Montréal’s Jewish community comes from all over the world. The first Jewish residents were merchants and traders arriving from Britain after the British Conquest of 1760, followed by poorer Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews fleeing hardship and oppression in the early twentieth century. Arriving in the city with few resources, but a rich Yiddish culture of their own, they settled along St-Laurent (“The Main”) and worked in the garment industry or started small family businesses, many of which are now Montréal icons. Since the 1950s Jews from North Africa, Iran, Russia, and many other areas of the world have made their homes in Montréal, and the artistic, literary, and culinary achievements of Montréal’s Jewish community are a vital part of the city’s spirit and identity.
Voices of the community
Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, two of Montréal’s most well-known writers, both have their roots in the Jewish community here. Richler’s novels are some of the most evocative ways to experience what the Plateau and Mile End would have been like in the thirties and forties, and Leonard Cohen’s lyrics express well the intense religiosity of Montréal’s streets, lined with churches and synagogues of all denominations. But there are also lesser known Jewish authors – Chava Rosenfarb, J.I. Segal – and painters – Sam Borenstein, Ghitta Caiserman-Roth – whose art explored Montréal’s streets, factories, and of course, the mountain.
Iconic Montréal foods
In addition to art, food is a major way that Jewish culture has been integrated into wider Montréal culture: the three iconic Montréal foods are poutine, smoked meat, and bagels, the last two of which are Montréal variations of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Montréal smoked meat is made from brisket which is cured, spiced, smoked, and then cut by hand just before being served. There many delis in Montréal, but Schwartz’s (3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) is definitely the most famous. Although founded by Reuben Schwartz in 1928, the restaurant is now owned by a group of business partners including Céline Dion. The line to eat inside may be long, but it’s possible to get take out and if the day is nice, eat in Jeanne-Mance park only a couple blocks away. Once known as Fletcher’s Field, this park was a favorite meeting place for the Jewish community in the early twentieth century. Here generations of children played baseball, schools hosted field days, families had picnics, poets and painters were inspired. To this day, the park is a vibrant communal space.
If you’re looking for something quicker than Schwartz’s but just as classic, Wilensky’s Light Lunch (34 Fairmount West) is the place to go. Opened in 1932, Wilensky’s hasn’t changed much since: when you walk in, you might as well have walked back in time. They still make their sodas the old fashioned way, with homemade syrup and seltzer, and the thing to eat is the “special,” which Moe Wilensky devised himself. It’s beef bologna and salami on a pressed roll, always served with mustard and never cut in two. As long as you follow these rules, the staff will be happy to indulge you with a few of their own Montréal stories.
On the next block is Fairmount Bagel (74 Fairmount West), one of the two main bagel shops in Montréal. Montréal bagels are unique: they are smaller, sweeter, and denser than regular bagels, because they are hand-rolled and boiled in honey water before being baked in a wood-fired oven. There’s a famous rivalry between Fairmount and St. Viateur Bagels (263 Saint-Viateur West), which is just a couple streets away. Regardless of which bakery you choose to visit, make sure to ask for a warm sesame bagel, because Montréal bagels are best right out of the oven.
Une photo publiée par Jeffrey Finkelstein (@hofkelsten) le 28 Sept. 2016 à 9h47 PDT
Hof Kelsten (4524 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) is the newest Jewish bakery in Montréal, opened in 2014. In a small, industrial-chic space, it offers a variety of delicious French and Jewish breads and pastries; an ideal Montréal fusion. It follows the approach of the New Jewish food movement, in which traditional foods are prepared with high quality ingredients and expert techniques. Their challah (available on Fridays) and their strawberry walnut rugelach are especially impressive.
Une photo publiée par Ali (@inayali) le 14 Sept. 2016 à 8h19 PDT
Fletchers (4040 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) is a food space in the Museum of Jewish Montréal. On weekends it functions as a café, and serves food with a side of history: all of the dishes are inspired the culinary heritage and memories of Montréal’s Jewish community. Fletchers also hosts food history events as well as cooking classes.
Founded in 1942 by Hymie and Frieda Skolnick, Beauty’s Luncheonette (93 Mont-Royal West) has long been beloved by the Plateau community. They serve classic brunch fare, with a few unique dishes such as their “Mishmash” omelet. To this day, it’s a great introduction to tastes and stories of Jewish Montréal, and most days it’s likely that Hymie will be sitting at the bar, waiting to greet you as you come in.
On the other side of the mountain, in Saint-Henri, a new Jewish restaurant was just opened: Arthurs Nosh Bar (4261 Notre-Dame West), and it is quickly becoming a popular spot for brunch. The bar is styled after the delis of the past, but updated in a simple, bright space. Although the décor may be deli-esque, the food is a little different, influenced by both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, with a big focus on fish.
If you want to do more than just eat all this delicious food, the Museum of Jewish Montréal (4040 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) offers a “Beyond the Bagel” food tour, which takes you to all the main spots in the Mile End and the Plateau, explaining their history along the way. The museum also offers other historical tours of these neighbourhoods and just recently opened a space on St-Laurent in a former garment factory.
Venture a little further out into Montréal’s west end and find great kosher food at Chez Benny (5071 Queen Mary) serves fantastic Sephardic dishes, as well as a variety of other cuisines. It’s also close to the Jewish Public Library (5151 Cote St-Catherine) and the Segal Centre for Performing Arts. In the same building as the Jewish Public Library, the Montréal Holocaust Memorial Centre tells the story of the Holocaust through the stories of Montréal survivors. Throughout the exhibit, the museum examines both Quebec and Canada’s responses to the events described.
Montréal’s artistic and culinary scenes testify to the significant contributions of its Jewish community. There is a great diversity of Jewish culture in Montréal, and there’s surely something – whether a museum, an author, or a snack – for everyone to enjoy.
Magdalene Klassen studies history at McGill University, with a focus on the history of Montréal. She also works with the Museum of Jewish Montreal as a researcher, coordinator, and tour guide.
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