MONTREAL — This September, the Museum of Jewish Montreal will launch its first Sephardic walking tour. The two-hour excursion tells the history of the city’s Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Egyptian and Lebanese Jewish communities — from their beginnings in the 1950s and ’60s to the booming almost 25,000-member community of today.
Tour participants will visit the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, which is also the oldest synagogue in Canada; the Grand Rabbinat du Quebec, Montreal’s Moroccan Religious Body and pass by Moroccan fish stores and butchers. They will also learn about Montreal’s Sephardic festival, hear the voices of Sephardic Montrealers telling their life stories and even have a chance to smell the spices used in Jewish-Moroccan cooking.
“We’re excited about it,” said Zev Moses, the museum’s director. Until now, all “Jewish” tours have focused on Montreal’s Ashkenazi heritage.
“We’ve been working with oral history and people’s stories which were helping us to identify some of the places we should be passing on the tour,” said Moses.
The history of Sephardim in Canada’s French-speaking province was not always a smooth one.
Sephardic Jews began arriving in Montreal in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — a period of French nationalism which saw the so-called Quiet Revolution in Quebec. During this time, French-speaking Canadians began asserting their language rights and Quebec’s immigration laws began favoring francophones.
Many Ashkenazi Jews, most of whom spoke English, responded by moving from Montreal to Toronto. Some of them did not trust the newly arrived Sephardic Jews, fearing that they would side with the French speakers, said Aviv Milgram, the community manager at the museum and also the main organizer of the tour.
“The primary tension was linguistic,” Milgram said. “People were confused that there were French-speaking Jews. Francophone Jews were sometimes called ‘Catholic Jews’ because Catholicism and the French language were intertwined.”
Today, about 28 percent of the 90,000 Jews who live in Montreal speak French, according to Moses. Most of the Jewish French speakers in Montreal are Moroccan, but some came to Canada from Tunisia, Lebanon, and France.
The situation for French-speaking Jews in Quebec was further complicated because Jewish children were not initially permitted to attend the French-language public school system.
“Public schools in Quebec were divided by Catholic and Protestant and the Jews were funneled into the Protestant school system because the Catholics didn’t want them,” Milgram said.
“One of the issues was that when Sephardic Jews arrived, even though they were French-speaking, they had to go to the Protestant school system and were taught in English, and parents couldn’t help their children with their homework. It was kind of an awkward situation,” she added.
According to Milgram, there was a time when Quebec’s Protestant schools allowed Jewish children to attend, but they did not hire Jewish teachers and Jewish parents were not allowed to be on the school board.
Montreal’s Jewish community reacted by establishing their own private schools. In the Ashkenazi schools, however, the children learned in Yiddish and later in Hebrew and English. When French-speaking Sephardim arrived, they did not fit in.
“This led to Sephardic Jews creating a private school, called Ecole Maimonide,” Milgram said.
According to the school’s website, it was established in 1969 because at the time French-speaking Jewish children had to choose between a Protestant public school that welcomed Jews but taught them in English, a private Ashkenazi school where the language of instruction was also English, and a Catholic public school, where children could study in French but Christian religious education was mandatory.
Despite the ongoing tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Montreal, the two communities also influence each other, Milgram said. For example, Montreal’s Ashkenazi Jews began to borrow Sephardic customs of eating rice and legumes during Passover.
Some of the Montreal Sephardim, on the other hand, adopted Ashkenazi religious traditions. For example, nowadays, there is a Sephardic Chabad Lubavitch synagogue in Montreal, Milgram said.
To prepare for the walking tour, museum researchers spent several months interviewing Sephardic Montrealers and even conducted test-runs of the tour for members of the city’s North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities to get feedback before the tour is offered to the public, said Milgram.
One of the people museum staff interviewed while researching the tour is renowned Jewish-Iraqi-Canadian writer Naim Kattan, the author of more than 30 books and a recipient of the Order of Canada.
Kattan speaks both English and French because he was born in Iraq — a former British colony — but received his education in France. He helped build bridges between the French and the English-speaking Jewish communities in Quebec, as well as between the French Catholics and the French-speaking Jews.
He established the first French-language Jewish publication in Canada, which was called “Le Bulletin du Cercle Juif,” or the Bulletin of the Jewish Circle, and organized discussions where he invited prominent Quebecois politicians.
One of the stops on the walking tour is the house where Kattan used to live.
Other stops include a community garden; a sports community center, where tour participants learn about the Moroccan Jewish scouting movement and a choir; a Sephardic synagogue where five different types of services for the city’s various communities are conducted during the High Holidays; and finally a stop in front of the Segal Centre, a theater where they learn about the Montreal Sephardic Festival and about a band that plays in Ladino.
The “Sephardic Spaces — Reshaping Jewish Montreal” tour will be launched on September 3, and will be offered in English and French every Sunday. For more information, visit the Museum of Jewish Montreal.