The secret Jewish history of Montreal bagels and where to eat them

St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel lay unequivocal claim to producing the tastiest and most authentic bagels in Montreal
Montréal, Québec, Canada, January 6, 2016. -- St-Viateur Bagel is a famous Montreal-style bagel bakery located in the neighbourhood of Mile End in the borough of Le Plateau Mont-Royal. Established in 1957 by Myer Lewkowicz, the bakery takes its name from its street, St-Viateur Street. The bagel shop operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and serves over 12,000 bagels a day. A bagel also spelled beigel, is a bread product originating in Poland, traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a rin (Photo by Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images)

Montreal vs. New York bagels— a rivalry so impassioned (and so well-documented) we won’t get into it. You know what they say: two Jews, three opinions (at least in this debate nobody leaves hungry). 

But there’s another, lesser known, rivalry that exists within Montreal’s Jewish community. 

Who gave Montrealers their first taste of hand-rolled bagels baked in a wood-fired oven? And which bagel shop reigns supreme?

Who brought the bagel to Montreal?

Bagels arrived in Montreal with the wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Most Jewish immigrants settled in the Mile End neighborhood in the northeast side of Montreal, which is today known as a hip, multicultural neighborhood.

Like any good Jewish story, there’s a century-old debate about who introduced the first bagel to Montreal. 

Fairmount Bagels vs. St. Viateur Bagel 

Some say it was Isadore Shlafman, whose family owned a bakery in Kiev, where Shlafman worked as a bagel baker. As the story goes, in 1919, when Shlafman arrived in Montreal and realized there were no bagels, he started baking and selling bagels in a small laneway shop off of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, which was then known as “The Main.”

Other Montrealers swear Hyman Seligman, who arrived in Montreal from Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia), brought the first bagel to the city. Seeing the same absence of bagels in his new home, Seligman opened a small bakery and sold bagels by the dozen from a horse-drawn carriage throughout the Mile End.

According to city lore, by the early 1930s, Seligman and Shlafman joined forces and opened Montreal’s first official bagel shop: the Montreal Bagel Bakery on Saint Laurent Boulevard, just south of Schwartz’s Deli. By 1949, the bakery moved north to Fairmount Avenue, assuming a new name, Fairmount Bagel.

Sign above Fairmount Bagel, a Montreal-style bagel bakery, Fairmount Avenue, Mile End neighbourhood, Plateau Mont Royal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

For reasons unknown, the partnership disbanded in the early 1950s, according to Katherine Romanow, a Jewish food historian and director of food programming at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

Shlafman stayed at the existing bakery and continued operating Fairmount Bagel while Seligman moved on to open a new bagel shop.

Seligman partnered with Myer Lewkowicz— a Polish immigrant who, after surviving Buchenwald concentration camp, moved to Montreal and worked at the Montreal Bagel Bakery. The two opened St-Viateur Bagel on St-Viateur Street, one street north of Fairmount Bagel.

To this day, both Fairmount Bagel and St. Viateur continue to operate from their flagship spots.

St. Viateur expanded their shop to five other locations and a food truck. Today the shop is run by Joe Morena, who started working at St. Viateur when he was 15, and his business partner Marco Sblano.

Meanwhile, Fairmount Bagel closed in 1959, but the Shlafman family reopened the shop in 1979. Today, it’s still running under the supervision of two of Isadore Shlafman’s grandchildren, Irwin and Ronda.

Montréal, Québec, Canada, January 6, 2016. — St-Viateur Bagel is a famous Montreal-style bagel bakery located in the neighbourhood of Mile End in the borough of Le Plateau Mont-Royal. Established in 1957 by Myer Lewkowicz, the bakery takes its name from its street, St-Viateur Street. The bagel shop operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and serves over 12,000 bagels a day. A bagel also spelled beigel, is a bread product originating in Poland, traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a rin (Photo by Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images)

Where to get Montreal bagels

Unsurprisingly, both St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel lay unequivocal claim to producing the tastiest and most authentic bagels in Montreal. The rivalry between the two shops is friendly, but every Montrealer has their go-to spot.

For Romanow, her allegiance is firmly in the St-Viateur camp. “If you grew up in Montreal, you have your bagel shop that you go to, that your family always goes to,” she said in an interview.

You can taste test them yourself, plus a few newer additions to the Montreal bagel market:

St Viateur Bagel

Fairmount Bagel

Bagel St-Lo

La Fabrique de Bagel

R.E.A.L Bagel

Bagels on Greene

District Bagel

Hinnawi Bros

Montreal Kosher Bakery

MTL Bagel Shop

As for who baked the first Montreal bagel, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

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