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Montréal’s Jewish Community on the Main

For the week of Monday December 25, 2006

On December 31, 1928, Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen opened for business in the heart of the Jewish community in Montréal, located on the Main.

Saint-Laurent Boulevard was originally established as Saint-Lambert Street in 1672 to connect the walled city of Montréal to Côte Saint-Laurent to the north. In 1792, Saint-Laurent Street was declared the east-west divide of the city. Since 1825 it has been called the Main. The Main became Montréal’s immigrant centre in the 19th century.

Rabbi Cr. Charles Denberg at the B
Rabbi Dr. Charles Denberg (left) at the B'Nai Jacob synagogue.
© Library and Archives Canada / Montreal Star Collection / PA-133223
Waves of Jewish immigrants came to Montréal. Before the British Conquest, Jews were barred from New France. In 1760, Montréal capitulated to General Jeffrey Amherst, and accompanying him was Aaron Hart, the first Jew in Montréal. Jews formed the first non-Christian group of Europeans to settle in Canada. Canada’s first synagogue, the Shearith Israel, was established in Montréal in 1768.

After 1881, Ashkenazic Jews from many European countries, including Austria-Hungary, Romania and Russia came to Canada to escape varying degrees of persecution. The Jewish population in Montréal was nearly 60 000 in 1931, making Jews the third largest ethnocultural group, after English and French. Yiddish became so prevalent that it was Montréal’s third most common language. In the 1950s, Sephardic Jews from Iraq, Lebanon and newly independent Morocco came to flee persecution. These immigrants were significantly acculturated into the Francophone community.

Anti-Semitism was also present in Canada. Jews were often excluded from universities, hospitals and jobs. In the 1920s Jews were placed in a special category to discourage further immigration and, in the 1930s-40s, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe were refused entry into Canada.

Schwartz
Schwartz's Deli
© Parks Canada / Mallory Schwartz / 2002
By living and working on the Main during the interwar years, Jews could access kosher grocers and synagogues, and work at garment/textile factories. These factories were acceptable because the owners were often Jewish, which meant that Jewish workers could speak to their boss in Yiddish. Several traditional businesses from this era have survived, including Schwartz’s Deli, an icon on the Main.

Maintaining Jewish culture was a priority in Montréal. Yiddish remained the vernacular within the community, the local theatre and the community newspapers, including the Keneder Adler (“Canadian Eagle”).

Several notable people came out of this community, including poets Abraham Moses Klein and Irving Layton, novelist Mordecai Richler, and actor William Shatner.

The Main was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996.

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