Mon Dieu! The bagels of Montreal
By Gary Rotto
MONTREAL, Canada — Sometimes you find the Jewish community when you’re not really looking for it. We were to arrive in Montreal on Friday and I thought it would be nice to attend services. As a member of a Reconstructionist congregation, I contracted Congregation Dorchei Emet, but discovered that the congregation held its services on Shabbat morning but not on Friday night as we had hoped. Another congregation, Shaar Hashomayim, which is a traditional congregation, has a mehitza. As a progressive who likes to sit prayer with my daughter, that wasn’t going to work. So much for looking for the Jewish community during this trip- or so I thought.
On Sunday, Kelila and I decided to take a guided bicycle tour of the neighborhoods of north Montreal. This would be a great way to learn about how people really live. Our guide, Frederic, was ready to talk about any of the neighborhoods from the Plateau to the Mile End. One of our first stops was at a quaint park in the center of the Outremont neighborhood – where we observed several Orthodox Jewish families playing in the park. It turns out that this neighborhood is home to many Orthodox families. And Frederic proceeded to talk about the long standing settlement of the Jewish community in Montreal dating back to the 1760′s.
I recall my Toronto friends Mark and Eileen saying that, at one time, Montreal was the center of the Canadian Jewish community. But for a while in the 1990s, the Quebec provincial government was dominated by the Quebecois, one of whose political planks was secession from Canada. Many younger Jews, fearing a backlash against non-French Canadians, relocated to Toronto. That political flirtation with the Quebecois has long passed and the Montreal Jewish community is much more stable.
When we signed up for the tour, we were told that we would stop for coffee and a snack as well as a sandwich lunch. So we continued through Outremont stopping for our snack – at the St- Viateur Bagel store, a bagel enterprise that was established in 1957 and now operates 24 hours a day. Frederic educated us about Montreal bagels. I had never heard of a Montreal Bagel. Sure, we used to joke that there are New York bagels and bagels from everywhere else. And that the difference was the New York City water. End of discussion. But Montreal bagels are made differently. We could see the sheets of bagels being placed into the brick ovens as has been the custom for decades. And the taste was slightly sweet. In this case, the difference was not the water but that Montreal bakers add honey to the dough. Those two differences make a bagel uniquely a Montreal bagel.
Outside, we were passed by more frum individuals. Around the corner from the bagel shop was a Hassidic center. And it was not the last time that we would spot frum individuals and even non-frum during our tour. It was just natural anywhere we went. We spotted a couple of Judaica shops. And on St. Laurent Street were both Schwartz’s and Moises’ restaurants. Neither is kosher these days, but both have historical significance within the Montreal Jewish community.
It turns out that the tour evokes many places noted in the writings of Mordechai Richler, author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The bicycle shop, Fitz and Follwell, actually has a walking tour which even more closely uncovers the places about which Richler wrote. According to the shop’s website, the walking tour includes “key addresses “in what was the “Montreal Jewish ghetto life in the 1930s and 40s – a setting that inspired some of Richler’s best work, and remains a lively creative neighbourhood today.”
So instead of Friday night, it was on a Sunday that our local Jewish experience found us – rather than the other way around.
Rotto is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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