Shooting the Shit with Jacob the Hassidic Bus Driver
I met Jacob the hassidic bus driver in heavily hassidic neighbourhood where the streets are filled with religious bearded men dressed in black, their very bossy-looking wives and about a hundred million kids. This very close to what I imagine my grand-mother’s Montreal must have looked like. She was her mother’s seventeenth child. She pretty much grew up in a convent, only going out one week for Christmas and Easter and two weeks in the summer. They had mass every day and on Sundays she’d put on a clean dress and sit with her mother for a couple of hours on a hard wooden bench in the parlor.
Hassidic kids are golden. Compared to what my grand-parents had they live like California hipsters.
Québec’s hassidic Jews, their fights with their neighbours, their schools and their parking habits, come up in the news in Québec about once or twice a year, which is probably a statistical inevitability considering that Montréal is the home to the world’s third biggest community of ultra-orthodox after New York City and Jerusalem.
Most of the fighting is about small crap: homely lawns and zoning violations. Once in a while, though, and with consitent regularity, Montréal’s hassidics manage put themselves where they least like to be: at the center of storm. Their demand to cover up the windows of the Park Avenue YMCA gym led to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on Reasonable Accomodations and more recent reports that some of them send their children to 100% religious schools just might get the second round started. (Notice how the Canadian English-language media won’t touch that story, hoping it will go away…)
Of course there is nothing the Jews hate more than the publicity. You have to feel sorry for that humble conservative community living a life determined by a millenium old code having to deal with our fast changing times in the midst of highly cafeinated French neighbours who feel the need to turn any novelty into province-wide philosophical debates.
Me and Jacob were driving two busloads of hassidc girls to Mont-Tremblant where they were spending the day. My grand-mother also went to Tremblant when she was young. Back in her day you had to take the train and skiing cost less than a dollar. How much does it cost now?, she asked me once. What is it, like 10 dollars? Try 80$, Grand-Maman.
Jacob likes the French-Canadians, he told me. He probably has to have that conversation whith all gentiles he spends time with. The French might tell you « Maudit Juif » to your face, he explained, but that’s it. The English they’re always giving you a big smile, but then they’ll stab you in the back!
The French they get shortchanged, he went on. I rent buses to do trips to New York all the time. Whenever I can I’ll rent a Québec bus and hire a Québec driver. New York drivers would never work for what we pay Québec drivers.
I suggested that the linguistic situation limited the French-speakers’ mobility. Moving to another province, let alone the US, is emigration, for a Québécois. It means your kids will grow up in a different culture and probably won’t be able to school in their language. The English-speaking workforce has a much bigger territory it can move around in, forcing employers to pay them more if they want to keep them.
Is it worth it? asked Jacob, genuinely puzzled. Why hold on to French, then?
For real, Jacob? He sat there sweating under his black hat, beads of sweat caught in his beard, speaking English with a thick polish accent three generations after his great-grand-father bought his first home on Avenue Hutchison, a greasy lock of hair hair twisted arround his ear for the pleasure of some minor desert deity, and he didn’t get how people could be attached to a language, a heritage, a history?
Jacob lived in Montreal his entire life, surrounded by French-speaking neighbours and his Yiddish-speaking brothers and family. He speaks Yiddish to his kids. But he speaks English to his neighbours, not French.
I know it, he says, but not well. They never thought me well. I think our leaders don’t want us to learn it. If we did we’d start talking to the neighbours more, and going to their houses… And we’d do it! They have so many problems in New York because everyone speaks the same language. Here, language keeps everyone separate and they like that. Rolling his eyes and with a knowing smile he adds, they say they’re goind to start teaching the kids better French, now…
My grand-mother grew up in an ultra-orthodox religious community called Québec. The overthrow of that religious order, many people forget, was what the Quiet Revolution was about. The political stuff, the language debates, all that came after.
Some people object to the hassidics resistance to integration to wider Québec society. That’s quite rich coming from North America’s champions of difference. Christ, for all we know this insitance on their right to live according to their own rules and just do their thing without bothering anybody else is something the Hassidics picked up from the Québécois!
But I wouldn’t want to live my grand-parents life and neither would most other Québécois.
I can only hope Jacob’s children will have a choice.
Those who will not protect their right to choose will commit a crime.