Yiddishkayt and Soviet Spies: Life on the Main

Keneder Odler

St. Lawrence above Duluth during an election campaign in 1950. Election signs in Yiddish, English, French and Russian can be seen

For more than fifty years, from the turn of the twentieth century until the early 1950s, St. Lawrence Boulevard was the robustly beating heart of Montreal’s Eastern European Jewish community. Here, set amidst the daily bustle of commerce and industry, was one of the world’s hubs of Yiddish culture. Poets and writers published their work in the daily Keneder Odler; the Yiddish theatre scene was reputed to be the third-largest in the world after Warsaw and New York.

Mordecai Richler, one of Montreal’s most well-known English writers, grew up near the Main. “All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat,” he wrote in Son of a Smaller Hero. “Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic and quarrels and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums; slower cats prowl the fish market.”

In many ways, the Main was defined by its years as the centre of working-class Jewish life in Montreal. At a time when French and English Montreal really were “two solitudes,” the Main was the literal and symbolic home of the ethnic other. That, combined with its raucous streetlife and bazaar atmosphere, left it with a legacy as Montreal’s most diverse and accepting street.

It was the British conquest of 1760 that brought the beginnings of Jewish life to Montreal. The first Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal, was founded in 1768. In 1807, Ezekiel Hart was the first Jewish representative elected to the Lower Canada legislature, even though, at the time, Jews were banned from holding public office: Hart was expelled from the legislature when he swore his oath on the Jewish Bible. He was reelected again in 1808 but it was not until 1832 that Jews were actually allowed to take their seats in the house.

Montreal’s Jewish community remained small until the late nineteenth century. In 1871, even though its population was a mere 409, a visible Jewish enclave was beginning to develop around the corner of St. Lawrence and Dorchester. The first Jewish educational institution, the Talmud Torah, was located nearby at the corner of St. Urbain and La Gauchetière. Middle class members of the community were just beginning to move up St. Lawrence towards Sherbrooke and Prince Arthur. Further uptown, meanwhile, a smaller number of well-off Jews lived near McGill University, on Sherbrooke, University and McGill College streets.


In the nineteenth century, Montreal’s Jewish community was concentrated around St. Lawrence below Ste. Catherine. Above is a view of Jewish residences on Cadieux Street with the Palais de Justice in the background. The street is now gone

It was around the turn of the century that Jewish Montreal exploded in population. Between 1901 and 1938, a total of 192,017 Jewish immigrants settled in Montreal. Driven by pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe, millions of Jews fled the shtetl—an area encompassing parts of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Romania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and made their way to North America.

The great majority settled in the United States, but a significant number chose Canada, not for any special reason, but simply because many Jews did not make much of a distinction between the two countries. “My grandfather, I was astonished to discover many years later, had actually had a train ticket to Chicago in his pocket. Canada was not a choice, but an accident,” recalled Mordecai Richler. His grandfather, it turned out, had swapped tickets with a man wanted to visit his family in Chicago.

The Jews that arrived during the Great Migration were united by language above all. Hebrew was the sacred tongue while Yiddish was the everyday language and the means of cultural expression. The role of Yiddish in unifying the Jewish community was emphasized by the fact that a large proportion of the new arrivals considered themselves to be secular. The politics of Montreal’s Jews were hardly uniform, either, with opinions running the gamut from anarchism to Zionism to communism.

For the most part, though, the Jewish neighbourhood around St. Lawrence had a distinctly left-wing slant. Consider Fred Rose (né Rosenberg), who immigrated to Montreal from Poland as a child in 1916. He earned the ire of Quebec’s political establishment in the 1930s by organizing the unemployed and criticizing Premier Maurice Duplessis for his links to European fascism. Rose first ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1935 as a Communist; in 1943, he ran again and was finally elected. Rose represented the Main’s Cartier riding until 1947, when he was expelled from the House of Commons after having been convicted, on highly dubious grounds, of spying for the Soviet Union.

To this day, the Main remains the only part of Canada ever represented in Parliament by a Communist. Much of the street’s radicalism could be attributed to the presence of the schmatta (garment) industry. Owned by wealthy Jews who lived in Westmount and Outremont, most of the schmatta factories employed Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who were no stranger to radical politics.

The Main still bears the mark of their activism. Joseph Schubert, a Romanian Jew who was a devout socialist and admirer of Karl Marx, was elected to Montreal City Council in 1924. For fifteen years he was the council’s most prominent champion of worker’s rights. In 1931, he built a public bathhouse at the corner of Bagg and St. Lawrence, which still stands today as a public pool known as the Schubert Bath.


The Chevra Cadosha Synagogue on St. Urbain Street in 1914

Baxter Block

St. Lawrence as seen from Prince Arthur Street in 1915

St. Lawrence was also the setting for Yiddish art and literature in Montreal. Poets such as Jacob-Isaac Segal, Sholem Shtern, Ida Maze and Noah Gotlib wrote Yiddish-language tributes to Montreal, some of them appearing in the pages of the Keneder Odler, a daily Yiddish newspaper whose offices were located just north of Duluth Street. All along the Main, Yiddish theatre was performed in vaudeville theatres as well as at the National Monument, owned by the nationalist Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

More than just language, it was the desire to preserve Yiddishkayt—Yiddish culture—that united the newly-arrived Jews. “These devoted individuals were drawn from the ranks of diverse professions and occupations,” write Ira Robinson and Mervin Butovsky in Renewing our Days: Montreal Jews in the Twentieth Century. “What they had in common was the fierce desire to conserve and reconstruct the essential elements of their remembered European lives, and to resist the siren-song of cultural assimilation.”

That siren song came from the west. The absolute pinnacle of Jewish wealth was Westmount, where the so-called “uptown Jews” lived. Unlike their downtown brethren, uptowners were largely descended from the earliest Jewish immigrants and some families could even trace their Montreal roots all the way back to the British conquest. Others were more recent transplants to the mountainside, including the illustrious Bronfman family. Beyond wealth, one very big difference set the uptowners apart from the Yiddish-speaking downtowners: living in the midst of Montreal’s economic elite, they keenly sought to emulate their Anglo-Scottish neighbours.

Downtown, most first- and second-generation Jewish Montrealers were simply concerned with forging ahead with their lives. When they did interact with outsiders, it was often with the other immigrants and French Canadians who also lived near the Main. In 1938, in Laurier District (which corresponds roughly to the boundaries of present-day Mile End), Jews made up 51 percent of the population, French Canadians 38 percent and English Canadians just eight percent.

In his novel The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant, Michel Tremblay describes both the physical proximity and close business relations the area’s French Canadians had with its Jews. Here, several women are jubilantly heading downtown on the streetcar:

But when the streetcar turned down Saint-Laurent, heading south, suddenly they’d calm down and sink back into the straw seats: all of them, without exception, owed money to the Jews on Saint-Laurent, especially to the merchants who sold furniture and clothes; and for them, the long street separating rue Mont-Royal from rue Sainte-Catherine was a very sensitive one to cross.

Jews and French Canadians were neighbours for a reason: class. They often worked side-by-side in factories owned by uptown Jews. “It seems to me that class loyalties in Montreal were much stronger than so-called Jewish loyalties or traditions,” Mordecai Richler once said. In one of his most iconic novels, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the main character feels more comfortable with Yvette, a working-class French Canadian, than with the upper-class members of his own community.

The downtown Jews’ relationship with French Canadians was neighbourly but sometimes strained. French-speaking intellectuals and religious leaders were particularly hostile to Jews; many subscribed to the virulent anti-Semitism that was fashionable in the years before World War II. “Buy From Our Own” campaigns were organized by French Canadian nationalists and anti-Jewish thought informed many nationalist screeds.

Still, anti-Semitism at the time was not limited to the French Canadian community; English Canadian political leaders were just as contemptuous of Jews. In any case, most average French Canadians could not be described as anti-Semites. “Looking back,” writes Richler, “it’s easy to see that the real trouble was there was no dialogue between us and the French Canadians, each elbowing the other, striving for WASP acceptance.”

In the years after the Second World War, the Jewish community did gain at least some measure of acceptance into English Montreal. The shock of the Holocaust rendered anti-Semitism taboo; restrictions against Jewish participation in professional organizations and at universities were lifted. The new generation of downtown Jews who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, including Richler and the poets Abraham Moses Klein and Irving Layton, spoke and wrote in English.

By the late fifties, there weren’t many Jews who still lived near the Main. The community had shifted west, to Snowdon, Hampstead and Côte St. Luc, areas that remain predominantly Jewish today. But Jewish businesses on St. Lawrence remained prominent for decades. Some of them even spread beyond the boulevard to etch themselves indelibly in the economic and social life of Montreal. Ida Steinberg’s grocery business, founded in 1917 on St. Lawrence near Mount Royal, went on to become Quebec’s largest supermarket chain. For years, many French-speakers referring to grocery shopping as “faire son Steinberg.”

Although the number of the Main’s Jewish businesses continues to dwindle, a handful remain. People still buy shoes at Schreter’s, founded in 1929; the lineups are as long as ever at Schwartz’s, founded 1928; L. Berson & Son has crafted monuments and headstones since 1922, its Yiddish sign still hanging over the sidewalk.

The Jewish community left a bricks-and-mortar legacy on the Main, too. Many of the street’s former garment factories, such as the Cooper and Berman buildings around Duluth, were taken over by artists and multimedia firms in the 1980s, cementing the Main’s new role as Montreal’s cultural and artistic centre. Today’s increasingly gentrified boulevard Saint-Laurent might lack the grit and chutzpah of fifty years ago, but it could never have existed without the old Jewish Main.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday April 18 2007at 06:04 am , filed under Canada, History, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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