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.
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.
David Sugarman is Tablet’s Deputy News Editor, and teaches American literature at New York University.