by Abe Leveilee
On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 30, a group of language students from Hazen Union High School, including myself, departed for Montreal for a week-long cultural immersion. We did various things in that week-long window: museum tours, souvenir shopping, and Botanical Garden walks, to name a few, finding culturally diverse experiences around every corner.
During our second day in Montreal, we participated in a “Beyond The Bagel Tour,” presented through The Museum of Jewish Montreal. The tour, as the name suggests, was largely focused on Jewish foods and, in particular, Montreal-Jewish foods (or versions of foods).
Our tour guide, Rachel, offered much more insight into topics such as the immigration of Jewish people to Montreal and how they moved within the city once situated. She described the first Jewish people moving to Montreal around 1760 as commissaries to the British army. She told us that once more Jewish peoples began immigrating, the Jewish communities in Montreal were separated largely into two neighborhoods, one for the upper/higher-class Anglified Jews and one for the lower-class Eastern European working Jews.
This has changed over the past 200 years as both communities have further integrated into the city at large.
Rachel also offered knowledge on how different Jews may practice or observe their religious duties, i.e. Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular, etc. Rachel, who is a born-and-raised Montreal Jew, gave us insight into the complexity of Judaism as an ethno-religion meaning that, since Judaism is typically only passed down generationally, most Jews share a common ethnic background that unites them.
As someone who has always been very interested in different religions and how they function, this served as a gratifying educational experience for me, expanding my previous knowledge of the religion and sparking a desire to dive deeper into the branches of Judaism and their core values and shared goals.
Among all the delicious foods our guide shared throughout the trip, she told us the stories of each of the restaurants we went to and how they fit into the broader scope of what it means to be Jewish in Montreal.
For example, when we visited St-Viateur Bagel, she told us about one of the first bagel bakeries opened in Montreal which was later closed by the owners before they separated and opened their own bagel bakeries, St-Viateur and Fairmont, both of which we visited. We also visited the staple in Jewish-Montreal culture that is Wilenskys, where we were served a delicious Wilensky special (beef bologna, beef salami, and mustard on a flat roll and pressed in a sandwich press) and given a fairly extensive history of the establishment.
Rachel described the popular lunch stop being started out of Moe Wilensky’s father’s barbershop in the 1930s, Moe taking a chance on an expensive sandwich press, and now to modern times, where Moe’s everyday lunch functions as the specialty of the business, which is still family-operated. Rachel fully immersed us in the other Jewish cultural landmarks around the Plateau-Mile End area, neighborhoods with a high Jewish population, such as synagogues (both functioning and repurposed such as College Francais, which was built in and around a very large abandoned synagogue) and old factory buildings where many lower-class Jewish women would work.
Through this new culturally divergent and immersive experience, I was able to indulge my natural curiosity about the world. This curiosity has always been encouraged and fostered by my mother, who has always been a traveler, from her cross-country road trip in her 20s to our yearly trips to Boston. Having been in Montreal before, and planning to go back in the future, this curiosity was heightened by my desire to find restaurants, stores, or neighborhoods that I enjoyed exploring for when I venture up separate from the school which this trip has prepared me for cultural experiences and in practical ways with a better understanding of the metro system and general layout of the city.
[Abe Leveillee is a student at Hazen Union High School who last week was among a group of language students who took off for a week in Montreal. After returning, each student was asked to with create something to present to the community about experiences on the trip and how these experiences helped to grow personally or academically.]