Culture & Conversation

Who’s your neighbour?


The votes were counted and we now officially have more tolerance for the sex shop down the street than for an insular well-meaning community in our midst. Not to pit one against the other (talk about dirty fight), but at what point do we stop measuring “progress” by metres of fabric?

Unlike a few hundred years ago, when Europeans scoffed at the “naked savage,” today the impetus to cover up is equated with prudery, oppression, backwardness, lack of choice, or ignorance. Making, of course, the urban twelve year old girl the epitome of enlightenment. With her tween-size thong, padded bra, short shorts and skimpy camisole, she clearly speaks for the entire history of western liberal values.

I say this because the way the Hassidim dress came up a number of times as I went door to door campaigning for their right to add a 10-ft extension to a small synagogue. But the women are over-dressed! Did you see the mens’ hats! Why don’t they let their children wear “regular” clothes! People wondered why they were “allowed” to live in our midst with such antiquated habits, customs and choices.

It’s not my place to defend their choice of dress. But would we even notice them, let alone be “offended,” let alone hold them accountable to the voting whim of their neighbours, if they dressed like “us”? Their very visibility made them the lightening rod for a rather smug group of people (including an Outremont borough councilor, whose daily presence on our street has me wondering about her orphaned constituency back in Outremont) who catalogued and publicized every possible infraction.

The damage was done. Even though the renovation plans were perfectly within all City norms, the repeated use of the word “illegal” (illegal parking! illegal air conditioners! illegal music!) succeeded in creating an impression of an illegal people. And when you do that, I don’t need to tell you, bad things happen.

But in the losing of a referendum, we gained a community. In one short week of going door to door, talking on the sidewalk and spreading the word, we got to know each other as neighbours, as regular people, as friends. This was so beyond the scope of Mr Lacerte’s imagination that he continues to accuse us of being funded by Cossette. But in his five years of slipping explosive tracts in people’s mailboxes and ringing their doorbells, one Hassidic woman told me, he never once rang their doorbells or gave them his propaganda.

To most people, no doubt, this little struggle of ours on Hutchison street between Fairmount and St Viateur, to quote Bogart, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Fair enough. But the thing about communities is they grow. You start with a tiny hill of beans and the next thing you know you have seeds for acres of gardens.

Les Amis de la rue Hutchison (Friends of Hutchison Street) was born one afternoon just over a week ago because Kathryn Harvey and I needed a name to go on our flyer. Now, it’s the beginning of a new rapprochement between the Hassidic and non-Hassidic communities.

In this era of frenzied social media and globalization, I hope it’s a reminder that real community is also just the person next door, who ever they may be.

Leila Marshy is the Literary Editor of Rover. As a Palestinian, she would like you to know that some of her best friends are Hassidic. Contact Les Amis de la rue Hutchison at

  • 10 Responses to “Who’s your neighbour?”

    1. Barry

      Well put Leila. The big loser here is common ground and understanding, a casualty of suspicion and fear on both sides. I'm afraid that the sides will once again retreat to their respective corners and prepare themselves to duke it out in the next round, and rest assured there will be a next round. My sense is that both sides are to blame, and I think you touch upon this. Yes, the hasidim should be able to build their extension and live their lives peacefully. But do they smile and greet their neighbours when they pass them in the street? My experience indicates not. When you want to live in the heart of a multi-cultural city (as opposed to isolate yourself as the Tosh in Boisbriand do, or the Skver in the Laurentians do, there is a certain responsibility to openness and being forthcoming to your secular neighbours, an orientation which is fundamentally threatening (if not utterly abhorrent) to the hasidic way of life.

    2. compalena

      What I always find so interesting is the ability of many Canadians to hide behind the veneer of liberal multicultural tolerance and secularism to oppose "difference" in their midst. This "NIMBY" ("not in my back yard") mentality has historically worked against poor people and racial/religious minorities. It's just that the yuppies will never openly admit their real motivation for wanting to shut down the building of a women's and children shelter, an extension of a mosque or synagogue, a center for recovering addicts, a food and clothing bank, even a public daycare (I'm not exaggerating). And what's so utterly obvious is that it's the upper-class who are the real interlopers or "outsiders" of historically working-class neighborhoods. Bored of the suburbs, these rich folks gentrify diverse urban neighborhoods. They move-in not to better understand their neighbors and create community but to colonize and destroy what is already there. The only diversity these assholes can tolerate can be found in their desire to frequent "quaint" and "authentic" ethnic restaurants. Just as long as the "difference" can be controlled, commodified, and cut-off at the root like a weed. Like Barry's comment above, the burden is placed on the racial/religious minorities to be "friendly" and "forthcoming to your secular" (read white yuppie) neighbors. Those who are different must escape their so-called impenetrable "ethnic enclaves" and reach out. Never the other way around. And that is precisely the problem.

      I understand why you failed to mention these things Leila: it's strategic. I'm with you on this and applaud your efforts to build real community. I just wanted to "go there."

      • Gord

        Who are these "assholes" who live to colonize and destroy? Do you live in this neighbourhood? It's a bit more complicated than that.

    3. Elise Moser

      Thanks for this article, Leila, it's great. I just want to add that a lot of otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people have expressed, in some form, the sentiment that I see in one of the comments above, that the Hasidim aren't friendly enough, or 'keep to themselves." Let's keep some perspective here, it is very important. You do not ostracize a community, especially a vulnerable one, because they don't say hello on the street. You might prefer greater friendliness but this is absolutely not grounds for the kind of active and mean-spirited exclusion that took place here. They don't say hello so you accept that it's okay to punish them with harassment? This is a whole community descended from Holocaust survivors. Think about how the persecution of the Jews began: with exactly this kind of bureaucratic exclusion. The behaviour of Lacerte and his cohorts, as well as the casual justification of it by this kind of comment, is stunningly insensitive.

      • Marcy

        I lived in Outremont for 8 years and made every effort to smile and be warm to the members of the Hasidic community. My friendliness was almost never reciprocated and while you are right that this is not grounds for harassment and I would not wish that upon them in any way. I wonder though if you live in Outremont and are confronted with this on a daily basis because for me it began to take its toll. I arrived in Outremont with a sincerely open heart to their community however, as a dog owner, I was shunned on a daily basis by members of the Hasidic community. Most of them have an irrational fear of dogs, even small friendly ones like mine. I shrugged it off but – and I am just being completely honest here – after 8 years it takes its toll. It is not a pleasant feeling to feel such tension and disdain every single day. It is not just a question of not smiling at a passer by, it goes beyond that. I personally felt very unwanted because of it. I know this isn't very politically correct to say but I am sorry someone should say it. Again I must emphasize that this behavior does not justify, harassment from any community outside of the Hassidim. Communities, even tightly-knit ones evolve over time and perhaps one day there will be a more friendly rapport between them and us. I certainly am open to that and would enjoy it.

        • Velvel

          I feel sorry for you Marcy, cause as a Hasid living here in Outremont, I can sincerely tell you that the sentiment in our community is not one of deliberately shunning our neighbors or displaying disdain, its an unwanted outcome of, as you wrote, "irrational fear of dogs" which I myself am bothered by it.
          I personally don't have a problem with dogs, but no matter how many times I tell my kids that dogs don't bite it simply does not help, its seems like something social or maybe its peer influence to have fear of dogs.

    4. lagatta à montréal

      A lot of the isolation is the fault of public funding for private schools, including confessional ones that teach the inferiority of women (not even to mention the hatred of LGBT people, who also fell victim to the Nazi genocide). If there were not such public funding for insular confessional schools, the children and grandchildren of the Hassidic immigrants would simply be normal Jewish people; observant or secular but not locked into a ghetto. Considering the high educational attainment of most Jewish women in the world today, whether in Europe, North or South America, Israell or elsewhere, it saddens me to see undereducated women with huge broods in this day and age.

      I know many people my age (boomers) who are the children of Holocaust survivors. I knew quite a few political and "racial" Holocaust survivors – most have died of old age, but I have some friends who suffered Nazi persecution as children, and they are anything but insular, sectarian people. I have a an atheist, anarchist friend who had to wear the yellow star as a child in Paris and who is committed to fighting all forms of racism.

      I certainly don't hate Hassidic people (many of my Jewish friends have a strong animosity to them, though), but I think allowing the school system to perpetuate a ghetto was a very great error.


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