A Culinary Taste Of Jewish Montreal

Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, two kibitzers from Montreal’s heavily Jewish enclave of Cote St. Luc, spend a day sampling the city’s culinary delights in their hour-long offbeat documentary, Chewdism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal.

They made the film for YidLife Crisis, the Yiddish comedy web site they created a few years ago.

Chewdism has appeared at Jewish film festivals in Canada and the United States, and will be screened by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City on Thursday, March 17 at 7 p.m.

Batalion and Elman are familiar with the topic at hand, though they are gourmands rather than gourmets. They draw on the knowledge of local historians Pierre Anctil, Zev Moses and Steven Lapidus to fill in gaps about Montreal’s venerable Jewish community. They are interested in its development from the 18th century onward, but most of all, they focus on several of Montreal’s celebrated Jewish bakeries and restaurants.

Appropriately enough, they begin their gastronomic journey in Mile End, the historic center of Jewish Montreal. It lies in the shadow of Mount Royal, the magnificent park that generations of Montrealers have admired for its quiet and sylvan beauty.

Pausing at the Fairmount Bagel bakery, they talk to its owner, Irwin Shlafman, a descendant of its founder. The bakery is open 24/7, which eliminates the need for a lock on its front door. As they leave, Shlafman offers them each a delicious treat — a sesame bagel slathered with cream cheese and coated with smoked salmon.

They wolf down the crunchy bagels with gusto, readying themselves for a meeting with Zev Moses, the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Montreal. He gives them a fast but informative tour of some of the storied streets in the vicinity.

To no one’s surprise, they stop at Wilensky’s, which the late Montreal-born novelist Mordecai Richler frequented. Sharon Wilensky, the current proprietor, serves them the “special” — a steamed bun stuffed with salami. In keeping with unbending house rules, this sandwich is always served with mustard and is never sliced in half. She herself has never eaten one, since she’s a vegetarian.

Having made short work of the “special,” they head toward St. Laurent Boulevard, which was known as St. Lawrence Boulevard before Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s. Till about the 1950s, St. Laurent was the heart and soul of Jewish Montreal, brimming with a wide assortment of clothing stores, food shops, delis and garment factories.

They pop into Schwartz’s delicatessen, ordering an obligatory smoked meat sandwich and all the usual sides. In passing, they mention its grander and far more expensive competitor, Moishe’s steak house, which was previously called Romanian Paradise.

In rapid succession, they make references to Ben’s, which was one of Montreal’s first Jewish-style delis; Beauty’s, a diner which is still in business, and the St. Lawrence Bakery, which disappeared years ago, but whose sublime baked goods are still fondly remembered.

Batalion and Elman recall that the original Steinberg’s supermarket, which blossomed into a province-wide chain before going belly-up, was located on St. Laurent Boulevard. So was the Warshaw supermarket, which largely catered to East European Jewish immigrants.

In the final segments, Batalion and Elman walk around lower Outremont, which is home to a closed and cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish community whose lingua franca is Yiddish.

At Cheskie, a kosher bakery run by Chassidim, they buy a chocolate-infused babka, which they pronounce divine upon tasting. Informants tell them that Chassidic-owned shops have sprouted up along Parc Avenue, the main thoroughfare in this somewhat seedy but charming neighborhood.

Toward the end of their tour, they stop in Cote St. Luc to partake in an elaborate meal with a group of friendly Sephardic Jews whose ancestors emigrated from Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq and Iran. In their haste, they neglect to provide us with a detailed account of the delectable dishes they sample.

No criticism intended here. By this juncture, we’re pleasantly sated, as are Batalion and Elman.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,
Related Topics
Related Posts