Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A peek inside Yiddish Montreal

Read more articles by

Yiddish was Montreal’s third language for the entire first half of the twentieth century. Up and down the Main, people gossiped in Yiddish, shopped in Yiddish, read the Kanader Odler, Montreal’s daily Yiddish newspaper, and flocked to Yiddish theatre at the Monument National. For the tens of thousands of Jews who fled to Montreal from the pogroms and poverty of Russia and Eastern Europe, Yiddish was the lingua franca that united a community with diverse geographical origins.

Gradually, all of that began to change as new generations of Jewish Montrealers, educated at Protestant schools, turned to English as the language of everyday life. While it’s hard to overstate the contributions these later generations made to Montreal’s anglophone cultural life—there were literary giants like Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler, but also A.M. Klein, Louis Dudek and others—their embrace of English was a deathknell for Yiddish. Although Yiddish remains a language alive in the arts, for most Jewish Montrealers it is an ancestral language, an historical relic.

That is, except for the 15,000 Montrealers whose native language is Yiddish. Thanks to its large and growing Hasidic community, Montreal is a bastion of the Yiddish tongue, albeit a very exclusive one. Jeff Heinrich has more in today’s Gazette:

It’s 7: 30 a.m. at Bentzy’s Food Depot, a popular corner store on Hutchison St. in Outremont, and the getting-to-school, getting-to-work rush is on.

Behind the cash register, owner Bentzy Goldberg punches in the purchases and chats with the customers. They’re Hasidic Jews, like him, of all ages.

The merchandise they buy, much of it imported from New York, is labelled mostly in English: Bloom Animal Crackers, Mehadim Yogurt, Gefen Sauerkraut. The dollars-and-cents part of the transaction – the amount run up, the change given – comes out in English, too. So do modern words like computer and cellphone.

But another language, Yiddish – which sounds a little like German, from which it is mostly derived – comes out loud and clear in every conversation, as animated as the uptempo Jewish songs playing on the store’s Internet radio.

Sometimes there’s an expression borrowed from French, like en gros (wholesale). But even 21st-century terms are converted into Yiddish; email, for example, is blitzpost.

“Yiddish is our mother tongue, it’s what we speak at home, in the synagogue, in the street,” said Goldberg, a New Yorker who moved to Montreal to live in the city of his bride, as ultraorthodox custom requires.

“We don’t speak Yiddish to preserve the language, but to have a connection with our forefathers. It’s the same reason we don’t watch TV. The language keeps us between ourselves and minimizes outside influence.”

Read the whole article here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *