The Arty Semite

Mordecai Richler: Canada’s Firebrand in Fiction

By Benjamin Ivry

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The Canadian Jewish novelist and gadfly Mordecai Richler, who died in 2001, was renowned internationally for books such as “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” “The Street,” “Solomon Gursky Was Here,” and an anthology, “Writers On World War II,” all available from Penguin Canada.

Yet Richler’s fiercely outspoken personality seems to fascinate posterity as much as his writings do, as Michael Posner’s 2005 book “The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler, An Oral Biography” from McClelland & Stewart testifies. Now a more formal, thoroughly researched biography from McGill-Queen’s University Press, “Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain” by Reinhold Kramer has appeared, explaining how Richler managed to irritate his compatriots, Jews and antisemites both, so much that he even received hate mail at a Montreal hospital while he was dying of cancer.

“Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain” explains that the writer rebelled against his “fierce, hot-tempered” Orthodox Jewish paternal grandfather, while his maternal grandfather, the legendary scholar Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg inspired love and respect. Torn between these two emotional extremes, Richler abandoned Orthodoxy, but was active in the local Habonim movement.

Although Richler’s fictional depictions of Orthodox life were often sarcastic, he expressed Jewish themes before it was considered usual to do so. Kramer explains how when “Duddy Kravitz” (1959) was ready for publication in the United States, an editor argued that its title was too Jewish, suggesting “What’s In It for Me?” as an alternative (Richler demurred). One “Duddy Kravitz” reader wrote to Richler in dismay: “The Jews are not yet sufficiently well-liked in [Canada] to be able to afford spokesmen like you.”

When the film adaptation starring Richard Dreyfuss was released in 1974, it was barred from the Cannes Film Festival as being too antisemitic. Such concerns would pursue Richler for the rest of his career, and a degree of harassment was part of what he was expected to endure as a Jewish satirist in Canada, an underpopulated country which nevertheless inhumanely barred entry to wartime Jewish refugees.

Despite everything, Richler was part of the Jewish tradition, deeply admiring fellow writers from Isaac Babel to Saul Bellow, whose “Herzog” Richler termed a “song of praise, Chassidic in its intensity and delight in life.” The same might be said of his own trajectory, although Montreal changed beyond recognition during Richler’s lifetime, and any English-language satirist, especially a Jewish one, became extraneous, if not entirely irrelevant.

Listen to a radio interview with Richler:


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