Tuesday, February 15, 2005


I met one of my new neighbours yesterday, a guy called Jean, urban, a little older than me. We talked on the porch for a bit. We spoke french at first and then switched into english. He had just the very slightest accent in english, but it wasn't french-canadian. He told me that really he should be living a few blocks to the east on the other side of the Main because his father was Lithuanian and his mother was French-Canadian.

We talked about the neighbourhood and he told me how he liked all the layers of immigration that you could see around it. He referred to Beauty's, a local diner up the block with a famous Sunday brunch for which there is always a lineup. It's a Jewish run establishment and all the Jews who've made it out to the suburbs or Westmount come there on the weekend. He also pointed out J. Shreter, a clothing store around the block that's a classic old school garment district establishment. They sell men's clothes and they look like they still do decent business, though he said that he never could quite find what he wanted there. They have a guy who seems to be employed solely in keeping their parking lot and sidewalks clear of snow and ice. He does a good job.

Jean also told me that he was sort of sad because on his back door, there was a discoloration in the wood where a mezuzah used to be. [These are small containers with hebrew writing on the outside and a snippet of parchment expressing the Jewish declaration of faith on the inside. They are placed outside the doorway—thanks, Adam.] The landlord had had the doorway sanded and re-finished and he felt that a teeny bit of the remnants of that particular wave of immigration was gone.

He also said that if you scraped the paint down a few layers in most of the apartments in this neighbourhood, you'd find a blue-green colour. This is the contribution of the Greek wave, who painted their apartments to remind them of the sea they missed. I don't know if that's true, but I found that color under some peeling layers in our apartment. "Now it's all young musicians," he concluded jokingly.

Part of my own family came here in one of those waves. Daniel Belitzky left Slutz, Russia and arrived in Ellis Island in 1905. His wife-to-be Rachel Sorkin came from Gomel and arrived some time after, also in Ellis Island. As most know, single women were often not allowed out of Ellis Island for their own protection. The story goes that Daniel went there with a bottle of vodka and a loaf of rye bread and they got married on the spot. Somehow they ended up in Montreal, where Daniel, who was trained as a tailor, made samples for Gordon Manufacturing. They were socialists and atheists, though of jewish background and this may explain part of the reason they left. Both were involved in worker's organizations in Montreal and Rachel became president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Workmen's Circle Branch 151B. They had five sons and a daughter.

The second eldest son Jack was the only one to graduate from high school. He was an entrepreneur and drove across Canada in a model T selling magazine subscriptions during the depression. He met Dorothy Platt in Vancouver and they got married. She was a German Catholic and had grown up in Vancouver. She rode all the rides on the PNE for free before it opened when she was a little girl. They eventually settled down in Vancouver where Jack became a successful agricultural producer, first growing and distributing peat moss, then blueberries and finally cranberries. In his prime, he was the largest producer of cranberries on the west coast. They had three children together.

The eldest daughter, Caroline, met a good Canadian fellow of british stock (though far from british culture), Roger, and the two of them moved to California to get their graduate degrees, hers in psychology, his in statistics. There they had two children: my sister and me!

I, in all my random and fortunate travels, have ended up in Montreal. And I now live exactly two blocks from the house where Jack was born. My great aunt Lily's (Jack's younger sister) husband Syd took me for a drive around the neighborhood pointing out how things had changed, showing me the balcony where he used to call to Lily in her bedroom (same balcony, but the railing which used to be wooden is now iron). Syd, by the way, who is well into his '80s looked like he could still wrestle you down to the ground.

The story of that side of my family is amazing and deserves a book of its own. Part of my romantic fascination with Montreal were the snatches of stories I used to hear from my mother about her childhood visits to Montreal or the stories she would hear from her uncles. But I really had no idea that I would end up living so close to where it all took place. This is one of many cool parts of town to live in, there are a lot of people our age from all over Canada living around us. In some ways, we are the part of some new complex wave of immigrants coming to Montreal. I can't imagine that I will ever leave a mark as indelible and important as those left by my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. But I'm honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to come back to where their story took place and be able to keep it alive for the next generation.


Jason L said...

Great post! I remember the great sense of immigrant history that Richler's novels gave and its cool to see that you are a part of all that.

Buzby said...

Excellent post. I was mesmirised. You should do more research into this part of your family. I would be really curious why people moved from NY to Montreal, for example.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks! It is a fascinating story. It's been pretty well-documented by other family members (Lily wrote out a 28 page collection of her memories; Syd, who is an artist, drew this incredbile family tree). As it is the history of a family, it wanders all over the place and therefore falls out of the purview of this blog. But as I said, at least a book could come out of the stories there.

Here is all Lily said about the move from New York to Montreal: "They lived in New York, each at their trade, and Maurice [the eldest of the children] was born there. I guess life was difficult and opportunity looked better in Montreal, also Aunty Raizel was living here."

WeSailFurther said...

That family tree story stuff is so cool. I have my family tree back to 1634 for my dad's dad's side. All the rest of the branches came here so recently that the records are all back in Germany.

In my research for the Fifield's though I found some cool stories that I wish I could get more details on: early 1700s, Benjamin Fifield and his oldest son were killed by Indians, a John Fifield served in the Revolutionary War, none of my people in the Civil War (why not, I ask?), and why, after living in NH and MA for 200 years did a Fifield move to NYC.

Anyway - good story, Conan. Many of the Germans when they came to America settled down right here in NYC, in Brooklyn. I haven't been by the old neighborhoods, yet, but I often wonder, as I walk around downtown Manhattan, if I am walking in the footsteps of the great-grandparents.

The other thing your post made me think of, is the importance of keeping some kind of journal. I don't have a diary or thought book or anything like that, but I do have a log of what I did and with who for just about every day. It goes back a couple of years and when I reread it, it really brings me back to the event.

Anonymous said...

Rachel Sorkin was a sister of my Gt Grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island Sept 1906 along with his wife Esther and 5 children one of which was ill and they where all refused entry and deported according to the ship manifest "Smolensk" they where due to stay with Brother in Law Mr Belitzky in New York
Earlier in the year Rachel arrived on May 13th and married Daniel Belitzky on the 14th that makes us related and I have been searching for this link and others for ages thanks for the posting and one day perhaps we will meet Feel free to contact mgsorkin@mac.com
Michael Sorkin UK