by Devon Leger
Montréal is one of my favorites cities. I visited it with my father when I was young, since my Acadian grandmother lived in a suburb of the city, and the hustle and bustle of Montréal made a big impression on me. Not because it was one of the first big cities I visited, but more because it was so wonderful to hear French ring out from every corner. Here in North America, where the US holds sway over all, was a city governed by French speakers, beholden to a different aesthetic. As I grew up, I saw Montréal as a bastion for the arts and a city with a vibrant personality. I recently returned to Montréal after years away for La Grande Rencontre, a festival and conference that I attended at the behest of the World Trad Forum. Wandering the streets around the city center, I fell in love again with Montréal, but for a different reason this time. I loved the swirling cultures that made up the city. I ate Vietnamese food for nearly every meal, stumbled into a later afternoon rehearsal of a full Cantonese orchestra, danced late into the night at a Québécois danse carrée (square dance), explored the Acadian (actually, Madelinot from the Magdalen Islands) quarter of Chateaugay, tracked down a Moroccan couscouserie for dinner, listened to Haitian radio from my cab drivers, gorged myself on late-night poutine, and was introduced to Montréal’s Jewish culture by the affable master musician Jason Rosenblatt. I’d been especially interested in Jewish culture and music in Montréal in the wake of the controversial debates over Québec’s Charter of Values, a proposed bill that would ban public servants from wearing religious signifiers when working in public. My Québécois friends had insisted to me that the purpose of the bill was to attack the dominance of the Catholic church in Québécois society (the Québécois have a long, contentious history with the church and many young Québécois are radically against the church, even to the point of refusing to get married in protest). But that’s not how their Muslim and Jewish neighbors felt, and the Charter remains a very contentious point in Montréal’s modern culture.
To get to know the historic Jewish culture of Montréal, I went out late at night with Jason Rosenblatt exploring. He took me by old synagogues that had been converted to other buildings, drove through the Hasidic neighborhoods, insisted we buy a couple dozen very delicious bagels at St-Viateur’s, and schooled me on how Jewish artists are perceived in Québec. He also sat down for a great interview that talked more about his background, his current projects bringing Jewish and Québécois traditional music together, and his thoughts on being Jewish in Montréal. As bandleader for the innovative roots band Shtreiml, and as one of the key organizers of the Montreal Jewish Music Festival, Jason was a great resource and I hope I can capture some of his spirit here. Thank you Jason for being so willing to talk and share your story!
BTW check out his band Shtreiml for sure! He’s partnered with Turkish oud player Ismail Fencioglu, and as a full band, Shtreiml explodes the notion of Klezmer into a creative whirlwind of harmonica, oud, brass, and deft arrangements. It’s truly Jewish music for a new century and great fun to listen to.
An KITHFOLK Interview with Jason Rosenblatt of Shtreiml
Devon Léger: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Jason Rosenblatt: I grew up in an orthodox Jewish household. My mom sang and she was a choir teacher and music instructor in school; my dad played guitar. My sister played piano before me. So, I started taking piano from the age of 7 or 8 and I went with private lessons through the age of 18. I picked up the harmonica right round the age of 15 or 16. My dad had a harmonica lying around the house and I picked it up and I was able to play, “Oh, Susanna” and my parents heard me playing and they brought out Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee records and said, “That’s what you have to play.” (laughing) I started getting into Country Blues, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Then I was inspired by the music of Jim Zeller who was a local harmonica hero who I had seen at the Montreal Jazz Fest and I noticed he was playing with a really different tone than Sonny Terry was playing with and my mom said, “Oh, that’s because he’s playing amplified; he’s playing through a mic.” She brought out a Paul Butterfield Blues Band LPs and I got to learn “Born in Chicago” and “Blues with a Feeling” from Paul Butterfield. That’s my early harmonica education was really through my parents giving me records that they had and sitting and copying and slowing it down…
And then, past that, I studied Economics at McGill but at the same time I was doing all the basic music courses at university: Jazz Materials and Choral Harmony and that type of thing. I started getting into jazz; I was playing in jazz ensembles at McGill, but I was also playing in rock bands, blues bands. At the same time, we also had Jewish music going on in my house but I didn’t consider it klezmer. It was just Jewish music, it was cantorial music; it was Yiddish music; it was Israeli music but it was always on in the background; I never made any effort to learn it. If I did learn it, it was for an occasion, whether it be a school function or to sing in synagogue. It wasn’t something that I said, “Oh, I’m really interested in playing this Jewish music. I’m going to quit blues and play. At that point, when I was 18 or 19, I played more blues and jazz.
I went away to Israel right after college and I was working in software doing multi-media sound design, and small compositions for multi-media, presentations. I was playing in the clubs in Israel, playing harmonica with some blues bands there and some hippie-religious bands. They were playing a lot of “Shlomo Carlebach” music. Shlomo Carlebach was the “Singing Rabbi.” He was an interesting figure in the 50s and 60s. He was the religious version of Bob Dylan, a singer-songwriter. His lyrics were derived from the Bible. He took some early inspiration from Hasidic and cantorial music. Later on, really simplified his songs to 3 part or 4 part songs, no more than that and composed Jewish music for the masses. It was folk songs for Jewish people. You’ll find that 30 to 40 percent of the music that’s played at all Jewish weddings these days is the music of Shlomo Carlebach.
DL: What was the moment where you found yourself turning back towards the music you’d heard when you were younger, towards Klezmer?
JR: I was in Rimon, Israel and my parents told me, “You have to come back to Montreal this summer. There’s an amazing camp called, ‘Klez Canada’” and I said, “What’s that? Sounds interesting.” It was in ‘96 and it’s a week-long summer camp, about an hour north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains at a summer camp. There are between 400 and 500 people with a 100 person faculty.
DL: Yeah. I heard about it. It’s a big camp.
JR: They get together and you immerse yourself in the study of Jewish music, whether it be Klezmer music, Hasidic music, cantorial music, Yiddish art song, Yiddish theater music…
DL: Wouldn’t cantorial music be more through the actual religious order?
JR: The camp itself isn’t a religious camp per se but the food is kosher and they do have services but it is multi-denominational. You don’t have to be Jewish to attend. First of all, a lot of the faculty doesn’t happen to be Jewish; and a lot of the attendees are people that happen to love this style of music. Cantorial music is an important element of Klezmer music; a lot of the modes that we play in when we are playing Klezmer are derived from the cantorial modes, the modes that people sing in… It’s an important element of Klezmer music. At this camp, you have an opportunity to sit with some of the masters of the Klezmer music revival, the people that, in the 70s, were re-discovering music from the 20s, 30s and 40s. People were brought in; at the beginning, for instance, Hankus Netsky from the Conservatory Klezmer Band, Michael Alpert, Stu Brotman, Allan Burns, Jeff Warschauer. Now they’re in their 50s; they may be approaching 60, but they were of the Klezmer music revival of the 70s. Those were people who were studying jazz or classical music and found music of their heritage and decided to look for old 78s and manuscripts. That’s how I was inspired. The first year, to be honest, I was so into jazz, from Rimon, the school where I was studying in Israel, that unfortunately I was dismissive of the camp. But the second year that I went back, I felt there was a lot more jamming, there were a lot more people that were coming from my generation. The first year, they were having trouble bringing in younger people and you would jam until 4 in the morning and discover that you can play a nigun which is a wordless melody and play it properly and then improvise on it and make it your own and that’s what was exciting to me.
DL: What you’re saying is that you found elements of jazz deep in the tradition.
JR: When I hear Jewish music played properly… What does it mean properly? It means someone that understands the ornamentation, understands the nuances. You can tell they’ve listened to old recordings. It’s not that they just saw a lead sheet and decided to play it. Someone that wants to make it their own, they can improvise around the melody. A great cantor knows the modes, knows what’s called “Nusach”. Nusach is the style of a particular type of prayer, but then he or she can improvise around that style and that’s what makes a good cantor, a great cantor. It still follows rules and guidelines. In essence, that’s what jazz is; there are certain parameters; it’s not playing any note that you can think of. With those guidelines in place, I was able to find joy in playing and composing new Jewish music saying, “I’m going to listen to old recordings, find out what makes them so amazing and try to compose my own melodies based on respect for the tradition.”
DL: You then formed two groups. Is that right?
JR: The first group that I started is called “Shtreiml.” It was actually called “Ghetto Shtreiml.” My wife named it that.
DL: What does Shtreiml mean?
JR: Shtreiml is a big furry hat that the Hasidim wear. It was formed with Josh Dolgin. He goes by the name now of “Socalled.” His band’s name is Socalled. Thierry Arsenault is the drummer, Rachel Lemisch is the trombone player and my wife, and Ariel Harrad was the bass player at the time. I started playing harmonica at Klez Camp because there wasn’t enough pianos to go around. I said, “I’m going to learn how to play all these tunes on a harmonica.” People would say, “You know quite a few Klezmer tunes. Why don’t you record an album of Klezmer harmonica?” So, that’s what I did. For good or for bad, it’s an album of Klezmer tunes on the harmonica.
DL: That was the first Shtreiml album?
JR: Yeah. It was at the infancy of my technique on the harmonica and you can hear it, but it is what it is and I did it. The second album that we did was a lot more elaborate. Josh is very big into taking arrangements from old recordings. I found some old recordings and I arranged some pieces exactly like they were on the old recordings. Those were the first two albums and on the third album, I got into playing Turkish music because we were asked to play Le Festival du Monde Arabe, an Arabic World Music Festival here in Montreal and I got paired up with Ismail Fencioglu, who’s a phenomenal oud player. We came up with “Benjy’s Blues.” I started getting into writing originals, sothere’s more original music on that album. Finally, we have Eastern Hora which is the latest Shtreiml album and it’s all original music and strongly features Ismail. I feel there’s a lot more subtlety to this one as opposed to the others. It’s not just me playing harmonica 90 miles an hour over the entire course of the album. There’s a lot more variation.
DL: Tell me more about Jewish music in Montreal. You came out of the heart of it. Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in a distinct community?
JR: Yeah, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the west end; there’s Cote de Neige, Hampstead, Cote Saint Luc, Snowdon. They’ve been Jewish neighborhoods since the 50s. As people moved out of the Mile End and Outremont area, they moved further west towards bigger homes and backyards. My Jewish music background was through hearing music in synagogue and then, singing in synagogue, and being in a choir with my mom. And then, re-visiting Jewish music through Klez Canada and saying, “I’m going to start a Jewish music band in Montreal.” I feel that we started it at an interesting point in 2001. We started Shtreiml and there was a band called the Black Hawks Orchestra and there was Josh [Dolgin] doing his thing and there was Kleztory. There were 4 or 5 Jewish music bands in Montreal and there were some old-time Yiddish singers that were still performing at places like “Casa del Popolo” and “Sala Rossa.” There was a market for it and you’d be surprised, people would come out to shows being put on. They’re not dive bars but they’re not fancy locations and you would get a 65 or 70-year-old crowd coming and mixed with hipsters from university. It was an interesting time. I think it went a little downhill towards 2005 but I think there’s a bit of a resurgence now.
DL: Was there a lot of Jewish music being performed before you guys came onto the scene?
JR: Not that I know of. I think there was a hunger, especially we were considered younger, I was only 27 at the time, and we were young performing old music. My brother was one of the people; he was playing really old Jewish fiddle music from the 1800s.
DL: From this region?
JR: No, from Moldova. He was finding old recordings. There was certainly an interest in hearing the music, so, we just kept it up. Some bands didn’t keep it up and people had to get real jobs. I’ve fought against getting a real job for a long time. [laughing]
DL: Did you ever trace the paths of Jewish music in Montreal historically back in this area?
JR: That’s actually a great question. The only thing that I’ve done is some research at the Jewish Public Library. There were some Jewish bands like the Sperber Brothers, that played weddings. They brought a lot of their repertoire from Poland; they were a band from Krakow. My grandfather knew them in Krakow. They came to Montreal and did the same repertoire. Maybe they updated with some cha-chas and rumbas but they were essentially playing the same Jewish repertoire. But, in terms of songs being played in the 1800s here by itinerant Jewish musicians, I don’t know any of that. All I know is more of the orchestras that played. A lot of them were playing the “Hits of the Day”, like “Hava Nagila", “Shalom Aleichem”, really cliché tunes, but what people wanted to hear. I don’t think they had an interest in researching long-lost, forgotten songs. If you asked Josh [Dolgin]… He would say and I would agree, if you wanted to do some research into the old songs of Jewish Montreal, just go walking around on a Friday night through Outremont and listen to the Hasidim singing songs. That’s as authentic as you’re going to get. Just on a Friday night, if you walk by the windows, you’ll hear kids singing in harmony. It’s amazing!
Purim in Outremont
DL: You mentioned Yiddish songs. Is Yiddish still spoken a lot in Montreal?
JR: A lot of Montrealers that we have nowadays are 2nd or 3rd generation Jewish Montrealers… My parents’ first language was Yiddish. My dad actually came over from Germany but my mom was born in Montreal but her parents came over from Poland/Bellarus. Yiddish, you can still hear it if you go to any of the old age homes, but many persons in my parent’s generation, their first language was Yiddish. Plus there was the Jewish People and Peretz School which was a social Zionist school. They were very big into teaching the Yiddish language, they still do. We still have our Yiddish Theater which is one of the strongest Yiddish theaters in the world. There’s Folksbiene in New York; it’s only second to the Folksbiene in New York … We still have our Jewish Public Library where you can find Yiddish books and Yiddish films.
DL: How many people, do you think, still speak Yiddish in Montreal?
JR: In Montreal? If you consider the Hasidim that live here, in Montreal, there are 80,000 Jewish people, I would say 15 to 20 thousand speak Yiddish.
DL: Do you hear it on the street in certain quarters?
JR: Certainly in Outremont. If you want to get some danish at the bakery… You’ll hear Yiddish everywhere. People say that Yiddish is a dying or dead language and maybe in secular circles…. I have a lot of secular friends that are into Yiddish theater and poetry. Unfortunately, in those circles, it’s dying and you’ll find the odd couple that will teach their children Yiddish as a first language. It’s dying in the secular world, you have some pockets but in the Hasidic world it’s the first language. Some kids I saw the other day, little Hasidic kids, they were between 4 and 6, they were speaking a language that I thought was Spanish, but it wasn’t Spanish. It turned out to be Portuguese interspersed with Yiddish. Apparently, they’re from Brazil and they just moved to Montreal. Even in Brazil, they’re speaking Yiddish.
DL: Are there Sephardic Jews in Montreal?
JR: There’s a big Sephardic community. There was a big immigration from Morocco in the 60s and 70s. I would say now about 30% of the population is Moroccan. I use Moroccan as a generic term; it’s Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian but the biggest population is Moroccan.
DL: Is there interchange between the Sephardic Jewish population and the Ashkenazi Jewish population?
JR: Because it’s a relatively small community, you have to work together, so they’re part of the Jewish Federation, which is an organization that oversees charity given to the old age homes, to schools, to the hospital. There’s a Sephardi component within that Jewish Federation but, unfortunately, it’s still pretty separate. We’re known as the Pollacks and they’re the Moroccans. I don’t know if you know this but even within the synagogue setting, there’s the Ashkenazi tradition. I go to a specific synagogue because they pray in a certain way that I know how to pray in. There is the Sephardi tradition and it’s a different type of prayer; I can go to a Sephardi synagogue and follow but I have to concentrate. The words are slightly different, the order is slightly different. I would like to see more togetherness on community events. I run a Jewish music festival and I always insist that there’s a Sephardi music component because Jewish music to me is not just Klezmer music. There’s a huge variety of music out there; there’s Yiddish art songs and there’s cantorial music and there’s punk stuff that’s coming out now and there’s Israeli music; there’s also traditional Sephardic music. So I always make sure to have a traditional Sephardi component. It’s difficult to persuade the Sephardic community to come out and support it.
DL: Let me ask you about how Jewish culture in Montreal interacts with Quebecois culture.
JR: I have to say that a lot of the audience at the Montreal Jewish Music Fest happens to be from the general Quebec population. They will come out to see a traditional Klezmer band. Amongst musicians, we certainly see a lot of the musician population that play Klezmer music in Montreal, that play Jewish music in Montreal, happen to be Québécois. My wife has a band called “Fanfare Severni”, which is a 7 or 8 person brass band and it’s based on Jewish music from the Ukraine and from Moldova. She also runs an ensemble and she’s been running it for 7 years and it’s called “The Community Klezmer Ensemble” and it’s 50% Quebecois, just because they love traditional music and there’s something about it that touches them.
That’s the positive side of it. The negative side of it is that, and this is from a musician’s point of view, I find a lot of people that are trying to play Klezmer music, they’ll buy a book we call, “The Klezmer Fake Book”. This is specific to a lot of Klezmer musicians, if you want to call them Klezmer musicians, around the world and in the United States, that they’ll buy a book of 30 of the most cliched tunes and call themselves Klezmer musicians. They basically learn off the pages and they never put any effort into learning. If you go to Trois Rivières [a town North of Montreal], there are bands that are well-known and are playing this music for people who don’t know the difference and it’s just oom-pah oom-pah. There’s no nuance to it and no understanding of what the music is about. I think it’s great that they want to play traditional Jewish music but you have to have an understanding of the history and the tradition before you can call yourself a Klezmer band. I think the audiences don’t know the difference sometimes.
DL: Music is obviously a unifying force, people come together around music, but outside of music, do you feel that the Jewish communities in Montreal are isolated as compared to the larger Quebec population? Are these communities that you have been mentioning, are they very isolated communities? Or do they feel that they are welcome in the larger Quebec?
JR: The Montreal jews: are they welcome? We have the Charter debate: I was very uncomfortable. I walk around wearing a kippah and people use it as an excuse. I play jazz, ragtime and jazz and blues piano, at a bar a few times a month. People often compliment me or buy me drinks, but once the Charter came out, “Why do you have to wear a kippah? Why do you wear it on your head?” Then, you get other people, “I really respect your choice to do that. You’re very brave.” My feeling is: it shouldn’t even be a point of discussion. I’m not a circus clown; I’m not walking a weird dog down the street. If you like my piano playing, tell me. If you want to buy me a drink, great, but let’s not get into a debate about it or a discussion. It’s a private issue; it’s really a private issue but unfortunately it’s been made into a public issue. It brought out really nasty sentiments. People say it was a minority of the population [who were pushing for the Charter]; I’m not so sure that it was that small a minority of the population that felt like that. Now, whether that means that they like Jewish music or don’t like Jewish music, I think they wouldn’t want to remove any religious element from Jewish music, and I don’t think you can do that.
DL: The Charter is interesting because the Quebecois say that it’s more their fight against the church. They’re passionate about fighting the Catholic church. Obviously, there’s a huge issue there. On the other hand, it is clear that this has brought out a lot of racial sentiments that have long been simmering. How do you feel about that? Do you feel this is a reflection of a larger issue of the Quebec perspective on race? Or are they just fighting religion?
JR: No, it has to do with race. Jews and Muslims don’t get along on very many things but on this, Quebec Jews and Muslims agree. I’d say, first and foremost, it was an attack on Muslims and then, Jews got caught in the crossfire. Sikhs are even further removed. It starts with Jewish people not getting jobs in the civil service, except for doctors because we have socialized medicine. We have socialized child-care. If you happen to be wearing a kippah, Jewish people, for the most part, are not working for the government. A lot of it has to do with our French, we got integrated into the Protestant school world and integrated into the Anglophone community, a lot of us were lazy and never learned French properly but, people from Muslim countries that immigrated recently, from Algeria, they come in speaking fluent French. They can’t really say, ”I’m not going to hire you for this job at the Societe de L’Assurance Automobile du Quebec,” but a lot of the people happen to be religious and if they are wearing a hijab, they stand out as a religious Muslim. It was a backlash against that. Then you have nastiness when people say, “I don’t want a doctor with a kippah on top of your head treating me.”
DL: Do you feel there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Montreal before the charter?
JR: Oh, yeah. This brought out the nastiness but it’s a weird place. On the one hand, it’s extremely multi-cultural; Montreal is a really multi-cultural city. I wouldn’t say anti-Semitism in Montreal in particular. It’s more in the surrounding areas where people don’t know any better. I’m not so sure that I would have a different reception if I went down to areas of Georgia. I’m not sure it would be any better. When I was younger, I would take off my kippah, didn’t want to be identified outside of my community, and now, I really don’t care. I try to make an effort; you don’t see many other Jewish people come to La Grande Rencontre; I love music. So, if I go to Vices et versa, which is a place where they [Québécois trad player] jam; I’ll go there. It’s fantastic and I love it. Meanwhile, I’ll never be a Québécois person; I was born in Quebec, I try to learn French as best I can. My French is really poor; it’s a combination of laziness at this point and I don't have time to take classes again and I’m a bad student but I try. I really try hard; my French, at this stage, has really improved, but I know I’ll never be Québécois, I’m just a Jewish guy that loves different types of music.
DL: Tell me more about your project with Québécois guitarist Yann Falquet and fiddler Pascal Gemme (of Genticorum) to write and record Québécois traditional music with a Jewish perspective.
JR: I have a Québécois fiddle project; I’m writing a bunch of tunes that was sponsored by Conseil des Artes de Quebec. The idea was: I’ve been writing a lot of Jewish music but I also write jazz and I write rock and pop songs as well. I was going a lot to Vices et versa [Montréal bar that hosts Québécois trad jam sessions]. It’s got 30 beers on tap; it’s good times on Tuesday nights. I was going a lot and I was, “I love this music. I should try to write some fiddle tunes.” I started writing and grant season was coming up: April 1st or 15th deadline. “I’m going to write a grant where I compose music that explores the nexus between Jewish music and Québécois music which is the population that you see in Outremont; you see a Hasidic community; you see a Québec community. It’s more multi-cultural than that it’s not really black and white. Part of it was to study with Yann and to listen old recordings, to go to Vices et versa more often.
DL: Basically, you got a grant to drink beer and jam with your buddies.
JR: Yeah, but to write and record some of that material. I’ve written over 50 tunes in the period of 4 months. I will submit 35 of them. I won’t say they’re all fantastic but I’ll submit 35 of them.
DL: These are tunes that are based on Québécois principles?
JR: Some of them are more far out… I wrote one and I really liked it and I thought it was a waltz but then, I realized that it was an Moldovan hora. It’s blurry. I asked myself, “What if I had a button accordion playing it. Would it still sound like a Moldovan hora or will it sound more Quebecois because of the proper instrumentation?” So, it all remains to be seen because we haven’t fleshed out the pieces. We’ve been getting together with Pascal Gemme, a wonderful fiddle player and Yann. We’re going to be working together on it a little more and then recording in June. It’s just the beginning; it’s a demo. The idea is in pre-production to see what else we can do to this music. Ideally, I have enough tunes for 2 albums. Let’s try to get one off the ground. Some of the songs sound Jewish and some of the songs sound Quebecois. Some of them are a little odd. There are a few that, I feel, are really a successful amalgamation of this style. Those are the ones that I am most proud about because that was the mission of the whole grant. That wasn’t easy to do… To say, “That piece could be Jewish or it could be Quebecois…”
DL: What are some of your favorite spots in the Jewish quarters of Montreal?
JR: That are specifically Jewish?
DL: Jewish and otherwise.
Jason: First of all, I like to go to the Saturday services at the Bagg Street Shul which is very close to Schwartz’s, but Schwartz’s is not kosher. Apparently, it may have been kosher back in the 30s; it’s kosher-style.
DL: Isn’t it a Jewish deli?
JR: Yeah, but it doesn’t mean it’s kosher. Further up the street, you have Schreter’s where you can buy decent quality, low cost socks and underwear. Then you have Berson’s Monuments if you need a tombstone. You have tombstones on demand. One of the few remaining, there are 2 people that make Jewish tombstones. They’re still on St. Laurent. You go up the street and there’s Sala Rossa. I think that was the old Folksbiene Yiddish theater, there’s Casa del Popolo and you go up further and there’s the bagel places and the coffee places and Dieu du Ciel which is the best microbrewery in Montreal. Then you have Cheskies the Hasidic bakery. Then, you have all the Hasidic synagogues that are still in that area. Like I was saying, Friday night, even if you don’t want to go into the synagogue, if you feel intimidated, you can still stand outside and listen and it’s amazing music.
DL: Can you go in a synagogue? Just go in? Is it open to everyone?
JR: Of course. The Hasidic synagogues they have now are not ornate. They’re not like they would have been in Hungary or Poland, in the turn of the last century, in the early 1900s. A lot of them are converted duplexes.
DL: Converted duplexes, really?
JR: A lot of them are converted duplexes or triplexes. Even the ones that are synagogues that were bought over from the Hasidic community from the older Jewish community that lived in the neighborhood, there wasn’t much kept of the old wood. They’re more functional buildings.
DL: Interesting. So, some of the old Jewish culture in Montreal hasn’t been preserved, do you think?
JR: If you want to see the biggest schande in all of Montreal…
DL: What’s a schande?
JR: Schande is the biggest “shame,” something terrible. There’s a place on Fairmount. It was the old B’nai Beth Jacob Synagogue or the Chevra Kadisha synagogue. There was a synagogue that was built in the mid-50s. It’s on the Jewish walking tour of Montreal; it was a gorgeous synagogue and unfortunately the community was starting, at that point, to move west from the Mile End and they didn’t have the membership or the donations to keep the synagogue going. Within 1 or 2 years of the place opening, they had to close it up and they had to sell it. They sold it to College Francais. It had a beautiful arch and what College Francais did is… They stuck a 60s, disgusting yellow brick facade onto this gorgeous, old synagogue. You can still see the arch in red brick and you can still see the Hebrew letterings and the building in the back is exactly, exactly as it was back in the 1940s and 50s. It’s a disgusting 1950s or 60s yellow brick in the front that says, “College Francais.” Why couldn’t they, at least, keep the facade?
DL: So, the Jewish community in Montreal, many people obviously came over during World War II but it dates back further than that, right?
JR: The Jewish community dates back to the early 1700s. When people say, “Yeah, a lot of the Jewish population came to Montreal post-Holocaust,” that’s essentially my family’s story, but the Jewish community has been here. It didn’t come that much later than some of the early French settlers that came here. Is 60 or 70 or 80 years that much later, even 100 years… is it that much later? Not really...
Note: Thanks to Jason Rosenblatt for the interview and for taking me and others around the Jewish communities of Montréal.
Purchase the new Shtreiml album HERE
For further listening, pick up Shtreiml’s new album Eastern Hora. And if you’d like more listening, I’ve been enjoying the new album from Montreal Klezmer band Kleztory. Their 2014 album Arrival is a romp through Klezmer history with fiddle, clarinet, cimbalom, and accordion and it’s great fun!