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
Sans Shmuel Weiss, I would need another way of finding one of these wine shops. I had no recollection of where I’d been sent by the bag boy my last time in Montreal, so I left the Skver synagogue and followed the first Hasidim that crossed my path, a mother and her two daughters, first into Cheskie’s Bakery and then down a quiet residential block. They turned a few corners and entered a house. The street was crowded with Hasidic men and women running errands for Shabbat, so I followed another Hasid, and then a third, who happened to pass a synagogue on a residential block, which happened to have a man exiting a side door, who happened to have a bottle of rosé tucked under his arm.
Inside, I immediately identified the basement as the very same one the bag boy had alerted me to three years ago. I walked from the coatroom to the smaller side-room that was cluttered with wine crates, and finally into the wine holding. Since my last visit to the shop, shelves had been added and the selection improved. The bottle nearest me was a Baron Herzog Special Edition Cabernet priced at 100 euros.
“Yes?” A short, cross-eyed Hasidic man standing at the cash-box looked up at me anxiously.
“I wanted to buy some wine for Shabbat,” I said.
“OK,” he said, and relaxed into his chair. Another few customers entered and started schmoozing. I had been hoping to ask the shop-keep some questions, but he joined the conversation and forgot about me completely.
A few days later, I introduced myself to Jeffrey Boro, the lawyer who represented Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosef Skver in the bootlegging case. He is middle-aged, short, and has a soft-spoken, genteel manner. Although not Orthodox or visibly observant, Boro—who is a celebrated criminal lawyer—clearly has strong communal ties. He has served as president of the Canadian Jewish Council of Quebec and helped the Hasidic community on numerous occasions. He told me that he sometimes serves as the “unofficial and uninvited” spokesman for the Hasidic community when they are in legal trouble.
Finally, I had found someone willing to explain how the wine bootlegging system worked. The synagogues, he explained, bring the wine in from Ontario. By doing so, they avoid Quebec taxes and utilize an Ontario law that makes wine used for religious purposes 17 percent cheaper than market price. The illegal wine shops serve a number of purposes; they make money for the synagogues and offer a selection that is far superior to that of the SAQ stores. Boro stresses that the bootlegging is not only about profit, but also about the needs of the community; observant Jews in Montreal, Boro said, have repeatedly asked the SAQ to get a better kosher selection. The SAQ constantly says it will but never actually does.
Boro believes that the Skver synagogue could have won the case, though he is somewhat slippery when it comes to the legality of the synagogue’s behavior. (“It is not illegal, per se.”) He argued, however, that the legal question is of secondary import; the more important question is why anybody cares.
“Let’s say a church elder is bringing 40 cases of wine into the church that he’d brought from Ontario to sell to his church members at a discount,” Boro said. “Would you care? No, you’d say good for them.” The Hasidic community’s problems are not the result of any wrongdoing, but rather are, according to Boro, “almost always” the result of anti-Semitism. The Hasidim are “constantly harassed and frequently misunderstood.” He cited a number of incidents, many of which involved Céline Forget.
Boro said that it was obvious that Forget had been the one to alert the police to the bootlegging operation. “She followed the file,” he said. “She made herself known. She made it clear that she wanted people to know, like, ‘Just in case you were wondering who ratted you out, it was me. I saw the truck. I took the video. I called the police.’ ”
Was the bootlegging bust of the Skver synagogue an issue of anti-Semitism? Weren’t the Hasidim actually breaking the law? Weren’t these citizens in the legal right by informing the police? I asked.
“I’m not blaming Forget for following the law,” Boro clarified. “I’m blaming her for making the lives of the Jewish people in her neighborhood as miserable and uncomfortable as possible.”
But in a country in which tax rates are higher for the sake of civil services, taxes mean something to citizens; they are wrapped up in feelings of nationalism and civic life. So, what happens when a community disregards the civic feelings of a country for the communal ties of its religion? Embodied in these bootlegging Canadian Hasidim were some very complex and important questions: How does a smaller community operate within a larger one, and what happens when the requirements or laws of the one clash with the requirements or laws of the other? While parking laws and zoning bylaws might appear inane and unimportant, to people who care deeply about their city, they are not unimportant at all. These laws form the basic foundation of good, safe cities. And who could appreciate how much a seemingly minor rule might mean to other people more than the Hasidic community? How can a community so learned in the minutiae of Jewish law get angry at another community for wanting to enforce zoning regulations?
Is this why Forget cares about the bootlegging (not to mention the parking violations, the illegal synagogue expansions, and the eruv)? Because the Hasidim were evading taxes and disrespecting their neighbors?
I emailed Forget and asked what bothered her about the Hasidim in Montreal selling wine, predominantly to other members of their synagogue. I also asked for a response to the claim made by numerous individuals that her issues with the Hasidic community stemmed from anti-Semitism.
“I thought you were interested in the alcohol issue,” she emailed back. “I see that your interest is obviously more in trying to accuse someone of anti-Semitism. Good luck!”
The customs agent read through my form. He was burly and bald, with a ruddy complexion and a generally affable manner. “What kind of work were you doing in Canada?”
I considered mentioning the wine smuggling and asking him if he knew anything about it, but decided not to. “I was doing research for an article,” I said, “on the Hasidic Jews in Montreal.”
He chuckled and leaned against the seat. “Those guys,” he said. “They come up on the train from New York all the time, with their kids and big suitcases and everything. It’s totally crazy.” He smiled at the thought of it. Then he shook his head, handed me my passport, and moved on.
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