Rare archives offer glimpse into evolution of Montreal Jewish culture

Bank of Montreal letterhead, circa 1930s JPL ARCHIVES PHOTO
Bank of Montreal letterhead, circa 1930s JPL ARCHIVES PHOTO

Deep in the crevices of the Jewish Public Library’s archives lie fascinating ephemera of a Montreal from decades and even centuries past. Though meticulously cared for and documented through the years, some collections have, until now, only been seen by a few. Thanks to a new initiative, JPL archivists are working to make some of the library’s most rare and captivating collections accessible to all online through virtual exhibits.

One collection garnering particular attention is the Krishtalka Collection, an assortment of Yiddish language flyers, posters and letters accumulated over many years by Sholem Krishtalka and eventually donated to the JPL by his family after his death in 1977. Krishtalka was a dedicated supporter of the JPL and believed it was imperative to preserve a record of Yiddish culture in Montreal.

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His collection reflects his varied interests ranging from the arts to politics, and the collection provides a rare and fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Montreal Jewish culture from the 1930s until the ’70s, including material pertaining to fundraising campaigns, local elections, cultural events, social issues, Zionism, Communist functions, May Day rallies and various religious topics.

Some of the material was considered, at one point, to be so scandalous that in the 1950s the Montreal Police anti-subversive squad conducted raids on private homes, seizing and destroying materials it considered inflammatory.  The Krishtalka Collection survived because it was hidden in a well-concealed locker in their basement.

“The Sholem Krishtalka Collection contains wonderful examples as to the diversity of Montreal’s Jewish cultural past – everything from lectures on the latest trends in medicine to visits from some of the early 20th century’s most influential thinkers in politics, the labour movement, and culture,” says Shannon Hodge, director of archives at the JPL. “For people not familiar with Jewish Montreal heritage, delving into these rich and, in some cases, unexpected materials can make it easier to not only understand the role the community played in the city’s history but also that its present is just as diverse and layered.”

One item of particular note in the collection is an extremely rare flyer issued in the 1930s by R.E. Leonard, a French-Canadian branch manager at the Bank of Montreal on St. Laurent Boulevard near Ontario Street. Targeted to his Jewish clientele, the entire document is written in Yiddish and calls upon bank clients to instil good saving habits early on by opening savings accounts for their young children. He opens the document with the biblical phrase “Train a lad in the way he ought to go…”

Other items that can be perused online include: strike posters calling for lower kosher meat prices, announcements of Communist sponsored mass meetings against landlords raising rent, advertisements for lectures by anarchist Emma Goldman, promotional material for the Queen Esther ball and beauty pageant, among others.

The lengthy and labour-intensive process of translating and digitizing the documents is well worth it, according to the archivists. “Archives are meant to be used by the public, whether it is in the classroom by students, by academics or other researchers, in-person, or through our websites,” says Hodge. “Digitization is simply one of a number of tools that archivists can use to disseminate documentary heritage and the JPL Archives certainly feels quite grateful to sponsors like Peter and Ellen Jacobs and Sarah and Irwin Tauben for increasing our capacity to use this tool.”

A selection of material from the Krishtalka Collection, as well as several other virtual exhibits, can be found at www.jpl-presents.org. Items are also searchable through the collections on the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network.