Toronto Workmen's Circle - Pioneer Jewish Group Fading

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Lord Palmerston
Toronto Workmen's Circle - Pioneer Jewish Group Fading

The Workmen's Circle, one of the most important Jewish organizations in Toronto's history, now has only a dozen members who attend weekly meetings, perhaps 50 who attend events of any sort. Most of the regulars are elderly. Of the nine people in Frymer's apartment, only two are younger than 80.

The group did not hold an event to mark its 100th anniversary in 2008. Too few people were interested.

"They know, all our children, about the Workmen's Circle. But they didn't go our way," says Helen Lenkinski, 88. "We stick to this group, but they never came. The children didn't go our way."

She shrugs.

The 80- and 90-somethings around the table have, for six decades, organized their existences around the Workmen's Circle and its members. Yet they will shed no tears about its possible demise.

Paradoxically, the decline of their beloved group is largely a reflection of their success.

"The men and women of the Workmen's Circle struggled so that their children did not have to become workers," says Irving Abella, a York University professor of Canadian Jewish history. "They were really working, as it turned out, for its dissipation."

The Workmen's Circle, founded in 1900 in New York and in 1908 in Toronto, was Yiddish-speaking, socialist, non-religious and critical to the formation of the labour movement in both cities. In its mid-20th-century heyday, the group included more than 1,000 Toronto members, Eastern European tradespeople who had been associated with left-wing groups in their home countries, mostly Poland and Russia.

Lord Palmerston

Thanks for the links.


My grandparents were members of the Workmans Circle. My parents and aunts were not.


The story is very true and very sad. my grandparents generation sacrificed a lot so that my father could go to university. my father became a professional. In fullfilling the dreams of his immigrant parents he succeeded for them.


But his success did not give him the opportunity to become fully involved.

Star Spangled C...

I read this article a couple days back and it was interesting. I'm not "saddened" by it though. I think we can be proud that something like the Workmen's Circle is no longer necessary for most of us jews today precisely because of the hard work and sacrifices of the generations that came before us.


It's more necessary than ever - perhaps in another form. A few years back, a friend invited me to a meeting aiming to restart the Yiddish choir at the Arbeiter Ring HQ here. I had no prior involvement in this organization, being the child of recent rather than early immigrants. Maybe a dozen people attended, including, gratifyingly, a couple of twenty-something children of veteran members. For various reasons, it didn't get off the ground.

Yiddish, by the way, is the language of Galuth, of the European Diaspora. Jews used to self-deprecatingly refer to it as jargon, meaning not a real language - but they lived their lives in it, mostly in toil and poverty. Only in the nineteenth century did a widespread literary and cultural movement begin to bring Yiddish into its own, through poetry and prose, music, theatre, and later cinema. This movement was of course annihilated, overnight, with the Nazi genocide. Spoken Yiddish, other than its revival by some Hassidic sects, is almost extinct.

The Zionists had contempt for Yiddish, precisely because it symbolized the Exile, and in the late 19th century they began their (successful) movement to create a modern Hebrew language, which later became the official language of Israel - though not without some debate, because Yiddish was also proposed.

To end this drift, while some cultural aspects of the Arbeiter Ring and similar organizations may be obsolete (and I'm not pronouncing any verdict on that), the political and ideological aspects are not. Every nation, ethnicity, religious group, community is divided into social classes. SSC's implies that the Workers' Circle is no longer needed because Jews are mostly well-off. Not only is that false, but in any event, Jewish workers have historically played a disproportionate role in the working-class movement on this continent. As long as there are workers who are Jewish, far better that they be influenced by working-class ideology and culture, than by the ethnocentric Zionist and pro-Israeli plagues that various "official" Zionist organizations are only too willing and able to peddle.

Star Spangled C...

Nu? Vos iz Neias?

Interesting commentary on teh yiddish language, unionist. It's actually undergoing quite a resurgance because the Hasidic community still speaks it (and often doesn't speak the local language) and they tend to ahve large families. I could take you to neighbourhoods in new York where you'd hear nothing BUT Yiddish.

And it's interesting how you mention how the zionists ahted the yiddish language (largely true). The flip side is that a lot of anti-zionist hasids will refuse to speak HEBREW (except during prayer or Torah study) because it is considered too holy for everyday, mundane conversations and so yiddish is the language of their daily lives.

As to whether organizations like the Workman's Circle are still necessary, my own experience (just mine, not saying it applies to all by any means) was that the kind of people who would ahve once belonged to such a group (like my grandfather) have tended to be replaced by people for whom it's not necessary (like me). i DO hate the stereotype that all jews are well-off professionals from places like Forest Hill or Outrement and I recognize that there IS a lot of poverty within teh Jewish community. My experience, though, is that this tends to be concentrated (aside from recent immigrants) among the ultra-orthodox and is, to a degree, a voluntary poverty - since they choose not to go to university, many will study full time isntead of working and they have large families. My experience also tells me that these communities tend to have built excellent social infrastructures to help each other out - interest free loans, food deliveries, scholarships, homes for the aged, etc. - that render other organizations not entirely necessary.

Max Bialystock

My parents were involved in the Workmen's Circle when they emigrated to Canada after the was very important for their integration in Canada.  It is sad to see it dwindling but what can you do? The Jewish community in Toronto and elsewhere is now mostly middle and upper class.

remind remind's picture

Really I see this exchange as classist to the nth degree.

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture

I don't really get it either remind but didn't want to say anything.

Lord Palmerston

Re: the Zionist contempt for Yiddish.  Noam Chomsky stated that parents were native Yiddish speakers, but wouldn't let their kids hear it.  His family was divided between a "Hebrew side" (Zionist) and a "Yiddish side" (working class radicals in New York, etc.)


Wasn't Chomsky's father a linguist also - and a Hebrew scholar? Vague past memory.


I remember when I was very young going to hear Professor Benzion  Netanyahu, Bibi and Yoni's father speak at a workman circle event in Toronto.

Star Spangled C...

Unionist, I do know that Chomsky's father was a hebrew teacher, though I have no idea at which level or for which institution.