Jewish Public Library

In 1914, Jewish Montreal welcomed its first public library. Starting as early as 1888, various organizations within the community attempted to establish libraries for their members; anarchists, Zionists, labour Zionists, socialists and members of the Baron de Hirsch Institute had access to Yiddish and Hebrew reading material through their memberships. It was not until the founding of the Folks Biblyotek, though, that the community enjoyed the privileges of affordable access to reading materials, culture and education. The Library was the centre of Yiddish culture and education for Montreal’s Jews, taking on the role of the preserver of cultural identity.

The Library was known originally as the Jewish People’s Library and University, an appropriate name as the institution has always strived to offer not only books but a place where knowledge and information is shared no matter the format. The Library is generally considered to have been founded by two men: Reuben Brainin and Yehuda Kaufman. Both men were very involved in the Jewish community in other institutions but they knew there was a very real lack of cultural meeting place for the “Downtown” Jews. From the beginning, the Library offered programmes, books, journals, newspapers, etc. in Yiddish (then the main language of its users) but also the opportunity for these users to gain access to material in Hebrew, English, French, Russian and Polish. The Library originally opened in a rented cold-water flat on St. Urbain and for many years struggled to raise enough just to buy coal to heat the apartment. The Library moved a number of times before settling in its current location in the Cummings Building.

Today the Library enjoys a reputation as a being world-class resource centre. Books are collected and distributed in five languages: English, French, Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish. The JPL boasts a full-service children’s library, cultural programming in five languages, a priceless community archive and the distinction of being North America’s continuously operating Jewish public library. The Library even has one of the largest circulating collection of Judaic literature in North America – and that includes universities! The Library continues to serve individuals and families, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of Montreal as well as welcoming visitors and researchers from across Canada, the United States, Israel, South America and Europe.

Classroom Discussion: How important do you think language is to remembering heritage and culture?  What examples do you see of minority languages in your community?