Arts & Culture


Chantal Ringuet

Chantal Ringuet is a writer, scholar and literary translator from Quebec

While walking through the streets of Montreal – from the Old Port to the Plateau, from Mile End to Snowdon – the remains of a Jewish community that once breathed life into these neighbourhoods reveal themselves: a former clothing manufacturing building converted into condominiums in downtown, a sign with Hebrew characters on Saint Laurent Boulevard, and a synagogue turned into a college on Fairmount Avenue. All these vestiges reveal a city that was once Jewish Montreal, this familiar yet unknown community, hidden but complete, conceals while it reveals remnants, echoes, reflections, and fragments.

The numerous cultural contacts that Montreal has been host to since the turn of the 20th century have given it the appearance of a “palimpsest city” (Olivier Mongin) to those who walk its streets. It comes off as an urban centre that was built through successive demolitions and reconstructions, while conserving some historical relics. As a leading cultural and artistic capital in Canada and North America, Montreal ushered in Quebec’s literary, artistic, and cultural modernity as early as the 1950s. In this context, the contribution of individuals from the Jewish community, which was both large and diverse, helped define the realms of arts and culture.

Let’s begin with geography. In addition to being a palimpsest city, Montreal was also a dismembered city. The lack of urban planning that prevailed until the 1960s caused irreversible damage. In the 1950-1960s, while the use of cars soared to unprecedented levels, the trend in construction was to use new materials – especially concrete and steel. When the city was making a name for itself globally thanks to the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, there was no better time for Mayor Jean Drapeau to realize ambitious projects that would make Montreal an internationally renowned French-speaking city. For the event, architect and urban designer Moshe Safdie (born in Haifa in 1938) designed Habitat 67, a housing complex made up of modular blocks, located on the Marc-Drouin Quay along the St. Lawrence River. A symbol of modernity, this structure was a prominent landmark in the urban landscape. While this was happening, Montreal was also becoming a hotbed for demolition. Many historical buildings were razed to make room for parking lots and other lifeless structures, expressways, and boulevards, such as the Turcot Interchange and the Décarie Expressway (1967), which divided and isolated Montreal neighbourhoods. The urban planners’ disregard for history, heritage, and culture caused so much outrage that some people were even calling the city ugly. To fix this problem, the architect and philanthropist Phyllis Lambert founded two important organizations: Heritage Montreal (1975), whose mission is to promote and protect the heritage of Greater Montreal, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1979). Ms. Lambert also tackled international architectural design and restoration projects for which she was recognized by receiving the Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France and the Wolf Prize in Arts.

Stories

After the city’s plans, the stories… In literature, Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) provided an important contribution to Quebec’s English literature. While his first works (Son of A Smaller Hero, 1955; and The Street, 1969) were about his childhood in the Jewish ghetto, he would later also incorporate the Laurentian countryside in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). By depicting the adventures of an immoral entrepreneur, Richler established himself as one of the most prominent novelist of his generation. He reached the height of his career with Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), a novel that was partially inspired by the Montreal Bronfman family and Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic. The essayist also caused many controversies, particularly with his work Oh Canada! Oh Québec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992), in which he vehemently opposed nationalist Quebecers and Quebec’s linguistic laws. Today, this book allows us to appreciate Richler as much for his writing abilities as his controversial character. Proof of this came in 2015 when the Mile End Public Library was renamed the Mordecai-Richler Public Library in his honour, as well as the new translations of his work released by Les éditions du Boréal publishing house.

Another famous literary man from the Montreal Jewish community is the Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow (1915-2005). He was born in Lachine and was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature (1976). When he was nine, his family moved to Chicago’s West Side, a neighbourhood that would be the backdrop of many of his novels. A few of his most famous books were: The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Humboldt’s Gift (1974).

In 1954, when journalist, writer, and critic Naïm Kattan (born in 1928 in Bagdad) arrived in Quebec, the local French-speaking Jewish literature and culture was born. Involved in the Cercle juif de langue française, Mr. Kattan became president of the Council of Arts and Letters of Canada. His work, which has won many awards, including the Prix Athanase-David in 2004, has been associated with the emergence of Quebec immigrant literature during the 1980s. Following his lead, many North African Jews, particularly from Morocco, emerged on the Montreal scene, including director Jacques Bensimon.

Music

And now for music… Both of these art forms have been instrumental for Leonard Cohen, the most famous Jewish Montrealer on the international artistic scene. Born in Westmount in 1934, Cohen was raised in an affluent family that worked in the shmata (clothing) industry. He first published a few books of poetry in the 1950s, which were followed up by two novels: The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Then, he recorded his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), which was inspired by American folk music and traditional European songwriting. That was a turning point for him. From then on, Cohen would focus on music. He gained international acclaim with songs like Suzanne and So Long, Marianne. Then, he would record several albums, including I’m Your Man (1988), The Future (1992), Popular Problems (2014), and most recently, You Want it Darker (2016). His son, Adam Cohen, is also a singer and musician who has produced four albums, including Like a Man (2012) and We Go Home (2014).

A half a century earlier, German-born engineer Emile Berliner (1851-1929) became a key figure in the music industry. In 1870, he immigrated to Philadelphia. He invented the gramophone and the matrix used to print lateral-cut disc records. This invention, which dates back to 1888, revolutionized the music industry and made Emile famous. When Seaman succeeded at having the gramophone lifted from the U.S. market, Berliner moved to Montreal, where his company became very successful, selling over two million records in 1901. After the First World War, Berliner’s company expanded and his factory became one of the most modern in Montreal. For his contribution to sound recording, Berliner received the Franklin Medal in 1929. He also founded the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company in Montreal, the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft in Germany, and the Gramophone Co. Ltd. in the United Kingdom. In 1996, the Emile Berliner Musée des ondes, a museum of sound dedicated to Berliner’s legacy, opened its doors in Berliner’s former factory. Today, the museum has a collection of over 30,000 objects.

If any family can lay claim to the mark it has left on the classical music scene in Canada, it would be the Brott family. Alexander, the family patriarch, was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Montreal. He was a conductor, violinist, and world-renowned teacher. Toward the end of the 1930s, he became a member of the McGill University teaching faculty, where he founded the McGill Chamber Orchestra. During the 1950s, he was simultaneously directing the Montreal Orchestra, les Concerts symphoniques de Montréal, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. This famous Quebecois musician was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1979 and a Knight of the National Order of Quebec in 1987. He passed away in 2005 at the end of an extraordinary music career. His wife, the cellist Lotte Brott, was born in Germany. In 1939, after graduating from the Conservatoire de musique de Zurich, she immigrated to Toronto. Two years later, she moved to Montreal to play in the McGill String Quartet and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. In addition to teaching and playing in symphonies, she focused on organizing events and musical programs. Ms. Brott was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1990 and a Knight of the National Order of Quebec in 1996. Their son Denis, who was born in 1950, was also a conductor and world famous cellist. He established the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. An accomplished musician, he has recorded many albums, including Beethoven’s Complete String Quartets (Delos), for wihch he won a Juno Award, and the Grand Prix du Disque for Best Chamber Ensemble Classical Recording. His brother Boris, who was born in 1944, is a music professor and famous cellist. He has performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages, including Carnegie Hall and Covent Garden.

From architecture to literature, and from folk to classical music, Montreal has a reputation of being one of the leading cultural and artistic cities in Canada and North America. It was able to establish this reputation, in part, thanks to the rich contribution of many artists from the Jewish community.

Sonia Benezra (1960)
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Leonard Cohen (1934 - 2016)
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Moshe Safdie (1938)
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Saul Bellow (1915 - 2005)
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William Raphael (1833 - 1914)
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Jules Helbronner (1844 - 1921)
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Emile Berliner (1851 - 1929)
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Gad Elmaleh (1971)
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William Shatner (1931)
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Socalled (1976)
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Jacques Bensimon (1943 - 2012)
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Chilly Gonzales
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Ariel Ifergan (1977)
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Norma Shearer
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Mordecai Richler (1931 - 2001)
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Andy Nulman (1959)
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Jack Tietolman (1909 - 1995)
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Arnold Scaasi (1930 - 2015)
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A. M. Klein (1909 - 1972)
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Alfred Pinsky (1921 - 1999)
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Shawn Levy (1968)
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Corey Hart (1962)
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The Jewish Painters of Montreal (1930 - 1950)
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Emmanuelle Chriqui (1975)
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Solly Levy (1939)
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Betty Goodwin (1923 - 2008)
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The Brott Family
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Alexander Bercovitch (1891 - 1951)
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Ethel Stark (1910 - 2012)
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Jeffrey Skoll (1965)
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Louis Muhlstock (1904 - 2001)
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Otto and Walter Joachim
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Sam Borenstein (1908 - 1969)
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The Greenberg Family
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Moses Znaimer (1942)
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Mitch Garber (1964)
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Yaëla Hertz (1930 - 2014)
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Yuli Turovsky (1939 - 2013)
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Harry Mayerovitch (1910 - 2004)
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Irving Layton (1912 - 2006)
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Michal and Renata Hornstein
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Jaclyn Linetsky (1986 - 2003)
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Yehouda Chaki (1938)
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Ghitta Caiserman-Roth (1923 - 2005)
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Victor Teboul (1945)
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Sylvia Ary (1923 - 2015)
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Serge Ouaknine (1943)
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Emmanuel Kattan (1968)
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Beverly Shaffer (1945)
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Robert Verebes (1934 - 2016)
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Phyllis Lambert (1927)
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Naïm Kattan (1928)
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Mel Hoppenheim
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Sheila Fischman (1937)
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Sam Gesser (1930 - 2008)
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Sheldon Cohen (1949)
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Samy Elmaghribi (1922 - 2008)
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Pauline Donalda (1882 - 1970)
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Samson Burke (1929)
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Rita Briansky (1925)
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Dora Wasserman (1919 - 2013)
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