ARIA Spotlight: Gilli Cohen

Gilli Cohen's ARIA project: Mapping Montreal's Religious History: Jewish Montreal c. 1850-1950

I would like to thank Professor Samuel Nelson, the Barbara and Patrick Keenan Foundation, and the McGill ARIA program for giving me the opportunity to pursue my passion - learning, reading and writing about historical processes that have helped shape my sense of self. Studying Jewish claims on space in industrializing Montreal is of great interest to me, as my grandparents and relatives had been subjected to this period of rapid socio-political development. To study my own family history as an introduction to the world of academia imbued a sense of familiarity within the newfound information I was obtaining. I was given the opportunity to engage with a vast literature surrounding the complex political institutionalization of Montreal’s elite, religious, and cultural factions while glancing at photographs of the same delis I have been eating at since childhood. Evidently, my ARIA experience has given me a broader picture of my identity as a Jew living in Montreal, as I have encountered the city’s history of communal institutional development.

While remote research entailed exclusively virtual contact between myself and Professor Nelson, I remained able to visit Jewish religious and cultural infrastructure from Montreal’s past, access archival documents, analyze secondary sources, and utilize Quebec’s BANQ Grande Biblioteque. I was able to access primary source documents via a list of online archival sources including the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, Jewish Public Library Archives, The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center, and The Museum of Jewish Montreal Website. In terms of secondary sources both the McGill library and the Quebec public library channels provided a diverse literature pertaining to religious claims on space in industrializing Montreal. From the array of sources compiled, I was able to arrive at a more refined picture of Montreal’s institutional development and the role of the Jewish community within this process.

Montreal’s built environment from around 1850-1950 portrays the salient influence that religious authorities held over the day-to-day provision of social services and the construction of cultural distinctions. This can be seen of the Protestant versus Catholic parishes which educated and served their communities distinctly along the lines of religious and linguistic affiliation. Montreal’s Jewish urban infrastructure additionally displays a parochial arrangement reflective of the political autonomy of established confessional groups.

The Jewish communities’ religious and cultural heart was built along Montreal’s Main between Sherbrooke and Mount Royal, remembered widely as Montreal’s “Jewish Quarter." While this Jewish enclave became the hub of a North-American wide network of elite Montreal born institutions including The Baron De Hirsch Institute (1890), the Zionist Organization of Canada (1898) and the Canadian Jewish Congress (1919), it was Montreal’s immigrant community that contributed to the drastic Jewish population increase of 600% from 1900-1940.

Following mass immigration, the social responsibility to support immigrant Jews rested primarily on the institutional capabilities of the Montreal born Jewish elite, as the British North America Act of 1867 failed to provide a system of social welfare and education for these new immigrants; the category of “religious denomination” did not apply to the newly settled Jewish community, resulting in a lack of subsidization for Jewish services, and the non-entrenchment of education rights for Canadian Jews. Additionally, immigrant Jews were rarely bringing wealth to the community; from 1899 -1910 the median Jewish immigrant had 16.82 (about 50 CAD) when first arriving to the community. As a result, a political vacuum arose in the face of Montreal’s newly settled-poor community that ought to have been addressed via philanthropic initiatives, reflecting the already existing Protestant and Catholic institutions which provided health, education, and welfare for their own community members.

While religious authorities played a poignant role in distributing social services and exerting communal legitimacy, Quebec’s secular government remained involved in adjudicating many communal disputes. For instance, the “kosher meat wars” of 1921 and the Jewish schooling disputes that lasted from 1867-1920 were settled by Quebec’s judiciary.

While the elite factions of Montreal’s Jewish community established social welfare services via their many North American wide philanthropic initiatives, religious authority and Yiddish business have left the most salient cultural artefacts behind. When walking along St Laurent today, the weight of the Jewish-immigrant community upon Montreal’s cultural memory can be found in synagogues, delis and the ironic use of Yiddish script in English shops.

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