Mordecai Richler

A novelist that many Canadian Jews loved to hate.

Satire mocks our foibles and urges us to correct them. And it’s hard to be grateful. Canadian satirical novelist, scriptwriter, and essayist Mordecai Richler often elicited rage from his favorite targets–fellow Jews and the French Canadians among whom he was born and raised. Reading Richler’s books, his critics usually felt anger, hurt, embarrassment, and a longing that he would simply shut up and go away. He finally did, when he died in 2001 at the age of 70.

Mordecai RichlerRichler was, more often than not, a challenging, memorable, amusing, even laugh-out-loud writer. And despite their misgivings, most Canadian Jews have grown proud to have produced  Richler, the man and the writer. His books continue to sell well both at home and abroad, many of them taught in high schools and universities around the world.

Over his nearly half-century of creative writing, Richler won several Governor General’s Literary Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize), many honors for his wonderfully witty children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975), and the Screenwriter’s Guild of America Award for Best Comedy for his Oscar-nominated screenplay of his best-known novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). He achieved fame in Canada and beyond for his world-class novels: Duddy Kravitz, of course, as well as St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980), Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), Barney’s Version (1979), and his exquisite collection of autobiographical stories, The Street (1969).

Richler, the grandson of a rabbi and son of an unsuccessful junk dealer, spent his youth in the 1930s and 40s in Canada, in the giant shadow of its dominant neighbor to the south, the United States, struggling against anti-Semitic French-speaking Catholics and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.   He was, in many ways, more of an outsider than merely being a Jew in a Christian world like most Americans, due to the additional fact of the French-speaking majority of his native Canadian province.

Controversial Characters

As a fledgling writer in his 20s, Richler moved to Paris, Spain, and finally London, where he penned and published his first few books, creating a scandal with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1959. When the obnoxious, chutzpahdik title character is called “a little Jew-boy on the make” by an uncle, Jewish Canadian readers across the country shuddered.

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.

Forever a Satirist

Richler wrote some of the funniest vignettes in modern literature, such as in Solomon Gursky Was Here, a novel loosely based on the billionaire Bronfman family of Seagram’s whiskey empire. In a flashback, the founder of the family, stranded in the Arctic, persuades Eskimos to become Jews. Alas, the tiny band is driven to near starvation when the converts refuse to eat on Yom Kippur–with sunset not to come for many months. 

In St. Urbain’s Horseman, the protagonist, Jake Hersh, returns to Montreal from the U.K. for the funeral and shiva of his father. Richler’s description of Hersh’s Montreal Jewish is a paragon of comedic insight:

He felt cradled, not deprived. He also felt like Rip Van Winkle returned to an innocent and ordered world he had mistakenly believed long extinct, where God watched over all, doing His sums. Where everything fit–even the Holocaust, which after all, had yielded the State of Israel. . . . Where smack was not habit-forming but what a disrespectful child deserved; pot was what you simmered the chicken soup in; and camp was where you sent the boys for the summer. . . .
    Aunts still phoned each other every morning to say what sort of cake they were baking. Who had passed this exam, who had survived the operation. A scandal was when a first cousin was invited to the bar mitzvah kiddush, but not the dinner. Eloquence was the rabbi’s sermon. They were ignorant of the arts, they were over dressed, they were overstuffed, and their taste was appallingly bad. But within their self-contained world, there was order. It worked.

Most of Richler’s writing “worked” as well, on the page and for the bottom line of his happy publishers. At the time of his death, the long-time scourge of his fellow Jews and those of his countrymen whom he had also mocked, mourned the loss of a man whom they had come to recognize as one of their finest and most gifted authors and humorists. He understood the meaning and power of satire, and one senses that his finest novels will be read, and enjoyed, by readers around the world for decades to come.

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