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Experience life in an old garment factory at the Museum of Jewish Montreal

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Research fellow and tour guide Kate Bauer, left, shows visitors how a men’s suit was made in 1912, at the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Pippa Bartlett photo)

The public can learn about the history of the Vineberg Building, a former clothing factory at 4040 St-Laurent Blvd. in Montreal, and its central role in the city’s garment industry, by taking part in the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s (MJM) new guided tour, called “Inside the Shmata Factory.”

Running for six months, this is an opportunity for people to experience what it was like to work in a factory that was one of the city’s major employers in the early 20th century, and a vital part of its economy.

Visitors are transported to 1912, when the city was undergoing rapid industrialization and absorbing massive amount of immigrants. They are introduced to the rags-to-riches story of Harris Vineberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who founded Progress Brand, a men’s wear manufacturer. And in a hands-on workshop, participants will get an idea of how a Progress Brand suit was made.

The factory was the at the centre of a garment workers’ strike, which was the largest walkout the city had ever seen.

The exhibition is based on hundreds of archival documents and oral history accounts in French, English and Yiddish, which are brought to life through new technologies that enable visitors to experience the lives of both the workers and bosses, as they sought common ground.

READ: EXPLORING MONTREAL JEWISH HISTORY À PIED

The Vineberg Building, which has changed hands and names a few times over its history, is now home to dozens of artists and creative industries, as well as the MJM’s storefront premises.

Magdalene Klassen, co-curator of the exhibition, explained that the garment trade still shapes the city today. “Despite factories moving overseas, many Montrealers still work in the industry and many people have a grandparent or great-grandparent who worked in this business,” said Klassen.

“Our exhibition only captures a short moment of this industry’s long history – 1912 – but it gives Montrealers from all backgrounds an opportunity to reflect on the continuities and changes in the garment industry, transitioning Montreal from an industrial centre of Canada, to a hub of cultural and creative expression.”

Originally an online project exclusively, the MJM will celebrate two years in its first physical location later this spring.

The storefront has become a venue for art shows and cultural events, and houses a café and a boutique. It is also the gathering point for walking tours of Montreal’s Jewish past, which are conducted by the MJM.

But according to MJM director Zev Moses, walking tours are not always possible during the winter months. “We want to create immersive and educational experiences that visitors and school groups can access year-round. ‘Inside the Shmata Factory’ is hopefully the first of a network of indoor spaces around the museum that will bring our community’s, and city’s, history and culture to life” he said.

The MJM continues to collect and share stories from the Montreal Jewish experience through its website and Facebook page. The project was made possible by Federation CJA’s Shaping Our Future program and the City of Montreal’s Diffusion du patrimoine montréalais program.

Tours are offered multiple times per week in both French and English. For information, contact Pippa Bartlett at pippa@imjm.ca, or 514-840-9300.