Visiting our Jewish neighbors up north


Jews have always been travelers. Need proof? Just look to the Bible for starters. As time went on, our wanderlust continued, as we discovered and settled new worlds. For instance, at least seven of us sailed to America with Christopher Columbus on his legendary 1492 Atlantic crossing, accidentally discovering the New World. Rodrigo de Triana was the first to sight land, (although Columbus later claimed credit). Maestre Bernal operated as the expedition’s physician and Luis de Torres as interpreter — he spoke Hebrew and Arabic — was believed to be useful in their intended destination, the Orient.

In 1654, 23 Jews arrived in what is now the United States of America, settling in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City. They came from Recife, Brazil where the Portuguese had expelled all the Jews who had not outwardly converted to Christianity.

However, the early Jews who settled the vast northern land right next door in Canada, came mainly for mercantile opportunities rather than for religious reasons.

The first known Jew to settle in Canada was Ferdinande Jacobs, a fur trader with Hudson’s Bay Co., who arrived in Manitoba in 1732. Then, in 1738, a wily young Jewish woman, Esther Brandeau, disguised herself as a Catholic boy, Jacques La Fargue, and became a sailor aboard a ship bound for the port of Quebec City where she disembarked. Her masquerade was discovered and she was deported back to France the following year after an unsuccessful attempt to convert her.

While the Jews traveled the world (could Marco Polo have been Jewish?), the lack of enthusiasm to immigrate to “New France,” now Quebec Province, was due to Cardinal Richelieu’s decree of 1627, prohibiting non-Catholics from settling in any part of the French colony.

Of course, Jewish soldiers with the British Army during the French and Indian War ignored that edict, becoming the first group of Jews to arrive in Canada. Aaron Hart, known as the father of Canadian Jewry, was the commissary officer under General Amherst during the British attack on Montreal in 1760, becoming the first Jewish settler the next year. Once Montreal fell to the British on September 8, 1760 and all of New France surrendered in 1763, many Jewish officers and soldiers remained in Quebec, engaged as merchants and fur traders. Soon their relatives from the Thirteen Colonies and England traveled to Canada and joined them.

Abraham Jacob Franks, the first Jew known to have resided in Quebec City, settled there in 1767. His son, David Salesby Franks, became an officer in the Continental Army. However, that city’s Jewish population always remained small, totaling only 350 in 1905 and now numbers only 150 who are associated with the Jewish community.

In 1861 Montreal had the largest Jewish population in Canada, estimated at 400 persons; by 1900 it swelled to 7,000 due to the influx of Eastern European Jews fleeing from pogroms and persecutions. In the 1930s thousands of Eastern Europeans again sought refuge in Canada but were refused asylum due to restrictive legislation; the arrival of post-WWII refugees in the 1940s increased the Jewish presence to 80,000; the late 1950s brought 20,000 French-speaking Jews from Morocco and other North African countries. By 1970, the Jewish population of Montreal peaked at a whopping 120,000.

Montreal’s Jewish community blossomed. Then, suddenly there was a shift in the wind. The rise of the French Quebec Separatist movement and French-language regulations prompted the predominantly English-speaking Jews to relocate to other English-speaking regions of Canada. When the Separatists won the election in 1976, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 primarily young, Jewish adults left Quebec Province. After the Liberal Party regained power in 1985 the exodus subsided. Montreal’s Jewish population today totals 90,000.

Today’s Jewish Quebec City and Montreal

At the last minute my husband and I decided to visit our next-door neighbors to the north: Quebec City and Montreal. The easy-to-plan trip was equally easy on the body. The four hours of travel time to French speaking Canada sure beats the interminable, overseas flight to Paris. And, the quick train ride between the Quebec City and Montreal is a pleasure.

In Quebec City we were delighted to visit with Simon Jacobs, director of “Shalom Quebec” exhibit, part of the Quebec 400 Years celebration in 2008. Formerly a violinist with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, Jacobs is now the executive director of the Morrin Cultural Centre, housed in a large, partially-renovated building that was once a prison, a college, and now holds the 20,000-only-English-book library in the region. A tour through the rich, wood-paneled rooms, filled with stacks and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, proved a stark contrast to the dank and dark prison cells still on-view which shockingly served as dormitory rooms not long ago. Jacobs was also the past president of the board of Beth Israel Ohev Sholom, the only synagogue in Quebec City.

“Quebec City has always had a small Jewish population. At its height the population numbered 700 to 1,000; today it’s dwindled to about 80 families,” said Jacobs.

While walking along the charming, cobblestone streets of Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec City), some of the must-sees include: the incredible restoration of the 17th and 18th-century homes in the Place-Royale; the quaint boutiques; the beckoning bistros and cafes; the funicular for a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River and Old Town below; Musee de la Civilisation and its garden; and the Fortifications of Quebec, an impressive 2.9 mile rampart with walking path circling the old city.

When it came time to go on to Montreal, we opted not to drive the 144 miles but rather take the train, which is inexpensive, comfortable and takes only 21/2 hours.

Because so much of the history of the Jews in Canada occurred in Montreal it seemed logical to visit the oldest place of worship, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, which is also the oldest in all of Canada, tracing its history back to the first Jewish settlers in 1760. Today, the synagogue represents a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi members with seventy different nationalities and backgrounds.

Just a few blocks away stands the Holocaust Memorial and the Saidye Bronfman Centre. Similar to New York’s 92nd Street Y, the Bronfman Centre houses an art gallery, offers children’s programs, concerts and lectures.

A meeting with the synagogue’s guitar-playing Rabbi Schachar Orenstein was entertaining as he strummed for the pre-schoolers, and informational as we discussed the state of Montreal’s Jews.

“The community is changing–in the 70s and 80s there was an exodus, primarily by Anglophones due to tensions between the French and English,” the rabbi explained. “Younger adults left with their kids, causing us to lose several generations. But, in the last 10 to 15 years, Francophones from France, Morocco and Belgium have immigrated to Montreal seeking better opportunities and to escape anti-Semitism, especially from France. Today there are 60 synagogues; 56 are Orthodox.”

While in Montreal we strolled along the cobblestone streets of the Old City, admiring the 18th and 19th century architecture–it’s like a tiny slice of France. The multi-building Musee des Beaux Arts captivates while the boutiques on St. Denis flaunt irresistible baubles. The Main, formerly a Jewish neighborhood similar to the Lower East Side, though now more Greek and Portuguese than Jewish, is still chock full of Jewish stores and landmarks. We lunched at the popular outpost, Schwartz’s, known for its smoked brisket (order the “medium” variety). The many museums, botanical garden, the open air market and incredible restaurants can entertain the tourist for weeks.

For a taste of Europe that’s practically next door and an opportunity to learn about our Jewish neighbors to the north, seven days in Quebec Province, replete with multi-cultural and gourmet delights, will easily fulfill the discerning travelers’ expectations.

Where to Stay

In Quebec City: The turreted, grand dame hotel on the hill, Chateau Frontenac, is no longer the queen, but go for a drink and the view just to see the old lady; take the funicular up. We stayed at the romantic and stylish Relais & Chateaux Auberge Saint-Antoine where the rooms, service and the Panache Restaurant were superb. Call 1-888-692-2211 or If you are warm blooded make reservations at The Ice Hotel as it celebrates its 10th anniversary of icy accommodations in 2010,

In Montreal: We stayed at Le Meridian Versailles, The hotel was certainly adequate, but its restaurant, Bronte, was excellent.

For information on Jewish services, sights and events call 514-345-2624.

For train reservations call VIA Rail, 1-888-842-7245.