The Jewish Nomad: A visit to the Bagg Street Shul in Montreal can bring you back to the future

Since I’m in Montreal for the next while, to star in the play Mazel Tov, I figured shul hopping would be a fun way to reconnect with my hometown.

So, for the first time ever, I visited the oldest living synagogue in Quebec: the Bagg Street Shul in the Plateau district. 

Originally named Congregation Temple Solomon, or Beth Shloime for short, it sits at Clark and Bagg Streets—a tiny corner you’d easily miss if you weren’t looking. And I mean it when I say “old”…  those doors creak! You know when someone is entering the building.

In the entrance, they had slippers for anyone who’d prefer to take off their shoes.

As a traditionally Orthodox institution, the main floor houses the men’s section and the women’s section is on a balcony, which wraps around the top.

After I made my way up the stairs and quietly took a seat, I noticed the Judaic artwork lining the inside rim of the balcony: quaint paintings of the 12 Zodiac signs with Hebrew titles, which stand out against the light blue walls of the interior.

Most of the shuls I’ve been to in Montreal are renovated and modern. This reminded me more of some of the older ones I’ve visited in Toronto—like the Kiever in Kensington Market. 

It turns out the Bagg Shul was modelled after synagogues from when Poland and Ukraine were typically labelled as nothing but “the old country.”

The shul is volunteer-run and membership is free. And this publication has covered some efforts to rejuvenate attendance over the years. But sadly, it seems that numbers have gone down during the pandemic. We didn’t even have a minyan.

(On a recent Bonjour Chai episode, I poo-pooed Avi when he claimed people would stop going to shul because of COVID. Guess I was wrong! At least here, for now.)

There was no rabbi or cantor, so the congregants (many of whom seemed like Bagg old-timers) took turns leading the service–which gave it a special communal feeling.

I’ve never been to a quieter service, to the point where no one was talking during the Torah portion. (That’s a rarity at any shul!) The atmosphere was so serene that, as I listened to the weekly portion being chanted, I closed my eyes and it felt meditative. 

My grandparents grew up in this neighborhood, back when it was heavily populated by Jews of the non-Hasidic variety. 

I don’t know if my ancestors ever attended the Bagg Street Shul specifically, but sitting in this historic building really moved me. I pictured the now empty pews filled with davening yidden, throughout the decades, and I could practically see their ghosts. 

To this day, the Jewish roots of the area are still very present. There are many famous kosher-style delis nearby, like Schwartz’s and Wilensky’s, and bagel shops like Fairmount and St-Viateur. 

Look carefully, and you can spot Hebrew letters lining the top of College Francais’ entrance on Fairmount Street, from when the building used to be a synagogue.

Look way up at College Francais.

I even discovered, after doing some googling, that the infamous erotic film establishment Cinéma L’Amour used to be known as Le Globe—which primarily screened Yiddish movies, along with putting on live plays.

I love the area so much and, although it’s great that many Jews are now able to afford larger homes in areas like Cote-St-Luc and Hampstead, I feel something has been lost. 

After the services, at the kiddush downstairs, I discovered that most of the present-day congregants don’t even live nearby. Most walked for over an hour to participate. When I asked them why they came all this way, one member said she felt they needed to keep the spirit of the synagogue alive. Others said it was simply the closest synagogue to where they lived.

Maybe I’m biased because the area is super artsy, on top of its rich history, but I vote that the Jews should move back. The Bagg Street Shul is virtually the only non-Hasidic shul left in the area.

And there are plenty of seats to fill.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

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