Outside of Israel, Montreal holds one of the biggest Orthodox Jewish communities in the world. If you take a stroll through the city's Mile End or Outremont neighbourhoods, you'll see the curious duality of hipsters living alongside Orthodox Jews; man-buns bobbing alongside traditional shtreimels; and fixies weaving in and out of sidewalks dominated by strollers.
But while the ultra-Orthodox community has been visible on the streets, the unprecedented election of Hasidic city councillor Mindy Pollak still came as a big shock to Montreal.
Pollak first came to attention in 2013 when she was elected to city council representing the Outremont region—an area where Hasidic Jews comprise about one quarter of the population. Her campaign generated lots of buzz not just because of her age (she was only 24 when she ran), but because she became the first Hasidic Jewish woman ever elected to Montreal's city council. This is an impressive feat for any young woman, but particularly one coming from an ultra-conservative religion where women typically don't work in co-ed environments.
She decided to run for office after sitting on an intercultural council in Montreal and realizing that if she wanted to make a difference, it would have to be on the city council itself.
"The only reason I decided not to run was because it had never been done before," she said. "But what is fear itself going to do? Is it going to make the situation better off?"
Her platform focused mostly on a simple idea: reestablishing trust and communication between Outremont's Hasidic residents and city council—a fairly daunting task given the long list of strained relations between the two groups.
Those tensions include a bathing suit ban for parks (which was shot down in court), forcing a gym to frost its windows because of revealing clothing, neighbourhood resistance to a small expansion of a synagogue, and accusations of a powerful so-called "Hasidic lobby."
Pollak's unlikely role as the political voice of the Hasidic community pushes back against Quebec's strict secular ethos. Despite the epic defeat of Pauline Marois' attempt in 2013 to ban religious clothing in the public sector, secular Quebec generally abides by the belief that religion inherently oppresses women. Among many Montrealers, the idea of valuing traditional female "modesty" is about as welcome as saying you find Toronto more charming than Montreal.
Montreal's Hasidic community was also recently thrust into the spotlight outside the city limits with the film Felix and Meira, which won the Best Canadian Feature prize at last year's TIFF. With a storyline set in the Mile End, director Maxime Giroux paints a compelling narrative about the relationship between the atheist Quebecois Felix and Hasidic Meira—the married but slightly rebellious protagonist who eventually leaves the faith in attempt to be free from its restraints.
Giroux told VICE that the best feedback the film received came from ex-members of the Hasidic faith who thanked him for the accuracy with which he told Meira's story. He started researching Orthodox Judaism two-and-a-half years before filming even began and primarily cast actors who had voluntarily ex-communicated.
Meira, played by Israeli actress Hadas Yaron, paints a character who stays true to the perceptions most people have about Hasidic women. She is shy with strangers, seemingly fearful of the outside world and rarely makes eye contact with men. Her submissiveness is a dramatic theme throughout the film and is one the most poignant social critiques Giroux makes about the Orthodox Jewish faith.
Giroux confirmed that the film had not been particularly well-received by members of New York's Hasidic community, although he wasn't sure if anyone from Montreal had chosen to attend a screening. When I asked Pollak if she saw the film, she gave a friendly but firm "no," although that doesn't stop her from passing judgment on it.
Felix and Meira is a highly sensitive portrayal of the complexities that accompany the protagonist's eventual exit from the Hasidic faith. Pollak seemed to take most offence to this. She sighed and told me that she wished, for once, a film would portray Hasidic women as fulfilled and happy in their lives. "We aren't all oppressed," she emphasized.
"Do I seem meek to you?" Pollak countered to me when I asked her about Meira's portrayal. It was admittedly difficult to imagine the bright and animated city councillor as anything but determined and expressive.
There are things about the Hasidic faith that undoubtedly make many Canadians uncomfortable. Number one at that list would be the acceptance of distinct roles for men and women.
"We feel the roles are different. Women are in charge of the children's spiritual education," Pollak told me.
But according to her, it's this division of responsibility that empowers women in the Hasidic faith. "Men spend most of their time in spiritual study, so women are often the breadwinners," she said. "We're entrepreneurs, comedians, singers, and doctors."
Almost halfway through her four-year term, Pollak laughs about her initial naiveté and emphasizes the importance of continuing to push for inter-cultural and inter-faith acceptance in Outremont and the Mile End.
In 2011, she co-founded the Facebook group "Friends of Hutchison" which aims is to foster an open dialogue between all of the area's residents—Hasidic, francophone, and anglophone alike. But the most unlikely part of the group is its origin. Pollak co-founded the group with a Palestinian woman, Leila Marshy, who would go on to become her best friend and ally.
The group's membership is still relatively low at just over 1,000, but it signals the early stages of a cultural shift away from the Hasidic faith's insular past.
That's not to say the conservative religion is somehow sliding towards becoming a more watered-down version of itself. Despite her revolutionary role, Pollak still adheres to the orthodox rules of her religion. She dresses modestly keeping her elbows, knees and collarbones covered and, like most Hasidic women, made the decision not to shake the hands of men.
Pollak is hesitant to talk about any negativity she faced from her own Hasidic community. "The majority of the feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive. But there were a few people who were unhappy," she admitted. The Satmar sect—arguably one of the most orthodox movements within Hasidism—disagreed with Pollak's political bid and challenged her by running their own candidate.
Perhaps somewhat naively, I asked if a young Hasidic woman could leave home and chase a career in the big city—the kind of clichéd capitalist dream sold to girls through generations of New York sitcoms.
"That might be difficult to do," Pollak agreed. "In New York, there are all-women seminaries where you can even get college credits, but because Montreal is smaller, nothing like that exists here yet. But that doesn't mean it won't."
And while Pollak's role as a politician is the exception and not the rule amongst Hasidic women, she's proof women from orthodox faiths can balance religion and personal identity. That even within the most seemingly conservative religions, there are progressive voices. And that perhaps the best person to bring god-fearing Quebeckers out of Pauline Marois' era of religious intolerance is a 26-year-old Hasidic woman with a plan.
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