The history of Ottawa Jewish cemeteries told in new podcast episode

The Ottawa Jewish Archives has released a new podcast episode focused on what Archivist Teigan Goldsmith calls the largest collection of community history — cemeteries. 

It’s the fifth episode in the Archives’ podcast series and the second one produced by Goldsmith.

“I think cemeteries are really interesting places,” said Goldsmith. “I know a lot of people are really uncomfortable with death and cemeteries are normally a very sad place to be. I wanted to change the way people think about that.”

The episode centres around the three Jewish cemeteries in Ottawa’s history. 

“It surprised me to learn how long the cemeteries have been here,” said Teigan. “It was interesting to learn about how they developed … the first one was owned by a private group and you could only be buried there if you’d paid for a membership.” 

Goldsmith also learned that for around the first 30 years of Jewish Ottawa history, there was no cemetery in the city. Families burying loved ones needed to travel to the closest Jewish cemetery in Montreal. 

“Also the biggest [cemetery] isn’t the original one,” said Goldsmith, listing what she learned in her research. 

“In one section there are a lot of graves — young children in particular - that all passed in 1918 when the Spanish Flu hit Ottawa. That’s just one example of what cemeteries can tell us about the past.”

The first Jewish cemetery in Ottawa didn't really have a name. It was owned by the Society of the Sons of Jacob and only existed for about a decade. The second is the Bank Street cemetery which has the oldest graves and is where many well-known community figures — all the Bilskys and Dovers — are buried. The third cemetery is the Herbert's Corners cemetery in Greely. In the last 130 years, there have been around 5,500-6,000 burials, averaging approximately 75 per year.

This episode is voiced entirely by Goldsmith, but she spoke with community members including Tammy Torontow, Jonathan Freedman, Hymie Reichstein, John Diener, and Brent Taylor to gather perspectives.

As an archivist, Goldsmith said she gets excited walking into a cemetery because she recognizes so many names. She’s hoping the podcast helps people connect with their history and become more comfortable with cemeteries. 

“Cemeteries are a community space. They’re meant for everyone,” Goldsmith said. 

Goldsmith said the podcast, which began under the previous archivist’s lead, is an opportunity to tell archival stories in a new way. 

“We just wanted to find another format for people to access their history,” she said. “For a lot of people, history can be a very boring subject. We have our blog, Facebook, Instagram, and the podcast. Podcasts are a fun way to get a hold of people.”

Developing the podcast has been a fun project for Goldsmith that is outside of her comfort zone.

“I listen to podcasts and really enjoy them but creating something that will be entertaining to listen to for 15-30 minutes is an entirely new experience! The biggest learning curve was learning to write in a way that translates to listening,” she said. “Most of what I write for the archives is in exhibit text, or Facebook posts – information that needs to be read – and that is written in a totally different way than speaking.”

A lot of research goes into each episode — digging through the Archives’ database to get a good understanding and then searching the vault for the right document to build the story around. 

“I also start looking into who I can speak with to give me information. In this case, it made sense to speak with Jonathan Freedman who was a past cemetery chair, Brent Taylor, whose family made the donation for the revitalization project, and a few others who were connected with various projects,” said Goldsmith. “Once I feel I have a strong timeline and story I write and re-edit probably three or four times before I’m really happy with it.”

Goldsmith works with Hot Shoe Productions to record in-studio. Hot Shoe also does the producing and editing of the final piece, with Goldsmith’s input. 

Listen to the new episode here.