My Grandparents' Legacy
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Oct 2006, p. 103-111

Tanenbaum, Joey, Speaker
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The history and story of the speaker's grandparents lives - how they came to Canada, how they built a business - all leading to the family's current philanthropic endeavours.
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26 Oct 2006
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Full Text
Joey Tanenbaum
Chairman and CEO, Jay-M Enterprises Ltd. and Jay-M Holdings Ltd.
Chairman: Dr. John S. Niles
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Verity Craig, Principal, Hays Executive, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Nabila Qureshi, Grade 12 Student, York Memorial Collegiate Institute; Rev. Canon Kimberley Beard, BA, BEd, MDiv (Grace), Senior Pastor, St. Paul’s On-the-Hill Anglican Church, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Richard Wernham, President, Five Continents Group; William Thorsell, Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum; Dr. Michael Baker, Physician-in-Chief, University Health Network; The Honourable Bob Rae, PC, OC, QC, Partner, Goodmans LLP; Doug Morris, President, Morris Glass and Windows/Humidity Solutions, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rabbi Ahron Grossbaum, Chabal Lubavitch, Toronto; David Naylor, President, University of Toronto; and Ronald Appleby, QC, Senior Partner, Robins Appleby & Taub LLP.

Introduction by John Niles

There is an old Jewish saying that I have loved and have long lived my life by and that is “when you save a life you change the world.”

Philanthropy is a Greek word whose origins literally mean “love of humanity.” Contemporary use of the term refers to the voluntary giving by individuals, foundations, corporations, or organizations to promote the common good. Philanthropy is a fundamental human impulse. Giving back in aid to family members, those less fortunate, to sustain communities, or cultures, the arts, or for the work of systemic social change has been around for years. However, never have we seen such a ground swell of attention given to it.

Philanthropy exemplifies the ideal of private action in the public interest, demonstrating our faith in the capacity of individual citizens not only to create wealth, but also—voluntarily—to care for their country, their communities, and their fellows without undue reliance on government.

Philanthropy shows our commitment to the well-being of our neighbours and of strangers in need. For many, philanthropy also reflects deep religious faith and a determination to live by the Golden Rule. Philanthropy is about receiving as well as giving, and a free and vibrant civil society summons its members to create and lead organizations, programs and institutions out of a sense of higher purpose that transcends their own interests and base motives.

The Empire Club Philanthropy Series hopes to add to this ground swell as we endeavour to have individuals, and leaders of foundations, and corporations in all walks of life come and speak about the importance of giving back. We hope they will tell us where the impulse to give back began in their lives and why and how they have done so as a means of inspiring others to do the same.

Today we are honoured by having Joey Tanenbaum.

Mr. Joey and Mrs. Toby Tanenbaum are well-known philanthropists and have given more than $75-million worth of donations of art to the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

As well they have given over $93 million in art and financial donations to the Art Gallery of Ontario in the last 35 years. This does not take into account the millions that they have given to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and the millions that have been given to the Toronto Western Hospital and many other fine institutions of art, health and culture.

Mr. Tanenbaum is Chairman and CEO of Jay-M Enterprises Ltd. and Jay-M Holdings Ltd., and Past Chairman, Hydro-Pontiac Inc. and Pembroke Electric Light Co. He has been a patron, president, director, and member of many charitable foundations.

He was a recipient of the Roy A. Phinnemore for Accident Prevention Award, the Lescarbot Award, 1993, Ontario Association of Art Galleries, Partners/Individual Award, 1993, the Arbor Award, University of Toronto, 1996, the Montblanc de la Culture Award in Canada, 1997, the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Sovereign Order of Malta, 1996, was the 1994 Honoree, Negev Dinner, Jewish National Fund, and is a Member of the Order of Canada. Will you please greet with me Mr. Joey Tanenbaum.

Joey Tanenbaum

Mr. President, distinguished head table guests, dear friends, members and guests of the Empire Club of Canada:

My late beloved grandfather Abraham Tanenbaum arrived in Toronto in August of 1911 with only $8 in his pocket. He told me that on board the ship from Hamburg to New York, he met two landsmen, which means two men from his own village of Parczew in Poland and when he asked them where they were going, they said, “To Toronto.” My Zaida (my grandfather) enquired if Toronto was in America. When they replied positively, he said, “Then I will go with you to Toronto.”

The three travellers landed initially in Halifax and then travelled by train for five days arriving at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, just before the Sabbath at the southwest corner of St. Clair Avenue and Runnymede Road. This was where the trains came in. The place was called The Junction, because it was where all the rail traffic to Toronto from the East, the West, and the North converged.

Because my Zaida was much more observant than his companions, he decided that he would stay in the area and try to find a Jewish home with a mezuzah where he could spend the Sabbath. After that, he thought he would proceed on Sunday to the Spadina and College area, where he knew there was a Jewish community. As a matter of interest a mezuzah is a parchment scroll with selected Torah verses placed in a container and affixed to the exterior doorposts of observant Jewish homes.

Fortunately for our family, one block south of St. Clair and just east of Runnymede was—and still is—Maria Street. There my Zaida found a small thriving enclave of immigrant Jews. He was so enchanted with the place, he didn’t just spend the weekend; he decided to settle down on Maria Street, and made his home there for the next 40 years.

My Zaida started out as a pedlar with a pushcart. After three years, he had saved enough money to bring my beloved Bubbie (my grandmother) and their two children—eight old Joe and five-year-old Max—to Canada. They arrived on August 3, 1914, the very same day that the British Empire declared war on Germany and the First World War began for Canada.

Then my two aunts were born—Aunty Sara Katz, in 1915, and Aunty Esther Gottlieb, in 1918—the first members of our family to be born in Canada.

By 1917 Zaida was able to buy his first ferdele, his first horse. He would tell me in Yiddish, “Yoselebein es hast gewesen the shoenste ferdele in the ganze weld,” that it was the most beautiful horse in the whole world. Both my Dad and my Uncle Joe would say, “It was the ugliest beast you ever saw!” Which proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Now that my Zaida had a horse and wagon, he needed a piece of land to store all of his used material. He was able to purchase the northwest corner of Runnymede and Dundas Street—three hundred feet west on Dundas and five hundred feet north on Runnymede—for $200 in cash and $1,800 first mortgage at 3 per cent. The man who gave Zaida the mortgage was none other than Herb Soloway’s late grandfather.

Within four years—that is, in 1921—a real-estate agent came to Zaida to purchase part of the corner, sixty feet by sixty feet. Zaida would tell me how he sold the piece of land for $16,000 cash to the Toronto Railway Commission, which today is the TTC. But the Mail, the predecessor of the Globe and Mail, reported that Abraham Tanenbaum had sold the corner of Runnymede and Dundas, to be used as the most westerly turning-point for Toronto streetcars, for the princely sum of $96,000.

Purely a typographical error!

Zaida told me the banks came to him and said, “Mr. Tanenbaum, anything you want, you can have.” Zaida’s reply was “I’ll give you $16,000 now and the other $80,000 at a later date, provided you’re good to me.” In August of 1942, he told me that the bank was still waiting for the other $80,000!

The Year of the Horse, 1917, marked the beginning of Runnymede Metal & Salvage Company. It also saw the first of the sacrifices that the second generation would make for the future of our family. On December 11 of that year, Zaida took Uncle Joe out of Grade 6 to help with the fledgling business. Uncle Joe’s role was to look after the employees in the yard and later to manage the wrecking of the buildings and bridges that would be demolished by Runnymede.

My father Max had it a bit “easier.” He stayed in Annette Street Public School until be completed Grade 8! Dad would tell the story of how he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on June 28, 1922, and how, on the following Monday, Zaida took him into the business as well. Dad’s first job, at the tender age of 13, was to deal with the banks.

In fact I still have hanging in my office the original balance sheet that my Dad prepared on July 18, 1924. It shows that the family assets, less the liabilities, came to the grand total of $21,722.78.

By 1928 the foundations of the family business were laid. Zaida and his sons purchased the complete structural steel inventory of Reid & Brown, which had gone bankrupt that year. This purchase catapulted what became Runnymede Iron & Steel Company into the steel fabricating business. By the outbreak of World War II Runnymede was the second-largest steel fabricator in the City of Toronto next to Dominion Bridge.

What my Zaida taught his sons about business, he handed down to me as well. He imparted to me his wisdom and his principles. What he gave me was a philosophy of life.

Every Sabbath after lunch, I would sit with Zaida and “vertatch a blatt gemarah”—that is, study a portion of the Talmud. It was during these warm and meaningful discussions in Yiddish that I came to understand the importance for every individual never to forget from whence he came. He also taught me that you must never make money your god, that there is only one God, and that is the God in heaven.

Zaida was the one who told me that I must make business my science. He said, “Never get involved in a business you know nothing about.” When I was still very young, I asked him, “Zaida, how did you become so wealthy?” His answer was, “My son, I would buy for a dollar and sell for two dollars, and make 1 per cent.” I said, “But Zaida, that is not 1 per cent, that is 100 per cent.” My grandfather looked at me with his beautiful, piercing blue eyes and said, “My son, I made it. It’s 1 per cent.”

I must tell you that I did not argue with my Zaida. I learned a basic lesson in business life. This is why I like to sell some of our assets from time to time and make Zaida’s “famous” 1 per cent!

From my late father, Max, I learned a harder lesson, a lesson that would stand me in good stead in the years to come. For my Dad, family came first and foremost. He was a man of vision and a man of strength. He was determined to make his children strong as well, to prepare them for the rough shoals in life. His philosophy was very simple but very effective. In the words of Goethe’s “Faust,” it was: “That which you inherit from your fathers, you must earn in order to possess.”

It was those words that sustained me during the terrible economic upheaval that took place in this country in 1982, especially in the steel-fabricating business. With my dear wife, Toby, standing by my side, and with the love and support of our five children, we came through the crisis. And I was able to repay the bulk of our tremendous debt to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce by April 26, 1989.

I would like to think that Zaida was watching me on that day. He would have understood why repaying the bank—our family’s bank since 1924—was one of the proudest days of my life. My Zaida knew better than anyone the importance of honouring a debt.

Both of my grandparents helped me to understand and take pride in what it means to be a Jew. By their words and by their living example, they taught me to love and to honour our faith, our history, and the traditions of our people.

One of my most precious memories dates back to 1935. On one particular Sabbath, my beloved grandparents had weekend guests: six rabbis with long beards. My late brother Harold and I nicknamed them “cowboys.”

At lunch that day, I noticed that my grandmother was not eating. I left the table and went to the kitchen to ask her why she was not partaking of the Sabbath meal. She told me in Yiddish that there was not sufficient food. I immediately said, “Bubbie, it’s not right that they should eat and you not eat.” Her reply will always be with me, for she said, “Yosseleben, gedenk ein mein kind, wie wenig a yid hat me muss zuteilen.”—“My child, one must always share with one’s fellow man, regardless of how little one has.”

These words became the essence of my being; that is, to help those in need.

Both Zaida’s and Bubbie’s commitment to Judaism was incredible. It permeated every aspect of their lives, and ours as children. Every Sabbath, we grandchildren would go to morning services at Maria Street Synagogue, and then to lunch at Bubbie and Zaidahome at number 138. All the preparations for the High Holidays would take place there, especially Rosh Hashana in the fall, and Passover in the spring.

My Mom with her children and Aunty Faye Tanenbaum and Aunty Sara Katz with their brood all moved in with Bubbie and Zaida three to four days prior to the holidays. Aunty Esther Gottlieb and her family lived just across the street. While the women helped Bubbie prepare the festive meals, we children had a great time staying out of their way. We would busy ourselves feeding the chickens that Bubbie kept in the backyard, or playing the well-known “Maria Street baseball” which was with the droppings from the horses.

Those were warm and happy days when we were young, and thinking of them can still bring me to tears.

In all our years together, my dear wife and I have been extraordinarily fortunate in so many, many ways. We have always felt most fortunate to be Canadians, especially growing up here during the Second World War.

This country gave all who came here—my grandparents from Poland, Toby’s own parents from Russia—equality of opportunity unknown in Europe until the second half of this past century. Canada gave us, as Jews, freedom unavailable almost anywhere outside the State of Israel. Here in this incredible country, we have always had the absolute freedom to practise our religion, and to pass on to our descendants the light of our faith and our historic heritage.

I believe this is a fundamental reason why Canada’s 300,000 Jews are a presence on the national scene out of all proportion to our numbers. We have seized the infinite opportunities this country offers. Though we represent little more than 1 per cent of the total population, the contributions of Jewish Canadians to Canada’s economic, scientific, and cultural development have been significant.

I, for one believe that we have a special duty—to Judaism, to ourselves and to our country—to “earn what we possess,” with generosity and with honour.

Twenty-one years ago my Toby was the catalyst in encouraging me to give our initial major donation to help establish the first permanent home for the Canadian Opera Company. Subsequently, Toby and I have jointly agreed on all our major donations whether it be for improving our health-care facilities, for medical research, for higher education, for the arts or for various religious institutions. I was the second Jewish citizen in Canada to receive the Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit from the Knights of Malta for our gift to the Pontifical Institute.

We believe that we Canadians live in the best country in the world and that it is imperative that we should set an example of true “Tzdakeh.” This Hebrew word literally translated does not mean charity; it means “obligation.” That is, it is the obligation of every Canadian citizen who is financially successful to share with others who are not as fortunate.

Over the past 25 years we have given gifts of art to various cultural institutions including the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Over and above the art we have given in cash to various hospitals and charities many millions of dollars.

Toby and I sincerely hope that we have, in some small way, set an example for our fellow Canadians to follow in our footsteps.

Before I close I would like to pay tribute to my bride of close to 52 years—my Toby. Please stand up and be acknowledged for all that we have accomplished together.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Doug Morris, President, Morris Glass and Windows/Humidity Solutions, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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My Grandparents' Legacy

The history and story of the speaker's grandparents lives - how they came to Canada, how they built a business - all leading to the family's current philanthropic endeavours.