The Sunday Magazine

Worlds apart, yet neighbours, Montreal musicians use song to connect

In mid-March, there was a big Orthodox Jewish wedding in a Montreal hotel. Within days it had led to an outbreak of COVID-19, and the community had become a coronavirus hotspot. This had the potential to further divide them from their neighbours. But then the traditionally insular Hasids began reaching out and some of their neighbours — including singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright — began reaching back. David Gutnick’s documentary is called At The Root of Everyone.

COVID-19 had driven a divided neighbourhood further apart. Then something remarkable happened.

Musician Martha Wainwright, left, invited the Outremont Hasidic Group, right, to sing in her balcony concert in Montreal on May 12, 2020. (URSA mtl/Facebook and David Gutnick)

The Orthodox Jewish wedding in a Montreal hotel in the middle of March was supposed to be a big celebration.

The groom's father was admired and well-known. The bridal couple's families had planned a huge wedding, but when provincial public health authorities advised people to avoid gathering, the guest list was halved.

Still, 150 people turned up, including visitors from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., who drove up to celebrate the family's good fortune.

Within days, the party had spawned a nightmare. The novel coronavirus had spread among the guests.

The groom's father got sick. An uncle was rushed to intensive care. A 67-year-old man died.

In a community where families have six or seven children and people live in tightly packed houses, the dangers were enormous. A special Hasidic paramedic team sprang into action, going home to home dressed head-to-toe in personal protective equipment, to check on everyone's health and offer instructions on physical distancing.

The outbreak put Montreal's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community back in the news — their neighbourhood had become one of the city's first COVID-19 hotspots.

At the best of times, the relationship between Montreal's Hasidim, who number more than 10,000, and their neighbours in Outremont and Mile End is a complicated one. For years, there have been tensions.

COVID-19 had the potential to be explosive — to drive neighbours further apart. But then something remarkable happened.

The traditionally insular Hasids reached out, and some of their neighbours — including singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright — began reaching back.

Here is David Gutnick's documentary, "At The Root of Everyone."

Click 'listen' above to hear the documentary.

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