Sophie Stransman is the daughter of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants Rachel and Elia Siegel, who owned Siegel's Groceteria from 1925 until it went bankrupt in the 40s. It was located at the corner of Sumach and Oak Streets. Like most groceterias, it offered a wide and eclectic mix of goods. The letters on the plate glass window read: Siegel's Groceteria. Fresh Fruits, Vegetables, Dry Goods, Hardware, also Crockery and Shoes. The business was quite an undertaking for her parents, as Sophie recounts, "Neither one of them could read or write. Many of the canned goods they put out were upside-down. They had no idea of how to run a business but they had no choice. Most of the customers were on government relief, which was referred to in slang as "the pogey" and people received certificates with what they were to eat written on the back."
Rachel Siegel was the backbone of the family but she was also filled with compassion. Sophie says, "It was her goal in life to help others. She was a wonderful hostess so the coffee was always on the stove and beside it a pot of chicken soup. In Jewish, kindness is the word "mitzvah". I called my book MAMA AND HER MITZVAHS because she performed countless mitzvahs in her day. She lived to almost 97 so she had plenty of time to do a lot!" "My family kept all the Jewish holidays and kept by their laws, and had two sets of dishes although they weren't strictly orthodox. And if someone came in and wanted to buy some ham she couldn't afford to lose the profit and she'd say that the Almighty would forgive her because He was very broad-minded. "My dad didn't need that much. He was always saving. The day my dad passed away he was wearing his old sweater with the new sweater the children had given him still hanging on the nail on the wall. That was the story of his life. He never even put it on. There's a lesson to be learned somewhere there I think." "Even though my parents were illiterate they dabbled in real estate. They bought up 11 homes at an average price of $1,500 each, with an average rental of $15 a month. Sometimes they got paid but very often they didn't. Many people shared one home - often two or three families. They weren't fussy; they were just trying to eat. And yet they were good people, honest people. Then when the slum clearance came in the 40s my mother only got $28,000 in total for all 11 houses plus the store with living quarters."
The local grocery stores were wonderful gathering places. As often as not customers and delivery personnel would drop in for a cup of tea or a mug of coffee, or just to chat about the latest community gossip. In some cases, the stores housed the only telephone or radio on the street, which was another draw. Everyone knew each other and for the most part shared what they had. It was a difficult time but a gentler time and those strong-willed and persevering women Aunt Polly and Rachel Siegel, set an example of honesty, integrity, hard work and tough love. It was their determination and relentless labour that enabled their stores to run longer than seemed humanely possible given the circumstances of the times; and their remarkable stories each inspired a book, which following generations continue to learn from and enjoy.
More than just a store, the Groceteria became a place to gather not only for supplies but also for Sophie's mother Rachel Siegel. As Sophie says, "Mama saw nothing unusual in being storekeeper, social director, dietitian, practical nurse, music or fashion consultant and, on occasion, even marriage counselor."
Author Sophie Stransman is the daughter of Rachel and Elia Siegel who owned the Siegel Groceteria at the corner of Oak and Sumach Streets during the Great Depression.
As the book describes, Mama and her Mizvahs is the story of a woman and of a neighbourhood that epitomized working-class Toronto during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The multicultural neighbourhood residents and customers were all warmed by Rachael's sense of mitzvah - a term which expresses any act of human kindness or good deed. She was known for her spirit of generosity even in hard times. This book gives a rare, personal and down-to-earth view of the life of Cabbagetown residents during the Depression.
Additional Resources: Read MAMA and her MITZVAHS online.