Note: This is the third of three articles on eastern Canada. The other two focused on Newfoundland and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Montreal —This is a city where hip neighborhoods become everyone’s common backyard. People spill into their leafy streets, sit on their iconic stairways, and sip espresso in cafes and taste wonderful pastries (my favorite being the almond croissants at Premiere Moisson, a bakery with numerous branches in town).
One of my favorite Montreal neighborhoods, Mile End, is where early 20th-century Jewish immigrants settled and today is home to a mix of Italians, Greeks, chasidic Jews and college students. The Mile End neighborhood is also home to some very interesting shops, including Drawn & Quarterly on Bernard Avenue West for contemporary comics and fine art books. (New Yorkers, of course, will recognize the Mile End name from Boerum Hill’s Mile End Deli, opened in 2010 by two Montrealers; a Noho location was added in the summer of 2012.)
If you crave bagels, Fairmount Bagels on Fairmount West or St-Viateur Bagels on St-Viateur West, two hole-in-the-wall places, hand roll their bagels and boil them in honey water to yield a truly intoxicating flavor. The bagels are baked in wood-burning ovens and have a crusty exterior and a chewy center that Montrealers line up to buy no matter what the weather. (The local Mile End folks have them trucked in from St-Viateur’s.)
At St-Viateur Bagels, owner Joe Morena once told me that making bagels requires “a lot of hard work,” and he jokingly referred to himself as a “good Italian boy that speaks Yiddish.”
Café Olimpico on St-Viateur West is known for café au lait, and if it’s too crowded inside, you can join the others outside in the sunny patio.
Then there’s Wilensky’s Light Lunch — in a category all its own. I walk into the small luncheonette filled with nine stools at the corner of Fairmount West and Clark, where the signature item is the grilled salami with bologna on a roll for $3.90. The dish comes with mustard, but if you insist on having it plain, that’ll be five cents extra, thank you.
Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” fame, lived nearby on St-Urbain Street; owner Sharon Wilensky, who grew up in the neighborhood, tells me that Richler would frequent the place to chat with her late father, Moe Wilensky, whose name is on the luncheonette’s window. Some of the scenes for the film version of the novel were filmed at the luncheonette.
Next June, a new “Duddy Kravitz” musical, with original score by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by David Spencer, debuts in English at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, a popular gathering place for the arts and home to Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, led today by Wasserman’s daughter, Bryna.
“You know,” says Bryna Wasserman, “Richler was probably not much different than Sholom Aleichem in his time. As a folklorist … he was writing about what he saw…”
During our visit to the Segal Centre, my wife and I attend the Yiddish production (with overhead English translations) of “Soul Doctor,” the story of friendship between counterculture troubadour Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and jazz singer Nina Simone. After the performance, cast members participate in the Centre’s “Monday Night Talkback,” where actors sit on stage and schmooze with the audience.
Wasserman, who is also the executive director of the National Yiddish Theatre–Folksbiene in New York, notes that Montreal once “housed incredible (Yiddish) writers and poets — it was really the enlightenment.”
As a matter of fact, between the two World Wars, Montreal had three main spoken languages — French, English and Yiddish. Today, of course, French, spoken with a distinct Quebecois singsong, is the official language of Quebec province. But you can get along quite well with English; indeed, it’s always striking how Montrealers can switch effortlessly from English to French, and vice versa.
Next August, the Segal Centre will stage a Yiddish production of “The Dybbuk,” and while, as Wasserman notes, “Yiddish won’t be spoken on the streets again,” its preservation at the Segal Centre allows “ownership of history and who you are and what brings you forward.”
While on the subject of the arts in Montreal, we also find time to attend performances at the city’s annual Jazz Festival not far from the stylish St-Martin Hotel Particulier, where Chef Jean-Francois Plante’s Bistro L’Aromate serves memorable meals from breakfast to dinner. Off crowded St-Catherine Street, thousands of fans come to hear the sultry jazz singer Diana Krall in a free outdoor concert.
There are other great performers, too, like the Shai Maestro Trio, whose leader, pianist Shai Maestro, discusses the Israeli jazz scene one morning in Montreal’s French-language daily, La Presse. Speaking of music, in the summertime Montreal has public pianos decorated by local artists for anyone musically inclined to play.
At the other end of the arts spectrum, Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, located within walking distance of the fancy Hotel Omni Mont-Royal, is presenting “Fabulous Faberge, Jeweller to the Czars,” through Oct. 5.
Carl Faberge was the famous Russian jeweler who created exquisite items for the Russian czars, and his collection, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, includes his amazing “Easter eggs” commissioned by the Russian Romanovs.
“This first major exhibition on Faberge to be shown in Canada,” says Nathalie Bondil, the museum’s director and chief curator, “is a unique opportunity to discover the splendor of the decorative arts of the House of Faberge, whose fate was tragically linked to the history and fall of the imperial house of Russia in 1917.”
The museum, with distinctive colonnades, overlooks Sherbrooke Street West, a neighborhood of fancy condos, boutiques under stately walk-ups, and streets leading up to Mount Royal, the city’s iconic mountain-park named by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535.
The museum is down the street from the very tweedy Westmount neighborhood, home to Orthodox Shaar Hashomayim Congregation and Reform Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Nearby on a Sunday afternoon we stop to watch a group of people lawn bowling in front of Westmount’s Neo-Tudor city hall.
It’s yet more of Montreal’s varied and cool neighborhoods.
When You Go…