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June 28, 2005

Menschlich Montreal

So what’s so Jewish about Montréal? Quebec’s largest city, Montréal was officially settled in 1642 as a product of French Christian evangelical determination. This has not, however, prevented it from becoming one of the most lively and densely populated Jewish cities in the world, one of the largest in North America. This makes it an ideal destination for the Jewish traveler -— or any traveler -— in search of an unusually rich cultural experience.

The Montréal Jewish community numbering just under 100,000 is dynamic, full of history, flavor, and joie de vivre. It has 50-plus synagogues, an astonishing number of Jewish Day Schools, great Jewish restaurants and a world-class Jewish arts and culture scene.

Best of Both Worlds
Montréal’s meticulously restored historic buildings span four centuries. We stayed at the Hôtel Place d’Armes, a graceful grande dame in the historic district where guests truly get the best of both worlds. Our elegant corner room had a jetted Jacuzzi bath, original brick walls, and a view of Notre Dame Cathedral. 701 Cote Place d’Armes (514) 842-1887 www.hotelplacedarmes.com

Montréal is an island, 32 miles long and 11 miles wide, located between the St. Lawrence River and the Riviere des Praries. While we strolled its romantic streets, Montréal was blooming with jonquils, tulips, lilacs, cherry blossoms, hyacinth, primrose and more. “The summer is so short, we have to make it as colorful as possible,” says Marie José of Tourisme Quebec.

There are festivals and special events all summer long. The Tour de L’Isle welcomes 45,000 bicyclists to Montréal’s 150 miles of bike paths. There’s also a much-anticipated comedy festival, “Just for Laughs” (www.hahaha.com), and the world-famous Montréal Jazz Festival (www. Montréal jazzfest.com).

Many of Montréal’s museums and galleries reside in the “Golden Square Mile,” a stretch of posh hotels and museums in a stunning mix of architectural styles. If you don’t feel like spending a day in a museum, the city has made sure that there is plenty of art along the streets with its Percent For Art program. Museum of Fine Arts www.mbam.qc.ca / Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montréal www.macm.org

Montréal’s modern subway system makes it easy to get around, with 20 miles of underground shops and restaurants to comfort and sustain residents through the long, bone-chilling winters.

Things to do – Jewish!
The world-class Montréal Memorial Holocaust Museum is a powerful educational and spiritual experience — a must for any Jewish resident or visitor. “We made a philosophical choice to show life before the Shoah and after liberation,” says Marcia Shuster, museum vice-president.

The moving exhibition includes over 400 carefully chosen and preserved artifacts: photos, Nazi propaganda posters, six-pointed yellow stars, and familar blue striped prisoner clothing from the camps. Confiscated items, including baby dolls and shabbos candlesticks, are devastating to see. Forbidden notes, cut and folded into poignant shapes of flowers or hearts, are heart-wrenching. The exhibit also features a game of Snakes and Ladders in which the object was to destroy the Jews. The exhibit ends with an eternal flame and a column from Tlomaka Synagogue in Warsaw. Six candles, the first reference to numbers throughout the visit, burn under the phrase: “We are the heirs.” 5151 Cote St. Catherine Road, Montréal , Quebec H3W 1M6 (514) 345-2605 www.mhmc.ca

From there, we continued across the street to the Saidye Bronfman Center for the Arts. “The Saidye” houses galleries, a 306-seat professional theater, offices, art studios and classrooms. A true multi-media experience, its focus on the arts and beautiful physical space make it worth a visit.

Theater at The Saidye is another world-class experience. The Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre shows a full season of plays and the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre does one Yiddish production a year — last season’s was “God of Vengeance” in Yiddish with English and French subtitles. 5170 Cote St. Catherine (514) 739-2301 www.saidyebronfman.org

We also visited the vast, upscale YM/YWHA Jewish Community Center next door which offers a full range of social, cultural, and recreational programs to members of all ages. Their fitness center was incredible—
ask if you can have a swim! 5400 Westbury Avenue (514) 737-6551

We also took in the 10th annual Montréal Jewish Film Festival and a special presentation of Moshe Safdie, the Power of Architecture, by Canadian producer Donald Winkler. Moshe Safdie is a world-renowned architect who leapt to fame in 1966 with his innovative and inspired Montréal apartment building, Habitat, still occupied. Thanks to Festival Director Susan Alper, we met charismatic Moshe Safdie in person, who now lives in Israel near the Western Wall. What a treat! www.mjff.qc.ca
Since there are so many synagogues in Montréal, we decided to visit Canada’s largest, the Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount. A place of spirituality, dignity, and beauty, Shaar Hashomayim boasts a membership of 1600 families. The synagogue complex includes dozens of classrooms, a fascinating museum, library, massive kosher kitchens, a Kiddush room, and gift shop. Exquisite stained glass windows provide vivid splashes of design and color. Worth a visit for the stained glass alone. 450 Kensington St. (514) 487-8051 www.shaarhashomayim.com

Music Notes
The Jewish Public Library (Yidishe folksbibliotek) sponsors a variety of Yiddish educational programming hosted by national and international writers and scholars, including lectures, literary and musical events, and language classes. Their popular Yiddish Café features singers and musicians in a casual venue.

In the summer, klezmer concerts take place on outdoor stages, including the Montréal Jazz festival and the Yiddish Festival in the Park. The “10th Annual Klez Kanada Summer Festival of Yiddish and Jewish Music and Culture” will take place at the end of August.

Tasting Notes
Schwartz’s legendary smoked meat is deep pink, piled high and bracketed by pieces of soft rye bread with mustard. Other menu options include chicken and liver. Yes, liver. It is delicious, simply prepared, and unpretentious. Schwartz’s always has a line out the door, and a reputation that wraps around the block. Another Jewish institution, it is Kosher “style” (as opposed to glatt Kosher) — and immensely popular — a must on any visit to Jewish Montréal.
3895 Boulevard St. Laurent (514) 842-4813 www.schwartzsdeli.com

Moishe’s is an old fashioned steak house of the kind you don’t see much anymore — dark wood paneling, big mirrored bar — the kind of place your grandfather would have taken your father. Menu items include verenikas (Jewish dumplings filled with potato), pickled herring and chopped liver, giant cuts of meat, shish kebab, as well as twice-baked potatoes and several kinds of rye and pumpernickel breads. Moishe’s is a classic! Kosher style. 3961 St. Laurent Boulevard (514) 845-3509 www.moishessteakhouse.com

Beauty’s, another Montréal institution, is in the heart of Montréal’s Jewish district. Today, the children and grandchildren of Beauty’s original patrons come for breakfast, lunch or coffee. Booths give a retro feel in padded vinyl. Breakfast specials include omelettes of all types, blintzes, latkes, lox and bagels, Challah French toast, crépes and waffles. Beauty’s give you the works. Kosher style. Recommended.
93 Mont-Royal West (514) 849-8883 www.beautys.ca

The St-Viateur Bagel Café is crowded at all hours. Dense and chewy bagels are made onsite and have a distinctive flavor and texture. Bagels come in sesame and a variety of delicious flavors. Slimmer than their puffy American counterparts, the true Montréal bagel is highly recommended — make sure they come from St. Viateur! Kosher style. 5629 Monkland Avenue (514) 937-9471 www.stviateurbagel.com

Taking a break after several days of bagels and smoked meat, we dined at an upscale café called Cocagne Bistro Orgueilleux. The French-inspired food was delicious, using local ingredients with creativity and imaginative flair. Vegetarian diners found plenty of possibilities. The Cocagne Bistro Orgueilleux is upscale, elegant and highly recommended. Not kosher.
3842 Rue St. Denis (514) 286-0706 www.bistro-cocagne.com

The final dinner was held at El Morocco, known for its superb Sephardic glatt kosher cuisine. We sampled dishes ranging from salmon tagine to Moroccan chicken. Check out the colorful wedding-tent booth in the corner. Glatt kosher. 3450 Drummond St. (514) 844-6888
www.el-morocco.com

Jewish History Walk
Famous Jewish Montréal natives include writers Mordechai Richler and Saul Bellow, both born in the neighborhood known as “The Plateau,” or “Mile End,” the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side. We enjoyed a historic walking tour of this neighborhood with historian and urban archaeologist Stanley Asher.

In the early 1900s, massive immigration increased the Jewish population and established the foundation of Jewish culture in Montréal. Today the old Jewish quarter forms a rectangle of streets, starting at the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Laurent, ending at the corner of Parc and St. Viateur. The main artery, or “The Main,” was home to a first generation of Montréal Jews.

After an exodus of Jewish families and institutions to suburbs like Cote St. Luc and Outremont, this area reveals gems of architectural detail that tell the story of earlier times: a Star of David, or Hebrew lettering. Our spirits lift at the Congregation Temple Solomon at Clark and Bagg Streets, a still-functioning small neighborhood synagogue. “Sometimes they have trouble making a minyan,” Asher said, “but they have survived!”

So what’s so Jewish about Montréal? The food, the people, the art, and the history! If you’re in the mood for a very special trip, Jewish Montréal is the place to go. Both romantic and timeless, it offers a perfect blend of old-world elegance, European charm, and modern convenience. Enjoy! •