How Montreal saved my Judaism

I just got back from the most amazing trip to Montreal. I had been before, but with groups of people who spoke only English. This time, I was going to do it in français. And on my own.

I found the past three years so difficult. I love to travel but because of Covid, I hadn’t been on a plane since I led a Birthright trip in Summer 2019. I had done some smaller trips to Philly, Richmond, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Charlottesville, all with friends. Which was great. I got to see new places and have a relaxing change of scenery. And rebuild my travel skills.

I spent the better part of two years traveling when I lived in Israel. I visited 120 Israeli municipalities and 10 European and Middle Eastern countries. And what was so amazing about this experience in Montreal was that with a little preparation, I was back in the game. Perhaps even better than before.

Montreal, for those who don’t know, is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. It is home to large immigrant communities and diverse religious groups, including a significant Jewish presence dating back to the 1700’s. The Jewish presence is integral to the Montreal’s cultural identity. Of the three most famous Montreal foods, two are Jewish- bagels and smoked meat sandwiches. And these bagels, by the way, are in fact better than the best New York bagel I’ve ever had. They are cooked fresh 24/7 in wood-fired ovens and are absolutely delicious.

To be honest, as I’ve written about lately, I’ve felt distant from my Judaism. So I wasn’t sure how much I was going to engage with it on this trip. After all, I wanted to practice my French. Most Jews in Montreal are anglophones. And I was just tired of Judaism. I had signed up for a French-language Jewish culinary tour and if it hadn’t been in French (which excited me!), I’m not sure I would’ve gone.

But in French it was and something about the combination of French and Judaism works for me. It adds a layer of culture and interculturality to the experience. I found myself as the only Jew on the tour, including the guide, who was a non-Jewish woman from Quebec. The other participants were a French woman and a Quebecois man, both non-Jewish. While the guide was very knowledgeable, I ended up getting the chance to add my own commentary and knowledge to the tour! By the end, the French woman said the Museum of Jewish Montreal should hire me 🙂 . I was flattered.

The day before the tour, my connection to Judaism began to revive – or refashion itself – as well. I found myself in the Mile End, a heavily Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood. It was Shabbat and even though I was wearing decidedly non-Orthodox attire (a bright polo and jeans), I couldn’t help but wish the people walking by a “git shabbes”. A good Sabbath. And for the most part I got smiles and a “git shabbes” back.

Solo travel can be hard but little moments like this when a gay Reform Jew is greeting Hasidic brethren in Yiddish – that just makes my heart warm. And they weren’t the only people making my heart feel full. I’m part of the Yiddish-language community in the U.S. A French Yiddish-speaking klezmer artist and friend Eleonore introduced me to her Syrian KLEZMER VIOLINIST FRIEND. Who lives in Montreal! Yes, you read that right. So Zafer, the Syrian klezmer artist, and I did Greek food and talked about all things Jewish and Middle Eastern and queer! Because our commonalities were incredible. It’s the kind of mix you really only find in few places on the planet. Montreal is definitely one of them.

Having done the Jewish food tour, spoken a ton of French, and met a Syrian klezmer violinist, I had arrived at my final day (I did a bunch of other non-Jewish stuff but this blog can only be so long!). My last day I could’ve just gone to a park and eaten cheese with a baguette. Which sounds really nice right about now. But instead, I went back to the Mile End, bought a t-shirt from my favorite bagel place and went to a Hasidic bookstore in search of Yiddish books. I even got a compliment on my Yiddish from a young Hasidic man on the street who I asked for directions from!

I found the bookstore and this entire section (and more) was just books in Yiddish:

The bookstore employee’s eyes lit up when I said I wanted Yiddish books. He showed me children’s books, Mishnah in Yiddish, and Siddurim with Yiddish translations of the prayers. I must’ve spent an hour and a half in there. I wanted to buy everything! And while my eyes initially drifted towards the children’s books (which are so cute!), I found myself surprisingly attracted to the religious books given my recent doubts about God. In addition to some children’s stories, I decided to buy a part of the Mishnah and, most importantly a Siddur, or prayerbook. Something about the Yiddish softens the prayers for me. So they don’t seem so scary or prescriptive. They feel a little queer. And I like it.

So to the province with a blue and white flag just like Israel, je t’aime. Ikh hob dikh lib. I love you! Because of you, I feel a renewed connection to my Judaism. It’s a Judaism that intersects with language. With Hassidism. With queerness. And even with Syria!

I’ll be back soon. Because to travel, to wander- that is to be a Jew.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: