Shul Stories

From the Pen of an Architect

Harry Stilman, Montreal architect, shares his sketches and memories of Montreal’s early synagogues. The following is an excerpt of a short memoir written in 1997:

In the 1960s and 70s it was my custom to draw my own Jewish New Year’s greeting cards. The thought of commemorating one of Montreal’s many shtiblach somehow appealed to me. A shtibel (singular) literally means a little home, but in fact often refers to a small synagogue.  Montreal’s East end (now the “Plateau”) was littered with these small congregations. They most often originated as a Jewish landsleit group: these were loose associations of immigrants from a particular locale of Eastern Europe whose members could meet occasionally and commiserate about the hardships of the new land… huddled together in the comfort of prayer and familiarity.

In the area bounded by Pine, Hutchinson, Laval, and Van Horne it was possible to come across one of these houses of worship, on most streets, every few hundred yards. Perhaps it is a childhood exaggeration but I would hazard that there had to be not less than 50 such institutions in the area described above. They were generally low on décor and often low on decorum; nonetheless, they helped forge good Canadians.

Our own congregation, the Machzikie Hadath, was made up of immigrants from Dinovitz, Proskurov and Kamenetz-Podilsk, and was located in a converted stable on De Bullion near Rachel. We moved often in those days – it was the custom. Rents in the 1930s and 40s were anywhere from $20 to $30 a month for an unheated walk-up. Come May 1, it seemed that 25% of Montreal’s Jewish immigrants were on the move. Between 1930-1942, my family moved in and out of four such dwellings, all within three blocks of the Bagg Street synagogue…or the Beth Shloime as we knew it then.

To get back to the greeting card, the drawing worked out well and I had people I barely knew calling me for copies because they had seen it and remembered their own past connections with the Shul. One can walk through blocks of these streets and not even see a trace of what once was. In one house there used to be what we called the Rumainisheh Shul, another the Poilisher, the Galitzianer, and so on.  That they have all disappeared leaves one with a sadness and the wish to see preserved what little remains. In our heritage, there is Yizkor, an injunction to remember.

Harry Stilman, McGill Architecture, 1950

A New Year's Greeting, 1979

Harry’s sketch of Marie-Anne Park, now Parc du Portugal, captures the vibrancy of this popular meeting place in the 30s and 40s. The Kerem Israel synagogue, identified by the small arch protruding from the flat roof, borders the right hand corner.

A continuation of Harry's drawing of Marie Anne park above






Compare Harry’s drawing with a photo of the Kerem Israel, built in 1910.







Today, the arch has been removed and the simple building has reverted to its residential function.

The Kerem Israel building today as seen across the part

Harry's drawing of the Minsker Shul in Toronto's Kensington Market

In recent years Harry has moved to Toronto where he continues to sketch the historic synagogues as subjects for his greeting cards. Kensington Market’s Minsker Shul was featured on his 2011 / 5771 Rosh Hashanah card.

Harry Stilman was also the architect of the Pavilion of Judaism at Expo ’67.

See article Jewish Presence at Expo ’67


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