Reviews & Praise for Traces of the Past

I have just finished reading your book on the Montreal synagogues and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. It’s a superb achievement in the way it combines informed architectural commentary with a marvelously concise yet rich history of the changing nature of the Montreal Jewish and synagogue cultures and their place in larger histories, along with personalities and events brought to life — and the fascinating pictures of the synagogues no longer with us, which include some architectural gems and the beautiful colour photographs of the extant ones. A book for the specialist and the general reader. I’ve recommended it to friends, and I expect my art history students at the Liberal Arts Colege will be using it as the architeture project this year will be on places of worship.

Virginia Nixon,  Liberal Arts College, Concordia University

Thanks to Sara for an informative and engaging lecture on how synagogue architecture always ‘tells the truth’ about the community that built it. Sara was careful not to repeat information that one could just as easily obtain by reading her book. Rather, she tailored her remarks to engage the particular audience. She challenged us to view the architecture of our own building, using the analytical tools that she taught us, to see what we could discover about the values of our own community.

Rabbi Brian Besser, February 2012 ~ then Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe

Sara Tauben has a vast knowledge base with regard to the history of synagogues. Her multi-disciplinary background allows her to draw upon a variety of perspectives making her presentation both informative and interesting. I truly enjoyed our evening at the Shaar with Sara as a discussant.

Dr. Lois Baron ~ Emeritus Professor of Education, Concordia University & member of the Shaar Hashamayim committee that invited Sara to introduce a documentary film on the wooden synagogues of Poland


Back to Schul

Montreal Review of Books, Spring 2012 issue

Reviewed by Leila Marshy

Click here to visit the Montreal Review of Books website

Montrealers like to say, with enduring pride, that you can’t throw a stone without hitting a church. GPS not needed, simply find the spires in the distance and onward go. Over time, however, this Catholic skyline has all but sunk under the impetus of the Quiet Revolution and upscale condos.

And so we treasure the archaeological artefacts of Montreal’s religious history: a crucifix here, an organ there, a stained glass window for your kitchen. But Sara Ferdman Tauben, author of Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues is the archaeologist who stays at the dig after all the others have gone home.

What Ferdman Tauben dusts off is the story of Montreal’s synagogues. The city’s first Jewish residents established the Shearith Israel congregation (also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) as long ago as 1768. The first synagogue in Canada, it was also the first non-Catholic house of worship in Quebec.

As the community moved up the Main and westward, they dotted neighbourhoods with shuls, small shtibels, and built synagogues. More than mere places of worship, the synagogues united disparate waves of immigrants into cohesive communities, providing amenities such as meeting rooms, kitchens, gymnasiums, halls, and classrooms.

Like their Christian counterparts, the synagogues reflected the financial, organizational, and architectural ambitions of their congregants. From modest converted duplexes (the Bagg Street Schul) to “the city’s first example of the Roman-Byzantine style” (Temple Emanu-El), they were an unmistakable counterpoint to the otherwise “more commanding ideologies” that surrounded them.

As the Jewish community grew, splintered, evolved, retracted, reformed, and grew again, entire congregations moved first north, then west, picking up stakes and migrating half way across town. In their wake, the splintered groups swallowed their pride and merged together, forming compound groups in a last ditch effort to survive in situ. The Chevra Shaas Adath Yeshurun Hadrath Kodesh Shevet Achim Chaverim Kol Israel d’Bet Avraham, for example, was an amalgamation of five former downtown congregations.

Likewise, she notes the relationships – or lack thereof – between the Conservatives and the Reformers, the traditionalists and the “moderns,” and between everybody and the Hasidim. Fascinating portraits of individuals emerge in the process: the Parnass family, for example, most of whom played leadership roles in the community, including the women; or the chatty anecdotes from individual congregants. Sam Birenbaum, long-time secretary of the Anshei Ozeroff congregation in the 1920s, writes: “As fate would have it, we settled in Montreal where daily life in its ‘Hoo-Ha’ was ready to swallow us (up).”

Ferdman Tauben has clearly spent many hours in the archives, poring over letters, blueprints, meeting minutes, shopping lists, attendance records, and so on. What emerges, surprisingly, is a lively and personable account of a vibrant community on the move. Further, she teases out the knots between historical record and its messier companion, the truth. The story of the Beth Yehuda on Duluth, for example, bears this out. Its congregants beamed that their synagogue “with splendour and glory … was the pride of all Montreal Jews.” But Ferdman Tauben immediately reaches for that next dusty box in the archives, and smiles at the crumpled note otherwise overlooked. “In the treasury there was not even one cent … All this cost money, which wasn’t there,” reveals a 1940 letter.

While written for those interested in Montreal’s Jewish history, Traces of the Past is a valuable work for anyone interested in the cityscape, urban planning, architecture, religion, or minority communities. Yet, while she mixes anecdotes and archival research with ease, there is no mistaking that her priority is getting the facts straight and paying homage to the buildings themselves. Written with refreshing spareness, it is rich in detail and texture. It can also occasionally feel like an onslaught of information, and more than once I found myself flipping forwards and backwards and forwards again, having gotten lost in Beth this or Shaar that. But to accuse her of erring on the side of detail is like telling St-Viateur Bagel to go easy on the sesame seeds.

Now that many of Montreal’s original synagogues have been converted into schools, condos, and, yes, even churches, Traces of the Past is an important contribution to the history of Quebec.

Leila Marshy is editor of The Rover.


History is worth the walk

The Canadian Jewish News, November 24, 2011
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin

Click here to read the original article

The area of Montreal now known as the Plateau Mont-Royal retains remarkable traces of the early stages of Jewish settlement and institutional life in the city.

To those who lived on streets such as St. Urbain, Hutchison and St. Dominique streets before and immediately after World War II, this must seem like cold comfort, little more than a bare holdover from the decades when the area was a vital community. Yet, when a visitor arrives in Montreal with the aim of recovering a sense of what earlier versions of Jewish life were like, the present character of the city’s streets makes a good walk richly productive.

Sara Ferdman Tauben’s Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues (Véhicule) presents a wealth of architectural information alongside well-told social history, upon which she depicts the rise and fall of Jewish communal life in Montreal’s old centre.

Tauben begins on a modest note, suggesting that in 1999, when she began her hunt for early synagogues, “there was scant physical evidence. Traces of former synagogues dot the urban landscape of the neighbourhoods they once inhabited as Jewish houses of worship. Their previous function is revealed by markings chiselled away by weather, time and subsequent inhabitants. Here and there, the name of a congregation, a Hebrew inscription or a glimpse of a Star of David can still be detected…”

But to the memory tourist’s relief, many of the buildings that once housed the larger and smaller storefront synagogues still stand. They have been transformed into Ukrainian halls, Buddhist temples, egg wholesalers and mime theatres, and their presence in the cityscape allows for the recovery of a sense of their history.

Tauben has done extensive research into the communities that built synagogues, as well as into their movement as the Jewish area of settlement shifted north and west. She is expert at conveying architectural influences from Europe, as well as those from local secular and church architecture.

The repurposing of buildings – from churches into synagogues, from synagogues into Vietnamese houses of worship – is evocative of the Canadian phenomenon by which newcomer groups follow one another in the transformation of immigrant corridors.

Traces of the Past addresses, thoughtfully and without didacticism, the patterns of change in Jewish devotional life, as shulelach patterned on prewar Polish models gave way to grander structures. Suburbanization presented more recent architectural ideals and even changed the notion of how a synagogue should serve its community. Increasingly, the success of what came to be called “synagogue centres,” which served as community centres and educational hubs, were “dependent less on the ideologies of the rabbinic elite than upon the energies of the laity.”

Traces of the Past is well illustrated with historical photographs and congregational
documents. But the illustrative showpiece of the book is a set of colour photographs taken by Toronto photographer David Kaufman, of once – and still active – synagogue buildings. Kaufman sets the buildings in full afternoon light, under empty blue skies, and in these settings surfaces that might otherwise appear shabby take on a terra-cotta glow. In one case, a mansard-roofed synagogue, whose second act was as the French language Théâtre de Quat’Sous, has since been demolished. In Kaufman’s rendering, the Bagg Street Shul, still active and often miserably tagged by graffiti, looks solid and ready for service.

The final section of Traces of the Past is a finely detailed walking tour in which Tauben notes that urban explorers should expect to discover not “landmarks of monumental significance” but “hidden gems covered over by various stages of urban layering.” This is the particular Jewish heritage encountered when walking the streets of Plateau Mont-Royal, which Traces of the Past teases out with energy and humour.

Norman Ravvin’s recent books include a novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau Press), and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein, co-edited with Sherry Simon (McGill-Queen’s).