QUEBEC CITY — Quebec City’s Jewish population was probably never much more than the 125 families it had at its peak in the 1940s and ’50s. But the community’s history goes back to the 18th century and its impact, especially on the capital’s commerce, was far greater than the numbers would suggest.
Last week, an exhibition telling the little-known story of the community over the centuries, mainly through the lives of its some of its prominent or colourful members, opened at the historic Gare du Palais, as part of the city’s year-long celebration of its 400th anniversary.
The title – Same Cloth, Different Thread: The Jews of Québec – is intended to suggest that the city’s Jews, many of whom were immigrants, have blended in well without losing their distinctive religion and culture.
The exhibition, which continues until Sept. 26, is the centrepiece of Shalom Québec, a series of events this year and an ongoing research project undertaken by today’s small community with the collaboration of historians and academics, several of them not Jewish.
A website, www.Shalomquebec.org, was also launched, which provides more comprehensive information related to Quebec City’s Jews. This is a work-in-progress and anyone with stories or memorabilia about the community is invited to contribute.
The Gare du Palais, a busy Via railway station today, was chosen as the venue, not only because of the throngs that pass through it daily, but because it is on the Lower Town street where many Jewish merchants once had their stores.
The exhibition consists of panels with bilingual text, photos and other illustrations. The individuals profiled range from Frenchwoman Esther Brandeau, the first Jew for whom there is documentary evidence to have set foot in New France, to Jonathan Hawey, the current president of the city’s sole synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel Ohev Shalom.
Brandeau arrived in 1738 disguised as a male sailor. Non-Catholics were not permitted in the French colony. Caught out, she was sequestered at a nunnery, but refused to convert and was shipped back to Europe the following year.
Hawey did convert, and quite readily, as a young man. Born in Quebec City in 1955, he was raised a Catholic and his identity was thoroughly Québécois. But his name was not typical. Genealogical research confirmed that he was the direct descendant of a Scottish Jew who arrived in the 18th century. He married a francophone Catholic and the family soon assimilated.
Hawey, who is a scout for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and played the game professionally for two years in Japan, is also an active promoter of the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation. He boasts that his Hebrew is better than his English.
Among the other interesting contemporary personalities on view are Yoav Talmi, the Israeli-born conductor of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Dovid Lewin, a young Lubavitcher from France.
Simon Jacobs, the director of Shalom Québec, is a British-born violist with the QSO, who settled in Quebec almost 20 years ago, via Toronto.
Between 150 and 200 people are affiliated with Congregation Beth Israel Ohev Shalom today, Jacobs said. After a long period of decline starting in the 1960s, the Jewish population has bounced back somewhat with arrivals mainly from abroad.
The first Jewish resident of Quebec, recorded in 1759, the year of the British conquest, was Samuel Jacobs, but his descendants soon assimilated. The first synagogue opened in 1852.
Historical figures recognized include John Franks, who was a fire chief in the late 18th century; engineer Sigismund Mohr, who oversaw the electrification of the city in the late 19th century; and Abraham Joseph, president of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce. The most prominent Jewish businessman was Maurice Pollack, who arrived from Ukraine in the early 20th century.
Women are not overlooked. Sadie Lazarovitz was one of the first female law graduates in Canada in 1928. Her daughter Lois Lieff of Montreal was present at the opening. Lea Roback, a labour organizer and feminist from the 1930s on, lived most of her life in Montreal, but grew up in nearby Beauport and spent a great deal of time in Quebec.
While accentuating the positive, the exhibition touches on a few dark episodes such as the anti-Semitism of notary Jacques Plamondon, who was sued for libel in a famous 1910 case, and the arson of the synagogue on the eve of its inauguration in 1944.
Arthur Aron, the chair of Shalom Québec, is one of the few remaining descendants of the leading Jewish families of the mid-20th century. His father, who came from Montreal, opened a jewelry store across from the train station in the 1930s.
The exhibition also provides a little information on the Jewish religion, such as what kosher means, and major world events affecting Jews, such as the Dreyfus affair in France, pogroms in Russia and, of course, the Nazi era and the creation of the State of Israel.
Six members of the national assembly, two from each party, attended the opening, as well as two area members of Parliament, deputy mayor Jacques Jolicoeur and Daniel Gélinas, president of the 400th anniversary celebrations. FEDERATION CJA president Marc Gold spoke on behalf of the Montreal Jewish community, emphasizing that Jewish and French Quebecers are like a family that has its tensions and debates from time to time, but essentially are working toward the same goal of a strong and cohesive society.
For Montreal Liberal MNA Lawrence Bergman, the occasion was particularly meaningful. His maternal grandfather, a penniless Russian immigrant, settled in Quebec City more than 100 years ago, and his mother, now 90, was born and raised there.
“When I told her this morning what I was going to do today, she said, ‘You are going to us, that’s where we belong.’ After so many years in Montreal, her heart is still in Quebec City.”
Visiting the exhibition was nostalgic for Sam Ferstman, who was born in Quebec in 1927 to Russian parents, but has been living in Montreal since 1945.
He recalled that his father had a men’s clothing store across the street. A green space nearby was known as Parc des juifs because Jews gathered there on weekends.
“I remember a train ticket to Montreal cost $2, and there was a Jewish fellow who had a newsstand over there, who wore a white jacket. My mother spoke Yiddish with him. It seems like yesterday.”
Jews could not attend Catholic schools, so Ferstman went to an English Protestant school but learned French on the street and remembers relations with francophones as generally positive, despite the political climate of the ’30s.
He recently restored the monument on the grave of his younger sister who died as an infant and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ste. Foy, inscribing a brief history of the family, the rest of whom are interred in Montreal.
Shalom Québec is being sponsored by a variety of private, communal and public sources, including Heritage Canada’s grant of over $46,000.