Finding the Old Home

Locating Ashkenazi Jewish identity, right here in Montreal

By Leo Larman Brown,
Opinion Editor

I was nine years old when I first decided to go to synagogue with my grandfather. Every Saturday, I would sit on my couch, looking out the window onto the driveway, waiting for Zaidy Ell to pick me up in his grey minivan at 9:30 a.m.

I began this weekly tradition after accompanying my family for the year of mourning for the passing of my grandmother, Bubby Shirl. I enjoyed spending the time with Zaidy Ell, and I wanted to see if religion would speak to me, resonate with me in a way that it hadn’t with the rest of my secular family.

I had a lot of questions about the synagogue experience. I noticed that the old men who were called up to the Torah pronounced their Hebrew differently than the younger Rabbi. Some men wore blue and white prayer shawls while others wore black and white. There were also no other kids my age there. Parents often brought their toddlers with them, but once they reached my age, they seemed to stop going.

Looking back, I never enjoyed synagogue that much. I would time my bathroom breaks specifically to miss the longest standing part, and the food afterwards at the Kiddush was always pretty gross. But I loved the snarky remarks Zaidy Ell and I would make about people or the playful punches on each other’s thighs to make sure we weren’t falling asleep.

Mostly, I enjoyed the car rides there and back when he would tell me stories. He told me about his grandmother, Bubbe Sarah, who had taught him Yiddish and who raised him after his father died and his mother got sick. When she drank tea, he recalled, she would pour it into the saucer to cool it down and suck the tea through sugar cubes. He also told me about his grandfather, Zaide Charles (Shaya), who deserted the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War and always put on his shoes before his pants—a technique he was taught as a soldier.

He would also answer the questions that I had. He explained to me that the blue and white prayer shawl, or tallis, signifies that the diasporic Jewish yearning has been fulfilled because Israel exists, while the black and white signifies that Jews are still mourning and yearning because the Messiah hasn’t yet come. He conceived it as a way of enacting a vision for the community through individual choice of dress. He wore a blue and white tallis, the same style he gave me for my Bar Mitzvah.

He taught me that the Rabbi spoke a more modern Hebrew, while he and the older Eastern European Jews, or Ashkenazim, use a different pronunciation—pronouncing many of the T sounds in modern Hebrew like S’s and pronouncing “Oh” like “Oi.”

Going to synagogue didn’t make me religious, but the folklore Zaidy Ell shared connected me to a time and place—a place that wasn’t my hometown of Toronto or that suburban synagogue. Ashkenazi Jews commonly refer nostalgically to their place of origin as the Old Home, or Alte Haym in Yiddish. However, defining what that meant for me required a synthesis of place and belonging which felt difficult to articulate.

My ancestors were from all over Eastern Europe, including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and present-day Russia, and I knew that I was Jewish. But apart from my dad’s mom, who was born in Poland, all my grandparents, and even great-grandparents on my mom’s side, were born in Canada. Although my family and I do identify strongly as Canadian, with my Dad growing up in strongly-patriotic rural Ontario and Zaidy Ell being an avowed monarchist, it was always a place of arrival rather than origin.

Being a dual American-Canadian citizen and also having connections and family bonds to his diverse European background, Avishai Infeld, U3 Arts, had difficulties defining his identity when growing up.

“I was born in the U.S. and then moved to Canada when I was five, so it definitely took me a few years of people asking to finally say Canadian,” Avishai explained. “But also my background is quite mixed. My grandfather was born in Poland, and my grandmother was from Germany. On my mom’s side they’ve been in the U.S. for a hundred years but also from Eastern Europe [....] But I don’t have a very strong connection considering the circumstances that they left.”

Similarly to Avishai, my family holds ties to all these different places, many of which don’t exist anymore, like Austria-Hungary or the Russian Empire. Depending on who I asked, my Old Home was different. Some said I was from Russia, highlighting that aspect of my identity. Others said Poland. Or some said Israel—with me being part of the diaspora. So my answers always changed.

When I was much younger, I used to say I was from Israel. I was passionate about the ideas of Jewish revival that Zaidy Ell and other family members imparted upon me. It also helped me connect more deeply with the biblical stories I was told and to this empowering idea of a unified Jewish heritage for a geographically disparate people.

But on our car rides, I realized that the stories that resonated with me weren’t ancient biblical tales; they were the stories of my ancestors, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. I longed to be connected to the bustling folklore, life, and joy of these communities that I imagined from the stories.

This longing for Eastern Europe manifested itself in strange ways.

When I was around 10, I first decided that I was Russian, in line with my mom’s side of the family. My grandfather taught me a few Russian phrases that he learned from his grandparents growing up, and I parroted them proudly to any Russian I knew. But once the thrill and exoticness I felt in using my few words faded, my Russian dreams died along with them.

Then I decided I was Polish, identifying more with my dad’s mother, Bubby Sylvia (Zlate), who was born there. For the 2018 World Cup, when I was 15, I bought a Polish jersey, and did my best to pronounce all the Polish last names of the players. But when I wore the shirt in front of my dad’s Polish friend and realized that my pronunciations were all wrong, I felt more than a little fake. After that World Cup, where Poland dismally exited in the first round, my aspirations to be a Pole more or less ended.

My Eastern-European identity side quests, however, rested on romanticization and were perhaps doomed from the start. I didn’t know who I was trying to emulate. My Polish grandmother wasn’t ethnically Polish, and she didn’t even speak Polish; she was a Jew who spoke Yiddish. More importantly, my ancestors left these places for a reason. Although only the bad experiences are remembered, the stories I heard were mostly horrific; both sides of my family suffered terribly due to pogroms-–antisemitic massacres that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews before the Holocaust.

Avishai’s grandparents were deeply affected by the violence inflicted upon them by the Nazi regime, which profoundly shaped his conception of origin.

“My grandmother left Germany in 1938 after being subjected to all the Nuremberg laws,” Avishai said. “My grandfather from Poland, his entire family was killed—every single person except for two cousins and an aunt—his parents, his siblings, grandparents, everyone [....] So everyone left under really terrible conditions. What happened was so bad that I honestly feel very little connection to these countries. I identify with them but not in a positive way.”

My identity crisis quickly found its way to Zaidy Ell, who continued to tell me stories to feed this insatiable yearning I had. The stories he told, however, weren’t just about Eastern Europe and his ancestors; in fact, most of them were actually about him growing up in Montreal—in an intensely vibrant Ashkenazi Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century, then numbering over 100,000 people.

He told me the story about how on one of his first dates with Bubby Shirl, they were up until 5 a.m.—doing God knows what—and they went to either St. Viateur or Fairmount bagel (I can’t remember which), just as they were making the bagels for the day.

He recounted the absurdity of being recruited while in the line-up for a deli to the YMHA’s basketball team, solely because he was 6-foot-8. He never played—it was more of an intimidation factor.

Or he explained the dynamics of the different Jewish high schools. Baron Byng, located on St. Urbain Street, was where the poorer first-generation Jews went, while Strathcona Academy—where Zaidy Ell went—was attended by the wealthier multi-generational Jews.

When I was a bit older, he mentioned in passing—to my amazement—that he dated Leonard Cohen’s half-sister for six months.

As I heard these stories, I started to feel the same way about Montreal as I did about the Old Home that I romanticized so much. I imagined Montreal as a place bustling with Jewish life and folklore.

My grandfather was not alone in speaking of Montreal as a city imbued with Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Zev Moses, founder and executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, described how the area surrounding St. Laurent Boulevard, mainly the Plateau and Mile End, held a thriving Jewish community and Yiddish culture and recounted how there were over 90 buildings that served as synagogues in the area.

“They created their own society within the city that was Yiddish-speaking, strongly and tightly knit. Yiddish had become the third-most-spoken language in the city after French and English and basically stayed that way until the 1950s,” Moses explained. “There was also a publishing house [a part of Canada’s leading Yiddish newspaper, Der Keneder Adler], so Yiddish writers living in Montreal could publish their books here, and they would be exported back to Europe. So in the 1920s and 30s, there were Yiddish poets from Montreal being read in Warsaw, Kyiv, and other parts of Eastern Europe.”

My mom was also born in Montreal, in the Côtes-Des-Neiges area, but left with her family along with thousands of other Jews during the 60s and 70s in search of better opportunities. The growing Quebec nationalist movement left the mostly-anglophone community feeling ostracized. Even to this day, there is resentment in my family regarding how they were forced to feel alien in the province and city that was their home.

“For many it felt like the rug was pulled out from underneath them,” Moses said. “Of course it’s not at all the same, but the shock of a political movement tied to an ethnicity and language that was calling for major, major changes, came within a generation of the Holocaust or other upheavals in Europe [….] But that’s not necessarily the main reason most people left, the other reason was economic. If you didn’t speak French that well, the possibilities for you quickly became much fewer.”

The month before I was set to leave Toronto to study at McGill, Zaidy Ell passed away.

He was old when he passed and had prepared us for the moment, so it wasn’t a shock or a tragedy. But being in Montreal—existing in the same city as he did at the same age—it breaks my heart that I can no longer share my life with him, and that he can’t either.

I know that he would have re-lived his youth through me as I told him about my days in his city. He would have recounted the memories that he had walking down “St. Lawrence Boulevard” after I told him about my own adventures, or he would have recommended to me a restaurant that has long been closed down.

But, at the same time, the city makes me feel connected to him and to my ancestors.

I’m less than 10 minutes away from Baron Byng—the history of which I know intimately because of Zaidy Ell. I’m also a short walk from St. Viateur and Fairmount bagel. I can’t remember which one the story is from—and that makes me a little sad—but, regardless, I can taste the same bagels that Bubby Shirl and Zaidy Ell had at 5 a.m. over 60 years ago. Or, how every day I go to campus, I walk down St. Laurent, a street he told me so much about and traditionally the beating heart of Jewish life in Montreal.

There’s also a tinge of disappointment about this return to my imagined Old Home. It’s lovely to be here, surrounded by so much personal family history, but it’s not this magical existence that I always imagined it would be. My days here feel mostly the same as they do back home—not some intrinsically meaningful experience.

Despite the large migration out of the city along with a post-War suburbanization out of the St. Laurent core, Jewish life still remains in Montreal.

Ben Wexler, U2 Arts, grew up in the city and attended Jewish schools throughout his childhood. He highlighted the increased diversity between Ashkenazim and Jews mainly from North Africa, called Sephardim.

“There's a depth of diversity and experience here that’s pretty great,” Ben explained. “Language figures into it a good bit, with Jews in Montreal being outside the established anglo community to some extent and outside the franco community, and then within the Jewish community there’s also this linguistic divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.”

Near the end of our conversation, I tried to press Ben to answer whether the Jewish community still retains the romanticized, Yiddish-speaking character of my grandfather’s youth that I felt was truly authentic to Montreal—that the community had the same reverence for the past and viewed the city the same way I did. Ben, however, didn’t conceive of it that way.

“I don’t think you can speak about one Montreal Jewish community. I also don’t think you can speak of one Montreal community,” Ben said. “At a certain point, that search for authenticity can feel like some pastiche of Yiddishkayt[Ashkenazi culture] [....] I think you’ve got to approach the Jewish community in Montreal as it is, and it's not going to be this sexy, disreputable Yiddish world. It’s a different world now, and that’s it.”

My conversation with Ben punctuated the struggle I was having throughout this journey. So much of my identity is tied to my constructed image of these places—that life there was somehow more beautiful. I wanted the Montreal community in the present day to fulfill that longing—but, really, it’s just a place. I can’t help but realize that Zaidy Ell’s Montreal, and even Eastern Europe were the same—just places. Of course they all carry culture and community, and it’s a tragedy that some of it was destroyed or simply no longer exists. But the people there were just living their lives; it wasn’t some magical existence.

In the same sense, returning to Montreal, my Old Home, was not this transcendent experience that brought me my long-sought clarity about who I am. Although it’s certainly nice to be here, and Montreal is a lovely city, I don’t feel like I’m living the life of Zaidy Ell or my ancestors, and I don’t feel like I’ve returned home. Montreal just feels like a place to me, and maybe that’s a good enough place to start.

Illustrations by Drea Garcia, Design Editor