My Heimishe Bakery

cheskie05.jpg

Every couple of days, I walk to the corner and buy a few things at Cheskie, my heimishe bakery. Of course it’s not actually my heimishe bakery—it’s owned by Cheskie Lebowitz, an affable Hasidic Jew from New York—but I’ve gone there enough over the years to feel a sense of proprietary pride.

As its name would suggest, Cheskie is first and foremont a Jewish bakery that specializes in kosher treats. Its challah bread is expensive but divine. So are the rugelach, which come in four varieties—chocolate, poppyseed, vanilla and cinammon—and are best eaten layer by layer, the better to contrast the crispy exterior with the soft, sweet layers inside. Seasonal sweets like hamantaschen are also exceptionally good. My favourite baked good from Cheskie is not particularly Jewish at all, however: the black and white cookie. A staple of every bakery between New York and Boston, these flat frosted cakes (made famous in the Seinfeld episode “The Dinner Party,” when Jerry vomits because the flavours “aren’t getting along”) are inexplicably absent from Canada. It took a New Yorker like Cheskie to rectify this unfortunate situation.

Although Cheskie is not a place to linger—it’s quite small and there are no seats—part of what makes it interesting is the clientele. About half of the customers are Hasidic, making this bakery a mainstay in Montreal’s largest Hasidic neighbourhood: Mile End and Outremont, home to 6,000 of Montreal’s 11,000 Hasidim.

cheskie04.jpg

According to La Presse, which ran a well-researched and informative series two weeks ago on Montreal’s Hasidic Jews, the city has the world’s third-largest Hasidic population outside of Israel, after Brooklyn (120,000) and London (18,000). Except for a small outpost in the north shore suburb of Boisbriand, the community is extraordinarily concentrated: virtually all of Montreal’s Hasidim live within one kilometre of Van Horne Avenue, between Côte St. Luc in the west and Mile End in the east. Since observant Jews must live within walking distance of their synagogue, the Hasidic community congregates along sectarian lines. Belz, Satmar, Bobov, Munkacs, Skver and Vishnitz Hasidim live in Outremont and Mile End; Lubavitch live in Snowdon and Côte-des-Neiges; Breslov in Côte St. Luc. The Hasidim in far-flung Boisbriand are Tosher; they live in the town of Kiryas Tosh, the worldwide headquarters for the Tosher movement.

Hasidic Judaism emerged in eighteenth-century Poland in response to devastating pogroms and a general rise in secularism among Jews. It is a fundamentalist movement, one that requires its followers to detach themselves from most aspects of the secular world and to follow strict religious protocal. Unlike similarly insular religious groups such as the Amish, however, Hasidic Jews are mostly urban. In New York and Montreal, they live in densely-populated and culturally diverse urban areas. Their presence is highly visible, due in large part to their distinctive style of dress, which is derived from the mainstream fashions of pre-Emancipation Eastern European Jews. Men wear stockings and long dark jackets; their heads are covered with fur hats or fedoras. Women tend to wear long dresses or skirts and bulky, conservative shoes. They cover their hair with snoods or kercheifs and many wear wigs. The Hasidim speak Yiddish, which supports a thriving Yiddish-language pop culture geared largely towards women.

cheskie02.jpg

Hasidic Jews began arriving in Montreal after World War II, drawn by a large Jewish community that made possible a kosher lifestyle. It was not until the 1980s that the community began to explode in size, though, thanks to increased immigration and an extremely high birth rate. Since then, two Hasidic commercial districts have emerged. One, around the corner of Victoria and Van Horne in western Côte-des-Neiges, is known for its bookstores and music shops. The other is spread out along Park Avenue, Bernard and St. Viateur Sts. in Mile End and Outremont. Along with Cheskie, there are other bakeries, several fishmongers and butchers, a book and music store, clothing, linen and housewear shops, photo studios, a travel agency, a supermarket and a café named Milk and Honey. All in all, a fairly significant portion of the Park Avenue shopping strip is devoted to Hasidic needs. Yet the area remains resolutely multicultural—there’s a Hasidic fishmonger next to a Haitian church, for instance, and a solid block of Hasidic businesses on St. Viateur that faces the Chinese Presbyterian Church—so this is the one place above all where the Hasidic and non-Hasidic populations interact.

Day-to-day life is civil. The Hasidim are extremely insular: they mind their own business and would generally prefer if everyone else could do the same. Sometimes, though, interaction is inevitable. My landlady, Mrs. Baum, is an affable Hasidic woman who has lived in the neighbourhood for thirty-five years. When she isn’t busy with her properties or doting on the offspring of her ten children, she runs a travel agency on Park Avenue. Mrs. Baum seems genuinely outgoing: whenever I run into her on the street she seems to be chatting with someone.

But today’s harmony masks a history of tension. It started in the late 1980s, when francophones in Outremont objected to some of the visible signs of Hasidic expansion: new synagogues, backyard and balcony sukkahs, wires that demarcated areas in which Hasidim could carry certain objects on the sabbath. Local politicians tried to legislate against these things; their motive was usually thinly-disguised anti-Semitism. Relations have improved in recent years. The most recent controversy erupted when the Park Avenue YMCA frosted the windows of its workout rooms when members of the adjacent synagogue expressed concerns that the sight of women excercising would distract its teenaged male students. It was telling that the reaction in Mile End and Outremont itself was muted; most of the outrage came from outside of Montreal.

Considering they form such a hermetic community, it is perhaps understandable that the Hasidim are often perceived as a single monolithic group by outsiders. This leads to casually bigoted remarks against them, especially from misguided people who think that living in a secular society means banishing all traces of religion from the public realm. It seems clear to me, though, that the Hasidic community is more complex and nuanced than it might appear. I can’t help but think of David Lazzar, the Lubavitch rabbi who sings in a “kosher heavy metal” band, or that strange nervous Hasidic guy who hangs around the corner of Park and Bernard smoking and playing lotto at the depanneur.

cheskie01.jpg

There are signs that Montreal’s Hasidic community itself is becoming increasingly open to the city around it. Last year, a Hasidic woman who has lived in Outremont for 28 years published a memoir, Lekhaim! Chroniques de la vie hassidique à Montréal, under the pseudonym of Malka Zipora. Written in English and translated into French by the esteemed historian Pierre Anctil (the English version will be published soon by Véhicule Press), Lekhaim! dwells on what Zipora herself calls “trivial, mundane” things: the domestic life of a Hasidic mother. But it’s exactly these kinds of highly intimate stories that can help the general public relate to and empathize with the Hasidic community. “Sadly, little is known of this community. We see, for example, the sukkah being built at harvest time, but we have no idea what it is,” Anctil told the Montreal Gazette last spring. “Now, with Lekhaim!, we have a novelistic, living description, not just of the building of it, with banged thumbs and so on, but what it means to commune, to share food in the great outdoors.” Zipora, for her part, has a modest but optimistic goal for her book: “I just want to bring about understanding,” she says. “I want to go down the street and feel there are positive feelings. If this book has any effect, it should be that.”

Cheskie is my link to Hasidic Montreal, however superficial. I live in the midst of a community of which I will never be a part; as silly as it may seem, when I line up in the evening to buy half a dozen rugelach, it makes me feel just a little bit closer.

cheskie03.jpg

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday February 20 2007at 03:02 am , filed under Demographics, Food, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to “My Heimishe Bakery”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Great piece.

  • Beth says:

    Really good, and I appreciated all the information; we frequently bike through this neighborhood but I hadn’t read the la Presse article…my touchstone for Hasidic Judaism is Brooklyn. I love all the photos too but especially the B&W one that leads off. My mouth is watering for some of those black-and-white cookies, though – I love them and haven’t found good ones in the city yet.

  • Isaac says:

    Great job.

    It’s a great feeling to see your positive view about Jews.

  • Marcia says:

    Hope I’ll get a chance to read the book. The Hasidic community bolsters my sense of optimism every day as they care for their community and set a standard for all of us.

  • Maria Gatti says:

    Isaac, I agree that it was a very sensitive and interesting piece, but most Jews aren’t Hassidim or other fundamentalists. Most of the disparaging comments about Hassidim I’ve heard were from secular Jewish friends.

  • Leila says:

    Great piece, as usual Christopher!
    I actually read Zipora’s book, borrowed it from a friend. It was a fascinating romp through the daily and weekly rituals in a busy Hasidic woman’s life. She writes with a fresh simplicity.
    I have to admit though, wanting more out of her – more “inside dirt” I suppose. Which says not very nice things about me, does it.
    The Hasidim continue to fascinate, but they’re wonderful neighbours.

  • Cat says:

    I have fond memories of visiting my grandma and aunties (Irish Catholic) in Outremont when I was a child in the 70’s. I was always amazed by how these people lived their faith. This article and the beautiful pictures brought it all back to life! Thank you.

  • […] necessarily for the neighborhood in general, but specifically one little, tiny storefront – a family-owned bakery serving up mounds of rugelachs, a traditional Jewish pastry. Probably the most delicious, […]