I recently received an email from a Canadian novelist named Roberta Park in Toronto, author of a new cli-fi novella titled “The Disappearing Shore.”
“We are at an extraordinary point in human history, and my eco-lit tale addresses the fears and responsibility we must face,” she told me. She sent me a copy of her novel and I am reading it now. I also noticed on her blog website that she knows about the story of ”Moishe” in Jewish storytelling, where she writes:
”We first learn of Moishe the Beadle in “Night”, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust. Moishe was young Eliezer’s religious teacher in their Transylvanian town of Sighet. His title, beadle indicated his role as caretaker of the Hasidic shtiebel (house of prayer). Despite being poor and an immigrant himself, he imparted a striving, questioning commitment to Judaism in his pupil, a stance echoed in “Night” and Wiesel’s life itself.”
You can read her entire blog post about Moishe here.
Given her interest in Jewish storytelling, I asked Roberta in a subsequent email if she was Jewish, and she replied” “No, I’m not Jewish but I grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood in Toronto. And the best part-time job that I had as a teenager in high school was in a Jewish bakery there. I love Yiddish. In fact, my favorite all time joke is from a Yiddish dictionary.”
Tell me more I asked: What’s your favorite word in Yiddish?
Just to get things started in our email chat, she replied: “My favorite Yiddish word is ‘shmegegge’.”
I asked if the bakery where she had part-time job during her high school days was still there.
“Yes, the bakery is still operating. It’s called Steeles Bakery in North York, where I grew up. I did counter service where I learned about kimmel rye, challah, big twister bagels, rugelach, hamantaschen, these big flat pastries called ‘flying saucers,’ babka mandelbrot, and big slabs of cheesecake sold by the pound. Their bagels were good but they were not Montreal style (which rule and are the best in the world). There are only a handful of places in Toronto where you can get Montreal style bagels — one place is called Nu where they use wood to heat the oven.”
I love hearing stories like this, so in this time of slowing down during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to keep our conversation going. Roberta Clark obliged and didn’t miss a beat.
“As workers here, even part-time workers, we were able to help ourselves to the ‘merchandise’ at Steeles, and it was the first time I had unsalted butter. So much better on a bagel,” she told me.
”I wasn’t raised WASP. My mother was Czech, she came to Canada at a young age and at home she served Old World dishes like sliced cucumber with sour cream and paprika, noodles with butter and poppy seeds, and palacinkes (like blintzes). Desserts often featured marzipan, hazelnuts and poppy seeds. All very Eastern European.”
I’m listening, I’m listening.
“Something I noticed early on at the bakery in North York was that regular customers would frequently order by saying to the clerks in a particular manner of speaking: ‘You’ll give me a kimmel rye sliced and 6 challah buns.’ Initially, I found it a bit off-putting — almost like they were issuing an order — but I soon realized that it was just a different way of asking.”
‘The bakery was in a small neighborhood mall with a Daiters Grocery store. I can’t remember if the mall was open on Saturdays. It wasn’t an Orthodox neighbourhood, so it probably was. But I remember only working Sundays — maybe it just down to scheduling.”
One last note and our online chat was almost over: “The owner of the bakery was a man named Norm Gardner who I see now on Wikipedia served 10 years in the Canadian Forces. He was a great boss, and went on to a career in city and provincial politics.”