Montreal: Summer in the City and a Lost Jewish Neighborhood

Dancing on Rue St. Denis

When you visit places in the summer that have long, dark and cold winters, you experience the unbounded joy of people absorbing light and sunshine into their cells, as if they could store it for the winter like canned tomatoes. Montreal is one of those places, a city that vibrates and teems with exuberant life in the summer. Forget about associating summer with beaches and lazy idylls on a lake—summer can be about street fairs, sidewalk cafes, music in the park, popup concerts, and food served into the night that does not come until nearly 10PM.

Street fair on Boulevard St. Denis

I was last in Montreal in August of 2013 and by lucky coincidence, happened to arrive in the middle of Montreal’s PrideFest weekend. The streets then were bursting with parades, flashy costumes, color and celebration. I got the sense then of a city that needs little excuse to throw a party.

Summer 2022 is no different. Well, perhaps it is different because we have all suffered through the worst pandemic in a century which, while not gone, for better or worse, has ceased to be a reason for confinement. So the streets of Montreal are bursting with activity once again. It’s like the entire city woke up to warm weather, long and sunny days and said, “Let’s party!”

Souldia concert- a headliner of the Les Francos de Montreal a music festival of French speaking performers from around the globe

It’s pretty tempting to romanticize Canada while still suffering the aftershocks of massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Yeah, it’s a cliché that Canadians are like Americans but nicer. But, like all cliches, there is something to it. I won’t even get into guns. Let’s just start with the public realm. CANADIANS. DO. NOT. LITTER. On our strolls through Montreal this weekend, we stumbled on not one, not two, but three major street festivals: on Rue Mont Royal, Rue Saint-Denis and Route Saint Laurent. Blocks and blocks of tents and platforms spilling over with food and vendors and revelers. And barely a piece of trash on the street. A few years ago we spent 3 weeks driving around the Maritime Provinces and saw exactly one Tim Horton cup on the side of the road, no doubt blown out of a car by mistake. We took a picture of it. Imagine a country where people don’t consider it a constitutional right to throw empty beer cans and cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Which says a lot to me about how Canadians value public space and the common good.

The old city of Montreal— very European

We walked and walked for three days, heading out from our hotel on Rue St. Denis south to the historic old city along the St. Lawrence, east to Parc Mont-Royal for spectacular views all the way to Vermont, into downtown to the Museum of Fine Arts and circled nearby to find a rich Portuguese paella at Casa Minhota and a sumptuous brunch at L’Avenue.

Shakshouka with a Montreal bagel (sorry New York, but they are better) at L’Avenue

We finished our with a walking tour— Rabbis, Writers and Radicals— of what was once Jewish Montreal in the Mile End neighborhood from the 1880 to the 1980s. Offered by the Museum of Jewish Montreal, our cheerful guide Hannah enthusiastically related the history of the Jewish community that produced Leonard Cohen, William Shatner, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, one of my all-time favorite coming of age films.

Richard Dreyfus in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, his first big role before American Graffiti
Wilensky’s today

As a Jew whose grandparents and great-grandparents arrived from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, I’m endlessly fascinated by the dispersion of my landsman across the globe. Like all immigrants,we arrive, bring our traditions and then are shaped by a place.

From a street display on St.Laurent

The Eastern European Jews-the Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians— who came to Montreal encountered a culture somewhat different than their compatriots who landed in New York. In Montreal, the world—schooling and civic life— was divided into the very separate worlds of French Catholics and English Protestants. The Jews became “honorary Protestants”, grudgingly accepted by the English ruling class and shunted off to Protestant schools that, like Baron Byng, had mostly Jewish students.

What remains of an old synagogue- a Jewish star in the circle

By 1920, the Jewish population had grown to 70,000 and Yiddish was the third most widely spoken language in Montreal. The Mile End neighborhood was home to famous scholars of the Talmud and Zohar (Jewish mysticism) and rabbis such as the Chernobyl rebbe, Yohanan Twesky. It was also known for its left-wing labor activists and anarchists like Hersh Hershman and union organizers.

A Communist party member and politician – “Cartier” was an electoral district that included much of the Jewish neighborhood
“Cartier” written in Yiddish

But Jewish Montreal wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly a replica of that of the US. The Jews that had preceded the wave of Eastern Europeans were not the German Reform Jews, the Our Crowd of New York. Rather, they were Sephardic Jews who had become English after the expulsion from Spain and came in the 1700s. And much later, Jews from North Africa—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia- arrived, attracted by the French culture.

Like in many cities, once the Jews became assimilated and successful, they moved from what had been working class neighborhoods out to more affluent suburbs. But vestiges of this early 20th century world remain, some beloved attractions still: Schwartz’s deli, Fairmount bagels, Schreters Department Store and Wilensky’s.

Shwartz’s Deli – not for vegetarians

On a walk to Parc Mont-Royal, I passed a poster for a performance of a new play that had just opened in Montreal. On the poster, as is common, were quotes from reviews of the play. What struck me about this one were the words in quotes: “An absolutely pleasant experience” Not “Thrilling”, not “magnificent” not “the best play I’ve ever seen”. Just “absolutely pleasant.” Exactly what I would say about Montreal. Who needs more?

The most famous Montreal bagels

4 Replies to “Montreal: Summer in the City and a Lost Jewish Neighborhood”

  1. Sharon, I love your travelogues! They’re really smart and well written. I feel like you engage places like I would if I were there–looking at history, art, and subtle cultural differences. Sorry I don’t respond more often, but I am a fan and hope your readership expands!

    Like

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