“Can we talk about our garbage problem?” asked a Hasidic mom, referring, quite literally, to the garbage that piles up on Rue Hutchison and the other streets of Outremont, an arrondissement of Montreal. This question began the first monthly meeting of Friends of Hutchison Street/Les Amis de la rue Hutchison at the Mile End library on July 3.
It was an ordinary community meeting, in that people from the neighborhood came to talk about local issues that affect them, yet an outsider observing the group might be surprised to learn that they in fact shared a community, as roughly half the people in the room were Hasidic, and half were not. Yet they were very much a community, thanks to the efforts of the two women running the meeting, one of whom, Vishnitzer Hasid Mindy Pollak, had just announced her candidacy for Outremont borough councillor. She would be the first Hasidic woman to ever assume a political position in Quebec.
Friends of Hutchison Street was the brainchild of Pollak’s collaborator, Leila Marshy. Marshy is a filmmaker and editor of the magazine Rover, and describes herself as a “militant Palestinian.” It might seem odd, then, that she would be Pollak’s best ally. But she is.
The two women, both dressed in white, as though they were the neighborhood’s guardian angels, ran the meeting smoothly, switching between English and French with ease. Time was devoted to the issue of garbage, as well as various other mundane local issues (keeping gardens tidy, greening the alleys, taking children to school).
As they tell it, their partnership, and Pollak’s political ambition, began with a neighborhood issue. In 2011, the Bobover shul, Shaar Dovid, applied for permission from the city to add a bathroom to their premises. It was a simple enough request, but one that sent Outremont resident Pierre Lacerte into a frenzy of activity. Lacerte follows in the path of Celine Forget, the Outremont borough councillor who has long battled with the local Hasidim, beginning in 2001, when she took them to court saying that their eruv, a ritual enclosure inside which observant Jews are permitted to carry items typically forbidden on Shabbat, denied her the fundamental right to fly a kite. Lacerte argues that members of the Hasidic community frequently violate local bylaws, which he chronicles on his blog, and has taken it upon himself to stop them. Shaar Dovid served as the perfect public showcase for his campaign.
In “Malice in Montreal,” a 2012 article published in the Haredi women’s magazine Ami, Machla Abramovitz described a borough councillor’s reaction to the war being waged between the Forget-Lacerte team and the Hasidic community, particularly the misinformation being circulated: “To counter this, the chasidic community must develop a PR strategy.”
And what better a “strategy” than an accomplished, articulate young woman—especially in staunchly egalitarian Quebec, where the suspicion that the Hasidim keep their women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen continues to lurk. It was a perfect plan, especially given Pollak’s fluency in French (she’s fluent in four languages, in fact), her interest in bridging cultural divides (she not only runs Friends of Hutchison with Marshy, she also maintains a food blog bearing the Yiddish/English name Esseat, which she co-founded with a non-Jewish former neighbor), her Internet savvy (she’s active on Facebook and Twitter), her ability to work closely with people (literally: she’s an aesthetician), and her youth and energy.
Ironically, campaigns by Lacerte and others against the Hasidim is the reason Pollak found her political calling (Lacerte is also running for borough councillor, as an independent candidate). According to the non-Jewish attendees at Friends of Hutchinson Street, two years ago a group went knocking on doors without mezuzahs, explaining, with flyers in hand: “We’re here to talk about the Jews.”
The residents who received the flyers had differing attitudes, no doubt. Perhaps a number of individuals were disgusted, but only one acted on that sentiment: Leila Marshy.
According to Marshy, up until that point she was devoted to one cause: the Palestinian cause. But she had lived on Hutchison Street for many years, and the Hasidim were her neighbors—kind neighbors, gentle neighbors. She couldn’t take her neighbors’ poor treatment lightly.
So Marshy made up her own flyer, which she too distributed around the neighborhood. And again, people responded in different ways to the flyer, some with anger, some with flowers. One woman responded with a phone call—Elka Pollak, a British immigrant and Vishnitzer Hasid, and a mother of five. Pollak was preparing dinner when she caught sight of the flyer. She immediately felt touched, she recalled, and dialed the number on the bottom. That was how the Hasidic Pollaks and their Palestinian neighbor on Rue Hutchison first made contact. Soon, the women were speaking and meeting regularly, though it was Elka’s daughter, Mindy, who starting running Friends of Hutchinson Street with Marshy.
From here Pollak’s political ambitions, and her commitment to local issues, only grew. In an interview with Montreal’s CTV news station, she says, “This is not the kind of neighborhood we want to live in. We want to live in a neighborhood that’s respectful and tolerant.” Pollak’s candidacy is backed by Projet Montréal, a small municipal party devoted to sustainable urbanism, and her campaign focuses on unity.
Whether this Hasidic young woman, whose unlikely journey has put her at the forefront of Montreal’s culture wars, will beat Lacerte and her three other opponents is not yet certain. But one thing is clear: there’s a growing backlash to the rising cultural tensions, particularly Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by all employees in the public sector, from doctors to daycare workers, professors, and firefighters. If Outremont residents elect Pollak on November 3, they too may be ready to take a stand for their community.
Karen E. H. Skinazi, PhD, is a lecturer at Princeton University and a literary and cultural critic.