Fitting Into Toronto: Part II of Our Family Holocaust Chronicle
By Rubin Friedman
The cover photo of Rubin Friedman’s Fitting Into Toronto: Part II of Our Family Holocaust Chronicle speaks volumes. The nattily dressed Friedman family stands in front of the family store as befits the family of the man who once made tailored suits for Marshall McLuhan. In the background lurk two large “Clearance Sale” signs, which foreshadow the family’s business woes. None of the people in the photo can really be said to be smiling. Dapper young Rubin looks like he is squinting into the sun rather than smiling. His older brother Sheldon – a teenager dressed as a man – wears a forced smile as if his cheeks have been stretched by invisible wires. Their parents appear uncomfortable as if they are posing for today’s “don’t smile” passport photos. Rubin’s mother and father are standing next to each other without touching. Rubin’s mother has her hands in her dress pockets as if she is waiting impatiently.
No one appears happy. This assessment may come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with Rubin Friedman as the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin’s “Humour Me, Please” columnist from 2003 to 2012. At times, Rubin regaled Bulletin readers with entertaining tales from his childhood in 1950s Toronto. Some of those stories are included in Fitting into Toronto, the second in Friedman’s family Holocaust chronicle.
Fitting Into Toronto is an entertaining family memoir, but it is also a window into 1950s Toronto, the Jewish immigrant world of Holocaust survivors, and the stresses brought on in dealing with mental illness within a family. These are all serious subjects and now – some 60 years after many of the events in the book – Rubin has found a way to use humour to come to terms with them.
Anti-Semitism was rampant in 1950s Toronto. When Rubin was six, his older brother – Ottawa Jewish Community School Principal Sheldon Friedman – pulled him aside and told him that from then on he would call him “Norm” because “Rubin” sounded too Jewish. The name stuck for almost 10 years.
Rubin explains how his immigrant parents viewed their place in gentile Toronto. “My parents took it as a given that we were small Jewish elements immersed in a vast non-Jewish ocean. The important thing for them was that we participated in but did not merge completely with the water. We were taught to swim and to avoid being overwhelmed or drowned in the oncoming waves.”
By his own admission, young Rubin was a vilde chaya (a wild animal). Certainly, his escapades seem more at home with a junior edition of “The Hangover” movie series than with the stereotypical “nice Jewish boy” growing up in Toronto: breaking windows, visiting a nice Jewish neighbour’s apartment that turned out to be a brothel, stealing from nuns, etc.
The Holocaust was ever present in the Friedman family, even when it wasn’t talked about. In one of many of Rubin’s bizarre encounters, he befriended an Austrian immigrant boy whose father wore a “black uniform” during the war, implying that Rubin’s new found playmate’s father had served in the SS.
The Friedman family was hardly a first generation immigrant success story. The father was a talented tailor, but a horrible business man who made one bad business decision after another. The only way the family could afford to send Rubin to cheder was for his father to make a thick wool winter coat for the principal each year. The financial pressures put stress on the relationship between Friedman’s parents and on the family as a whole.
Rubin’s father grew increasingly distant and detached. His mother was so concerned she got her husband to go see a doctor, not a regular occurrence in those years for what we now know was mental illness. His father was diagnosed with anxiety and depression with suicidal thoughts. He underwent electroshock therapy, which made him even more distant, rarely speaking more than a few words.
Sheldon ended up shouldering immense responsibility, which placed great pressure on him. Rubin immersed himself at school, which became the only identity he had. As he approached his teenage years, Rubin felt unworthy and unloved. Later, he, too, would suffer from depression and anxiety.
Remarkably, both Friedman children enjoyed personal and professional success: Rubin as a public servant, both in and outside government, and his brother Sheldon as a respected educator.
Fitting Into Toronto is more than a family memoir. It is a story of resilience, a word very much in vogue these days. If one really wants to understand true resilience – the ability to persevere in the first of serious challenges brought on by life – Rubin Friedman’s memoir is a wonderful tale.
Adam Dodek is a law professor at the University of Ottawa.