Usually we travel somewhere with an idea about our time in the place we will be visiting. I am from Montreal so I feel I know it, having grown up there, brought up my children there, & have lived in Toronto now for 16 years.
So my plan in visiting my son, his wife & old friends who live in Montreal was be with them, walk on Mt Royal, read, go to a yoga studio I enjoy there…
I rented an airbnb room in a young women’s apt in Outremont (a neighbourhood in the city of Mtl) as my son had his in-laws staying with him from Argentina.
Outremont, any Montrealer can tell you, is a mixed bag of wealthy people & way less so. French & Ultra-Orthodox Jews, throw in some anglos & others for good measure.
My parents were Holocaust surviving Jews.
My mother spent her young womanhood in Auschwitz, my father behind enemy lines in the Czech army. Their families were wiped out.
So when they came to Canada, they relinquished religion, seeing it as divisive, a reason of conflict, evil… They determined to raise us, my brother & I, without religion, without a past, without a war, without explanation. Actually the no religion part was ‘determined’, the rest was fall-out.
My father died in a car accident when I was 3.5 & my brother 9, thus it became my mother’s mission to refute, deny, avoid, ‘forget’ the past, not forget her husband but all the rest & move on with her new life.
My airbnb room rental was a 3rd floor walk-up, way steep up with a wonderful front balcony equal in height to the rustling upper branches of a large Maple tree, providing shade & squirrels to amuse my small dog, & leaf music in the breeze.
I ended up hanging out there daily for hours! That was the unplanned part. Having no balcony at home & missing it terribly I discovered that reading there, observing life unfolding below, meditating there & simple gazing & breathing were deeply reconnecting & fulfilling ‘activities’.
What lay below were people that I recognized fully as being ‘like me’, gardening, jogging, chatting with neighbours, biking, taking children places, getting in & out of cars.
And people that I share so little with, that I can barely entertain the idea of similarity with, apart from our shared humanity which I admit is a lot, & our Jewish blood? Jean Paul Sartre would argue against that last bit.
So I sat there on my temporary balcony & watched the Orthodox Jews of Montreal with a slowly growing fascination & some surprising new-found respect. This respect has to do with child raising, with being a family & strangely with being a community.
Let me parse that last thought first:
Other children are unwelcome to interact, play, hang out with, exchange words with, ‘their’ children. In their complete difference, they live a cloistered life in a bustling modern city. They have their own schools, own synagogues, own summer camps, own bakeries, butchers, own businesses.
Rarely if ever is there a ‘good morning’ to another person, outside of the community. Dogs are frightening beasts no matter the size, to be avoided. ‘Others’, meaning neighbours who live next door are to be mostly avoided.
But as I watched from the balcony or gathered the local sightings on my slow hot day dog walking, I began to see something lovely. Admittedly sexist & caught up in various stuff that I know not of, but completely admirable also; the easy, neighbourly gathering of women with their children. The women wigged or with head covering scarves/turban-like hats, long skirts, long sleeves, mostly but not uniquely black, stockings, flat sensible shoes. Not much skin to face 33 degrees with thick humidity.
They took to outdoor staircases, in small groups from 2 to 4, chatting amiably (or perhaps cattily, who knows) while keeping a gentle eye on their many many many offspring, all close in age. The girls wore longer but otherwise not dissimilar dresses or skirts, from average children except with more covered skin, below the knee, longer sleeves. The boys all had shaved heads with ‘payot’, hair in front of the ears, curled carefully or not. And they had the familiar ‘tallit’, tassels hanging over their long shorts or pants. T-shirts & all colours seemed permissible in the children’s wardrobes.
They were outside all day!! They rode bikes, scooters. They played that elastic game that I played as a child wherein 2 people put the elastic around their calves at a distance of about 1 or more metres, & someone else does a jumping pattern in & out, over the elastic. I didn’t see a phone in anyone’s hands, nor an ipad, except men’s hands. The mothers were fully present and seemingly relaxed. The children were dirty in the best of outdoor ways, smeared dusty faces, some pushing their pavot behind their ears. I saw boys riding their bikes, with helmets, curls streaming in the breeze, up & down the sidewalk. I witnessed many of these small intimate easy congregations of women & children exchanging talk & being in community.
If someone needed a gentle scolding, & I only saw this once, they were given definite boundaries, as in; you can ride your bike up to that alley & down to the other alley! Clear & not overbearing or overly paranoid but very serious in the case I saw. Most of the talking was, or appeared to be in Yiddish or something else I don’t speak, with a little English thrown in.
If a toddler fell, he/she was picked up, comforted, held, but I saw no overly protective behaviour. No helicoptering. Hey I’m not saying no nasty yelling ever happens, no serious heavy stuff. It’s just that in my week, I witnessed nonesuch & gave this whole way of living some new & more open thought.
These people, other to me & ‘my’ people (basically a whole plethora of types are completely committed to their group; go to school together, go to synagogue, follow the same laws, apparently hold the same morals, eat similar foods & food groups, have their own summer camps/schools where buses showed up to pick up the kids on most days, have a definite crop of suitable partners which they must choose from… not sure how many ‘nays’ a boy or girl can say, without disapproval. They grow up in a community, are cared for there. Hey I’m glad my kids were not brought up thusly!!
All that to say, it seemed healthy, that this child-raising system is the village we give lip-service to, but which never clearly actualizes in most modern families. I was amazed & surprised by the differences of strong opinion that were around when I raised my boys. Sometimes turning into a minefield of varying opinions & judgments. It’s done now, they are fabulously out in the world & all is well, but I can clearly recall my occasional sense of isolation with the task.