were directed by Lou Weingarten, who was better known as Johnny Wayne (BA 1940 UC), and co-produced by Frank Shuster (BA 1939 UC). In 1945, the cast of Anything Warm Will Do included Murray Davis (BA 1948 UC), Roy Frankel (BA 1946 UC), and Lloyd Bochner (BA 1947 UC), who went on to a stellar career on stage and film.

At the apex of Jewish life at UC, the Follies of 1965 could have been termed, the “Jewish Follies.” Arnold Shoichet (BA 1965 UC) directed the orchestra, Paul Hoffert wrote the score, Robert Iscove choreographed, Alan Gordon (BA 1955 UC ) designed the production, the Pomerantz brothers, Earl (BA 1966 UC) and Hart (BA 1962 UC), were the writers, and Lorne Lipowitz (BA 1966 UC) directed. Lipowitz changed his last name to Michaels, joined Hart Pomerantz as a comedy team on CBC, and was the founder of Saturday Night Live, and Hoffert was a founder of the band Lighthouse. Michaels’ first wife, Roz Shuster, Frank’s daughter, became Saturday Night Live’s head writer and was part of a huge Follies cast and crew that included future luminaries such as Rosalie Silberman Abella (BA 1967 UC) and Diane Loeb (BA 1966 UC).

Bob Rae (BA 1969 UC) joined the Follies to “meet girls” and “was the only guy who was a goy,” chosen “to be the straight man who would mispronounce every Yiddish word.” A major explanation for the Jewish presence in the Follies lay in the heritage of Jewish music, comedy, and drama that provided an impetus for popular North American culture. For Canadians, this heritage was most evident in the unforgettable contribution of Wayne and Shuster.

With the establishment of New College in 1962 as the second non-sectarian institution, and the opening of its first building in 1964, Jewish student life started to change. New College quickly became an alternative destination for Jewish students, appealing in part to the children of working-class parents.  Second, York University’s campus had opened and was a draw for many Jewish students, especially those living proximate to its campus or attracted by its interdisciplinary approach. Third, the northern, Laidlaw wing of University College was built. It housed the UC library, and its basement, facing the playing field, was the site of the Refectory. This rather gloomy room soon became a meeting point for Jewish students across the campus. Ellen Bialystok (BSc New 1971), who became my wife, reports having hung out there, hoping to meet UC boys. We assume that this endeavour worked in reverse as well.

The late 60s and early 70s were the height of the Jewish presence at UC. From 1966 to 1973, 58% of the Lit was Jewish, including most of its presidents. Max Gluskin’s (BCom 1936 UC) sons, Ira (BCom 1964 UC) and David (BA 1968 UC) were on the Lit Executive. David described Max and his cohort as “closet Jews.” As for why UC became the place of choice for his generation, it was primarily the same as for Max’s years: “There was no other consideration. If you got the marks, you went to UC.” You “weren’t welcome at Trinity,” and “Vic and St. Michael’s might as well have been on another planet” because they were on the other side of Queen’s Park. According to Gluskin, the JCR was where “the long haired freaks” congregated, as the Refectory had become the preferred destination for Jews.

Since the mid-1970s, the ethno-cultural diversity at UC that had made it a “Jewish college” has become more representative of the Canadian social fabric. This is the primary factor in explaining the changing face of UC. One indicator of this change has been the composition of the Lit Executive. From 1974 to 1982, Jews constituted about 35% of the board, falling to about 25% in the 1990s. From 2006 to the present, there have been approximately 16 Jews on the Executive and about 300 students from other backgrounds.

During this period, UC had become only one option for incoming arts and science students. In addition to New College, Innis College, founded in 1964, opened its main building in 1973, the denominational colleges became far more welcoming to students of other faiths, and the professional undergraduate faculties increasingly offered alternatives to arts and science. More significantly, Toronto Jews were ensconced in the Canadian mainstream, becoming more established, confident, and secure. As such, U of T was no longer the automatic choice for its children. In the last three decades they have increasingly chosen to leave Toronto for other Ontario universities, for McGill, Dalhousie, and UBC, and to the Ivy League and liberal arts colleges in the United States. On a personal note, a cursory look at 21 children of my friends and family who were born after 1970 shows that two attended U of T as undergraduates.

Allie Cuperfain (BA 2011 UC) relates that in her graduating class of 180 at the Community Hebrew Academy in Toronto, nine classmates chose U of T, of whom approximately four enrolled at UC. Danielle Klein, a current UC student and the editor of U of T’s student newspaper, The Varsity, came from Ottawa and chose UC at the suggestion of her parents and family members who were alumni.

Although Klein was told that it was the “Jewish College,” she says that “nothing was what I thought it would be at UC.” In fact, UC has been “a major hub… given me a lot, but not the Jewish experience.” For her, that has come from the Jewish Studies program and her current internship in Shoresh, a Jewish environmental project. For Cuperfain, the Jewish connection was Hillel, the Jewish learning initiative, and the Jewish Federation of Students. Nevertheless, both Klein and Cuperfain contend that only a small fraction of Jewish students (at U of T) are involved in Jewish organizations.

Klein remarks that “the Jewish presence is nostalgia,” but that UC remains “a welcoming community for… minorities, such as LGBTQ.” It’s notable that this atmosphere was enhanced during the tenure of Sylvia Bashevkin, the College’s only Jewish and female principal.

Bashevkin, a professor of Political Science, joined UC in 1996 and was Principal from 2005 to 2011. She highlights the creation of the Commuter Student Centre, in part because of Jewish alumni who brought attention to the need to create a stronger bond between the 85% of students who lived off campus, and the College. She notes that Jewish faculty and alumni have maintained a significant Jewish presence. She adds that the growth of non-sectarian colleges and universities since the 1960s have “emulated the outstanding UC example of opening doors to students regardless of their backgrounds.”

The Jewish student experience at UC, tentative and fragile in the first half of the century, assertive in the third quarter, and subdued since then, is a microcosm of the Canadian Jewish experience and a chapter in the creation of multiculturalism in general. UC was a chapter in the journey from the immigrant neighbourhood adjacent to the University, to the Canadian mainstream.  In this odyssey, UC moulded two generations of Jews, and they, in turn, contributed disproportionately to the spirit of the College and, as alumni and faculty, to Canadian society, paving the way for other minorities to UC. This story is worthy of memory and should be inscribed in UC’s history.[ii]

[i] My sincere gratitude to Margaret Fulford, UC Librarian, for finding this source in the UC Archives, and in guiding my research.

[ii] Thanks to: Sylvia Bashevkin, Alan Borovoy, Allie Cuperain, David Gluskin, Danielle Klein, Jennifer Lanthier, David Rayside, and Jeff Rosenthal for their contribution. And to Principal Donald Ainslie for inviting me to take on this interesting study, and to Yvonne Palkowski for shepherding the project.


Photograph: University College, Junior Common Room, c. 1965. Courtesy UC Archives.