If Chinatown’s Jewish heritage isn’t obvious, it’s probably because it has been erased by time and redevelopment, swept away like Chenneville St. and its quietly imposing synagogue.
Makom: Seeking Sacred Space, an ongoing exhibition at Hampstead’s Dorshei Emet synagogue, examines the historical traces of Montreal’s Jewish community with photos of former synagogues near the Main.
“The exhibition raises some really interesting questions about the way that spaces that are claimed by one group of people or one community are also claimed, in their own way, by other communities,” said Leanore Lieblein, a retired McGill English professor who helped organize the exhibition. Even in a synagogue that has been renovated and used for something else, she added, “you can feel the presence of past lives in that building.”
Chenneville’s synagogue was a case in point. Located on a small street (now shortened and written as Cheneville) between St. Urbain and Jeanne Mance Sts., below Dorchester (now René Lévesque) Blvd. and above Craig (now St. Antoine) St., it was built in 1838 by Montreal’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel.
In 1887, when Shearith Israel moved to a much larger home on Stanley St. – following the westward migration of Montreal’s older generations of Canadian-born, anglicized Jews – the synagogue was rented by Beth David, a congregation of Romanian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century, part of a huge wave of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Over the next three decades, the area around present-day Chinatown – with Bleury St. to the west, Sanguinet St. to the east, Craig to the south and Ontario St. to the north – became the heart of Jewish Montreal, a haven for Yiddish-speaking immigrants who established businesses, synagogues and many of the Jewish institutions that still exist.
Israel Medresh, a journalist for the Kanader Adler, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, sketched a portrait of the neighbourhood in his 1947 book Montreal Foun Nekhtn, translated into English in 2000 as Montreal of Yesterday.
“The corner of St. Urbain and Dorchester was the very heart of the Jewish neighbourhood,” he wrote. “Nearby was Dufferin Park, then a ‘Jewish park’ where Jewish immigrants went to breathe the fresh air, meet their landslayt (compatriots), hear the latest news, look for work and read the newspapers.”
Just a few blocks from Dufferin Park stood seven synagogues, the first Young Men’s Hebrew Association and a number of important community and political organizations like the Baron de Hirsch Institute, the Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Jewish Labour Temple.
Jewish cultural life flourished, especially on St. Laurent Blvd. near de la Gauchetière St. and Dorchester, where Montreal’s first Jewish bookstore opened in 1902, selling Yiddish books and pamphlets.
“This bookstore became a centre for Jews who wanted to discuss anarchism and socialism, a place where they could access periodicals and other publications,” said Ira Robinson, a professor of Judaic Studies at Concordia University. “There was a lively intellectual life and the beginnings of Yiddish theatre, too, and a public lecture culture in Yiddish and other languages.”
Most of this occurred at the Monument National, near Dorchester and the Main. Although it was owned by the nationalist Société St. Jean Baptiste, it needed money to sustain itself, so it was rented out for Yiddish theatre and Zionist lectures.
Meanwhile, many of the narrow side streets in the area were, as Israel Medresh noted, almost “exclusively Jewish.”
Between 1900 and 1915, at least half of the households on Chenneville St. were Jewish.
“Jewish people of the era had a very densely packed Jewish life in the few blocks on either side of St. Lawrence,” Robinson said. “It was never a segregated ghetto; there were French and English people living there, but memory holds that it was a very densely Jewish neighbourhood at the time.”
By the early 1920s, the immigrant Jewish community had already begun to move north to the neighbourhoods above Sherbrooke St. Two-thirds of Chenneville’s Jewish residents left between 1915 and 1920. In 1929, when Beth David left the Chenneville synagogue for a more imposing building on St. Joseph Blvd. in Outremont, most of the Jewish institutions in the neighbourhood had already moved.
As they grew wealthier and more established, Robinson explained, Montreal’s immigrant Jews were lured to newer neighbourhoods with better housing and more prestige.
“I think it’s possible to say that the Jewish tradition fostered this mobility. To move a synagogue, you could just take the Torah scrolls,” he said. Unlike churches, synagogues are not sacred in and of themselves. “They could be sold for secular purposes.”
Chinatown began to emerge at the height of the old Jewish neighbourhood. The Chinese Masonic Temple, festooned with British flags and Chinese banners, opened on de la Gauchetière in 1908, just around the corner from the Talmud Torah. The first Chinese families moved to Chenneville in 1914.
Arthur Lee, who would grow up to become a fortune-cookie mogul and philanthropist, was born there in 1916.
In 1940, 11 years after Beth David left the Chenneville St. synagogue, it was converted into the Chinese Presbyterian Church.
Even though they were neighbours, Robinson doesn’t know of any records that point to a relationship between Chinese and Jews in the early 20th century.
“But there was certainly interaction,” he said. “One of the things is that Jews came to like Chinese food and that started as early as the 1920s, possibly earlier. I’m not sure I can actually document it, but there’s definitely something there, at least in a North American context.”
Although the last Jewish businesses were pushed out of the Chinatown area by redevelopment in the 1930s, a number of former synagogues remained. Like the one on Chenneville, eventually they were converted to other uses.
Sara Tauben, who wrote her master’s thesis in Judaic studies on the old downtown Jewish neighbourhood, and who also helped organize Makom, notes that Hebrew inscriptions, Stars of David and circular windows are some of the elements that identify synagogues even after they have been converted.
Today, though, few traces remain of the old Jewish neighbourhood. In 1979, 141 years after its construction, the former Chenneville synagogue was destroyed to build the Guy Favreau complex, along with Dufferin Park and many buildings on St. Urbain and de la Gauchetière.
“Apparently there’s a plaque on St. James or Notre Dame that marks the site of Montreal’s first synagogue, but that’s it,” Tauben said. “Even in terms of memory, there isn’t much. Once the neighbourhood was gone, it was gone.
“If the Chenneville synagogue had been saved, it would be another story.”
Makom: Seeking Sacred Space runs until March 18 at the Emet Gallery, Congregation Dorshei Emet, 18 Cleve Rd., Hampstead, 514-486-9400.
“Who will save this historical building from destruction?” the pamphlet asks in Yiddish, proposing to turn it into a Jewish museum and archives
This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on January 28, 2008. Photos courtesy Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.
Tags: Chinatown, Identity, Migration, Montreal, Religion, The Main