I do not believe it is hyperbole to state that manufacturing clothing was the single most important industry to the Jewish community of Montreal in the twentieth century. Yes, it is true that Jewish people have been active in a variety businesses including scrap metal, real estate, retail, and dry goods to name only a few. But no other industry employed a larger number of people, generated more wealth and afforded more opportunity, particularly to the Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe in the two great waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, and the next wave after the Holocaust in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was also critical for the third wave of immigration from North Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s.
When I’ve spoken to Jewish audiences in the past I sometimes ask a show of hands on the question how many people in the room have had immediate relatives ie. parents or grandparents, who worked in the garment industry. Invariably it is almost unanimous: No matter who we are today, what businesses or professions this generation we works in, the origins can be traced back to shmatas. The doctors, lawyers, accountants, MBAs, financial analysts, university professors, school teachers, architects, engineers and software developers of today are the progeny of cutters, sewers, shippers, patternmakers, designers, fabric salesmen, knitters and manufacturers. We often talk about the importance of the Bronfman family to the establishment of the institutional Montreal Jewish community. But I think it is more accurate to say that, at street level, the Montreal Jewish community was built on rags.
In the area where I work along Chabanel and the surrounding streets, giant buildings were built during the industry’s heyday in the 60s, 70s and 80s, almost 7 million square feet in all. There were between 50 and 100,000 employees working in almost 1000 garment companies in these buildings. Chabanel was reportedly the second most important generator of wealth on the island of Montreal on a per square foot basis after downtown.
So, if for more than a century there is no other industry more important to the creation of the Montreal Jewish community; if a portrait of our community, our history, our character, our mentality, our families, our culture and way of thinking, is impossible without an understanding of the shmata industry, why have there not been more books written about it? More films made? More exhibitions? More academic study?
Shmatas, or rather the people who built the industry, have been given short shrift.
When Mordecai Richler started writing about life in the 1940s on the Main, Jews were initially either doubtful or incensed at his portrayal. Richler’s portrait, as truthful as it might have been, was considered unflattering and many Jews didn't like it being publicized. There was a sense of embarrassment and shame.
Have shmatas been given short shrift for a similar reason?
I remember as a child in the early seventies driving with my dad to his office at 9320 Saint-Laurent corner Chabanel on Saturday mornings. Those giant white brick structures loomed above the street filling me with a combination of awe, fear and loathing all at the same time. I won’t end up here, I told myself. I’m going to be better than this, better than a dress manufacturer. Is this sense of shame our dirty little secret? Why we don’t talk about the shmatta business? There is no Nobel prize given out for dress manufacturing.
I wonder if a sense of wanting to redress an injustice is the reason why people like me and Johnny and Arleen are writing about what we experience in an industry that is so important to all of us. One thing is for sure, it's necessary.