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Early History

The arrival of Bucovina-born anarchist Hirsh (Harry) Hershman (1876-1955) from New York marks the beginnings of the development of organized Yiddish literary activity in Montreal.  Hershman became active in cultural affairs soon after his arrival in Montreal in 1902, and became a pioneer of the Yiddish press and bookstores.  Hershman’s memoirs of his early years in Montreal provide insight into the state of Yiddish cultural life at the beginning of the twentieth century, specifically into the founding of the city’s first Jewish library.[1]  Having been lured from New York by better shop conditions, Hershman was disappointed to discover that the pastime of his “enlightened” countrymen in Montreal was card playing. The city lacked a forum for Yiddish culture; Hershman recalls that there was no club, library, or even a store where one could purchase a Yiddish newspaper or book.[2]  There were no meetings or lectures, and his meager salary as a shop worker did not allow him to order Yiddish books from abroad or subscribe to the New York daily Forverts. Instead, he contented himself with subscriptions to the New York monthly Tsukunft literary journal, the weekly Vokhnblat and the German-language Volkzeitung. His attempts to recruit fellow workers to share subscriptions to the Yiddish press or to order new Yiddish books were met with bafflement.

Hershman’s frustrations led to the creation of a small Jewish library.  He befriended several newcomers from New York and formed a group of eight to pool their resources and establish an informal Jewish library. In the fall of 1903, Hershman traveled to New York to purchase the first items for the collection: a handful of works in Yiddish, including short volumes on socialism and social history, short works of prose by I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Avrom Reisen (1876-1953), and drama by Jacob Gordin (1853-1909). He also procured several issues of a variety of Yiddish periodicals, including Sholem Aleichem’s literary almanac, Di Yidishe-folks-biblyotek (Kiev, 1888-1889), and the New York Forverts, the Tsukunft and anarchist Fraye arbeter shtime (Freie arbeiter shtime/Free Workers’ Voice).  The library was set up on a single table in a room in Hershman’s flat in the Jewish district.  It was open in the evenings, when the group of ten members would visit the library to read, discuss what they had read or debate current events.  In order to raise funds to purchase more books, the library hosted the city’s first open Jewish fundraising ball and collected the substantial sum of $250.00.  The event did not, however, result in an increase in the library’s membership. Hershman decided to open a store in shared quarters with a shoemaker in the heart of the Jewish quarter on “the Main” (Saint Lawrence Boulevard, near Ontario Street). Run by Hershman’s wife during the day, the store carried imported Yiddish books, brochures, and newspapers.  While the shop did attract the attention of passers-by, it had few customers: Hershman writes that potential clients were puzzled by the store’s unfamiliar merchandise and intimidated by the heated political debates about ideology and world events that took place inside.

The situation changed drastically after the waves of immigration following the Kishinev Pogrom in 1903.  These new immigrants were more politicized than their predecessors and many had been active in revolutionary movements in Russia before immigrating to Canada.  Their arrival resulted in an increased demand for Yiddish political and cultural activity.  Hershman’s store, which came to serve as a meeting place for this new element, became increasingly cramped until larger quarters were sought. By 1905, Hershman’s store relocated to a central location on “the Main” near St. Catherine Street, with a meeting room containing the library located on the second floor.  Hershman’s served as a gathering place for the radicalized to read, discuss, drink soda water and hear lectures on political and social issues. 


Jewish libraries such as Hershman’s were founded to fill a void in Montreal.  New immigrants sought venues to meet, to acquire self-education, and to enjoy their leisure time away from their cramped flats.  Many of the new immigrants to Canada had prior exposure to Jewish libraries in Eastern Europe. With the expansion of modern Yiddish literature and new ideologies in the Jewish world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, libraries featuring works of serious Yiddish literature were established in Jewish centres across Eastern Europe.  Their founders included local Jewish community bodies, the labour movement, and a variety of clubs and cultural groups.[3]  Neither the English-Protestant nor the French-Catholic populations in Quebec provided an outlet for the Jewish immigrants, in particular the growing numbers of Yiddish speakers.  The province lagged behind the rest of Canada in the creation of public libraries accessible to the wider population[4]: while by the nineteenth century the public library movement had progressed through Britain and much of North America, and Jewish immigrants had access to community public libraries, libraries in Montreal were owned and operated by special interest groups. Montreal immigrant Jews established libraries with Yiddish and Hebrew books and magazines.  In addition to Hershman’s reading room, a number of pioneering efforts to establish Jewish libraries were made beginning in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  In 1888, the local Zionist Chovevei Zion group under the leadership of Talmud Torah teacher Alexander Harkavy established a Hebrew library. In 1900, a Jewish library and reading room of Hebrew and Yiddish books was functioning on St. Lawrence Blvd. The Baron de Hirsch Institute (founded 1863) housed a small reading room of Jewish books.[5]  The Labour Zionist community played a seminal role in the establishment of Jewish libraries in Montreal.  In 1903 the Dorshei Zion (Seekers of Zion) formed a reading group where members stored the group’s books in their homes and brought them to meetings.  In 1905, the Poale Zion established a collection of books for the use of its members and organized lectures on a variety of topics.[6]  In 1912, the Poale Zion held a convention of Jewish labour associations on the subject of establishing a Jewish public library “for the advancement of learning and of Yiddish literature in particular.”  A library opened on March 3, 1912 in a rented store in the Jewish district made up of the Poale Zion and Dorshei Zion libraries that relied on paid subscriptions by labour organization members.  With insufficient funding, the library soon closed until more capital could be raised.  In 1912 and 1913. several unsuccessful attempts were made to amalgamate the Poale Zion Library with the Baron de Hirsh Reading Room.[7]


The Yidishe-folks-biblyotek

Officially launched in May of 1914, the Yidishe-folks-biblyotek consolidated the small pre-existing libraries and provided a meeting place for local readers and writers alike.  Unlike its predecessors, this was a public library established in order to serve the Jewish community of Montreal as a whole, created as a non-partisan organization accessible to everyone.  Although the Folks-biblyotek was not the first library of Jewish books to be established in Montreal, it became the first “folks,” or “people’s,” library created to serve the public at large rather than catering to a small group of individuals of shared ideological convictions.  The first clause of the “Founding Principles" of the Folks-biblyotek, ratified in 1916, reads: “The Peoples Library is a People’s Institution, founded by the People for the People.” [8] The Folks-biblyotek became a centre of literary activity and a venue for local and visiting Yiddish authors and poets of all ideological orientations.  Although a host of individuals from the local community were involved in the endeavour, two individuals played key roles in the founding and early growth of the Jewish Public Library: Poale Zion activist Yehuda Kaufman and Hebraist and Keneder adler editor Reuven Brainin.


Internationally renowned Hebraist Reuven Brainin (1862-1939) occupied a central role in the crystallization of literary life in Montreal during World War I.  Born in Lyady, Tsarist Belorussia, where he received a traditional Jewish education and discovered haskole literature as a teenager, Brainin became a chief modernizer of the Hebrew language and culture.  Beginning in 1888, he contributed widely to the nascent Hebrew-language press:  Ha-melitz (The Advocate, Odessa), Ha-shiloah (The Messenger, Odessa), and others, and published four issues of the influential Hebrew periodical Mi-mizrah u-mi-maarav (From the East and From the West, Vienna).  He also published articles, feuilletons, biographies, and essays on literature in the Russian-Jewish and Yiddish press beginning in the 1890s while he resided in various centers in Europe including London, Paris, and Vienna.  In 1909, Brainin settled in the United States where he founded the much anticipated but short-lived Hebrew weekly, Ha-dror (The Swallow).  He began to contribute articles on Jewish literature to the Adler, and visited Montreal in 1909 as part of a lecture tour of North America and was greeted with great enthusiasm by local Yiddish writers, journalists, actors, and other Yiddish cultural activists.[9]  In 1912, he was invited to Montreal to assume the position of editor-in-chief of the Keneder adler, a position he held until 1915, when he left to found a rival daily, Der veg.


During his sojourn in Montreal, Brainin played an active role in local Yiddish life; as B. G. Sack writes, “Brainin’s influence on the community was tremendous, his accomplishments immeasurable and lasting.”[10]  Brainin was key to the founding and early growth of the Yidishe-folks-biblyotek and remained an enthusiastic chief supporter. According to his published diaries, it was in Montreal upon reading the first edition of Zalmen Reisen’s lexicon of Yiddish literature[11] that Brainin discovered Yiddish literature, which he had up to that point, despite his extensive Yiddish journalism, not been exposed to.  Still, notwithstanding his increased appreciation for Yiddish culture, he held Hebrew as supreme to the end.[12]  Brainin left Montreal in 1916 for New York where he became editor of the Hebrew journal, Hatoren (The Mast) from 1919 to 1925.  During his later years he published almost exclusively in Yiddish. [13]  His connection to Montreal was maintained even at his death in New York in 1939: Brainin was buried in the Montreal Shaar Hashomayim cemetery and bequeathed his personal library to the Folks-biblyotek. [14]


Later-renowned Jewish scholar Yehudah Kaufman (Even Shmuel Kaufman,1886-1976) was born in Balta, Ukraine where he attended yeshive and received a Jewish and secular education from his father. Soon after his arrival in Montreal with his parents in 1913, he entered McGill University as one of its few Jewish undergraduate Arts students. He soon became active in social and political circles and a leader in the local Poale Zion. Kaufman played an important role in creating the foundations for Yiddish cultural and literary life in Montreal. He was one of the founders of the nationalist socialist Natsyonale-radikale-shul in 1913, soon left to establish the rival Yidishe-folksshul, and served as its first principal in 1914. He was also a co-founder of the Labour Zionist Folksfarband and one of the first proponents of a Canadian Jewish Congress.  Active in Yiddish journalism, he was a regular contributor to the Montreal Yiddish press, including the Keneder adler, Di kempfer shtime (1913-1914) and Der veg (1915-1916), as well as to the Hebrew press in New York.  He edited two Montreal Yiddish newspapers: Dos vort (1915) and Dos folk (1917). Kaufman’s journalistic activity was broad and spanned Yiddish and Hebrew.  Although he left for New York in 1919 and eventually settled in Jerusalem, Kaufman maintained close ties with Montreal and with the institutions he had helped to establish.  He remained involved with the Folksshul and helped to develop the curriculum in the 1920s.  He also returned regularly as a lecturer. Kaufman went on to settle in Jerusalem in 1926 and became a noted Jewish scholar, writer, educator, and lexicographer.[15]


In 1913, Kaufman, Brainin and a group of supporters rallied the wider community for the establishment of a public library.  The Poale Zion held a series of three Library Conferences in which an organizing committee was established under Kaufman’s leadership and Reuven Brainin was invited to serve as president.  Public meetings were held to bolster support for the new library and membership funds were gathered.  Brainin employed the pages of the Keneder adler to promote the library and lobby for communal support.  The library founders faced conflict and difficulties in establishing the institution, most notably from locals who opposed the idea of an open gathering place for all elements of the immigrant community.[16]  After a period of disorder following the departure of both Brainin and Kaufman in 1916,[17] the library board assumed management of the institution under the leadership of cultural activist Leizer (Louis) Zucker (1896-1965).  Between 1917 and 1953, the library moved numerous times into expanded quarters and purchased its own buildings.[18]


The Folks-biblyotek filled three main functions in the Montreal literary community.  First, it provided a place for Montreal Jews, many of them impoverished new immigrants, to read, study, and meet, and a means for local Jews to borrow books that would have otherwise been inaccessible.  Second, it offered opportunities for education through lectures and courses.  Third, it served as the headquarters for Yiddish literary and cultural activity in the city.  Its activities were diverse: The Folks-biblyotek regularly hosted a vast array of Yiddish writers and poets, local and international.  It organized lectures and readings by a wide variety of Yiddish authors, and sponsored a variety of Yiddish literary programming.  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]  This was especially true during wartime, when the library served as a haven for working Jews and the community at large.


The JPL gratefully acknowledges the kind permission of Rebecca E. Margolis, currently assistant professor at the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program at the University of Ottawa, in reproducing this excerpt from her Ph.D. dissertation:

Yiddish literary culture in Montreal, 1905-1940 (pp. 12-132)

[1] Hirsch Hershman, “Hersh Hershman” (typewritten manuscript) housed at the Jewish Public Library Archives, Canadiana Collection, Yiddish Literature, H. Hershman.

[2]  Hershman writes that the only exception was the home of Mr. Wilenski, the local agent for the New York Tageblat newspaper: in addition to selling individual issues of the Tageblat, Wilenski carried a small selection of Yiddish books “for women,” but none of the modern Yiddish literature by Mendele (Sholem Yankev Abramovitch), Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinovitsh) and others that was appearing in New York.

[3] Most of these libraries were reading rooms rather than lending libraries.  Faith Jones, “The Vancouver Peretz Institute Yiddish Library: The Social History of a Jewish Community Library” (MLIS thesis, University of British Columbia, 1999), 9-11.

[4] Elizabeth Ida Hanson, A Jewel in a Park: Westmount Public Library, 1897-1918 (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1997).

[5] Bernard Figler and David Rome, “Hannaniah Meir Caiserman: A Biography,” 126-128. 

[6] Evelyn Miller, “A History of the Jewish Public Library from 1914 to 1970” (Unpublished paper, Montreal: Jewish Public Library, 1974)

[7] Naomi Caruso, ed., Folk’s Lore: A History of the Jewish Public Library 1914-1989/Folks lor: yoyvl bukh: zibetsik un finf yor Yidishe folks biblyotek in Montreol 1914-1989 (Montreal: Jewish Public Library, 1989), 14.

[8] “Constitution of the People’s Library and University,” in The Third Annual Report of the Jewish Public Library and People’s University, 1916-1917.

[9] For details of his reception in New York, see “R. brainin bazukht unzer ofis,” in Di yidishe bine (New York), Nov. 19, 1909.

[10] B. G. Sack, Canadian Jews: Early in This Century, 92.

[11] Zalman Reisen, Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prose, edited by Sh. Niger (Warsaw: Farlag gezelshaft “tsentral,” 1914). 

[12] Reuven Brainin, Kol kitveh reuven mordekhai brainin 3: reshimot ve-zikhronot (New York: Posy-Shoulson Press, 1940), 282-283.

[13] Samuel Paz, “Reuven Brainin in Montreal, 1912-1916” (M.A. thesis, McGill University, 1983); Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur 1: 466-469; David Rome, The Canadian Story of Reuven Brainin, Part 1; Melech Ravitch, “Yiddish Culture in Canada,” in Canadian Jewish Reference Book and Directory, 76.

[14] For a bibliography of Brainin’s archive, see Naomi Caruso, Mafteah lamihtavim beidish ubeivrit beizuono shel ruven brainin (Montreal: Jewish Public Library, 1985).

[15] Fuks, Hundert yor yidishe un hebreyishe literatur in kanade, 240-242.

[16] The nature of the library is reflected in its books.  On May 1, the library consisted of 449 books, with the Yiddish and Hebrew language books of the defunct the Poale Zion and Baron de Hirsh Library Reading Room comprising the core of the collection.  With almost no budget to purchase books, the library embarked on a campaign to gather books in the community.  According to a chart of library growth, by the end of its first year, the library had 1540 books, almost half of which were in Yiddish.  The next year the collection had risen to 1982, 45 percent of which were in Yiddish.  B. G. Sack with Y. Rabinovitch, N. J. Gotlib, eds.  Bibliotek-bukh: 1914-1934.  Aroysgegebn tsum tsvantsikstn yubiley, 1914-1934 (Montreal: Jewish Public Library, 1934), 14.

[17] In 1916,Yehuda Kaufman departed for Dropsie College in Philadelphia when his proposal for a Master’s thesis in Jewish Studies was rejected by McGill University.  In 1918, he received his doctorate, going on to become a Hebrew scholar in Israel, and authoring an English-Hebrew dictionary.  Brainin likewise left Montreal in 1916 for New York to become editor of the Hebrew journal, Hatoren.

[18] In 1917, the Folks-biblyotek moved the larger quarters to 951 St. Urbain Street, in the heart of the Jewish Mile End district.  In 1921, the library purchased its own house at 1131 Saint Urbain Street and in 1929 moved into a three-story house at 4099 Esplanade where a new building was erected in 1953.By 1966, the Jewish population centre had shifted further west and the library moved to its present location on Cote St.  Catherine Road in the western part of Montreal.

[19] Transcribed, unpublished interview with David Rome, June, 1983, 7.  Canadian Jewish Congress Archives, Canadiana Collection, David Rome.

[20] “Constitution of the People’s Library and University,” in The Third Annual Report of the Jewish Public Library and People’s University, 1916-1917.

[21] B. G. Sack, ed, Bibliotek-bukh, 1914-1934, 4.