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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Vaudreuil Jews share culture with neighbours

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Pianist Gershon Wachtel is seen with, from left, Hudson Mayor Michael Elliott, Maison Trestler executive director Louise Vallée, Elaine Steinberg and pianist David Lotey-Goodman. [Jim Duff photo]

MONTREAL — The small but growing Jewish community of the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region shared its musical tradition with its neighbours at a concert featuring chassidic melodies played by Toronto-based pianist Gershon Wachtel.

The evening, held at the Maison Trestler, a stately waterfront property dating back to 1798, was conceived and sponsored largely by Elaine Steinberg, a 38-year resident of the area.

Her goal was rapprochement and the solidification of already good inter-cultural relations.

For much of her time there, Steinberg believed she and her family were among only a handful of Jews in this region, north of the St. Lawrence River stretching from the town of Île Perrot to the Ontario border.

Two years ago, a young Lubavitch rabbi, Nachum Labkowski, originally from France, and his wife Malki, opened a Chabad centre in St. Lazare. It gave Jewish life a focal point for the first time, and many Jews, to Steinberg’s surprise, have made their presence known as a result, she said. She also sponsored the first menorah erected outside the Hudson town hall at Chanukah.

“Although Jews have lived in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region as early as the 19th century, they have not been visible,” said Steinberg, an art curator whose magnificent three-acre garden in Hudson, Ganaiden, has been the subject of magazine spreads.

“Today, the Jewish presence in the region is considerable and ever growing. The Just the Right Note piano concert is a celebration of Jewish culture as an addition to the region’s social fabric,” and, she added, “the beginning of a collective consciousness.”

Steinberg recently discovered that Jacob Franks, a prominent merchant with connections to the Montreal Jewish community, moved into the area, to Les Cèdres, in 1820. Census data indicates there may be more than 700 households identifying as Jewish, she said.

About 125 people attended the concert where Wachtel played chassidic niggunim, or melodies, and talked about his life, including his embracing of religious Judaism as a young man.

Wachtel, 61, spoke frankly about the difficult choices he had to make, torn between wanting to fulfil the dream of his mother, who sacrificed so much in order for him to become a pianist, and his commitment to observant Judaism.

Steinberg gravitated westward, first to Senneville and then to Vaudreuil-Soulanges because it is horse country – she is a rider and hunter. She raised her two children there.

“My family lived as visible Jews. We never knew any prejudice… My friends were not Jewish. I was always welcome at their clubs and activities,” Steinberg told the audience.

She added in an interview, “For me, this was a thank you for the good life I’ve had here… It’s a wonderful destination, a wonderful place to live and to be Jewish in.

Steinberg saw music as a means of bringing the anglophone, francophone and Jewish communities together. She estimates half the audience was Jewish, including some visitors from Montreal. The beneficiaries were Hudson Chamber Music, Maison Trestler and the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre. The MC was the Segal Centre’s artistic producer, Paul Flicker.

“Niggunim touch my soul,” Steinberg said. “Niggunim bring back the voice of my Russian grandfather.”

Although the music was religious, Steinberg said her goal was, at the same time, to be respectful of what, she believes should be private, namely, one’s beliefs.

Steinberg was assisted by other members of the local Jewish community, including Vladimir and Helen Kurgansky, Rebaca Rezonzew, Michael Klaiman, director of parks and recreation for the municipality, Sam Yampolsky (who can boast of living in the area longer than Steinberg), and Michael Goodman and his 12-year-old son, David Lotey-Goodman, also a pianist, whose interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was enthusiastically received.

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