Who Is My Neighbour?

(The thirteenth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on March 31, 2017.)

“My anger and irritability are the flip side of my frustrated desire to connect, my desire to feel a part of my street, to feel I belong to this place.” ~ Joseph Rosen

Outremont Avenue south of Bernard Avenue 

Outremont Avenue south of Bernard Avenue 

With great frequency I am woken at three o’clock in the morning by the sound of my upstairs neighbours arriving home. I startle awake at the sound of their boots hitting the wooden floorboards of their apartment floor, hear them pour drinks of water. Their floorboards creak quietly from their weight as they walk around for a few minutes. Chairs slide back and forth softly. A toilet flushes. Sometimes there is an unintelligible murmur of voices. After maybe a quarter of an hour, quiet resumes and I fall asleep. (Except once, when there was a larger assembly, and music.)

My response to being woken up by my upstairs neighbours has shifted over time: from aggravation, to annoyance, to acceptance, to (surprisingly) affection. Why do they keep these hours? Perhaps they’re bartenders, or bouncers, or flight crew for a small regional airline? Perhaps they’re university students, enjoying the circadian cycle of twentysomethings … but then the music would be more frequent, would it not?

Regardless of who they are, theirs are not daily rhythms by which I would like to live. And yet in time – even though I’ve never knowingly seen their faces – with familiarity has come a certain fondness for the regularity of their routines.

Not every difference between ourselves and our neighbours is this easy to get used to.

Some differences appear indecipherably perplexing.

Some differences we experience as unbearably inconvenient, or disgustingly strange, or profoundly threatening to what matters most to us.

Some differences we can deal with by finding ways of organizing our lives so that we never have to deal with them. (I could sleep with earplugs. I could move somewhere else.)

Some differences we could negotiate so that they have less of an effect on us. (I could go and ask my neighbours to take their boots off more quietly, which might result in my not waking up as frequently.)

Some differences we may come to appreciate, even enjoy, if we invest effort to understand them.

But some differences we may just have to tolerate, despite their effect on us. There is no reason to believe that we will ever find ourselves in circumstances in which there are no differences between ourselves and our neighbours, or in which all of the differences we encounter are easy to live with.

I have not lived long enough in Montreal’s Outremont borough to have come to know all of the differences that make life difficult, despite the beauty and comforts it offers its inhabitants. My current lack of facility in French means that there are conversations I have not been able to have, which undoubtedly oversimplifies, limits, and skews my understanding of how my neighbours experience their lives and their interactions with one another. But I think it is uncontroversial to observe that the most serious tensions in Outremont result from the differences between the ways of life of its Hasidic minority and its francophone petit bourgeois majority, and how those differences play out against the background of historical Quebecois grievances against English Canada and the Roman Catholic Church.

As I reflect on the conversations I have had over these past several months in an effort to better understand faith and civic life in Outremont, three of the many things I’ve learned stand out to me at the moment.

I learned from Cheskie Weiss, of the blog Outremont Hasid, that there is an acknowledged tension in the Hasidic community between the desire to preserve their culture and the necessity of living peaceably among and alongside neighbours of other cultures, and a recognition that it will require skills that must, for the most part, still be cultivated to negotiate that tension well.

I learned from Nanci Murdock, who campaigned in favour of the ban on new places of worship along Bernard Avenue, that the practical details of borough governance (the maintenance of a building façade, the square footage in a building permit) matter as much as the most profound questions of identity (how women can express their sense of themselves in public spaces). 

And I learned from Nora Chénier-Jones and Jennifer Dorner that one way to reduce the tensions over faith and civic life in Outremont might be to create spaces in which people can talk with one another about the differences they notice and the frustrations they feel, honestly but safely, and can grow to know and understand one another just a little better.

Here, in the microcosm of our little neighbourhood, my neighbours are trying to figure out lived answers to perhaps the biggest question of our age, articulated by Valérie Amiraux: “How do we build a fair society while we all disagree about everything?”


Re-seeing Religious Resentment

(The twelfth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on March 10, 2017.)

“When people address religion, they address religion for what they see of religion…and what they see is people who do not behave as they would.”

(Valérie Amiraux)

Valérie Amiraux  and Francis Desharnais signing their book,   Salomé et les hommes en noir    

Valérie Amiraux and Francis Desharnais signing their book, Salomé et les hommes en noir  

Salomé et les hommes en noir is Valérie Amiraux’s bestselling book to date … and quite a bit different from her other publications. The comic (a collaboration with Francis Desharnais, who is best known for his graphic novel Burquette) is based on notes Amiraux took as she observed her three year-old daughter puzzling over their first encounters with the Hasidic community of Outremont.

Amiraux studies religious minorities and religious discrimination, processes of radicalization, and the representation of terrorism in popular culture. A citizen of France, she moved to Montreal 10 years ago to join the sociology department at the University of Montreal.

“It was August, two days after our arrival. I started walking with Salomé to discover the neighbourhood. One of the reasons I chose this neighbourhood is that it’s central. I don’t have a car. I needed to be in a  very convenient place so that it’s easy for me to get to work, easy for schools, has easy connections to the airport. And Outremont is full of green spaces. Moving from Italy where we had a wonderful house in the countryside, I wanted to be located somewhere where she could play outside very easily.

“It was the first evening that I picked her up from the garderie. We started to explore the parks and playgrounds in the neighbourhood. She was very social, curious, talkative, and sensitive to the public culture of places. And her first question to me [as she noticed the Hasidic families in the park] was, ‘How come they are all dressed up like it’s winter?!’ It made such an impression on her. So that was the moment I realized that my professional interest in how minority religions could be treated in certain contexts would relate to my personal life in the neighbourhood.”

When she looks at Outremont, Amiraux does not consider the conflicts in the borough to be about religion as religion.

“When people address religion they address religion for what they see of religion. It’s about people’s perception: of rituals, of places, of schedules, of dress. It’s like a mirror or a glass window through which people look, and what they see is people who do not behave as they themselves would.

“It’s about dress, prayer, holidays, places of worship, modes of locomotion. It is really about the institutional existence of religion and its public visibility in the urban space. This is where discussion turns into controversy: where there is visibility and collective presence. What rituals and places of worship signal is that a lot of people are interested.…It’s the idea of numbers. It is not only that people are not addressing religion as religion, but that they are addressing what they think these signs signify: invasion.”

If this quality of public discourse does not change, Amiraux is pessimistic about the future of Outremont.

“The problem I have with Outremont is the fuss that is made out of nothing. As if the idea of being different, and of being willing to live differently, must systematically attract huge, everlasting discussions on ‘Who are we, and how do we survive in this neighbourhood overflowing with Hasidim?’”

 She believes that this kind of discourse creates conditions in which violence – like the recent murderous attack in Quebec City – becomes possible.

“There is a political responsibility to change the encoding of the discussion. It should be recoded as not being an issue of power and territory, of occupation and invasion.”

Amiroux’s call for a change in public discourse is not a call for a less robust discourse.

“The idea that we have to agree, that we have to be a consensual society – conceiving of pluralism only in terms of consensus – is misguided.”

She is critical of a superficial, “polite” consensus that leaves no room for conversation about what really drives people.

“It does not leave a space to explain that, ‘I want to be a pious citizen. I give importance to praying, I want to raise my children with these values, and yes, dressing the way I do is not the most comfortable thing, but this is the way I most feel like myself … but I agree that I have an obligation to educate my children, and that I cannot kill my neighbour!’”

She is optimistic about the possibilities if people were to realize the power they have to be conciliatory agents at the local level, and create spaces in which to talk about the issues without immediate polarization.

“This is, for me, extremely powerful. The local scale is the scale that matters. This is why I am more and more focusing on places where people are, among themselves, talking about the things that happen to them.”


Pure laine and Purim

(The eleventh in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on March 10, 2017.)

Guy Archambault

Guy Archambault

I met Guy Archambault at a Purim celebration in Montreal’s Outremont borough. The Friends of Hutchison Street, co-founded by Mindy Pollak and Leila Marshy, had invited Outremont folk to join them for the traditional reading of the book of Esther, hosted by Chabad Mile End. Our brief exchange while munching hamantaschen piqued my interest; we continued our conversation over coffee the next day, at Club Social on St. Viateur Street.

After a career of public service in Ottawa, Hungary, Peru, and France – the highlight of which, from his own perspective, was his involvement in the peace process in Bosnia and Kosovo – Guy returned in retirement to Outremont, where he had lived during part of his childhood, and attended high school.

“My wife wanted to live in Outremont because of its quiet. We both wanted to live in Outremont because it is so central to Montreal. It’s a fantastic place. We have everything: a lot of trees, beautiful streets, not too much traffic, the mountain nearby. We live very close to the mountain. And I have roots here.”

As he described himself in his “Letter to a Hassidic friend” in the Outremont Hasid blog, Guy is a “pure laine Outremonter” – a dyed-in-the-wool francophone Quebecker whose entire genealogy can be traced back to French settlers who came across the Atlantic in the 1600s and 1700s.

From Guy’s perspective, the tensions between Hasidim and francophone non-Hasidim in Outremont are connected to the historical experience of francophone Quebeckers. As he wrote in the Outremont Hasid blog:

Many newcomers to Quebec are not fully aware of the state of inferiority in which francophones have lived in Quebec and throughout Canada until the mid 20th century. Before 1960, the rights of francophones had little weight. We felt like second-class citizens in our own country.

I still remember the humiliation I felt in the late ’60s in downtown [Montreal] department stores: the display was English and I would be met with scornful reactions when I tried to speak to an anglophone clerk in French.

As Guy told me over coffee, “We often compared our situation with Rhodesia. In our minds we [francophones] were in the position of the blacks of Rhodesia, and the anglophones were like the anglophones in Rhodesia. We knew it was an exaggeration, of course, but sometimes we would use the words, ‘The Rhodesians,’ to talk about the anglos.”

Because of this history of discrimination and a sense of precariousness with regard to the current recognition and protection of their language and culture, many Quebeckers – and Guy does not agree with this sentiment, even though he says that he can understand it – feel that the pressure towards multiculturalism, towards the recognition and accommodation of cultural and religious diversity in Quebec, is pressure towards the dilution of the status of the French language and francophone Quebec culture.

And then there was the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

“The change between generations, I think, was much stronger in Quebec than in other places,” Guy says. “We went from a much more conservative, much more religious – oppressive, I must say, in the cultural sense – milieu to a society that is a-religious or anti-religious, and much more so than elsewhere in Western countries. So the change was really dramatic. We were in total rebellion against the values of our parents. But to create new values from scratch is not easy.”

A sense of inferiority and humiliation remains alive in the memory of many francophone Quebeckers. They fear a dilution of the status of what they hold dear culturally. And they feel a thorough disdain for what they perceive to be the culturally oppressive effects of religion. These sentiments constitute the background against which the ban on new places of worship in Outremont must be understood, according to Guy.

“Québécois have seen what religion can do, especially to the rights of women. They don’t want that anymore. The problem is that there’s a lot of projection: ‘We were oppressed by religion, so they must be also.’ They’re certain, for example, that a woman who wears a veil does it because a man imposes it on her. But every study, every testimony that you hear shows that this is not true. In Muslim families it is usually the women for whom these practices are very important. These same stereotypes and prejudices are applied to the Hasidic community.”

While he strongly opposed the ban and spoke publicly against it (“because it was neither accommodating nor benevolent”), Guy Archambault supports some civic regulation of places of worship, insofar as they impact public spaces. He supports building safety standards, neighbourhood aesthetic standards, and arrangements to alleviate the inconveniences that may result from the presence of places of worship, for example, with regard to parking. But always regulated after open public dialogue ­- and enforced in a manner that is just a little less uptight.

Seeing Local. Looking Deep.

(The tenth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on March 10, 2017.)

For the past two months, I’ve been researching and writing a series for Convivium on what many would see at first glance as a strictly local problem.

I’ve met with, talked to, and tried to understand the complex, interwoven responses of my neighbors in Montreal’s Outremont borough to expansion of the Hasidic Jewish community. The community’s growth, most people acknowledge, prompted a particular political moment: the approval of a referendum and subsequent passage of a bylaw restricting development of new places of worship. Though the action was presented as pan-religious, few dispute that it was directed at the Hasidim.

We should never mistake, though, the pins that politics pushes into a given map with the actual map itself. In my explorations, I’ve discovered a great deal about the way in which strangers becoming friends, families seeking peaceful resolution, business owners protecting their interests, and people of faith living out their understanding of God’s will contributed richly varied responses to the bylaw, and enlivened borough life as a result.

I also grew personally aware of how little I knew about the tensions under the surface in Outremont with regard to faith and civic life. I knew very little about the history of that conflict, and came to understand that I understood less.

Conversation by conversation, I’ve learned a little more. While the tensions stretch in several directions, some of the bigger stretches involve the compatibility (or not) between commercial and religious interests, and the cultural distance between the more secular francophone and the more religious Hasidic residents of this beautiful borough of Montreal.

As I listened to my conversation partners talk about the Hasidic experience of Outremont and the non-Hasidic experience of Hasidim in Outremont, I started wondering: How new are these tensions? As best as I can tell the particular tensions I was beginning to understand have roughly a twenty-year old-history. What was the Jewish presence in and experience of Outremont like before all of this?

Just as I started to ask these questions,ConviviumMagazine’s Hannah MarazzimentionedZev Mosesand theMuseum of Jewish Montreal(MJM) to me. Correspondence with Zev pointed me to the MJM’s treasure trove of photographs, which gave me glimpses of Outremont in the 20thcentury.

Here I moved from seeing what is going on from the perspective of my neighbours dealing with an immediate problem of this moment, and began to develop a deeper image of Jewish life dating back to the turn of the previous century. In other words, I began to understand it as a part, close at hand, of human history writ large.  That understanding is best expressed in photographs. Here are some of my favourites.  

  Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

 Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

Reuben Brainin, an influential editor of and writer for Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers, was born in 1862 in the hometown of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Lubavitch, in what today is known as Belarus. He lived on Davaar Avenue in Outremont between 1912 and 1916, and his children continued to live in Montreal afterwards. This photograph shows Brainin with his sons, who enlisted in the Jewish Legion during the First World War. 

  Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

 Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

The first Jewish synagogue in Outremont, Beth David, was established in 1929, when the congregation (which was established in by immigrants from Rumania) bought a building on St. Joseph Boulevard that had previously belonged to St. Giles Presbyterian Church. The congregation sold the building to St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church in 1965.

   Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

 Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

Social activist Léa Roback was born in Montreal in 1903 and died in the city in 2000 (the same year that she was made a Chevalier of the Order of Quebec). She lived on Querbes Street in Outremont from 1937 to 1951. Born into an observant Jewish family she identified as a Marxist for most of her life. Roback ran the Modern Bookshop and was a suffragette and labour union organizer. Roback’s live was celebrated in the 1991 film A Vision in the Darkness/Des lumières dans la grande noirceur. The Léa Robeck Foundation gives educational scholarships to Québec women who are socially committed but economically disadvantaged.  


  Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin

 Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin

 Hannaniah Meir Caiserman (shown here with David Rome, arriving back in Canada from meeting with Jewish refugees in Poland after World War II) played a leading role in the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1919 to 1950 (when he died). He lived on St. Joseph Boulevard in Outremont from 1939 to 1948, and he and his wife, Sarah Wittal-Caiserman, made their home into a salon for writers and artists, contributing significantly to Montreal’s lively Yiddish literary scene.


Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin  

Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin 

The Adath Israel congregation was established in 1930 and worshiped in rented premises on Van Horne Avenue in Outremont for a decade before constructing a synagogue on McEchran Avenue. At its McEchran Avenue location Adath Israel established the first Jewish congregational day school in Montreal (and the second in North America). An extension to the school building in 1952 created the space needed for Montreal’s first Jewish high school. In 1981 the congregation amalgamated with two others and relocated out of Outremont. 



Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal 

In 1948 the poet and novelist Abraham Moses Klein (shown here standing, at the center of the photograph, in the Jewish Public Library in 1945) published The Rocking Chair, a series of poems inspired by Montreal locations for which he received the Governor General’s Award. Klein studied politics and law at McGill University and Université de Montréal. He worked as a lawyer, editor, speech writer and publicist against anti-Semitism in Canada and in efforts to save the Jews of Europe from persecution by the Nazis. In 1951 he published The Second Scroll, a novel in which he tries to find meaning in the post-Holocaust world. That same year Klein moved to Querbes Street in Outremont, where he lived until 1972 (albeit withdrawn from public live after a nervous breakdown in 1955). 

Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal   

Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal  

Yiddish poet Rokhl Korn (née Rachel Herring) was born in Poland in 1898. Escaping the Holocaust through Russia and Sweden, she arrived in Montréal in 1948. In the year of her arrival she published Heym un heymlozikayt (Home and Homelessness), dedicated to “all my dead.” Korn lived on Maplewood Avenue in Outremont from 1958 until her death in 1982. Chava Rosenfarb, another Montréal poet working in Yiddish, wrote, “For [Rokhl], being in Canada meant being at home within the immeasurable expanse of her loneliness.”


Reaching Other Mothers

(The ninth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on March 3, 2017.)

Nora Chénier-Jones, Jennifer Dorner, Mindy Pollack, Sarah Dorner

Nora Chénier-Jones, Jennifer Dorner, Mindy Pollack, Sarah Dorner

“As a mother, I hope that I can reach other mothers. ‘You, as a mother, should know how this would feel for your own kids.’ If we can find common ground on that, we can start from there.”

Nora Chénier-Jones is a black Canadian who was born and raised in Outremont and now is raising her own children in the borough. Wanting to find ways in which to nurture empathy prompted her to co-found Pluralisme Outremont, a group promoting an appreciation of diversity in Outremont’s schools, with her friend Jennifer Dorner and others.

Nora grew up on a cul-de-sac that her family shared with several Orthodox Jewish families, and their children were her playmates. She has good memories of her childhood years.

“There was the freedom of being able to just play, not always having someone hovering over us,” she recalls.

Nora feels Outremont is still like that, which is why she moved back there with her own children.

“Kids play in the alleys with different other kids, like Orthodox Jewish kids, kids from other cultural backgrounds, and we’re not really hovering over them. So there’s that freedom … a little bit? The neighbourhood is safe.”

It is no surprise that Nora and her partner, Shawn Bowen, run Vida Sana, a gym and open play space for families. As parents to five children, they value a physically active life for their own and other families.

Unlike Nora, Jennifer Dorner is new to Outremont, having moved to the borough with her husband, an artist like her, and children about two years ago.

“We moved here because our children were starting school. We love the neighbourhood. The trees. The whole vibe here. The children playing together on the streets, feeling safe. And the schools are beautiful. We really liked the fact Outremont schools value the arts: their programs fit with what we value. The school our children go to has a theatre program, so they are taking drama classes from kindergarten.”

Yet a few experiences with regard to the treatment of diversity in these communities that disappointed them and a desire to “encourage, facilitate, and create interaction to promote respectful understanding among the diverse people who make up our school communities” (the mission of Pluralisme Outremont) prompted Nora, Jennifer, and their friends to organize “La route vers la liberté/Can you get to freedom,” a family-friendly all-day event on a Sunday during Black History Month.

Using arts, crafts, music, short animated films, and other activities, they worked to ‘inspire families to learn and celebrate black history and culture from a Quebec perspective.” They are excited about having received support from the local school board and being allowed to use the facilities of the local high school for the event. They hope that these kinds of learning experiences can eventually become a regular part of the curriculum in Outremont schools.

It went really well, and it was a really busy day – we were on our feet, running around the whole time from 10 am to 3pm. A lot of people came early on and stayed, and then a lot of people also came later on,” Jennifer and Nora told me.

“People were laughing and smiling. The idea was to create a platform where people could have conversations and get to know each other, so that people who know nothing about black history – which I’m afraid is a large percentage of the people who live here – would be introduced to the culture. Not just black history, but also black popular culture. We focused on Canada, and Quebec specifically. And we had a playlist of all Canadian black artists playing throughout the day – it is a good playlist!”

When it came to another aspect of pluralism in Outremont – the borough’s ban on new places of worship – Nora took a long time to make her mind up about the issue.

“It’s not that I think the Hasidic community should not have synagogues. I just wasn’t sure about synagogues on Bernard Avenue. And because I took a long time to take a stance on this issue I was called a bigot and a racist. I don’t think so. I think people can take time to make decisions without being racist. I’m not someone who would say something spontaneously. I like to think about my answer before I say anything.”

“I think people just need to learn more about each other,” says Jennifer. “And so creating conversations, and creating spaces for these conversations to happen, is what we’re trying to do. But I don’t know how much change we will see in five or 10 years.”

“And this is why we are trying to work with schools,” says Nora, “to reach kids at a young age.”


Giving Space

(The eighth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on February 24, 2017.)

“Something [Outremont borough counselor] Mindy Pollak’s mother said has become our motto: ‘We might have lost the referendum, but we have gained a community.’ This community is an overlap place,” Leila Marshy says.

Leila Marshy (on the right)

Leila Marshy (on the right)

“We carved out a trench, and we realized: ‘Oh, we can all fit in here. We go home, and then we join up again in this place, and it is a safe place, and this place is getting bigger and bigger.’”

Leila’s father was a Palestinian refugee who wanted to go to New York City. There was an American army base in Newfoundland and he thought if he worked at the base he would get a ticket to the United States. Instead, he met Leila’s mother, moved to Montreal, and they had five children.

When Leila was in her twenties she studied for a Masters degree in Cairo, worked for the Palestine Red Crescent, traveled all over the Middle East, came back to Montreal, worked in film, and had a daughter. In 2008 she and her partner moved to Hutchinson Street, the dividing line between Montreal’s Mile End and Outremont neighbourhoods.

“And so there were all these Hasidim! I was fascinated, but I didn’t know what to think. And then one day the thought came into my mind: Isn’t it amazing that in the 21st century, in the Western world, in one of the biggest cities in Canada, we can have among us this insular community. I thought: this is such a good example of the best of humanity. This to me was civilization, was civility. This is why we are human, why we are humane. This is what we do. We can have such little enclaves. We protect each other. Our laws, our behaviour: we give space.”

From what Leila had heard and seen, the parts of Outremont and Mile End nearest to Avenue du Parc were not in great shape in the 1980s. They were filled with “dives, dumps, and crack houses.” As the Hasidic community increased its presence, its members bought up properties in poor repair and upgraded them. Hasidic families established a day-in and day-out presence on the sidewalks of these neighbourhoods, As Jane Jacobs, the doyenne of urban activism, suggested would be the case, the “eyes on the street” of the Hasidim made local sidewalks “equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do.”

Or in Leila’s words: “They may not be wearing high heels or driving Saabs, but the Hasidim have improved the value of these neighbourhoods.”

One warm day as she was sitting on her balcony, Leila noticed people stuffing leaflets in mailboxes along Hutchison Street. They had previously canvassed against the Hasidic community at her own front door. As she watched from her balcony, she noticed that they bypassed every home displaying a mezuzah (a little box containing parchment inscribed with words from the book of Deuteronomy). She felt goose bumps on her arms as she realized that they were avoiding the Jewish homes on her street. In that moment, Leila turned from being a passive spectator into someone compelled to action.

She had earlier received a postcard from the synagogue on her street, alerting her that they were going to have some renovations and extensions done to their building. She had paid little attention it, sticking it into her recycling bin. The leaflet that she saw being distributed fulminated against these renovations and extensions. Then and there, Leila went to search through her recycling bin, found the postcard, and starting designing her own leaflet to argue in favour of the synagogue construction. She printed about 300 copies, and distributed them along the street.

Mindy Pollak and her mother contacted Leila in response to her pro-synagogue leaflet. A neighbourhood referendum had been called against the synagogue construction. Leila and the Pollaks worked to mobilized support for the synagogue, but their side lost the referendum. Yet out of this crucible their friendship, and the organization Friends of Hutchison, emerged. It is an effort to cultivate greater mutual familiarity and understanding among the diverse people of Outremont and Mile End, and thereby to change what Leila calls (in a post for the blog "Outremont Hasid") “a punitive atmosphere where every Hasidic person is ‘illegal’ and every bylaw that does not restrict them is giving in to their ‘lobby.’”

“We have an opportunity in Outremont to build a unique relationship between the Hasidic community and the surrounding communities,” she says.

Then this daughter of a Palestinian refugee father adds: “My goal is not to make the Hasidim less religious or more secular. It is to find more zones where we can communicate.”

The Sidewalk View

(The seventh in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on February 10, 2017.)

“… for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement …”

(Charles Baudelaire)

Emile Kutlu on Laurier Avenue

Emile Kutlu on Laurier Avenue

When Emile Kutlu imagines the future of Outremont and Mile End, it sounds a little like the Marais in Paris, including a mix of high fashion, leisurely people-watching, and world-class food on Laurier Avenue, perhaps similar to the Rue de Rosiers. It includes lively expressions of Jewish life and culture nearby such as the existing synagogues and the famous Fairmount BagelSt-Viateur Bagel, and Cheskie bakeries. Young and old, English and French, locals and visitors, all intermingle in comfortable ease.

Kutlu is the president of the Laurier West Merchant Association, representing commercial interests along this street that runs along the southern end of the borough of Outremont and on into Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. He is an owner of buildings and businesses along it including the stationer Boutique 1000 Feuilles and the children’s shoe store Chaussures Pietine. He finds delightful the significant sidewalk widening construction we both had to negotiate along parts of Laurier West as we walked towards Toi, Moi & Café to talk over coffee. The widening will help with the Merchant Association’s goal of turning Laurier West into even more of a promenade, a destination.

“This is a place people will go, will take a coffee, will take lunch, and at the same time, will go shopping,” he says. “But it’s an open street, not a mall. People will sit and talk with a coffee for half an hour, just talking, passing time, seeing people passing by. This is the Latin character. People living like you’ll see it in Europe, in South America. … People – good or bad, however you want to take it – want to show their cars, want to show themselves. And they want to spend at the same time.”

Even the Saint-Viateur Catholic church near the west end of Laurier Avenue contributes to this ambience, in Kutlu’s view. Celebrities and political people like holding their weddings and funerals at the church because of how beautiful it is, especially the stained glass windows. People eating and drinking on the nearby sidewalks of Laurier Avenue enjoy seeing these.

“When there is a wedding or a funeral, there is always gossip going on.”

In a sense, the Saint-Viateur church plays the part of a monument, a part of the spectacle of Laurier Avenue. While he is not very religious himself, and does not frequently attend services, Kutlu and his family have used the church for baptisms and for funerals. But the merchants’ association would not like to see new places of worship on the street, and have communicated support for a ban on such places to the Outremont borough council.

“Officially the association wrote a letter supporting this ban [at the time of the November 2016 borough referendum]. For us, the reason is from a commercial point of view,” he says.

The association is not against architecturally attractive places of worship. It is against storefront places of worship intermingled with places of business, because its members believe it hurts the commercial character of the street, especially if the hope is that the street will become a destination.

The ban on new places of worship applies to all faith traditions, but is widely perceived as being aimed at the growing Hassidic Jewish population of Outremont.

“I had not realized that there was such deep, such profound … I won’t say hatred … but opposition to the Jewish people. I saw some people who said, no, we don’t want them here,” Kutlu says. “But our purpose [in supporting the ban] is mainly commercial. It is not a question of  Jewish people. If it were Amish, we would do the same thing. Even if it were a garage we would oppose it. What we want is a nice commercial street without any interruption, stores that complement each other.”

Kutlu points to a school across the street to make his point.

“This school is the worst thing for this street. The façade is only a block of bricks. People, when they see it from Parc Avenue, like to go instead on the other side. It is not helping. So it’s not even about the worship places as such.”

In addition to broad sidewalks and an uninterrupted commercial character, Emile Kutlu’s favourite thing about Laurier Avenue is its easy flow of foot traffic and vehicle transportation, including Bus 51. When he arrived in Montreal in 1968 from Istanbul, where he was born and attended a French-language lycée operated by the Lasallian Brothers, bus route 51 took him through Outremont to the University of Montreal for his studies in electrical engineering. For him, the 51 both establishes and symbolizes openness to the rest of the city on the part of Laurier Avenue. There are no hard boundaries between Outremont and the rest of Montreal.

Despite the ban on building new houses of worship, he insists, “It is an open borough.”

To Wake Up the Heart

(The sixth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on February 3, 2017.)

“Perfection is to sit among people, sell and buy, marry and have children; and yet never leave the presence of Allah even for one moment.”

(Sayyid al-Kharraz)

Jonathan Hassan Friedmann of Rumi restaurant

Jonathan Hassan Friedmann of Rumi restaurant

“Anyone killing anyone is always sad. If you kill one person, it’s like you’re killing all of humanity.”

I am having a conversation with Jonathan Hassan Friedmann in the week after the Quebec City mosque shooting in which six worshippers were killed, five critically wounded, and many others injured.

The walls of Rumi Restaurant on Hutchison Avenue in Outremont are decorated with carpets from as far away as Uzbekistan – carpets collected by Jonathan and his brothers on their travels, or received as gifts from traveling friends. The décor and ambience of the room resonates with the cuisine served, an eclectic and unpretentious combination of North African, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern. We are talking at a table in the front corner of the restaurant, brightly lit from two sides by large windows.

Jonathan and his brother, Todd Husseyn Friedmann, started Rumi Restaurant in the autumn of 2001, in part as an expression of their own deepening commitment to Sufi Muslim practice. From a Jewish background, they had been spiritual searchers since at least their high school years. In the spring of 1999, Jonathan discovered in Sufi practices the first spiritual experience that truly resonated with him.

“I was on an inner search. I didn’t like traditional religious practices, but the taste, the experience [of Sufi practices] made sense from within.

“Every human is on a path. Every path is similar; every path is different. We are all seeing the moon. Some see it from one side, others see it from another side, but it is still the moon.”

For Jonathan, God’s revelation in Islam includes God’s revelation through Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Jonathan has traveled internationally to places important to the story of the Naqshbandi Sufi order to which he belongs. He travels to Michigan several times a year to meet with his spiritual master, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani.

“Our way is companionship, companionship on the way, and Shaykh Hisham has been on the way a long time, sixty years.”

He participates in the weekly dhikr (communal meditative devotional practices, reciting the names and attributes of God) at the Montreal Sufi Center in the Mile End, a short walk away from Rumi Restaurant.

“I also have daily practices. When I don’t pray, I feel it: something is off. It’s not a burden: it is good for the body and the soul, it moves the 360 joints of the body. It is a physical practice and a spiritual practice. When you go into prayer you enter into the presence of the greater, of God, of the divine, of Allah. It has an effect on the heart. We pray to wake up the heart, to make the heart come alive.”

Because he has been traveling extensively with his wife Siham (to Morocco, Cyprus, and Istanbul), Jonathan has not paid close attention to the controversy in Outremont over the borough council’s ban on new places of worship and the referendum affirming that ban in November 2016.

Even so …

“We have a saying that says that we were created from different nations and tribes to know one another. Diversity brings flavour. If there are more differences, we learn more. We do live together, and we should be able to live together. We have to say to ourselves, ‘Be at peace.’ We have to be at peace, first with ourselves, and also with one another. Each of us has our own understanding, and we have to be tolerant of the understanding of others. That is essential. And we have to protect one another in this.”

Jonathan finds it difficult to evaluate the ban on new places of worship. It is a complicated issue, and he is neither familiar with the law nor a city planner. He wants to presume that the city of Montreal and the borough council would have considered all the relevant laws and would have made all the necessary studies.

“We should do our best to accommodate, but it gets tricky. We have a government, we should respect the government, but as things change, how do you keep everyone happy? It requires compromise on all sides.”

Earlier this week Janet Epp Buckinghom wrote in Convivium that, “The shock wave from the Quebec City mosque tragedy might at last jar loose public recognition of what Quebecers themselves privately know: Quebec has a religion problem. Or perhaps better, Quebec has problems with religion.”

For the province to address these problems honestly and effectively, we citizens will have to learn how to compromise also at the most local levels of government. We may find valuable lessons in this regard in the practices of religions long devoted to the practice of companionship.

Façades and Values

(The fifth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on January 18, 2017.)

Nanci Murdock on Bernard Avenue

Nanci Murdock on Bernard Avenue

“It breaks my heart that my neighbours could possibly think I could be against them,” Nanci Murdock says. “I’m not. But I am against Bernard, at least a significant four to five block chunk of it, becoming 70 per cent, 80 per cent, 90 per cent non-secular. That’s very concerning to me.”

Murdock is a Chartered Financial Analyst as well as an investment and marketing expert. Much of her expertise was gained as she worked in sales, social media strategy, and marketing in the financial services industry. For a time she managed marketing for a global investment research business.

“When I did marketing, you watch yourself building other people’s businesses. And at some point you think, what could I build? The advice kept coming back: ‘What do people ask you every day?’ And for me it was sisters, cousins, friends, calling me, getting divorces, inheritances, settlements for some reason, and saying, ‘I should just go to the bank, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. That’s the last place you should go. So then I would take them through the whole concept of exchange-traded funds, of risk tolerance, and … it’s not complicated, but you have to know it. It’s a set of skills that can be learned, by anyone. And then just to see the sense of relief on their faces.”

Living just a few steps away from Bernard Avenue, Murdock is one of my neighbours in Outremont, and she cares passionately about the borough.

“I love Outremont and the Mile End for the diversity. It feels safe. It feels happening. It’s fun. I like the diversity of the streets. Van Horne is sort of rugged and up-and-coming. Laurier is a bit chichi. Bernard is my favourite. It’s the intersection between grassroots and high quality. Interesting stores. I’ve started going to the cheese store [Fromagerie Yannick], and there are cheeses like I’ve never seen. There’s this little store, Safran, which sells decorative stuff. I walked in there and I saw butter dishes shaped like whales.

“It comes down to a sense of community. My neighbours. My friends. I was just having lunch with a friend at Souvenir, and her office is just around up the street. I went home, just 30 feet away, to check on my son who is home sick from school. And now I am meeting here, in this fabulous café. I don’t know anywhere like it in the world, and it’s affordable, unlike, say, New York. I just can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

But learning that a large building on Bernard Avenue, just steps away from her home, was being converted into a place of worship alarmed Ms. Murdock. Her concern for the character of Outremont moved her to work for the borough referendum campaign supporting a ban on new places of worship on Bernard Avenue.

“I feel like I was in Outremont for nine years, and for the first eight and a half years I was asleep. I thought everything was peaceful. I didn’t know this issue was simmering, and just about to explode. Few voters in Outremont – including myself – ever woke up, ever put down the glass of wine, ever came in from the country, to vote.”

According to Murdock, permits were granted by the borough for the building’s conversion to a 4,500 square foot synagogue and mikvah, or Jewish ceremonial bath. But when the property was subsequently inspected, “ it had become a 10,000 square foot synagogue,” an egregious permit violation that appalls her.

A few blocks further east along Bernard, another place of worship has been standing with an uncompleted and unsightly façade for months. Murdock says issues such as those involving the two buildings explain, partly, the lack of goodwill between neighbours in Outremont. The conflict over façades is accompanied by a clash of values.

“One of the things that bothers me about a potentially non-secular Bernard is the question of setting feminism back 200 years.”

 There were several incidents, according to Murdock, in which stores on Bernard were asked to adjust window displays that did not meet Hasidic standards of modesty. As much as she wants the Hasidic community accommodated, these are the kinds of accommodations she believes would inappropriately curtail the expression of values that she herself holds dear.

Murdock recognizes how difficult it is to accommodate people and communities with very different values in the same neighbourhood. She recognizes the Hasidic community in Outremont is growing, and that it needs homes and stores and places to pray, all within walking distance. She hopes the needs can somehow be accommodated, but without displacing non-Hasidic residents or denying them free expression of their values. “In five years maybe we won’t be living harmoniously. Some of us will, but at least we’ll live in parallel, in peace.”

Hasidic Joy in Outremont

(The fourth in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on January 18, 2017.)

“Happiness itself is your service of God," taught the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism.


“Joy is one of the keys to attaining spiritual elevation,” Cheskie Weiss of the blog Outremont Hasid tells me. “There is a saying of the Ari [Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi] – one of the greatest propagators of Jewish mysticism in the last millennium – that everything he attained spiritually was because of the joy he had.” 

Weiss moved to Montreal from Brooklyn when he married in the late 1990s.

“In the Hasidic community, you usually move to where the wife’s family lives.”

About three-quarters of the Hasidic men in Montreal are from similar communities elsewhere: Brooklyn and Israel, London in England and Melbourne in Australia. They are drawn to the renowned warmth of the Montreal Hasidic community: a warmth that Weiss ascribes in part to the reality that Montreal has the coldest weather of any place in the world where Hasidim live.

“Hasidism basically takes Jewish mysticism and brings it alive in daily life. Everything we do involves Kabbalah [that is, the mystical interpretation of the Jewish Bible]. Everything. Hasidism makes the practice of Jewish mysticism available to everybody. The founder of the Hasidic movement wanted to spiritually elevate even the simplest people. Every person has a mission in this world. Nobody is without worth. If you try to serve God with all your heart, this has major, major power in the heavens.”

The study of the Jewish scriptures and their interpretation is not only of intellectual or ethical value to the Hasidic Jews of Outremont. For them such study has a powerful mystical significance. On the one hand, the person studying is, by the means of studying, effecting positive change in the very structure of reality. On the other hand, the act of study effects an infusion of the divine into the very person of the student, elevating that person spiritually.

“When I grew up, in my home, even though my father was in business, in manufacturing, it was always in the air: he expected us to grow up Torah scholars, to study as much as possible. I try to pass that along to my children. It’s not easy: Talmud study is very, very challenging! But once you get the hang of it, you enjoy it immensely! And you’re bringing godliness into yourself.”

It’s not something the Quebec government easily understands.

“They require many hours of our children for secular studies and they don’t understand why we cannot just take hours away from Talmudic studies. But it is important for us, not only as a means to gain knowledge: we believe that the more time you delve into the Talmud, the more you develop as a person, spiritually. And so my son is 12 years old and he is in school 12 hours every day.

“He leaves the house at 6:45 in the morning and he heads home at seven in the evening. Half of that time is Jewish studies, half of it secular studies. He knows French, English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic.”

For Weiss, the relationship between the Hasidic community and its Outremont neighbours became acrimonious only about 10 years ago. The conflict instigated, he says, in large part by individuals who began heaping calumny in blogs. The rancour he perceived in the online attacks on his community prompted him to start the blog Outremont Hasidwriting: “We hope this dialogue will increase our respect of one another.”

The outcome of the November 2016 borough referendum on new places of worship along Outremont’s Bernard Avenue left Weiss shocked.

“We did not expect that our own neighbours would come out in such numbers against us. Politicians come and go. But our neighbours are here to stay. We have to find a way to live together.”

“Shape up and reach out,” is the response Weiss would like to see from Outremont’s Hasidic community to the referendum outcome.

“There might be people who have flaunted regulations or violated permits,” he says.

The individuals don’t represent the Hassidic community yet they damage its reputation.

And the community must do more to distance itself from such behaviour, he says.

“There’s this notion: we are separate and we have to preserve our culture. We can’t preserve our culture if we mix, if we assimilate. But there is a very fine line: we must be separate, but still respect our surroundings. It’s a social skill. It’s a very tough social skill. But we have to figure it out.”

Across Our Backyard Fences

(The third in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on December 21, 2016.)

Mindy Pollak in the Outremont borough council chambers

Mindy Pollak in the Outremont borough council chambers

Mindy Pollak is a 27-year-old borough councilor in Outremont and a Hasidic Jewish woman. She was elected as councilor about a month before she turned 25, despite previously never having given a career in politics any thought. Her journey into borough politics began in a 2011 conversation with her Palestinian-Canadian neighbour, Leila Marshy, about ways in which people on their street could get to know one another a little better.

Out of that conversation grew the social group Friends of Hutchison Street, which in the years since has hosted the launch of the comic book Salomé et les hommes en noir by Valérie Amiraux and Francis Desharnais, a Purim Walk that invited neighbours into the homes and celebrations of that Jewish holiday, a bake-off, and several community conversations.

The events organized by Friends of Hutchison gave Mindy an opportunity to listen attentively to the grievances of her non-Hasidic neighbours. For example:

“They don’t let our kids play with their kids.”

“They don’t take care of their houses and their lawns.”

“Why do they have school on Saint Jean Baptiste?”

“Why are there so many school buses?”

“Why do the kids leave their toys on the sidewalk?”

“The sidewalk chalk drawings are annoying!”

The work of Friends of Hutchison Street brought Ms. Pollak to the attention of the municipal political party Projet Montréal, which approached her to run on their ticket for the borough council of Outremont.

I first met Mindy Pollak on Sunday, November 20, the day on which the borough of Outremont conducted a referendum on this question: “Do you agree with By-law AO-320-B, which prohibits places of religion and worship in zone C-2, which includes Avenue Bernard?”

“I thought about it long and hard, because it was not something I had ever thought I was going to do – EVER,” she says. “I never set out to be a politician. But I spoke with my parents, family, and friends, and at the end of the day I decided, if I had a chance to make a difference, how could I not take that opportunity? I think I was just at the right place at the right time. Campaigning was very interesting. People were very surprised to see a Hasidic woman at their front door.”

It is not only her constituents who are surprised. Her political work is drawing attention from well beyond the borough.

“While Pollak's role as a politician is the exception and not the rule amongst Hasidic women, she's proof women from orthodox faiths can balance religion and personal identity,” wrote Neha Chandrachud for Vice in March 2015. “Even within the most seemingly conservative religions, there are progressive voices. And that perhaps the best person to bring god-fearing Quebeckers out of [the] era of religious intolerance is a 26-year-old Hasidic woman.”

The November 2016 referendum concerned the Outremont borough by-law that prohibits new places of worship on Avenue Bernard, particularly affecting synagogues. Pollak says the prohibition makes it impossible to open a new place of worship anywhere in the borough.

By-laws prohibit new places of worship on all residential streets and on the three major commercial streets, Van Horne, Bernard, and Laurier. There is a small former industrial area (near the railroad at the northern border of the borough) that had previously been proposed to allow places of worship, but other zoning issues within that area mean it is not presently available. And it is a long walk from where the borough’s Hasidic community lives, especially in the cold Montreal winter.

As it turned out, just over 1,500 Outremont residents voted in favor of the by-law, with 1,200 voting against.

“It’s been hard for everyone involved. After the referendum, we realized more than ever the necessity of opening up dialogue and trying to talk with our neighbours,” Pollak says. “The silver lining of the referendum has been the people who came out and volunteered for the referendum effort, people that we haven’t heard from before.”

She also draws a connection between the local politics of the borough of Outremont and events in the world at large.

“I think as well the U.S. elections have had an effect. Given the divisiveness (there) people have realized that these things can also happen over here, and if we really want to change things, we have to start changing them in our own backyard.”

But Pollak refuses to let the results of democratic politics – global or local – dampen her hope.

“I just hope we can reach a point where we decide to take a look in the mirror, look at (laws) we have that target a specific community, and decide this is not conducive to living together.”

Sharing a Long Obedience

(The second in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on December 15, 2016.)

Joseph Hovsepian in Radio Hovsep

Joseph Hovsepian in Radio Hovsep

“I came to Canada in 1960. I was 20 years old. I joined Temple Baptist at that time. I didn’t speak English or French; I learned English in the church, and here, in the store.”

Joseph Hovsepian was born in Greece. Both of his parents were refugees from Turkey, survivors of the Armenian genocide. While still a teenager, he earned a diploma as an electrician and did military service as a wireless engineer for the Royal Hellenic Air Force. He found work in Montreal with Canadair (which much later became Bombardier Aerospace). In 1962 he started Radio Hovsep, an electronics sales and service store where, in addition to much else, he repairs vintage radios and record players. Radio Hovsep has been on the same Park Avenue block on the boundary between Montreal’s Mile End and Outremont districts ever since. Joseph and Jessie (Hasmig) live in the apartment upstairs.

It is a five-minute walk from Radio Hovsep to Temple Baptist Church. When Joseph arrived in Canada, the pastor of Temple Baptist was Paul Stevens, who went on to become a professor at Regent College in Vancouver. Paul has since written several books on the relationship between Christian faith and everyday work, one of which includes Joseph’s story.

With many English-speaking Canadians moving away from Montreal during the 1960s and 1970s, reacting to Quebec separatism, Temple Baptist (which was founded in 1909) suffered a decline in members, so much so that it was suggested that the church close down.

Instead, the Hovsepians volunteered their services to help keep the congregation going. Jessie plays the organ and Joseph became Pastor Hovsepian, doing what is sometimes called “tentmaking ministry” emulating the apostle Paul who is portrayed in the New Testament as supporting his ministry to the first Christian congregations around the Mediterranean by making tents. Temple Baptist today is a thriving, multi-ethnic, anglophone congregation, and it can boast of having started several other congregations in Montreal’s Greek, Spanish, Chinese, and Armenian communities. In the past decade, Temple Baptist has also supported the Hovsepian’s ministry to the impoverished villages of Armenia, which led to hundreds of people being baptized.

“I’ve not missed Europe too much, because Europe is here also,” Pastor Hovsepian says.

When he moved to Montreal, Park Avenue had such a vibrant Greek and Greek-Armenian population that there was talk of renaming it Greek Avenue. There were also Greek and Armenian restaurants and bakeries on Bernard Avenue, just a few minutes’ walk from Temple Baptist, and many more stores serving that community.

“Whatever I need in Greek foods, Armenian, I can get here,” he says.

While the Hasidic Jewish community has been present in or near Outremont from before Pastor Hovsepian’s own arrival – he is friends today with Hasidic business owners whose parents and grandparents were also his friends – it has grown considerably larger over the decades. In the summer the sidewalks are lively with little Hasidic children zooming along on their scooters and bicycles, and during the school year the yellow buses ferrying children to their Jewish day schools are a significant feature of the neighbourhood’s street traffic.

What, then, to make of the current tensions over places of worship on Bernard Avenue? The borough council banned places of worship in a by-law earlier this year, and in a recent borough referendum roughly 55% of voting residents were in favour of the by-law.

“There are two persons in my head. The first person says, ‘Look, every human being deserves to be treated equally.’ Also, there are laws in a country, and we should abide by the laws of our country. When I came to Canada I did not bring my Greek or Armenian culture and say ‘this is what I want from you.’ I said, ‘Well, I like it here, I will adapt to the culture, and I will honour the laws.’ I cannot expect the government to cater to me. And the church is under the jurisdiction of the country. For example, I went twice to city hall to ask for parking rights. And they said no, giving their reasons, and I said, fine. We don’t ask for things that are not available.”

“The other side is, ‘What is happening to my neighbourhood?’ Because I have been here longer than most. Things have changed. The traffic is problematic, with parking, the many school buses. There are inconveniences, difficulties. Bernard is a small street. This is life in the city, but I feel bad for city hall. I don’t see anything wrong with moving down a couple of streets for new places for worship.”

I leave Radio Hovsep with a copy of Pastor Hovsepian’s book, God’s Workshop, in hand (the English edition, not Armenian.), and encouraged to visit Rôtisserie Panama in the Parc Ex neighbourhood for a great Greek meal.

“And go to Lester’s for smoked meat,” the Pastor urges.

Two Sides to Outremont

(The first in a series of thirteen pieces on my Montreal borough of Outremont, originally published in Convivium magazine on December 7, 2016.)

Parc Outremont, December 2016

Parc Outremont, December 2016


All it took was walking down Avenue Bernard. I had moved to Montreal in the summer of 2016, and while looking for an apartment I was staying in the Mile End neighbourhood. Bernard runs from east to west through these two adjoining neighbourhoods. One late morning I set out along this street to go and see what might be up for rent. A block after I crossed Park Avenue the sidewalks broadened, and restaurant after restaurant spilled out onto patios alive with people enjoying the food, the drink, the sunshine, and the hospitality. At the beginning of August I moved into a small apartment – my hermitage, for the time being – on this very street.

For exercise I walk. My favourite route starts at my front door, goes south on Outremont Avenue, cuts across Outremont Park (tall trees, playground, large fountained pond), passes the Gothic Revival church building of the Saint-Viateur Catholic parish, slows down a little as I window-shop on Laurier Avenue, and then either turns right toward the footpaths on Mount Royal or keeps going straight towards the reward of coffee and a Breton pastry at the Pâtisserie Au Kouign-Amann on Avenue du Mont-Royal. I don’t know of a set of neighbourhoods anywhere else that offers quite as pleasing an amalgam of the comforts of village life and the magic of city life as does Outremont and the adjoining arrondissements … and at housing costs that are remarkably reasonable when compared with those in cities like New York, Los Angeles, or even Toronto.

As I settled into Outremont during late summer and early fall, I slowly became ever more familiar with the borough’s delights. Catching a show at Theatre Outremont. Over pizza and a glass of wine, enjoying the sight of people in animated conversations on patios all along the three blocks of Avenue Bernard nearest my apartment. Chatting with the bartender at Brasserie Bernard about the syrups and garnishes (candied ginger, hurrah!) she makes for the cocktails she serves. Slowly beginning to learn my first few words of French from the checkout staff at Première Moisson and Les 5 saisons.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that in this otherwise very pleasant neighbourhood, passionate religious-political antagonisms are a-boil. A few weeks after taking up residence on Avenue Bernard I received a notice in the mail inviting me to participate in a borough referendum on a by-law made by the borough council sometime earlier, resulting in a ban on the establishment of new places of worship in much (some say all) of Outremont.

A little asking around and I discovered that there are at least two sides to the argument over the by-law. On the one hand, some merchants on Avenue Bernard fear that a new synagogue for the (large and growing) Hasidic Jewish community on their street would do damage to the prospects for commerce in the neighbourhood. On the other hand, some members of the Hasidic community feel frustrated by what they experience as the many and unreasonable obstacles that they have had to overcome in order to be able to observe the requirements of their religion in a neighbourhood that Jews have over long decades helped make what it is.

Eventually, in late November, just over 1,500 of my neighbours voted for the by-law, while 1,200 voted against it. From conversations I have had since, the outcome of the referendum is far from the end of the conflict. The current borough council has a majority supporting the ban, but municipal elections happen a year from now. There is talk of taking the issue on the long journey through the courts to have the ban evaluated in terms of Canada’s constitutional order. Neighbours on different sides of the issue are talking on Twitter of seeking better mutual understanding and less adversarial solutions.

In love as I am with Outremont, I am surprised and intrigued by this neighbourhood conflict over places of worship. I am not closely affected – I usually participate in the choral Eucharist on Sunday mornings at Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral in downtown Montreal, and my religious convictions don’t limit my use of public transportation to do so. But the dynamic interaction of religion and politics has shaped my life decisively, and its operation anywhere intrigues me. I will be exploring the issue as personally as possible, by having conversations with some of my neighbours, asking them what they love about living in Outremont and how they understand this conflict, and publishing their stories here. What better place to write about these conversations than a magazine called Convivium (a Latin word that can refer to a feast, a banquet, an academic symposium, or, in ecology, a group of organisms adapted to a specific environment)!

What surprises await, hidden in Outremont’s antagonisms?