Along with smoked meats, the Montreal bagel – smaller, sweeter and with a larger hole than its New York counterpart; traditionally hand-rolled, boiled, baked and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds – is an iconic culinary symbol of Montreal Jewry.
While everyone agrees that Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought “beygels” to North America, who actually introduced them to Montreal remains a source of great controversy.
Chaim (Hyman) Seligman is credited by some with having started Montreal’s first bagel bakery. Born in 1878 in Tsarist Russia, Seligman moved to Canada around 1900, eventually settling just off St. Laurent. His bakery had humble roots, with Seligman delivering bagels by horse and wagon, transported the Russian way – strung together by the dozen. No early records of Seligman’s bakery exist, and evidence in directories only points to Seligman’s working for a Montreal bagel bakery in the 1940s and 50s. Seligman may even have been a driver in the late 1930s for another Montreal bagel bakery, owned by Isadore Shlafman and Jacob Drapkin.
Shlafman and Drapkin are also reputed to be the first to introduce bagels to Montreal. Tucked away in the lane at 3835 St. Lawrence, this other Montreal bagel bakery may have opened in 1919, although it only appears in address directories starting in 1932. It served hand-rolled bagels, baked in a wood-fired oven. In 1949, Shlafman moved from St. Lawrence Boulevard to Fairmount Street, where, along with his son, Jack, he expanded his bagel business, known as Fairmount Bagel. It would remain at that location until 1959. Drapkin continued to operate his Montreal bagel bakery on St. Lawrence until 1956.
In 1953, Holocaust survivor Myer Lewkowicz began working for Seligman; he did so until he was able to launch his own bagel business, in 1957. Lewkowicz briefly partnered with Shlafman and the store took on the name Fairmount Bagel, despite its location on St. Viateur. Bagels were not yet a very profitable venture and the partnership dissolved by the early 1960s. That store is now known as St. Viateur Bagel. It was sold by Lewkowicz in the 1990s to his apprentice, Joe Morena. Though Italian, Morena earned the nickname “Yosef” due to his impressive grasp of the Yiddish language. Today’s Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery, which reopened in 1979 at its original location on Fairmount Street, is still managed by Shlafman’s grandchildren.
St. Viateur’s has served a number of famous visitors, including Prince Charles. One busy Saturday night, Morena received an order for 20 dozen bagels for His Royal Highness. Dismissing it as a prank, he admonished the caller, only to be met by a fleet of limousines and a British naval officer coming for his order. The flustered Morena instructed the officer to “get in line like everyone else,” and Prince Charles was eventually rewarded with a taste of Montreal bagels. The Fairmount Bagel Bakery has its own share of notables; in 2008, Montreal-born astronaut Greg Chamitoff, a relative of the Shlafman family, brought Fairmount Bagel bagels with him aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Special thanks to the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
http://www.dacodoc.net/video.php?video=bagels (Short documentary on the Montreal Bagel Wars)