The Jewish Public Library (JPL) or Yidishe Folks Bibliotek has been a cultural hub for the advancement of Jewish learning, communal life, and Yiddish literature since 1914. Its emergence reflected the increasing popularity of public libraries, the strengthening of Yiddish literary culture locally and internationally, and the consolidation of Montreal’s Jewish community.
The Jewish Public Library surfaced in the context of Church-dominated Quebec, and the clash of interests between established "uptowner” Jews and "downtowner” immigrant Jews. The Public Library Movement expanding across North America was slow to catch on in Quebec, where most libraries were administered by special interest groups. Immigrant members of the Jewish community worked to create a public library accessible to secular Yiddish-speaking "downtowners,” who had arrived from Eastern Europe, where Yiddish literature and revolutionary ideologies were rapidly spreading. A desire for accessible education, for Jewish literature in all languages, and for socialist approaches to community-building, led to its creation in 1914.
A number of small politically oriented libraries existed prior to the JPL’s development. Among them, Harry Hershman’s Reading Room on St. Lawrence Boulevard near Ontario Street was a popular venue for immigrants to debate radical ideologies and discuss Yiddish writings.
Amalgamating collections of books from various social organizations, including the Poale Zion (Labour Zionists), a convention of Jewish labour organizations in 1912 established the Yidishe Folks Bibliotek and Folks-Universitet (Jewish People’s Library and People’s University). After briefly closing due to insufficient funding, it re-opened in 1914 when Yehudah Kaufman, founder of the Folkshule (Jewish People’s School), enlisted the support of the editor of Keneder Adler (Montreal’s Yiddish daily), Reuben Brainin. Soliciting support through the paper, Brainin became its president. More than merely a library, it was a social and cultural center in the community. It was renamed the Jewish Public Library in 1951. The Folks-Universitet, under the leadership of Melech Ravitch in the 1940s and 1950s, remained active until 1954, hosting lectures, political debates, and English and French classes for new immigrants.
Yiddish language and culture remained central to the Library’s mission, with 50 percent of its collection allocated for Yiddish books. Readings by Yiddish writers Sholem Aleichem and Morris Rosenfeld in the library’s early years, and by Melech Ravitch in the 1940s, were popular community gatherings. Board members in the 1950s refused to compromise their ideals of a "folks atmosphere”; nor would they de-emphasize the Yiddish focus for the sake of money, despite the financial security this would entail.
The JPL experienced a number of significant moves, including to a specially constructed building on Esplanade and Mount Royal in 1953, where the Library consolidated itself as a cultural community centre. Following the movement of Montreal’s Jewish community westwards, the Jewish Public Library finally settled into the Cummings House on Côte-Ste-Catherine Road in 1973. The JPL now serves a more linguistically diverse Jewish population while still preserving Yiddish language and culture. The Library’s Archives, a rich source for the documentation of significant Montreal Jewish personalia and institutions, have helped preserve the community’s history.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
Caruso, Naomi, Barbara Kay, Liba Augenfeld, and Carole Burke. Folk's Lore: A History of the Jewish Public Library, 1914-1989. Montréal: Jewish Public Library, 1989.
Gubbay, Sharon Rachel. The Jewish Public Library of Montreal, 1914-1952. Montreal: Masters Thesis, McGill University, 1983. Web. 01 Nov 2010.
“History: About Us”. Jewish Public Library. Web. 01 Nov. 2010.
"The History of the Montreal Jewish Public Library and Archives." (Unpublished Paper, Montreal: Jewish Public Library), 1970. Web. 01 Nov 2010.
Margolis, Rebecca. "The Yiddish Press in Montreal, 1900-1945." Canadian Jewish Studies 16-17 (2010): 3-26. Web. 14 February 2011.
Margolis, Rebecca. Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2011.
Rome, David. The Heroes of Montreal Jewish Education. Montreal, Canada: National Archives, Canadian Jewish Congress, 1992.
Rosenberg, Louis. Our Library, 1914-1957. Montreal: Jewish Public Library, 1957.
*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives.