The Linitzer Sick Benefit Society
For weeks I have been toying with the idea of writing about The Linitzer Sick Benefit Society. It’s a story that must be told about how poor, impoverished Jews, who immigrated from Russia with no language and a few rubles in their pockets, landed on their feet in Toronto.
They left Tzarist, anti-Semitic Russia for the Golden Medina, the land of opportunity. Most arrived in the late 1890’s as skilled tradesmen which were highly in demand at that time. Jews were not allowed to attend universities, so they learned a trade so that they could support their families. At a very early age, they were apprenticed to a skilled workman in their shtetl in Russia. They moved in with a family, were given food and lodging and were required to do small tasks for the family in order to watch, learn and practice a new trade.They became skilled watchmakers,
furriers, butchers and bakers. My own father was apprenticed to a tailor at the age of seven. He lived with the family and was expected to do the shit-labour and in return, the tailor taught him the skills needed to become a professional. My father told me that times were harsh because there was little to eat and his bed was on top of the stove that was bedded down for the night so that he could keep warm.
When these brave men came to Canada, some of them practiced the trades they learned in the old country and some opened grocery stores, dry- good stores, and even a radio store named Sniderman’s on College Street (yes, that’s how the record store began!).
I learned about the Linitzer Sick Benefit Society in my later years after my beloved father passed away. I was doing some research for an article that I was writing, about the old forgotten synagogues in downtown Toronto. As I was leaving the museum, I stopped to admire photographs hanging on the wall. There, right in front of me, was a photograph of the founding members of The Linitzer Sick Benefit Society. As I stood there examining the men
in the photo, I spotted my father with his name written underneath! I was mesmerized! In fact, stunned because I had no photos of my father as a young man...when I was young, he seemed ancient! In the photo he was as handsome as a devil! I asked the curator if I could have the photograph. He said he would give me a copy! I placed the copy leaning against, (you guessed it), the back of my old white painted kitchen chair.
My Father was a founding member of the Linitzer Sick Benefit Society. In fact, our lives totally revolved around it. The Society was formed formally on October 5th, 1913. They were the men who were born, raised, schooled, married, worked and had children in Linitz, a small village in Russia. I confess, I do not know the ins and outs or the intricacies of how the Society was formed but what I do know is that their goal was to build a safe haven for their members.The primary goal was to provide sick benefits to each and every member when they became ill. They even hired a Society doctor. Dr. I .M. Golden. His office was located at the corner of Bathurst and Harbord Streets. For many years, I trudged over to Dr. Holden’s office for one ailment or another. He always had a cure. What stands out for me back then was that in his office, he had an exquisite glass cabinet that was filled with gleaming surgical instruments. As I write, I can still visualize the beauty of it. My mother told me that Dr. Golden drove her to the Burnside Division of The Toronto Western Hospital to deliver me!! As a side note, my parents Sara and Nusha died at the same hospital, both on March 10th, though in different years.
This group of skilled men in the Society were the backbone of the needle trade. Some opened shops (factories) and hired men from the Society to be sewing machine operators, pressers, cutters, designers and salesmen. The factory owners hired women as models to show off their garments. In reality, the models were the bait so that the store owners would be enticed to place big orders. The rumour was that the models would grant the store owners
sexual favours! Oy Vey!! They worked like slaves in order to raise enough money to bring their wives, children, parents and other assorted relatives to Toronto. They lived in rooming houses, sleeping in shifts, always with the goal to save money to purchase a ticket for their loved one’s passage.
They supported and raised money to build a Jewish hospital on Yorkville Ave. and named it Mount Sinai so that Jewish doctors could practice freely there. They built synagogues, Hebrew schools and held concerts in the Strand Theatre on Spadina and Dundas.
The Linitzer men were a generation of champions. They said no to charity and to hand-outs. They dug into their pockets and bought sacred land at Dawes Road Cemetery so that when the time came, their families could bury their dead with dignity. They built on the premises a shtebal (hut) so that after the burial, they could have a schnapps!
The Linitzer Society held an annual Hanukkah party at the Sheddley House which was located at McCaul and Dundas
Streets. I think at that time, it must have belonged to a wealthy family. The estate was surrounded by a garden and cement walkways. Through my eyes, it looked like a castle. The tables were laden with all kinds of goodies with waiters with large platters of latkes. On the stage was a man handing out toys! He had a beard so I thought he was Santa Claus. My father made a beeline to the stage to get me a toy. I was not going to be let down. I don’t remember what the toy was but I do remember my father full of pride handing it to me.
My memories of the Linitzer annual picnic at Port Dalhousie are vivid! My mother must have been up all night preparing the food for the picnic. There she was, already dressed, carrying a blue roasting pan with flecks of white, still warm. Inside the pan was a roasted chicken surrounded by potatoes. I remember boarding this huge ferry boat at the Lake Ontario docks. We arrived at Port Dalhousie in time for lunch. My mother gave me twenty-five cents in order to purchase hot water for tea.You received the money back when you returned the pitcher. My bonus was that I got to keep the twenty-five cents! Oh Boy! Dessert was big slices of watermelon, that the Society generously provided. When we arrived at the Toronto docks, the good old reliable Harbord Streetcar took us home.
For me the highlight of all highlights was watching my parents dress to attend the Annual Linitzer dinner dance at the Royal York Hotel. I was probably seven, going on eight when my mother was discharged from from The Weston Sanitorium. My father made her an evening gown to wear for the occasion. It was a black, midnight black crepe gown, with an elegant cowl-neck collar. I watched my father gently pick up each crystal bugle-bead and gently sew each bead onto the collar, forming an intricate design. In my eyes she looked like a fairy princess in a fairy tale! My
father pinned a white gardenia corsage onto her shoulder. He was resplendent in his tuxedo that he had also made for himself. His shirt newly laundered and his bow tie perfectly tied. I can still see them as if it were yesterday, dressed to the nines, so happy and waving good- bye to me.
The Linitzer had a custom that at the dinner dance they presented a sterling silver kiddish cup to any one of their members who that year had not taken a sick benefit (money). This year, my father was the recipient! The inscribed kiddish cup was a symbol that he was the proud owner of a business which he had carved out with his own two hands that earned him a living to support his family. He never took hand outs and obviously was very proud that he never needed too! The kiddish cup sits on a shelf over the fireplace in one of his grandson’s homes. It will be handed down from one generation to another and the history of the kiddish cup will be told. My father’s legacy will live on and he will be remembered as a man who wouldn’t kill a fly and gave generously to anyone who needed a helping hand.I loved him unconditionally.
When he lay dying at Toronto Western Hospital, I stood at the doorway of his room as I was leaving and I asked him, “do you love me?” His last words were, ”I love you the best”.
BA BSW MSW HFA