Like most North American cities, Toronto’s early Jewish immigrants often found it difficult to secure good jobs due to language, religious, and occupational barriers.
The new immigrants often started off as peddlers. The job required a cart and involved collecting and selling items such as rags, clothing, scrap-metal and junk. Although the job lacked dignity, it required very little capital and offered the peddlers a great deal of independence.
Once they had raised sufficient capital, many peddlers set up small businesses that catered to the Jewish community. Most involved the labour of the entire family. As such, the stores were typically situated on the ground floor of the owners’ home, making it easier to afford the rent and for family members to attend to the business. The most common included: restaurants, jewelry shops, clothing, shoe and hat stores, bakeries, butchers, pawnbrokers and grocers. Over time, many of these businesses flourished and became large-scale enterprises.
In addition to business, a large segment of the Jewish population worked in the garment or “shmatte” industry. The workforce included men, women and children, and during the 1930s, as many as 25% of Toronto’s Jews were employed in this area. Many Jews also owned these factories, since they involved minimum capital. The work was extremely arduous, the conditions were poor and the pay was quite low. As a result, many garment workers joined the union for support.
Today, Toronto’s Jews occupy positions in almost every field of endeavour. Were it not for our forefathers who toiled as peddlers, none of this would have been possible…