Finding Jewish Montreal

City's vibrant community is one of the most traditional in North America

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathy Shorr
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2003

MONTREAL - It's midafternoon, and we have stopped to see the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, which has one of the oldest Jewish congregations in Canada, with an impressive sanctuary built in 1922. As we walk down the hall, we hear voices singing. We figure we are listening to the students from the synagogue's Hebrew day school, and we pop our heads into the auditorium.

It's the day-school students, all right, but they're not chanting in Hebrew or singing Israeli folk songs; they're up onstage, piping out ''Do-Re-Mi'' in high voices. It seems we have stumbled onto the curtain call of the fifth-grade class production of ''The Sound of Music'' and are just in time to see the stage lined with kids in lederhosen and nuns' habits.

I had heard for years that Jews had been leaving Montreal since the Parti Quebecois came to power in 1976, bringing with it greater nationalism, stricter language laws favoring French, and other restrictions that put fears of increased anti-Semitism into the hearts of many. I figured the scene at Shaar Hashomayim was typical of what remained, something like the increasingly assimilated Jewish life in much of the United States, where higher intermarriage rates and lower religious observance have been charted with every decade.

It's true that the Jewish community in Montreal has shrunk since the 1970s, from a high of about 120,000 to just about 100,000 now. Many who left were the younger, well-educated postwar generation of Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, descent, who had been educated primarily in English.

But most of my other assumptions were dead wrong. In fact, the Jewish community in Montreal is one of the most traditional in North America. According to a report by B'nai Brith Canada's Institute for International Affairs, the community has a remarkably low intermarriage rate (under 7 percent) and a remarkably high rate of religious observance (50 percent keep kosher). Although many of the younger Ashkenazic Jews left from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, about 20,000 Sephardic, French-speaking Jews arrived, most of them from Morocco. With a more recent immigration of nearly 10,000 Russian Jews, the city has maintained a vibrant Jewish culture.

Visitors looking for signs of Jewish life have several sections of the city to check out. Anyone interested in history will want to go to the Mile

End neighborhood, the setting for Mordecai Richler's famous novel ''The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.'' Just east of Mount Royal Park is a five-street-wide working-class area between the Avenue du Parc and the Boulevard Saint-Laurent; it was the Jewish ghetto for much of the first half of the 20th century.

The old neighborhood was increasingly abandoned after the war, as Jews started to make their way out to the suburbs. These days, the area has a decidedly Portuguese flavor, with plenty of Portuguese restaurants and shops. The old Warshaw's grocery closed last year, and the synagogue is now a Portuguese community center where you can still see the Hebrew inscription above the door.

Mile End looks a lot like it did when Richler wrote about going to Tansky's store for a package of Sen-Sen. The rowhouses are still there, with their outside staircases and little balconies.

Some of the old haunts, like Moishes Steakhouse and Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, are intact.

Several blocks north is another institution, the St. Viateur Bagel Shop, which is open 24 hours and regularly wins the prize for best bagels in Montreal - as much for the atmosphere as for the bagels themselves. There are not many places like this, where you can see the flames coming out of the wood-burning brick oven and watch the bagels being pulled out on a long-handled tray and dumped into a long, sloping bin.

Owner Marco Sblano, who started working there in 1972, says they make 800- to 1,000-dozen bagels a day. He hauls 50-pound bags filled with sesame or poppy seeds and stacks them in a corner. Then he slices off a bit of dough, rolls it out thin, and demonstrates the technique of hand rolling, ''so there's no beginning and no end.'' ''We still kept the original recipe - all our ingredients fresh, no preservatives, still hand-rolled, put in boiling water five minutes, then baked in a wood-burning oven, like 100 years ago.''

For a completely different scene, head straight west out Cote St. Catherine Road to Snowdon, a neighborhood of duplexes and split levels where many Jews moved after the war. You find something like a small campus of Jewish community organizations, religious organizations, and cultural groups. Many are housed at Cummings Square, including a Holocaust museum that has been renovated and expanded and will reopen in June, and the Jewish Public Library, which runs regular series of lectures, readings, films, and other events. The library also sponsors Sunday walking tours with Stan Asher, a college professor and raconteur who has produced three films about Jewish life in Montreal.

Across the street is the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, with an Equity theater that puts on plays of both general and Jewish interest, including an annual play in Yiddish. This year's production, ''The Golden Land'' runs June 9 -29.

A few blocks south of Cote Sainte Catherine is the commercial street of Queen Mary Road, which feels something like the way I imagine Mile End did a few generations ago. There are charcuteries (delis that specialize in meats) where everything is labeled only in Russian, with vats of sweet-and-sour cabbage and trays of whole smoked fish and caviar. There's Israeli fast food at Chez Benny and kosher pizza by the Snowdon metro station. Everywhere you hear different languages: Russian, Arabic, French, and English among them.

I stop into Chez Benny for a quick salad and strike up a conversation with a woman at an adjoining table who offers me a ride downtown. She's blond, green-eyed, and chats on her cellphone as she careers around the steep hills in her BMW heading toward town.

A nice French-Canadian woman with a taste for authentic Middle Eastern food, I think, but that turns out to be just another misconception. She's from Casablanca, and she's Jewish. I keep thinking of that old line, with a new twist: Funny, she doesn't look Moroccan.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.