Friday, October 6, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Montreal’s Jewish Public Library

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

Jewish Public Library of Montreal: Large crowd at Dedication Ceremony for New Library Building at 4499 Esplanade Avenue, in the Mile End neighbouhood, on October 04, 1953. 
Photo Credit: Federal Photos & JPL

I have long enjoyed libraries, since this is where the books are kept. One of my first libraries that I visited—I was six or seven when my father took me— was Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (Yidishe Folks biblyotek) at 4499 Esplanade Avenue at the corner of Mont-Royal Avenue, the first time that the library would have a building purposely built for it. This was a beautiful building in a beautiful location in Montreal’s Mile End neighbouhood: across the road from Fletcher’s Field and a five-minute walk from my school.

It was also supposed to be a permanent location, after decades of residing in temporary or rented premises. On October 19, 1952, a cornerstone was laid with great hope and with ideas of presence and permanence:
In front of a crowd of over a thousand Allan Bronfman delivered a moving speech on behalf of his brother Samuel. He spoke about the enduring Jewish spirit and traditions and the centrality of books. The speech ended with the line “Today as we dedicate this Library for its people, let us also dedicate its people for the Library.”
Also within the walls of the new building were two stones. One was a “grim memorial of the past” and the other a “bright augury for the future.” The first was a part of a pillar from the Tlomatzky Synagogue in Warsaw which was donated by the Polish government and the other was from Mount Zion and was made available by the Government of Israel
Another Photo, from a different angle, of the October 1953 opening, overlooking Mont-Royal Avenue and its beautiful grey-stone residences.  
Photo Credit: JPL Archives

Almost a year later, on October 4, 1953, there was a Dedication Ceremony, with many dignitaries and writers in attendance, including Samuel Bronfman, Dr. Jean Bruchési, H. Carl Goldenberg, S.I. Segal, Melech Ravitch, Jacob Shatzky and David Rome. Yet, despite its original intentions, the JPL would remain at this Esplanade location only for a little more than a dozen years. By the 1960s, the Jews were moving out of the area, and the building was sold to the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, writes Zachary M. Baker in an excellent 2014 article (“A Goodly Tent of Jacob, and the Canadian Home Beautiful: The Jewish Public Library in the Civic Sphere during the 1950s”) for Canadian Jewish Studies:
On 18 June 1966, the Quebec government took possession of the property at 4499 Esplanade, on behalf of the nascent Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (formally established the following year), and the JPL moved to rented space on Décarie Boulevard, where it remained until Cummings House–the home of the Allied Jewish Community Services (now, Federation CJA)–opened in 1972. No longer would the JPL be housed in a building of its own.
There it has remained for more than 40 years at its present location at 5151 Côte-Ste-Catherine Road, at the corner of Westbury Avenue. It has become the building that 4499 Esplanade Avenue was supposed to be. By then, we had also moved westward, joining the rest of the Jewish community. I was once again a young patron (a teenager) of the library, no more than a short bus ride away.

My father also attended many lectures in Yiddish; sometimes I would go along, only to get a ride by car. Later on, I returned to the library as a member and used its services regularly, that is, until moving to Toronto almost five years ago. (Despite having a large Jewish community, Toronto no longer has a Jewish library; it closed in 2008 and sold off all of its books.)

No matter where it is located, JPL has always been more than a lending library; it has always been a people’s library and in the first decades of its existence completely a volunteer operation. The purpose of the JPL has always been clear:
The Folks-biblyotek was more than a library to its founders and members. David Rome states: “From day one the Jewish Public Library considered itself and was considered by others as one of the great institutions of the world, regardless of how small it was.”[19] Rather than a library whose main function was to circulate books, the Folks-biblyotek became a centre of culture, in particular Yiddish culture, for every element of the community.[20] Sack describes the Folks-biblyotek as “the focal point around which intelligent Jews focused their energy, in particular the intelligent Jewish youth.”[21]
As the library site says, it had modest beginnings: “The JPL opened its doors on May 1st, 1914 in a modest cold-water flat at 669 rue St. Urbain with a small collection of 500 books.” By the time that it moved to its current location in Montreal’s west end Snowdon neighbourhood, the size of its holdings increased to more than 150,000 items in five languages: English, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. the JPL celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014; I hope it remains open for another 100 years.

True, it might not be (or seem) as cozy as it was on Esplanade Avenue, but alts shtendik oyskumen beser ven ir zent a kind vas hat gefunen a gut bukh tsu leyenen (things always seem better when you are a child who has found a good book to read.) I was fortunate to have spent so much time at the JPL. It is a beautiful and wonderful library that has given me many happy memories, in attending lectures, in finding particular books that I needed for the purposes of research and in just having the pleasure of finding a book to read while wandering through the stacks—a pleasure any book lover knows. A shaynem dank to the staff at the JPL.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, October 6, 2017

Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project: Eva Raby, former director of the Montreal Jewish Public Library, describes the origins of  the “biblyotek un folks universitet,” and how Yiddish culture was like a religion for secular families like hers.