Younger generations may find it hard to believe that less than 50 years ago LGBTQ Jews in Montreal were denied space at the Jewish community centre—and even the most liberal congregation waffled on giving them a platform.
That relatively recent period is illuminated in a new zine entitled Not Going Anywhere: History and Continuity in Queer Jewish Montreal, which its creators hope will spur scholarly treatment of this largely forgotten chapter.
With support from the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) and Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal (JCF), the four contributors spent months researching what it was like to be queer and Jewish in Montreal in the years after homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada in 1969.
“It was extremely difficult to find people who were willing to speak on the subject,” said MJM research coordinator Benya Villani, who like the others is in their 20s
Villani was joined by Romy Shoam and Hannah Grover, both MJM research fellows last year, and Max Holzberg, a Concordia University master’s student.
Fortunately for them, the earliest gay Jewish organization in Montreal, Naches, which was around from 1973 to 1986, had the foresight to preserve its documentation with the Archives gaies du Québec. Those papers were discovered by a volunteer researcher at MJM, said Villani.
“We found a wealth of archival documents and a dearth of published material. This project is aimed at addressing that imbalance,” said Villani, a PhD candidate in Western University’s history department.
They tracked down a couple of Naches’s founders, Mark David Gerson, now living on the U.S. West Coast, and K. David Brody, who is still in Montreal, who cooperated fully with the researchers, said Villani
Gerson commented on the irony that a Jewish community institution, like the JCF, funded the project, when the community had “so much antipathy towards us” back then. The choice of name—Naches, a Yiddish word connoting joy or pride—was the group’s way of thumbing its nose at the prevailing attitude to homosexuality.
Naches’s most outspoken and activist leader, Harvey Blackman, had died, but he meticulously kept the records of Naches’s two major battles, one dubbed “The Y Wars.”
It took Naches five years to obtain the right to space at the YM-YWHA, and only after it took legal action.
In the spring of 1977, the group approached the Y about renting a room for its cultural programming. With no reply after a year to multiple letters to the Y, Naches went public.
It turned to Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which was “sympathetic but powerless” to intervene, Naches was told.
So Naches filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission in 1979. In October 1982, one of its lawyers, Béatrice Vizkelety, ruled the Y had discriminated against Naches on the basis of sexual orientation.
Despite the victory, Naches never did rent a room at the Y because members felt they would not be comfortable there.
Perhaps more surprising is the runaround Naches got from Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
In the fall of 1977, Naches asked the temple if it could use its sukkah during the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, and have the opportunity to speak to the congregation about being gay and Jewish.
The request to use the sukkah was turned down via a phone call, but a counter-offer was made that the group lead an “open forum on the Jewish gay community” at the temple on Feb. 16, 1978.
But a Dec. 16, 1977 letter from Rabbi Mark Golub to Naches member Roy Salonin, sent after the event was publicly advertised, including in the newspaper edition of The CJN, stated that the offer was withdrawn on account of a “programming error.”
Naches appealed to CJC, but as in the case of the ‘’Y Wars,” was met with prevarication
“What’s clear is Naches’s bravery in pursuing its simple desire to participate in Jewish life,” the zine concludes.
The zine’s title is inspired by Gerson’s comment: “All these institutions and individuals needed to be reminded that we were out there… and we weren’t going to go anywhere.”
Neither of the principals in these two episodes was contacted for their versions. The Y’s executive director Maurice Nayer is deceased. Holzberg said, “We did not reach out to Rabbi Mark Golub. Our aim with the interviews was to focus on contemporary voices, or those involved in maintaining inclusion in recent history.”
“I cannot speak to other team members, but I was sadly not surprised to learn of the struggles (Naches) faced. What I was surprised by was their courage and chutzpah in facing them,” Villani told The CJN.
“I don’t believe the younger generation of Jewish Montrealers is aware of this past, but hopefully our zine is a small contribution towards correcting it, and inspiring others to research it further.
“While we’ve made great strides, as with many groups, the battle is not completely won. It is especially important to prevent backsliding, as well as combating other trends, such as rising transphobia.”
As Villani and Holzberg say in the zine’s introduction, “But now, queer memory can aid us to right historical wrongs, document oral histories, and give life to dust-covered boxes lying dormant on fond shelves.”
Naches disbanded in 1986 largely due to many members leaving Montreal. Another group Yakhdav (Hebrew for together) was formed two years later explicitly including lesbians, as well as gay men.
Meanwhile, the community’s attitude evolved in this group’s time. It worked with B’nai Brith to lobby the Quebec government to strengthen protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, for example.
Yakhdav, which existed until 2004, also partnered with the Y in holding programs related to AIDS and in sensitizing the community against homophobia.
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom (the two congregations had merged) became a welcoming home to LGBTQ people, especially after the arrival of Rabbi Leigh Lerner from the United States in 1989. Queer couples were accepted without differentiation, and Rabbi Lerner performed the first same-sex marriage at the temple in 2005.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, who is gay, and who succeeded Rabbi Lerner in 2012, has made the temple a warm and welcoming home for people like herself, writes contributor Hannah Grover, who identifies as a “Jewish Sapphic person.”
This unconditional acceptance is a primary reason Grover chose to move to Montreal is 2018 from Regina, she writes. “I’ve never felt so proud to be Jewish.”
Copies of the 64-page bilingual Not Going Anywhere, which is illustrated with original art, in physical or digital formats, are available for purchase through the MJM by contacting [email protected].