Montreal’s Kosher Bootleggers
Observant Jews smuggle kosher wine into Quebec and sell it illegally in secret locations, flouting laws they say are anti-Semitic
A few years ago, on a visit to Montreal, a friend invited me for Shabbat dinner. “Bring wine,” he said.
In Montreal, all wine must be sold in Société des Alcools de Quebec-owned stores, but the nearest SAQ shop had only one shelf of kosher wine, and only two types of wine on it: Kedem Red or Kedem Chablis. I phoned my friend and got the address of a kosher supermarket, hoping that it would have something a little less Kedemy.
An elderly Hasidic man working the register told me that the supermarket didn’t carry wine. “Did you try the SAQ?” he asked. I walked up the grocery aisle in search of a different dinner gift, maybe a babka or box of cookies, when someone whispered me over. One of the bag boys, a pimply teenager in a yarmulke, was standing in the shadow of a towering wall of matzo meal products.
“Look,” he said. “There’s a place you can go.” He handed me a card with an address and phone number and stepped back into the darkness.
The address belonged to a small synagogue in the middle of a quiet, residential block. I called the number on the card, and a Hasidic man walked out from a side-entrance to greet me.
“You Jewish?” he asked.
I nodded solemnly.
He led me into the side entrance, through several doors and hallways, and down into a basement filled with empty wooden wine crates. I waited for a few minutes until a different man brought me through one last door, into a small room crowded with Hasidic men. Lining the wall was the single best selection of kosher wine I’d ever seen. “Can I make a recommendation?” the shop-keep asked and held out a nice-looking Cabernet.
A year later, the organized-crime unit of the Quebec Police Department raided a different synagogue in Montreal, Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosef Skver, and confiscated 900 liters of bootlegged kosher wine. The synagogue paid a $20,000 fine to avoid going to court.
The Hasidic community is located in Outrémont, a beautiful neighborhood with tree-lined streets and well-preserved 19th-century architecture. It was originally a predominantly francophone neighborhood and remains one of Montreal’s most well-heeled areas. I phoned Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosef Skver a few months after the bust. A woman who spoke only Yiddish answered and passed me on to two more Yiddish speakers before I finally connected with a man who told me, in heavily accented English, that his name was Shmuel Weiss.
“I wanted to know about your synagogue bootlegging kosher wine into Montreal and selling it from the basement illegally,” I asked him. “Would you be willing to talk about that?”
Amazingly, Shmuel said yes. Why were they selling the wine? For money for the synagogue. Where did they get the wine? Ontario. How did they get caught? This woman named Céline Forget. She causes many problems for us. Are there synagogues in Montreal still doing this? Yes. Meet me here, at the shul, on Friday morning and I’ll show you.
Weiss also promised that he would tell me how the Hasidic community was smuggling the wine in, and even introduce me to the people in charge of the operation. I bought a train ticket, set to arrive first thing Friday morning.
Before leaving for Montreal, I obtained Céline Forget’s email address and asked her if she could meet while I was in Montreal to discuss the illegal alcohol and her part in the police raid.
“This subject is very simple,” she wrote back. “I can answer you by email: First: Everyone in Québec who wants to import alcohol from outside the province has to register at the SAQ (Société des Alcool du Québec). Second: Everyone who sells alcohol needs a permit. Otherwise, you do illegal business. And that’s why the Hasidim were accused and had to pay the infraction amount.”
I got off the train on Friday morning and went straight to Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosef Skver, but when I showed up at the synagogue, Weiss was nowhere to be found. Two Hasidic men walked past me. “Do either of you know Shmuel Weiss?” I asked. They looked at each other, discussed something in Yiddish, and shook their heads. “What do you want with him?” one of them asked.
“He said he could help me find kosher wine,” I said. “In a shul.”
They consulted again in Yiddish before shaking their heads. “We don’t know anything about that,” they said, and turned toward the sanctuary.
For over 60 years, the Hasidic community flourished in Outrémont. In fact, after French and English, Yiddish is the most widely spoken language in the area. But in recent years, the relationship between the Hasidim and their neighbors has been marked by tension and conflict. A string of incidents, including petitions listing the Hasidic community’s consistent disregard of Montreal law, and reports of firebombs being hurled into synagogues, underline the increasingly charged nature of the neighborhood.
Indeed, on the phone, Weiss failed to mention that—in addition to her role as whistleblower of the Skver synagogue wine bust—Forget had been a Borough Councilor in Outrémont for several years. During her tenure and after, Forget was continuously at odds (to put it very, very mildly) with the Hasidic community. She had been to court to stop Hasidim from putting up an eruv (an unnoticeable thin string that enables Jews to carry objects outdoors on Sabbath and holidays) in her neighborhood, claiming that the eruv would prevent her from flying a kite outside her home. Shortly after, she filed a lawsuit to prevent a synagogue from expanding several inches into its own backyard in violation of a zoning bylaw. Then, a bit later, she was charged with assault with a weapon when, following an argument with a Hasidic community leader, she veered toward him in her car. (She swerved away before hitting him, and no injury was reported.) Forget then brought a different synagogue to court for “praying too loud” near her home. Informing the police about the illegal wine ring was thus only the most recent of episodes involving Forget and the Hasidic community.
Additionally, the conflict with Montreal’s Hasidic community goes well beyond one retired borough councilor. In an April 23 opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette, Allan Nadler, a leading Jewish figure in the area (and a Tablet contributor who has written about Jewish bootlegging), wrote about a series of articles in Le Journal de Montréal (the first of which can be found here) that dismissively describe the “medieval” and “illiterate” Hasidic community’s views of romance, education, and oral sex. The exposés were written in the wake of 15 reports of vandalism perpetrated against Hasidic homes in a town just outside Montreal; the vandalism was not mentioned in Le Journal.
The Skver dynasty was founded in Skvira, in present-day Ukraine, by Reb Yitzchak Twerski, a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. Skver Hasidim relate that, shortly after World War II, Reb Yitzchak’s grandson, Reb Yakov Yosef of Skver, left Bucharest for America. When he beheld America’s immoral and materialistic culture, the story goes, he felt the overwhelming desire to get on the first boat back to Europe. “I would return immediately,” Rebbe Yakov Yosef allegedly told his followers, “if not for the embarrassment.”
In the absence of that option—he had, after all, left Europe in the wake of World War II—he sought to recreate European shtetl life in North America. He believed that Jews and their communities needed to be absolutely separate from their debased, secular neighbors. This attitude and the communal policies built around it have inspired Skver Hasidim to seal themselves off from the communities that surround them.
In light of this, the relationship between the Skver Hasidim and their neighbors (or anyone else seen as an “outsider”) is marked, generally, by mutual suspicion. In Outrémont, the francophones seem to see the Hasidim as crazy fundamentalists who are disrespectful of local law. In turn, the Hasidim view the francophones as godless and anti-Semitic. One McGill student, an Outrémont resident, told me that he finds the Hasidic community “fascinating.” He mentioned the way Hasidic men often sit in their mini-vans, parked along the street. “And you have to wonder,” he said. “What are they doing in there? They’re definitely planning some scheme or something.”
And as I asked around Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosel Skver for Shmuel Weiss—or for any information about kosher wine shops in Montreal, in general—it must have seemed that I was “planning” or “scheming.” I was the only person not wearing a black suit and hat, and I was asking questions about an issue that had cost the synagogue a great deal of money. Understandably, no one in the synagogue was willing to help me.
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