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  • Avigayil Margolis

Avi's Internship Update

By: Avigayil Margolis


Hello all! I hope your summers and internships are going well. It’s been fun seeing people’s work in MUSSA's Intern of the Week posts. My internship position is at the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), where I’ve spent the past two months working on an exhibit celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services). The exhibit will be displayed this fall alongside Refuge Tent Canada, a travelling exhibition created by Pier 21. Using primary sources such as letters, pamphlets, news reports, and photos, I have pieced together the interesting and complicated story of the organization.

Immigrant aid for the Jewish community became a necessity in the early 1920s as the Canadian government began implementing quotas limiting the immigration of any “race, nationality or class” of immigrants who were seen as unsuited for Canadian life. This included Jews, Asians, Mennonites, and many eastern Europeans. JIAS was formed to coordinate permitted Jewish immigration rather than allowing the limited spots to be sold off to the highest bidder. They also helped welcome and house new immigrants, many of whom spoke little or no English when they arrived. Over the past century, JIAS has dealt with a complete ban on Jewish immigration for most of the 1930s, petitioned the government to intervene and accept refugees escaping the Holocaust, and rescued Jews from antisemitic regimes around the world. It has also broadened its mandate and now helps anyone trying to immigrate to Canada. JIAS helped sponsor Syrian refugees in 2015 and is one of the organizations in Toronto currently helping to welcome and house people fleeing Ukraine.

Excerpt from my exhibit pitch, framing historic and contemporary images side by side. Photographs are: JIAS senior program, courtesy of JIAS Toronto (top left) and JIAS citizenship school, 1964. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 9, series 12, file 28 (bottom right).

It has been a real joy for me to work with the OJA. As a queer and Jewish museum professional, I have always been interested in local and community history as a way to understand myself. I was raised within an insular Modern Orthodox Jewish community for most of my childhood and had to learn how to navigate the secular world as I grew up, attended university, and made more non-Jewish friends. This culture shock has given me an appreciation of how subcultures, living side by side within the same city, can operate off very different norms. During my undergraduate anthropology degree, I completed a research project examining Jewish family purity (niddah) laws. I found that having an empathetic, insider perspective is key to gaining deep understanding of a topic.

In telling community history, one method is of gaining this perspective is using oral history. These are interviews in which an individual is asked to share the whole of their life story and experiences. Oral history involves embracing non-objective understandings of truth and is an important tool in combating the supposedly neutral interpretation style museums have used historically. Oral history is what first opened my eyes to different cultural “ways of knowing.” This methodology embraces Indigenous storytelling knowledge traditions, which traditional western historiography rejects. For example, Maori oral tradition, known as whakataukī, uses stories and song to teach subsequent generations Indigenous science and ecological knowledge, such as where to find specific fish, the consequences of overhunting, or medicinal uses of certain plants. Oral history is one of my main sources for sharing personal stories in the JIAS exhibit. In addition to providing an overview of what JIAS has done, I hope to highlight the stories of people who JIAS has helped and the staff who dedicate their lives to helping others. Throughout the exhibit, there will be individual stories and QR codes linking to excerpts from the OJA’s oral histories.

Working in the archives has also given me a unique perspective on handling heritage. Archival records are often old and consist of crumbling papers, which require delicate handling in order to be read. This highlights the necessary balance we must strike between preserving records while at the same time being able to access original records for reference. A paper that is never handled or exposed to light and potentially humid air would last longer, but there would be no value to preserving the letter without allowing researchers to take it out and read it. A lot of the JIAS fonds consists of letters which were not made with the intention of lasting decades after they were opened by the initial recipients. They would be typed on thin paper which was easier for typewriters to handle. Over time, the paper became quite yellowed and brittle, feeling more similar to tissue paper than contemporary printer paper. This paper can be easy to tear if handled roughly. In cases of particularly damaged and at-risk records, archivists often create an access copy for researchers to consult without needing to touch and potentially damage the original. However, doing this to every item in an archive would be too time-consuming to be feasible. Most stable originals are open for researchers and archivists to handle with proper precautions, such as clean dry hands for paper and gloves for photographs.

A written copy of a speech from 1940. Note the faded ink and yellowing edges as well as rust from an old staple (removed by archivists) in the top centre. Source: Reports of activities, 1939-1941. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 9, series 3, file 12.

Over the past two months, I have gained an abundance of experience working hands on with archival collections and researching an exhibit. The guidance of my supervisor, Faye Blum, has also been an invaluable resource. In addition to her archival experience, Faye manages the OJA’s social media and outreach. She has taught me a lot about how to engage the public as a heritage institution and given me the wonderful opportunity to make weekly posts, which you can find every Tuesday @ontariojewisharchives on Instagram. For anyone interested to learn more, the finished exhibit will be on display at Holy Blossom Temple this fall. More details are available at: JIAS 100th Anniversary.


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