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Have Some Champagne With That Brisket?
Ever since the Parti Quebeçois came to power three decades ago, bringing with it greater nationalism and stricter language laws favoring French, it's been easy to feel uneasy about Jewish life in Montreal.
The Jewish community has shrunk from a high of about 120,000 before that 1976 election, to just under 100,000 now. Many who left were the younger, well-educated postwar generation of Ashkenazi descent, who had been educated primarily in English. (Barred from attending the Catholic, French-speaking schools, they'd attended the English-speaking Protestant ones.)
But come to Montreal today, and you'll find a Jewish world that feels more vital than many American communities with comparably-sized communities. You can see live Yiddish theater, visit a new world-class Holocaust center and sample kosher restaurants serving everything from Chinese food to Moroccan chicken tagine.
The Jewish community in Montreal is one of the most traditional in North America. According to a report by B'nai B'rith Canada's Institute for International Affairs, the community has a remarkably low intermarriage rate (less than 7 percent) and a remarkably high rate of religious observance (50 percent keep kosher).
At roughly the same time that wave of Ashkenazi Jews left, about 20,000 Sephardic, French-speaking Jews arrived -- most of them coming from North Africa, especially Morocco. And with a continuing influx of Jewish immigrants, including as many as 10,000 Russian Jews in recent years, the city has maintained a vibrant Jewish culture that is now about 25 percent Sephardic.
In Search of 'Duddy'
Visitors looking for signs of Jewish life have several sections of the city to explore. 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 area between the Avenue du Parc and the Boulevard Saint-Laurent -- the Jewish neighborhood 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. But Mile End is still home to a large Chasidic community. And it still looks a lot like it did when Richler wrote about going to Tansky's store for a package of Sen-Sen.
The rowhouses remain, with their outside staircases and little balconies. And some of the old haunts, like Moishe's Steakhouse and Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, are open for business as usual.People come to Moishe's for the best steaks in town, while Schwartz's long, narrow dining room teems with crowded tables of patrons ordering sandwiches piled with smoked beef.
Several blocks north is the St. Viateur Bagel Shop, celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is open day and night, 24/7, and regularly wins the prize for best bagels in Montreal -- as much for the atmosphere as for the bagels themselves. 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 then dumped into a long, sloping bin.
They still use the same recipe from 100 years ago -- hand-rolling the bagels and dropping them into boiling water for five minutes before baking. And forget about cinnamon-raisin or chocolate-chip bagels: It's sesame or poppyseed, and that's it!
For a completely different scene, head west out Côte St. Catherine Road to Snowdon, a neighborhood of duplex and split-level homes, where many Jews moved after the war. There, you'll find a small campus of Jewish community and religious organizations and cultural groups.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts at the Saidye Bronfman Centre mounts plays of both general and Jewish interest, including an annual play in Yiddish. Montreal has the largest Holocaust-survivor population in Canada; across the street from the Saidye Bronfman are the Jewish Public Library and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, with 5,000 square feet of exhibit space. The library sponsors all kinds of lectures, readings, films, and live-music and other events for both residents and visitors.
A few blocks south of Côte St. Catherine Road is the commercial Queen Mary Road, which feels something like the way Mile End must have felt 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. Cell phones ring, voices chatting in French and Arabic more often than in Yiddish.
Yes, indeed, Jewish life in Montreal has changed, but remains alive and well.
For more information, go to: www. tourisme-montreal.org.
Info to Go
Where to stay? Some possibilities:
In Old Montreal, in one of the oldest homes in Montreal, the Pierre du Calvet (1-866-544-1725; Pierreducalvet.ca) is one of a kind, with nine rooms, no two alike, and breakfast served in an elaborate greenhouse, presided over by the owner's squawking parrot and other birds.
L'Auberge de la Fontaine (1-800-597-0597; Aubergedelafontaine.com) overlooks Parc Lafontaine, not far from the Mile End neighborhood. It is a small, charming hotel with 21 rooms.