Montreal Jewry is heralded for two culinary contributions: smoked meat and bagels. Popular bread amongst Eastern European Jews since the sixteenth century, immigrants brought “beygels” to North America when they emigrated. Symbolizing the eternal cycle of life, bagels reflect the resilience of the early years of the largely immigrant-based Montreal Jewish community. Unlike their New York counterparts, Montreal bagels are smaller, sweeter, boiled and then baked, and have larger holes. Their traditional toppings are sesame or poppy seeds.
There is a bit of controversy concerning who first introduced bagels to the city. Chaim (Hyman) Seligman is credited by some with having started Montreal’s first bagel bakery. Born in 1878 in czarist Russia, Seligman moved to Canada around 1900, eventually settling just off St. Lawrence Boulevard where he may have created the first Montreal Bagel Bakery. It had humble roots, with Seligman delivering bagels by horse and wagon the Russian way – tying a dozen by a string. No early records of Seligman’s bakery exist, and evidence in directories only points to Hyman Seligman’s working for a Montreal Bagel Bakery in the 1940s and 50s. Seligman may even have been a driver in the late 1930s for another Montreal Bagel Bakery, owned by Isadore Shlafman and Jacob Drapkin.
Shlafman and Drapkin are also reputed to be the first to introduce bagels to Montreal. Tucked away in the lane at 3835 St. Lawrence, this other Montreal Bagel Bakery may have opened in 1919, although it only appears in address directories beginning in 1932. It served hand-rolled bagels, baked in a wood-fired oven. In 1949, Isadore Shlafman moved from St. Lawrence Boulevard to Fairmount Street, where, along with his son, Jack, he expanded his bagel business known as Fairmount Bagel. It would remain there until 1959. Drapkin continued to operate his Montreal Bagel Bakery on St. Lawrence until 1956.
In 1953, Holocaust survivor Myer Lewkowicz began working for Seligman until he was able to launch his own bagel business in 1957 on St. Viateur. Lewkowicz briefly partnered with Jack Shlafman and the store took on the name “Fairmount Bagel”, despite its location on St. Viateur. Bagels were not yet a very profitable venture and the partnership dissolved by the early 1960s. That store is now known as St. Viateur Bagel. It was sold by Lewkowicz in the 1990s to his apprentice, Joe Morena. Though he’s Italian, Morena has earned the nickname “Yosef” due to his impressive grasp of the Yiddish language. Today’s “Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery,” which reopened in 1979 at its original location on Fairmount Street, is still managed by the Shlafman grandchildren.
St. Viateur’s has served a number of famous visitors, including Prince Charles. One busy Saturday night, Morena received an order for twenty-dozen bagels for His Royal Highness. Dismissing it as a prank, he admonished the caller, only to be met by a fleet of limousines and a British naval officer coming for his order. The flustered Morena instructed the officer to “get in line like everyone else,” and Prince Charles was eventually rewarded with a taste of Montreal bagels. The Fairmount Bagel Bakery has its own share of notables; in 2008, Montreal-born astronaut Greg Chamitoff, a relative of the Shlafman family, brought Fairmount bagels with him aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
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*Images courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and St. Viateur Bagels.