Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 28, 2014

A Letter to the Editor in the Montreal Star on December 8, 1903, reflected the growing frustration of many in the city’s Jewish community with the situation in which they found themselves here at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his correspondence, one Isaac Landman was critical of the reluctance of the Protestant School Board Commissioners to embrace unreservedly their responsibility in the instruction of the many young Jewish children found within the territorial limits of Montreal. In point of fact, the resistance was real and was based on a flourishing anti-Semitic sentiment sadly found at the time in our burgeoning town.

This, and other issues throughout the Edwardian Period, led many members of the community to conclude that they were perhaps best to assume their own responsibilities with regard to education and cultural enhancement. One of the by-products of this newfound determination was the establishment of the Yidishe Folks Bibliotek in 1914, today known as the Jewish Public Library. Indeed, it was the first of its kind outside of Europe.

The institution, which marks its 100th anniversary on May 1, was the result of the initiative of two men in particular, both renowned scholars of their day, Yehuda Kaufman and Reuvin Brainin. The two left Montreal about 1916, but not before also becoming instrumental in the events leading up to the creation of the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1919.

The first location to house the Jewish Peoples’ Library (as it was known until 1953) was a modest flat at 669 St. Urbain Street. It moved several times after that before settling down for 12 years in its own building at the corner of Mount Royal and Esplanade Avenues. Designed by the late Montreal architect, Harry Mayerovitch, the edifice contained an auditorium and a theatre, both of which reflected the JPL’s desire to be seen very much as a general cultural centre as well as a library. In fact, the state of the art facility was also home to the People’s University, a school that offered courses for those who could not attend Montreal’s established institutions of higher learning. One of the teachers at the People’s University was none other than Irving Layton.

With the movement westward of many in the Jewish population, the library itself eventually followed. It first relocated in 1966 to a rented property on Decarie Boulevard. Seven years later, the JPL launched itself in a new construction on Cote St. Catherine Road where it has been ever since.

Today, the Jewish Public Library serves the literary and intellectual needs of Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal’s largest borough and one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country. Moreover, it has strong links with other similar institutions in the city, including the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. It is at BAnQ’s Grande Bibliothèque on Berri Street that the centennial exhibit ‘Stories Told: 100 Years of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal’ will take place this summer from June 10 to July 27.

Below, undated photo of the reading room of the Jewish Public Library (courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

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The retrospective will trace the cultural contribution made by the JPL to city life over the past century. Vintage photos and various artifacts will be on display, reflecting the importance of the library down through the years to the fulfillment of the aspirations of Montreal’s Jewish residents, especially its Yiddish – speaking clientele. Those who miss the showcase at the Grande Bibliothèque can catch it instead during the late summer at the Cummings Centre.

In addition to the traditional endeavours one associates with libraries, the JPL promotes pedagogical programmes of all sorts. Each year, the celebrated body turns out a large number of cultural and educational activities: courses, lectures, film screenings, authors visits, theatre performances, book reviews, children’s activities, workshops, exhibits and various other events every year. These pursuits are offered in five different languages – English, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. Over 8,000 people participated in them last year.

It should also be noted as well that the archival holdings of the Jewish Public Library are quite impressive. The extensive collection includes over 1200 linear metres of textual documents along with some 30,000 photographs. It also comprises some 250 early twentieth century vintage posters. In its antiquarian compilation is found one volume dating back to 1481!

With all these leisure interest pursuits taking place within its walls, it is no wonder the Jewish Public Library receives some 100,000 visitors annually.

To mark the 100th anniversary of JPL, a fund raising campaign is also taking place. The drive has targeted four fields for special consideration: Children, Young Families and Teens; the JPL Archives; Jewish Book Month; and Investment in Technology.

For further information about the Jewish Public Library, its one hundredth anniversary campaign, and the summer exposition at the Grande Bibliothèque, visit their website at http://www.jewishpubliclibrary.org

Below, cornerstone ceremony at Esplanade Avenue on October 4, 1953 (courtesy of Federal Photos)

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