Mordecai Richler

A novelist that many Canadian Jews loved to hate.

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Duddy's taxi-driving father pimps on the side, sells stolen hockey sticks, and cruelly--if comically--uses his French Canadian girlfriend and a disabled buddy in
his relentless goal to purchase real estate north of Montreal. His beloved grandfather had convinced Duddy that "a man without land is a nobody"--but the little "pusherke" ironically never understood that his grandfather was referring to the Holy Land, not cottage country in Canada.

Readers laugh continually at Richler's hilarious, if highly unethical, "scheming little bastard" of an antagonist, but I have seen Jewish professors and high school teachers cringe when their gentile students chuckle at the antihero's outrageous antics. Thoughtful educators point out that pretty well all bright Protestant and Catholic Canadian teenagers in the 1940s were also “on the make”-- determined to escape the poverty and struggles in their respective neighborhoods of Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

And, of course, the same could be said of American teenagers in the 1940s. But whereas the United States had already accepted some two million Jews by the time of the First World War, Canada had less than 25,000 Jews--making them more than a generation behind the United States in terms of population, assimilation, and acceptance. Canadian Jewish writing was similarly behind the times, being essentially a post World War I phenomenon.

While he was a happy ex-patriot for nearly two decades, Mordecai Richler was no fool: he knew the ideal subject matter for his life's work was back in Canada.

As he wrote in an essay in 1970: "No matter how long I continue to live abroad, I do feel forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street [the equivalent of Manhattan's Lower East Side, a quarter century earlier]. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right." And he did, again and again, even bringing a middle-aged Duddy Kravitz back as a character in a number of his  later novels, creating a pleasant echo for those who had followed his career over the years. By 1972, Richler was back in his native Montreal, living there with his wife and children for most of each year during the last three decades of his life, usually spending the other months in his beloved London, England.

Jews were not the only readership that Richler angered with his prose. When he wrote several shocking essays published in the New Yorker in the last decade of his life, exposing the virulent Jew-hating, even Nazi-supporting history of the Quebecois to the world (and themselves), he enraged his fellow Canadians as much as he had his fellow Jews decades earlier.

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Allan Gould

Allan Gould is a Toronto-based journalist, and author of over three dozen books. They include The Unorthodox Book of Jewish Records and Lists, a work of original Jewish humor, co-authored with American poet and lecturer Danny Siegel, and an anthology of the writings of over 300 Gentiles through history, What Did They Think of the Jews?