The holiday season reminds me of growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in Outremont.
The sparkle of the first snow was a joyful time, because it meant fun in the streets and alleyways—there were no nearby playgrounds for those of us who lived on either side of Park Ave.
It meant that Christmas and Hanukkah were around the corner, the songs were fresh and joyful, and there was so much to look forward to. Street hockey was a joy, because there was little traffic back then on a side street like Querbes.
Another pleasure was skating at Parc St. Viateur, just behind Steinberg’s on Bernard. We would change in the chalet, and leave our boots there with no fear they would be stolen. They played Tales from the Vienna Woods, and other music on the loudspeaker, and the big challenge was to ask a girl to skate with you around the chalet. It was a five-minute chance to hold hands.
An Outremont cop was usually on patrol, wearing a black fur hat and short jacket. He rarely had much to do, because peace reigned on the rink. There were fancy skaters who twirled around, strutting their stuff, but mostly it was like a village gathering with kids learning to skate on cheese cutters, alongside skaters of varying skills. Many would end the evening skate with an ice cream soda or hot chocolate at the soda shop.
I remember those tough-looking English-speaking guys who wore leather jackets from Catholic schools Luke Callaghan High or St. Michael’s. Even in the coldest weather, their jackets would not be zipped. They wore air force boots with the flaps down, because only sissies zipped them up. We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us, and there was no contact with the Jewish kids.
There was also almost no contact with French-speaking kids. They went to separate schools, like École Lajoie. Most Jewish kids went to Guy Drummond in Outremont, Edward VII or Fairmount, east of Park. Fairmount School was important for many of us, since on Saturday afternoons they showed movies in the gym at a time when you had to be 16 to be admitted to a theatre. We sat on the floor and watched serials like Nyoka the Jungle Girl and feature films, all for 25 cents.
Jewish families gave Hanukkah gelt to kids, which in some ways was equivalent to the gifts that became a huge part of Christmas. I believe it had a lot to do with the sparkle of coinage, when the tradition began, reflecting the light of the season. I remember wondering—even looking out the window on Christmas Eve—is there really an old guy with a white beard who climbs down chimneys to bring toys to kids?
We waited for January sales to visit the stores my mother considered fair. One of them was Bessie’s, on Park just south of Bernard. But for trousers, we joined many other families, looking for bargains, to visit Rothstein Pants in the Peck Building on St. Laurent near St. Viateur. A hunched cutter with a measuring tape around his neck would look for a pair of gabardine that fit—but not too well, so you can grow into it.
Park had everything—hardware at Pascal’s and Duskes across the street, the Montreal City & District Savings Bank, which encouraged kids to open accounts, Kresge’s, and Woolworth’s and the Park Plaza Restaurant where we went several times to celebrate New Year’s Day. It served a mainstream range of dishes, but we kids would order steaks.
From a young age, probably 7 or 8, we took the streetcar by ourselves to go to school. Mr. Kaplansky ran the dusty shop on Park near our school where he sold the Hebrew books we needed. Brifman’s Pharmacy was on one corner of St. Joseph and Park, Lindy’s Restaurant, Regal Sandwich shop, and a hot dog joint on the others.
And on Laurier, I remember the storefront, Beth El Mission to the Jews, which we considered a dark and foreboding place. It was, we figured, an office where Jews could become Christians. Who would even think of converting us?
I never saw anyone enter. Actually, I recall that some did—eager missionaries from the Pirchei Agudat Yisrael, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community on St. Joseph and sought to recruit children from our school. We were discouraged from doing so by our principal, Melach Magid.