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Montreal's a Mouthful: French, English ... Yiddish?

December 24, 2009 By:
George Medovoy, JE Feature
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What's up at the Segal Centre? Photos by George Medovoy
When I tell friends that Montreal is "a very Jewish city," they often give me a rather surprised look, expecting me to say "very French."

Well, very French it is -- or, more specifically, Quebeçois, to distinguish it from France -- with an infectious joie de vivre that spills over into so much of life here, especially the arts, the night life and the cafes.

Ah, the cafes, where you can linger over a cup of coffee and French pastries, including pastries at one of Montreal's kosher eateries.

European culture first came to the island city on the St. Lawrence River in 1535 with the arrival of French explorer Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of today's Mount Royal; hence, the name Montreal, a splendid sylvan setting in the city's urban center.

For a sense of Montreal's Jewish presence, about 93,000-strong, it helps to remember that between the two world wars, the city's three principal languages were French, English ... and Yiddish.

In recent years, the once-dominant Ashkenazi presence has been somewhat eclipsed by North African Jews, mainly many Moroccans, whose Sephardic synagogues, day schools and other institutions have added a rich new flavor to Montreal's Jewish soul.

The pièce de résistance, as far as shopping goes, is the vast underground city, especially welcoming in winter, where 20 miles of Metro subway, many boutiques and businesses, and 40 theaters make it easy to stay underground for a long time.

Montreal is also a bilingual French-English city, but if you plan on practicing the Parisian French you studied in school, don't be surprised if you're confused by the distinctly Quebeçois accent of the sing-song French spoken here.

On my visits, I like to include Mount Royal, whose park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same designer of New York's Central Park.

Getting to the summit is half the fun -- either on foot, by car or bike -- by jogging, or better yet, in a romantic, horse-drawn buggy.

At the foot of Mount Royal, you'll find the Outremont neighborhood, with its large Chasidic population spread out among lovely 19th-century row houses. On the other side of the mountain -- and seemingly worlds away -- is Crescent Street, where luxury boutiques, haute couture showrooms and art galleries in charming old brownstones beckon you.

Within walking distance are Sherbrooke Street and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose newer pavilion was designed by the renowned Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie.

Legos as Condos?
Safdie's iconic "Habitat" -- looking like Legos stacked one upon another -- was a major attraction at Expo '67, the Montreal World's Fair, and has since morphed into condos with a view of the city skyline.

Montreal's earliest Jewish settlers arrived at the port, now Old Montreal, where small hotels in 18th- and 19th-century buildings stand along cobblestone streets, some with gas lamps that add to Old Montreal's flights of fancy.

The Montreal neighborhood with the most pronounced Jewish setting, I'd say, is Snowdon. You'll know you've arrived when you spot the headquarters of the Montreal Jewish Federation at 5151 Cote Ste-Catherine Rd., also known as 1 Cummings Square.

The federation building, flying the Canadian and Israeli flags, includes the Jewish Public Library, which boasts the largest circulating collection of Judaica in North America; the YM-YWHA Jewish Community Centres; the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre; and the offices of the French-language United Sephardic Community of Quebec.

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts at the Saidye supports a wonderful array of the arts, including the famed Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre. It will stage a Yiddish version of "The Jazz Singer" next summer, from June 6 to June 27.

Montreal supports about 40 different synagogues, many of which are Orthodox. The large Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on St. Kevin Street was originally opened in 1760 by early Jewish settlers at another location.

Two favorite kosher restaurants are Exception II at 5039 Queen Mary Rd., and Chez Benny, an Israeli-Mediterranean place down the street.

Exception II has great sandwiches, salads, hearty breakfasts and French pastries, while Chez Benny is known for shwarma, falafel and Montreal's classic smoked-meat sandwiches.

Before leaving the city, I like to load up on knishes at Montreal Kosher Bakery on Victoria Avenue ... and then start planning my next visit.

For general information about Montreal, see: www.tourisme-montreal.org. To learn more about kosher restaurants and bakeries, log on to: www.mk.ca.

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