Rabbis, Writers, and Radicals: A walking tour in a historic Jewish Neighborhood in Montreal, Quebec and why we need Jewish Museums

Posted on June 27th, 2017 by

Post by Exhibitions Intern Ryan Mercado. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Outside of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

Outside of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

Before I started this internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I scheduled a trip for late June to go to Montreal to go apartment searching to prepare me for my upcoming move to Canada for Graduate School. Suddenly, the idea hit me that I could use this trip as an opportunity to help the JMM connect with another Jewish Museum, The Museum of Jewish Montreal. This Museum is very new, founded in 2010 by Zev Moses, a city planner who started mapping out Jewish histories of buildings around the city. His project eventually turned into a Museum. One of the services the Museum provides are walking tours of historic Jewish Neighborhoods. I decided that while I was in Montreal I would stop by to interview Zev and also take a walking tour to learn something new. The walking tour I picked was titled “Rabbis, Writers, and Radicals” and this blog post will be about my experience on that tour.

My guide on the walking tour, Trisha, showing us what an old Synagogue looked like before it was converted into a high school.

My guide on the walking tour, Trisha, showing us what an old Synagogue looked like before it was converted into a high school.

The blurb on the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s website described the tour as: “A hub of Jewish culture in the 1920s, Mile End was home to cantors and community organizers as well as poets and politicians of all stripes. Mile End has been a centre of the Yiddish language for nearly a century, first with its left-leaning Jewish schools, libraries, and social clubs, and now with dozens of Hasidic synagogues, yeshivas, and storefronts.”

The former building of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA?). It is now a mixed-use/ residential building but the old sign still remains on the façade along with two Stars of David.

The former building of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA). It is now a mixed-use/ residential building but the old sign still remains on the façade along with two Star of Davids.

Right away I saw similarities in this description. Like Baltimore, Montreal used to have a thriving Jewish Community in a central neighborhood known as “The Plateau/ Mile End.” The neighborhood teemed with newly arrived Jewish immigrants mainly from Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe who created a truly thriving neighborhood with shops, entertainment, and cultural institutions. Eventually, the Jews of Montreal moved away to other areas of the city, or left Montreal all together. The same situation happened in Baltimore, where Jonestown and Lombard St were once the epicenter of Jewish life until the Jews left the neighborhood for areas outside the city. Already seeing similarities, I was excited to take the tour. I brought along my phone for pictures and met Trisha, my tour guide. We started at the Museum and went on our way.

College Francais, an old synagogue that has now been converted into a High school. The old Hebrew letters are still on the top. I believe that this is the synagogue that Trisha is showing us in a previous picture.

College Francais, an old synagogue that has now been converted into a high school. The old Hebrew letters are still on the top. I believe that this is the synagogue that Trisha is showing us in a previous picture.

As we walked the streets of Montreal, everything looked modern with no signs of any Jewish presence. One could be excused for thinking that there was no Jewish community at all. One of the first places we stopped was a residential building that looked like an old office building. No outward signs of Jewish presence caught my eye until Trisha asked us to look up to the top of the façade. There in big letters carved into the stone was the name “Young Men’s Hebrew Association.” To me that sounds similar to the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). Star of Davids also adorned the stone as well. Trisha informed us this used to be the said organization’s meeting place, as well as the location of facilities Montreal Jews used such as a swimming pool. I was amazed that such a normal looking building had such an interesting past. And yet, I never noticed until I looked up and read the sign. I assume the majority of people haven’t noticed the sign as it is high up and a little difficult to read. This was the first taste of what I would see on the rest of the tour.

The Evangelical Pentecostal Church that use to me Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine, an Orthodox Synagogue. The building has many similar architectural features of a Synagogue. Behind the cross is an outline of a Star of David.

The Evangelical Pentecostal Church that used to be Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine, an Orthodox Synagogue. The building has many similar architectural features of a Synagogue. Behind the cross is an outline of a Star of David.

Another stop on our tour was to a local high school, now turned into a youth centre. Trisha explained that back in the day, the school had a 90% Jewish population and then showed us photos of some prominent alumni. One would have never guessed that a school in the middle of Christian-majority Quebec would have an enormously high Jewish population. An orphanage for Jewish Children and then a house of a Jewish radical were next on our list. At each stop. Trisha explained to us the context and history, as well as used visual pictures she had in her binder and even music to enhance the experience. Finally, towards the end of the tour, one last stop really struck me.

The cornerstone of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine. It is in Yiddish and is one of the only visible symbols on the building that signify its Jewish past. The Yiddish says something along the lines about women helping to build the building and congregation.

The cornerstone of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine. It is in Yiddish and is one of the only visible symbols on the building that signify its Jewish past. The Yiddish says something along the lines about women helping to build the building and congregation.

A large brick building stood before me. Over the door a sign read, “Evangelical Pentecostal Church.” A crucifix also adorned a large window as well. To me, it seemed like just another christian church, but then Trisha told us to look closely at the crucifix window. I looked closely and behind the cross was a Star of David outline! I was amazed and shocked at the same time. Trisha then pointed to the left corner of the building where a cornerstone was with Yiddish writing that told of women builders who helped build the congregation. What I was in front of was the old building of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine, an old Orthodox synagogue which was sold to the Christians who converted it into a Church. However, its Jewish character still remained. The Star of David outline behind the cross and the Yiddish writing on the cornerstone revealed to me the striking past of the building, as well as a symbol for Jewish migration and assimilation of their buildings. This congregation’s story is all too similar to many historic synagogues that once were in the Mile End Neighborhood. It thrived for a time, was a central meeting place for its congregation, and then moved away to another area. With the Jews gone, Christians came in, bought the building, and renovated it to be a Christian church. This really connected with me, as I had spent my last year in college learning about how former Jewish communities and buildings in the Middle Ages were taken over by Christians and appropriated into Christian houses of worship. The Montreal Synagogue I was looking at was a modern example of my studies coming full circle. It was both incredibly interesting yet sad.

 Inside of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine. You can see the Star of David outline with the cross facing the outside and covering it.  Source:  Taube, Sara Ferdman. Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues. Montreal, QC. Vehicule Press: 2011. Pg 97. (I picked up this book at the Museum Gift Shop)

Inside of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Ukraine. You can see the Star of David outline with the cross facing the outside and covering it.
Source: Taube, Sara Ferdman. Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues. Montreal, QC. Vehicule Press: 2011. Located in photo portfolio between pages 96 and 97.
(I picked up this book at the Museum Gift Shop)

The tour ended at a historic sandwich shop, much like our very own Attman’s. I got a bite to eat and then walked back to the Museum. As I was walking I realized that Montreal’s Jewish presence was all over, but required a keen eye to notice it. I passed a hairdresser shop that had Stars of David brick designs on the top of the building. It reminded me of the other buildings I saw on the tour, such as other buildings that had been re-appropriated into mixed-use buildings such as a high school, daycare, and even just apartment buildings that still had traceable Jewish symbol on them like Hebrew letters or Stars of David. There are massive Jewish influences on all these buildings and I doubt anyone knows about them or why they’re there. Thankfully, the Museum of Jewish Montreal will shed light on these buildings. One may ask why there is a need for Museums, especially Jewish heritage museums. If you’re in a large city or a historic neighborhood, look around you at your surroundings, perhaps you’ll see Hebrew letters or Star of Davids on buildings, or maybe something that looks Jewish and wonder why they’re there. That is why we need Jewish Museums, to uncover and preserve the past to something as small as a deli sandwich to an Synagogue turned into a church. Montreal’s new Jewish Museum will and is certainly fulfilling that important mission by helping the general public connect to history through exciting walking tours and other programs.

A hairdresser shop and apartment building in Montreal. It has noticeable Jewish Stars on its façade, yet it is not a synagogue nor does it have anything to do with the  modern Jewish Community. This is an example of a property that was formally Jewish but is now in mixed-use. A very similar sight in Montreal’s historic Mile End neighborhood.

A hairdresser shop and apartment building in Montreal. It has noticeable Jewish Stars on its façade, yet it is not a synagogue nor does it have anything to do with the modern Jewish Community. This is an example of a property that was formally Jewish but is now in mixed-use. A very similar sight in Montreal’s historic Mile End neighborhood.

 

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Read’s Drug Store: The Jewish Connection

Posted on February 21st, 2011 by

If you’ve been following the news in Baltimore lately, you know that a major campaign is underway to save the Read’s Drug Store building from demolition. Part of the West Baltimore downtown shopping district “Superblock” slated for redevelopment, Read’s was the site of an historic civil rights protest in 1955, when a group of Morgan State college students conducted a sit-in at the lunch counter, a full five years before the famous lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Last month I went on a walking tour of the Superblock sponsored by Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

You can read all about the sit-in at the website of Baltimore Heritage, Inc., one of the groups leading the charge to save this historic building. It’s an exciting story, remarkable both for the inspiring and well-coordinated actions of the Morgan students (concurrent with their protest at Read’s flagship store on Howard and Lexington, they staged demonstrations at a Read’s near the Morgan campus in northeast Baltimore) and for the quick capitulation of Read’s officials. Within two days of the sit-in at the downtown store, a front-page headline in the Afro-American announced a victory. Read’s President Arthur Nattans Sr. stated that “We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately.”

Read’s Drug Store is the building on the right.

Read’s Drug Store had been owned by the Nattans family since 1899, when Arthur Sr.’s father purchased the original downtown store from druggist William Read. A German Jewish family that had first settled in Washington, D.C., the Nattans moved to Baltimore and became active in Jewish institutions such as the Suburban Club and Levindale. By 1934, the family had forty drugstores in operation in the Baltimore-D.C. area. That year, the Nattans completely rebuilt and remodeled the original Read’s into the Art Deco building that exists under threat of demolition today. The family sold its chain to Rite Aid in 1977.

Domino sugar tablets, wrapped in paper with "Read's" logo, from the collection. 1990.160.001

Because the family kept the original Read’s name on its stores, the chain’s Jewish ownership has been somewhat obscured. The Nattans belong in the same category as the Hutzlers, Gutmans, Hoschchilds, Kohns, Hechts, Epsteins—retailers who made an indelible mark on the Baltimore scene. And like those other Jewish retailers, the Nattans went along with Baltimore’s Jim Crow traditions until forced to change during the civil rights era. (You can read about discrimination against blacks at Jewish-owned department stores in an excellent article by Paul Kramer, “White Sales,” published in our Enterprising Emporiums catalog back in 2001.)

Cigar box with "Read's" logo, from the collection. 1990.160.002

But the speed with which the Nattans desegregated their lunch counters when confronted by the Morgan students indicates that they might not have been enthusiastic participants in the discriminatory practices that were rampant in Baltimore into the mid twentieth century. Most retailers feared that if they served blacks equally, they would lose their white customers, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that their fears were not unjustified. According to the Afro article mentioned above, when the sit-in began, an unnamed Read’s official called Morgan’s dean and asked him to “Please call your students off. . . .  We’re losing business.” The dean refused, and by the end of the conversation, the official told him, “Well, we are in sympathy with this thing—we’ll see what can be done.”

Paper bag with the "Read's" logo and EMPLOYEE PURCHASE across front, from the collection. 1990.160.003.

And the rest is history: Baltimore history, civil rights history, even Jewish history. Let’s hope that city officials recognize the importance of the Read’s store—and the other historic buildings on the Superblock—and redevelop the West Side by building on our heritage, not by tearing it down.

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