The JPL opened its doors on May 1st, 1914 in a modest cold-water flat at 669 rue St. Urbain with a small collection of 500 books. It quickly became the meeting place for literary and cultural exchange, maintaining a link to the still flourishing Jewish communities of Eastern Europe while promoting the community’s growth in its new Quebec home.
A Love of the Written Word
Jewish culture and values revolve around the written word. As creative expression, religious text, or a source of comfort and stability in times of persecution, the book has long stood as a source of spiritual sustenance and community. It is a portal into the realm of imagination and a source of knowledge that we all seek out. The Jewish Public Library’s collections offer entry to these worlds through a diversity of genres, subjects, and languages.
Today, the Main Library holds more than 150,000 items in the JPL’s five official languages (English, French, Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish). The JPL acts as a resource centre for Jewish Montreal and also as a public library for the surrounding neighborhood. The Library safeguards the community’s heritage through its special collections, which include the Antiquarian Book Collection, the Loewenthal German Judaica Collection, and the Bronfman Jewish Canadiana ephemeral collection.
Education and Programming
An essential piece of the Library’s foundation was that the pursuit of learning would empower and strengthen individuals and the community. With this in mind, the Library’s founders established the Yiddishe folks universitet(YIFO) or the People’s University. New immigrants and community members without access to higher education could now take advantage of continued learning. Courses covered a vast spectrum of study such as ancient Greek philosophy, modern science, basic economics, and history.
Serving in many ways as a cultural embassy, the Library later presented audiences with lively discussion and debate through its lecture series. One of the most popular of these was the Montreal Weekly Forumswhich the JPL hosted jointly with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). It gave English, French and Yiddish-speaking Jews an opportunity to address an array of political and social concerns such as the Quebec language debate (1963) or Castro and Castroism (1962).
Montreal’s Jewish Book Month, initiated in 1944 as a weeklong event, has long been the highlight of the Library’s cultural programmes. Partnering with other communal organizations, this eagerly awaited festival of lectures, book launches, and film screenings continues to grow in size and scope. The 2013 Jewish Book Month hosted programmes in five languages and attracted over 3600 participants.
Regular programming and other special events also draw some of the world’s most well-known writers and opinion-makers. Among the many who have filled the halls of the Library: Saul Bellow, Amos Oz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler, Thomas Keneally, Irving Layton, Naim Kattan, Leonard Cohen, Michel Tremblay, Yves Beauchemin, and Margaret Atwood. Today, newer generations of writers such as Lawrence Hill, Tatiana de Rosnay, and Heather O’Neill continue to bring their stories to JPL Audiences. Through these lectures the JPL emphasizes the importance of the written word and its ability to bring communities together.
Today, the JPL offers an impressive slate of cultural programming in five languages, including: Hebrew plays, the Israeli Film Festival, the Russian cultural evening, author readings and book reviews, Yiddish cafés, and so much more.
Norman Berman Children’s Library
The smallest of Library patrons find their way through alephbeysand ABCs at the Norman Berman Children’s Library (NBCL). The NBCL circulates over 30,000 items and offers programm ing for infants and youth up to age 14 in five languages (English, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian). For children from six months old and up, the NBCL is an often raucous space for learning and fun.
By 1920, more than 10% of the JPL’s circulating collection were children’s books. In 1951, a donation from the Naturman family enabled the newly created Mr. and Mrs. Naturman Children’s Library to move into its own separate space. By 1974, the Children’s Library was re-born in the Cote Ste-Catherine library location through the donation of books from the National Council of Jewish Womens’ Boys & Girls Library of the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association. In 1981, it was renamed the Norman Berman Children’s Library (NBCL) in memory of Norman Berman. It continues to grow in leaps and bounds today, through the addition of new learning technology and innovative programming.
The Archives of the Jewish Public Library is the caretaker of 250 years of Canadian Jewish history. Home to correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and oral histories, the Archives preserves and makes accessible the cultural artifacts of Montreal’s diverse Jewish past. In collecting, organizing, and maintaining these materials, the Archives fulfills the JPL’s commitment as “the trustee and curator of the cultural monuments of the people.” The Archives is the locus of peoples’ stories. The documents of well-known figures such as social activist Lea Roback, renowned impresario Sam Gesser or baseball legend Jackie Robinson reveal the personal narratives that shape the community’s social history.
Into the Next Century
The commitment to knowledge and cultural interaction extends far beyond the JPL’s building. Patrons can access resources anytime, anywhere through the JPL’s digital collections. Montreal’s history comes alive for students through workshops in schools. Building on an historical commitment to sending books to Montreal hospitals and other institutions, members who are isolated are now reached through a books- on -wheels service. The Library is a living, breathing classroom.
The JPL continued to respond to the needs of immigrant groups through its collections, programmes, and services. In the 1960s, the JPL welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants from North Africa with services in French. Later waves of immigrants from Russia, France, Israel, Ethiopia, and South America were equally welcomed into the JPL. In 2016, the JPL created a Russian Children’s Literature Collection to serve that growing demographic of the Library’s membership.
Throughout its history, the Library’s growth has been closely linked to the growth of our community. Our constituency has shaped the institution’s services, programmes and our engagement with our members. The JPL remains a vital cultural space, still echoing the sentiments of the first founding progressive principle of being a library “for the people, by the people”; a space that holds something for everyone. As the Library enters its second century it pays homage to the contributions of generations past by continuing their work in a new era.