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Fiction

Constructing a Multicultural Identity at the Canadian Frontier: Mordecai Richler and Jewish-Canadian Writing

La construction d’une identité multiculturelle sur la Frontière canadienne : Mordecai Richler et l’écriture juive au Canada
Julie Spergel
p. 131-145

Résumé

Tout au long de ses cinquante années de carrière, Mordecai Richler a critiqué sans relâche le Canada. Dans un premier temps, il accusa son pays natal de ne pas avoir d’identité ; puis il s’en moqua parce qu’il essayait un peu trop consciencieusement de s’en créer une. Comme de nombreux Juifs de sa génération, Richler souffrait d’une double complexité historique liée à ses rôles en apparence incompatibles de Juif et de Canadien. Ses écrits de fiction reflètent les changements qui ont eu lieu dans un Canada alors lancé dans sa quête d’identité nationale et lui-même perdu quelque part entre les Etats-Unis et la Grande-Bretagne. Le Canada commença à rechercher une/son « individualité » en encourageant la création d’une culture littéraire dont le rôle était d’unir un peuple, puis, plus tard, à travers les efforts du gouvernement, de construire une mythologie (discours ou rhétorique nationaux) au sein de laquelle fut introduit ultérieurement le multiculturalisme. Rétrospectivement, on peut aller jusqu’à suggérer que Richler a prédit la voie finalement adoptée par son pays : tandis que ses protagonistes apprennent à être des Juifs se définissant comme un peu plus que des « on-Goyim » et se caractérisent par leur propre système de valeurs et d’actions, le Canada a appris à se définir à travers le multiculturalisme. Si l’on éclaire le multiculturalisme canadien à la lumière de la théorie des Frontières juives développée par Sander L. Gilman, l’écriture juive au Canada fournit une illustration de ce multiculturalisme et offre un modèle de réconciliation du conflit entre mythologies nationale et culturelle.

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Texte intégral

1In the 1950s, being a Jew in Canada was a struggle, but trying to make a living as a Jewish Canadian artist was a fight for survival. There were few Canadian models to admire and even fewer Jewish Canadian writers to emulate. In this void emerged a literary icon whose career spanned nearly five decades and who thus witnessed — and subjected to scrutiny—the various stages experienced by a nation looking for its multicultural identity. A notorious but beloved and controversial curmudgeon, self-appointed moral conscience of Canada, the sometimes caustic Mordecai Richler died in 2001, leaving behind a legacy of journalistic integrity, innumerable highly-opinionated essays, television and film scripts, three children’s books and a distinctly Canadian collection of novels. Born in 1931 at a time when Canada’s doors were barred to emigrant Jews, in a Quebec that wanted a Judenrein province in the name of preserving its cultural heritage, in a Montreal where the Jewish community paled in comparison to that of New York, in a country that was in between identities, unsure if it was more British or American, Richler could not wait to get out of his native land. As is inevitably reflected in the resultant literature, Jews in Canada were marginal citizens in a country that was itself marginal.

  • 1  As has been argued in recent literature on nationhood and nationalism, a nation, especially one co (...)
  • 2  Daniel FRANCIS, National Dreams: Myth, Memory, and Canadian History, Vancouver: Arsenal P, 1997, 1 (...)

2Canada’s active attempts to rise above its marginality became evident when it began fostering the creation of a literary culture. However important a national literature is to a country’s identity,1 a canon nevertheless needs to be fortified by an articulated national rhetoric comprised of myths that citizens willingly allow themselves to believe in. Civil ideology does not develop naturally; it has to be created, reinforced and even altered to suit the times. Canada is not exempt from myth-making. As Daniel Francis argues in his National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History: “Because we lack a common religion, language or ethnicity, because we are spread out so sparsely across such a huge piece of real estate, Canadians depend on this habit of ‘consensual hallucination’ more than any other people.”2 It was as a deliberate attempt to define what it is to be Canadian that the government introduced the concept of multiculturalism. Although Richler was relentless with his satirical attacks, he eventually realised that Canada’s evolution was not dissimilar to his own development as an artist and as an ethnic Canadian seeking to reconcile his conflicting national and cultural mythologies.

  • 3  Elaine GRAND, “Interview with Mordecai Richler,” Close-Up, Natl. Public Television, Canadian Broad (...)
  • 4  Mordecai RICHLER, “Their Canada and Mine,” in Gerri Sinclair and Morris Wolfe (Eds.), The Spice Bo (...)

3In a 1961 television interview, Richler earnestly suggested that Canada quit pretending and “stop defying the logic of politics and geography.”3 His philosophy at the time was that in order to be a part of something great, Canada would have to join the United States, thereby adding to its culture instead of bowing low and mimicking it. The early part of Richler’s life was spent looking down from Montreal to New York—in his eyes a “veritable yeshiva”4—with envy. After all, those who resettled at the end of the nineteenth century in a cultural wasteland such as Canada surely did so by mistake. His judgement was not unfounded. Before the United States decided it had already welcomed in too many Jews and Canada followed suit by also closing its doors, the period before World War I was marked by mass migration of Eastern European Jews to North America. Canada did not receive as many of the two million immigrants as the United States; New York, which took in ninety percent of them, was the centre of Yiddish culture and was therefore much more attractive to those fleeing oppression and poverty. The decision, however, was not necessarily the emigrants’:

  • 5  Irving ABELLA, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, Toronto: Lester and (...)

Canada was not their first choice—indeed many did not know it existed—but the refugees did not control their own fate. As they moved westward, they were shunted from one immigration committee to another, each trying to push them farther west—from Vienna to Hamburg to London, then to New York or Montreal, and finally onward to whatever western community would take them, or whatever lands were available.5

4The United States had already established its reputation as the new land of milk and honey,

  • 6 Ibid., 86.

[t]hus those who found themselves getting off ships in Halifax, Quebec City or Montreal through no choice of their own were dumbfounded. Somehow they had been tricked. Jewish relief agencies in Canada complained to their counterparts in Europe that ‘unscrupulous steamship agents…[tell] an emigrant desiring to go to Chicago…that the steamer will land him at Montreal and that the fare from Montreal to Chicago is only 60¢.’6

  • 7  Mordecai RICHLER, The Street, Washington: New Republic, 1969, 17.
  • 8 Ibid., 59.

5In their memoirs, many Jewish Canadian writers refer to these fateful accidents that brought their parents or grandparents to Canadian shores. Mordecai Richler openly laments his grandfather en route to the New World mindlessly trading his ticket to Chicago for one to Montreal. Even for some third-generation, Canadian-born Jews like Richler, the United States was the place where they ought to be; it was “the real America.”7 He reminisces: “We were governed by Ottawa, we were also British, but our true capital was certainly New York.”8 New York was not only a vibrant Jewish centre, it was also an artistic capital.

6A Richler novel, as an example of early Jewish-Canadian fiction, is an exposé of the self-sufficient, over-protective, ambitious world of the tight-knit Jewish community from which the protagonists wish to escape. They are not seeking material rewards, status symbols or assimilation, but rather an identity. They set off on a quest to find out who they are, believing that this need cannot be satisfied through association with either Judaism or Canada. The characters believe their nation does not yet know itself and blame their lack of confidence on Canada’s being unable to provide them with an identity. To make matters worse, one can never really prove one’s talent in a country where mediocrity is celebrated as long as it boasts “Canadian content.” Canada is too provincial to offer a venue from which one can say or do anything meaningful about the world. In order to succeed, the protagonists must vanquish the stereotypes and false heroes they inherit from competing national and cultural mythologies so that by the end of their journey, they may learn to amalgamate into their new concept of self a sense of being both Canadian and Jewish. Often the solution is that part of being Canadian is addressing national issues at the personal level, and part of being Jewish is belonging to a community.

  • 9  Sander L. GILMAN, Jewish Frontiers: Essays on Bodies, Histories, and Identities, New York: Palgrav (...)

7In his 2003 collection of articles Jewish Frontiers: Essays on Bodies, Histories, and Identities,9Sander L. Gilman provides an excellent model for understanding Jewish writing in Canada. His essays fall together under the premise that the way Jewish history is read needs to be reformulated. Instead of considering Jewish people as exiles, forever living in the Diaspora, their collective history should be re-interpreted as Jews living at the frontier. The frontier is a place where all people interact to define themselves and those around them. He proposes that since the traditional “centre-periphery” model of Israel and the Diaspora poses complications in the twenty-first century, due to its inherent political problems, a model that exists always in the present and relates only to itself would be more beneficial. This is necessary, Gilman argues, because it would render the various Diasporas consequential. It would also present a space not of victimhood, but of compromise, middleground, contest and accommodation, thus encouraging the articulation of multiple voices. The frontier model exposes anti-Semitism as endemic rather than as teleological. Moreover, it allows for a construal of Jews as co-existing in time instead of space, thereby strengthening the emphasis on relations and interactions with other peoples. In turn, acceptance of such exchanges suggests a more flexible fit with a changing world headed by capitalism and globalisation and marked by hybridity. To impose the frontier model onto Jews in Canada is useful in comprehending how Jewish writers such as Richler were able to construct a relationship to multiculturalism and consequently an identity that could unite their diverging cultural and national heritages. In accordance with this view, a Jewish-Canadian identity can be formed when Jews in Canada perceive themselves not as a displaced people, but as the continuation of history and as bearers of the Jewish tradition in the present. However, they must be able to do so while accepting Canada as a home that offers the safe and positive experience of interaction with many cultures.

8Growing up in anarea where the streets were named after French Catholic saints, where the country’s two official languages were engaged in combat, and where they were caught in the crossfire between the sacred language of Hebrew and the spirited but secular Yiddish both taught to be their inheritance, Jewish writers such as Mordecai Richler had to find their own voice. In defiance of the Yiddishists, radicalism, Chasidism, Zionism and nostalgia, Richler’s reaction was social realism. Out of contempt for Canadian anti-Semitism, his response was satire. Richler’s Montreal Jewish community was surrounded by anti-Semitism, the endemic result of the Québécois on one side fearing defeat in their fight for sovereignty and the Anglo-Saxons on the other side worrying about Canada losing its WASP majority. Frontiers are about adapting, negotiating and sharing, but they are also places of conflict, and this was never as evident as in Mordecai Richler’s Montreal.

Ghettos and Garrisons

  • 10  Northrop FRYE, “Conclusion,” in Carl KLINCK (Ed.), Literary History of Canada, Toronto: U of Toron (...)
  • 11  Michael GREENSTEIN, “Beyond the Ghetto and the Garrison: Jewish-Canadian Boundaries,” Mosaic: Beyo (...)

9In an article appearing in a 1981 publication of the Canadian periodical Mosaic that carries the subtitle: Beyond Nationalism: The Canadian Literary Scene in Global Perspective, Michael Greenstein contributed, despite its title, a rather frontier-orientated article entitled “Beyond the Ghetto and the Garrison: Jewish-Canadian Boundaries.” Greenstein begins by citing one of Canada’s most important literary critics, Northrop Frye. In his oft-quoted “Conclusion” to the LiteraryHistory of Canada, Frye likens Canadian history to Jewish history directly before launching into his well-established theory of the “garrison mentality.” Frye describes the Canadian imagination as consisting of “small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier’ […] such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.”10 It involves persistently taking a defensive stance against the world’s larger influences—an image of helpless Canadians huddled together besieged by the vast nothingness of the wilderness on one side and the aggressive capitalism of America on the other comes to mind—as well as being preoccupied with asserting social and moral values. Greenstein proposes that Frye’s Canadian garrison is interchangeable with the ghetto, the only difference being that one spans out over thousands of kilometres, and the other over thousands of years.11 Although the terms can be helpful, as will be demonstrated in the following, they can also be quite misleading.

  • 12  “Boundaries,” 122.

10Much can be said about the interactions between the garrisoned or ghettoised and the larger community that creates their feelings of isolation or division. George Woodcock once wrote: “It might be a metaphorical exaggeration to describe Canada as a land of invisible ghettos, but certainly it is, both historically and geographically, a country of minorities that have never achieved assimilation.”12 However, ghettoisation is not necessarily the result of being unassimilated; this is how multiculturalism developed. Preserving one’s ethnicity is what is understood to be the mosaic, and also explains why multiculturalism is not about looking into a crowd of people of African, South-East Asian, and Middle Eastern descent and perceiving only Canadians. It is about recognising and valuing an ethnicity that acts as a prefix to an ascribed national identity.

  • 13 Idem.

11Even though Jewish writers have recounted the feeling of being behind invisible walls, it can be argued that these ghettos and garrisons are, contrary to common perception, not subjected to boundaries but are rather interactive areas of conflict, or, frontiers. When Montreal poet Irving Layton remembers “the feeling of anxiety I had as a boy whenever I crossed St. Denis Street. This street marked the border between Jewish and French-Canadian territories. East of St. Denis was hostile Indian country densely populated with church-going Mohawks somewhat older than myself waiting to ambush me,”13 he is describing life at the frontier, his anecdote ironically resonating with images of early fur-trading European explorers to Canada. If there is a psychological wall built in the absence of a real ghetto wall, it actively needs to be maintained from both sides; if there is an invisible line, there must be a response from one group to another. This may be termed negative interaction but is nevertheless demonstrative of mutual exposure.

12With these presuppositions in mind, this re-evaluation of ghetto and garrison as a frontier is necessary in defining the literature because there is a tension between the two seemingly incompatible mythologies that is traditionally left unresolved in Jewish-Canadian fiction. However, more recent novels, including Richler’s later in his career, demonstrate a capacity for assimilating the two. Writers act as interpreters, and in situating their works in an historical continuum of cyclical myths and history, they also inhabit a frontier by representing all those who stood at all Jewish frontiers in all times and spaces. These garrisons that have operated as sources of security as well as seclusion are more accurately perceived as demarcated areas of cultural exchange.

13Jews everywhere may share similar subject matter, but isolation, division, and alienation do not necessarily have to be treated in the same way. The outcomes will vary depending on the land. Such is the nature of a frontier; in the interactions with peoples who share the same place, results will be customised even if the concerns are consistent. Jewish Canadian writers—and this is especially true for women writers who reside in a different gendered frontier than men—prove to have their own particular results. These conclusions go beyond mere regionalist details and instead take part in a conscious unveiling of the Canadian mythology. In Greenstein’s words:

  • 14  “Boundaries,” 126.

For all its similarities with New York and Chicago, the Canadian ghetto remains distinct from its American counterpart. The United States has no comparable French influence: Naim Kattan for instance, would find it much more difficult to express himself in New York. Furthermore, if there is any truth to the sociological myths about mosaic and melting pot, the conservative British and European forces retarded the modernization and assimilation of the Canadian Jews. In one form or another, the loyalty to the monarchy that runs through Klein’s The Second Scroll, Richler’s novels, and Wiseman’s Crackpot contrasts with the revulsion for Czarist Russia.14

  • 15 Ibidem.

14Although in his summary Greenstein seems to contradict this last quotation, in an attempt to locate Jewish-Canadian writing in a Jewish universal literature—he writes: “Despite the singularity of Montreal’s ghetto and the garrison mentality of Canadian ghettoes in general, Jewish literature in Canada shares traits with the experiences of Jews in other cultures […]”15—and although all metaphoric ghettos in the Diaspora are linked, it cannot be ignored that Jews living in different Diasporas on varying frontiers and coming into contact with other peoples will inevitably have distinctive experiences. Consequently, this variation is revealed in the writing and proves the uniqueness of each experience. Duality is not isolation. Multilingualism is not division. Regionalism is not provincial.

  • 16 Ibid., 129.

15The Jewish ghetto at the turn of the century prophesied the mythology of multiculturalism. Historically speaking, Canadian ghettos were not there to keep Jews in, but to mitigate the crushing blows of being uprooted. These ghettos were open gates through which they could pass freely back and forth, going a little farther each time the courage could be mustered to continually test the imaginary linguistic, multicultural, spatial and historical boundaries referred to by Greenstein.16 It is true that one was not forced to give anything up; it would have been possible to live an entire life in Montreal and not speak a word of French or English. However, awareness is also a form of interaction, and knowing about those who live around you still informs decisions and actions. For those outside of the cities’ ghettos, such as Jewish peddlers and travelling rag pickers who saw a great deal of the country, as well as Jews who lived in small towns with very few of their co-religionists, they were engaged in an even more intense interaction with other Canadians. Significantly, in cities such as Winnipeg where Jews were heavily involved in unions, picket lines were an important frontier for intercultural exchange populated by all those who were bonded by bondage.

  • 17  While Richler’s generation of writers often needed to get away from what they thought of as a dull (...)

16Canada’s role as a marginal land meant Canadian writers were also forced to perform a similar task of testing their relationship, this time with the rest of the world. Through their belaboured and active efforts to create a national literature, it eventually resulted in their recognition on the international scene. After long being shunned as provincial, Canadian writers are no longer ignored.17

17More recent Jewish-Canadian writing, by authors such as poet and novelist Anne Michaels, conceptualises frontiers. Her use in the award-winning novel Fugitive Pieces (1996) of way stations, borders, ports and constant flows exemplifies the fluidity of cultural and national mythologies. Michaels is an example of the contribution women writers in Canada have made to Jewish literature. Their characters live in the worlds of the shtetl, Western Europe, Israel and/or Canada’s many landscapes. What the subdued or muted voice of Jewish Canadian women writers has been saying all along is that it is perfectly acceptable as a Canadian citizen to inhabit more than one of these “geographies,” a term chosen here to imply all possible topographical, spatial and temporal meanings.

18In Mordecai Richler’s novel Joshua Then and Now (1980), the title character complains:

  • 18  Mordecai RICHLER, Joshua Then and Now, London: Macmillan, 1980, 190-191.

Canadian-born, he sometimes felt as if he were condemned to lope slant-shouldered through this world that confused him. One shoulder sloping downwards, groaning under the weight of his Jewish heritage (burnings on the market square, crazed Cossacks on the rampage, gas chambers, as well as Moses, Rabbi Akiba, and Maimonides); the other thrust heavenwards, yearning for an inheritance, any inheritance, weightier than the construction of a transcontinental railway, a reputation for honest trading, good skiing conditions.18

  • 19  It is convincingly argued in Pierre ANCTIL’s article “A.M. Klein: The Poet and His Relations with (...)

19Whereas Richler is accurately speaking on behalf of his contemporaries, his objectivity and satire all too often miss the point that multiplicity is possible. What the women—not only recently but consistently—advocate in their fiction is combining the geographies of Canada with those of Judaism. They do so by linking their sites of memory, such as the shtetl or Israel, with the present in a multicultural Canada. They are thus able to live concurrently in Jewish time and Canadian space. These women writers were and are early multiculturalists.19

20While Richler originally regretted being cursed by his Jewishness and also Canadianness, for they were both obstacles to his becoming what he wanted to be, and any mark of success in Canada meant nothing in the grander scheme of things, it was ironically these marginal statuses that fed his writing career. The Jewish-Canadian novel that affirms the frontier thus helps Canada’s identity gain significance through its advocacy of multiculturalism. Because Jewish-Canadian writing has always been at the frontier, it exemplifies multiculturalism and therefore offers a model for resolving the complexities of otherwise conflicting cultural and national mythologies. Canada is in turn able to provide the substantial inheritance and literary examples that were longed for by early writers like Richler. It should be clarified, however, that Canadian anti-Semitism, though endemic, was inherited from the borrowed national mythologies employed by Canada at the time, and then bolstered in the misguided endeavour to secure the hold on the tenuous loan. It was this official message of not being wanted that made Jewishness and Canadianness mutually exclusive. A reconciliation could not be established until officially sanctioned anti-Semitism was replaced by a consciously promoted new set of social and moral values with acceptance at its centre.

Constructing the Canadian Mythology

  • 20  To learn more about Canada’s closed immigration policies, see Irving ABELLA and Harold TROPER’s No (...)

21Even though he wrote his first five novels while living in England and scoffed at his home country, Mordecai Richler surprisingly managed to win the heart of its people. During his twenty-year stay in England, Canada had not yet developed a national identity. He rightly charged: “we are still a fragmentary nation, yet to be bound by a unifying principle, a distinctive voice, a mythology of our own.”20 Canada was confused about what it was. It attempted to attach itself to the mythology of a Britain that no longer wished to recognise Canada and then to that of a United States that wished to conquer it. In the middle of Richler’s career, Canada began the involved process of constructing a mythology, and its over-eagerness to prove itself seemed absurd to him. However, Richler’s evolving reactions to Canada’s articulation of a national discourse and its artistic development (politics and literature are the areas most conducive to national myth-making), as related in his fiction and in life through his own quest for success, is indicative of how he ingratiated himself with Canada and was insinuated into the role of national “hero.”

  • 21  Quoted in David LUCKING, “Between Things: Public Mythology in the Works of Mordecai Richler,” Dalh (...)
  • 22  The terms “Francophone” and “Anglophone,” despite the suffix, do not only refer to the language on (...)
  • 23  Cf. Jon STRATTON and Ien ANG, “Multicultural imagined communities: cultural difference and nationa (...)

22Although it can be claimed that the road to multiculturalism was a deliberate cover-up of earlier mistakes, what is now of importance is how Canadians voluntarily support the myth. Retrospectively ashamed at being one of the countries that brought to safety the smallest number of Jews during the Nazi regime (about 5000), 21 Canada guiltily opened its doors in the early 1950s to less “preferred” immigrant groups. Soon after, Canada realised that, despite its tireless efforts since its inception as a settler society to be a homogeneously WASP country with an adjacent French region, it could no longer deny its multiethnic population. In 1965, the government requested a report on how francophones and Anglophones22 manage to co-exist as Canadians. After the publishing of the Preliminary Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, it became clear that the ethnic groups would have to be incorporated into the expanding definition of what it is to be Canadian. Subsequently, Canada took the first step in expressing its multicultural identity. A concept born out of bilingualism, multiculturalism was initially a political term employed in paper-pushing but nonetheless an official recognition that a variety of ethnic groups exist within Canada’s borders who have specific needs, such as concerns about inequality, that the government should address.23 Once it was decided to actively adopt multiculturalism as a policy, it was performed

  • 24 Ibid., 4.

with the explicit assumption that cultural diversity is a good thing for the nation and needs to be actively promoted. Migrants are encouraged—and to a certain extent, forced by the logic of discourse—to preserve their cultural heritage and the government provides support and facilities for them to do so; as a result, their place in the new society is sanctioned by their officially recognised ethnic identities.24

  • 25  Michael GREENSTEIN, Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature, Ki (...)
  • 26  Mordecai RICHLER, Son of A Smaller Hero, 1955; Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1989, 25.

23Although this can effortlessly be argued to now be the case, perhaps a more accurate description of the first wave of Jewish immigrants is provided by Greenstein: “[…] arrivals to the Port of Montreal, however, received no such welcome [as on Ellis Island], having to wait for recognition in a conservative Canadian mosaic that did not force a quick abandoning of Yiddish roots.”25 Mordecai Richler was caught somewhere in the middle. A third-generation Galician, he was embarrassed by his parents’ foreign-sounding accents and uncultivated ways. He was an atheist who found Judaism to be outmoded, yet he was still bound to his Jewishness for its comfortable cultural characteristics. Buried beneath his acerbic attacks vacillating between Canada as a nobody and Canada trying too hard to be a somebody, Richler seemed to predict what multiculturalism would eventually do for his country: give it an individual identity. As the protagonist Noah Adler in his second novel Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) intuits: “It is necessary to say ‘yes’ to something.”26 Similar to how Noah learns that the perverse interdependency of defining oneself against the other is crippling and that a Jew must be more than “not a Goy,” Canada learned through its multiculturalism that it is more than “not-British” or “not-American.” At the frontier, identities are constructed not against the other, but as a result of and in conjunction with an intercultural exchange. Eventually accepting Canada and its inorganic efforts at formulating a mythology, and in learning to respect it for its lack of heroes, Richler inadvertently became one himself.

Conclusion: Finding a Jewish-Canadian Literature

24In The Street, a combination of short stories and memoirs, Mordecai Richler describes how he feels pulled in two directions. He was taught to admire John Buchan, former Governor General of Canada and author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). This upstanding politician and novelist who was all about fair play, family values, hard work and being a gentleman could have served as a choice role model if not for one major fault: his writing did little to mask the fact that he was a rather virulent anti-Semite. Richler worries over wanting to sympathise with the main characters, but not being able to because he identifies more with the Jewish figures who are depicted as sly and villainous. As a Jewish reader and Canadian citizen, this caused confusion in the young man.

25It was this same uncertainty that often led earlier Jewish Canadian writers such as Richler to serve up the pervasive and sometimes discomfiting theme of having landed in the wrong country, being north of what Richler once dubbed “the real America.” More recent literature, however, has put a spin on the old motif: there could not be a more right place to be. This is one of Jewish-Canadian literature’s contributions to the wider Canadian literary scene. In paying homage both to Jewish and Canadian traditions, their words have added a singular voice that is a brightly coloured piece in the mosaic. This thrust of action towards finding one’s identity is the Canadian way. If Canada had insisted on only characterising itself as British and later as not-American, then it too would have failed. Since there were initially no Jewish-Canadian forebears to look to for guidance, Yiddish, European and American fiction were adopted as literary inspiration. Unmistakable characteristics drawn from Yiddish literature appear either as templates or allusions in much of the writing. Themes of Diaspora and alienation were passed down from the European traditions, while the Jewish-American novel loaned its humour and irony, as well as its structure. What is distinctly Canadian in all of this is the incessant quest for identity that appears in every type of these works. The mosaic is a metaphor, something to which Jewish frontiers can readily adapt, and finding an identity to fit this metaphor required only the artist’s pen. In these books that are about confronting alienation from truth, identity and home, these authors all demonstrate that it is through existence at the frontier that they understand themselves as Jews, Canadians and citizens in a greater multicultural world. Canada’s characteristic contribution is its unique position of mediating this in-betweenness. While Canada was developing its individual voice, Richler’s protagonists learned over time to meld their Jewishness with their Canadianness, perhaps as an expression of Richler’s attempt to consolidate his identity.

  • 27  Leslie FIEDLER, “Some Notes on the Jewish Novel in English, or Looking Backward from Exile,” in G. (...)

26Leslie Fiedler in the 1971 essay “Some Notes on the Jewish Novel in English, or Looking Backward from Exile,” calls Canada a “No-man’s-Land, the Demilitarized Zone of Canada” rendering its writers “invisible from South of the Border as well as from the Other Side of the Atlantic.” Consequently, Fiedler argues, their works are “unavailable to English and American readers alike.”27 “Unavailable” is perhaps a euphemism used to justify the disinterest and active exclusion by these countries of Canadian literature. Not alone in its post-colonial plight, however, Canadian literature did not develop in spiteof what Fiedler deems disadvantageous, but rather because of this position in the peripheral vision of its parent and neighbour. Because Canada—a land of immigrants—had to fight for credibility, the works it produced could not be merely comparable, they had to come into their own. In order to do so, the small-town, rural Protestant fables had to be infused with lively multiculturalism. The curtains of the ghettos were lifted and the garrisons went on the offensive to unveil the “other Canada” that had lain hidden.

27At a time when Yiddish theatre and societies are in revival in Montreal and Toronto and the culture of the Eastern European shtetl is idealised, and just when Jewish Canadians are swayed to the increasing sentiment that they need a more positive connection to a Jewish past than the Shoah, the studying of the literature of Jewish Canadians becomes important, not only to help them continue to forge this sought-after multicultural identity, but to understand Canada in relation to its mythology. Enabled by the articulated view of multiculturalism, Jewish Canadian writers have evolved from interpreters to ambassadors at Canada’s frontier.

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Bibliographie

ABELLA Irving, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1990.

ABELLA Irving and Harold TROPER, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1945, 1983, Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1991.

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HASTINGS Adrian, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

LUCKING David, “Between Things: Public Mythology in the Works of Mordecai Richler,” Dalhousie Review, 65, 1985, 243-260.

RICHLER Mordecai, The Street, Washington: New Republic, 1969. RICHLER Mordecai, Joshua Then and Now, London: Macmillan, 1980. RICHLER Mordecai, “Their Canada and Mine,” in Gerri SINCLAIR and Morris WOLFE (Eds.), The Spice Box: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Writing, Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1981, 224-236.

RICHLER Mordecai, Son of A Smaller Hero, 1955; Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1989.

STRATTON Jon and Ien ANG, “Multicultural imagined communities: cultural difference and national identity in Australia and the USA,” Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, 8/2, 1994, 1-23.

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Notes

1  As has been argued in recent literature on nationhood and nationalism, a nation, especially one comprised of several ethnicities, is often identified by, and connects its people through, its literature. See for example: Adrian HASTINGS, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997; and Benedict ANDERSON, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1983, London and New York: Verson, 1991.

2  Daniel FRANCIS, National Dreams: Myth, Memory, and Canadian History, Vancouver: Arsenal P, 1997, 10.

3  Elaine GRAND, “Interview with Mordecai Richler,” Close-Up, Natl. Public Television, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 5 Nov. 1961.

4  Mordecai RICHLER, “Their Canada and Mine,” in Gerri Sinclair and Morris Wolfe (Eds.), The Spice Box: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Writing, Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1981, 235.

5  Irving ABELLA, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1990, 86.

6 Ibid., 86.

7  Mordecai RICHLER, The Street, Washington: New Republic, 1969, 17.

8 Ibid., 59.

9  Sander L. GILMAN, Jewish Frontiers: Essays on Bodies, Histories, and Identities, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

10  Northrop FRYE, “Conclusion,” in Carl KLINCK (Ed.), Literary History of Canada, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1970, 830.

11  Michael GREENSTEIN, “Beyond the Ghetto and the Garrison: Jewish-Canadian Boundaries,” Mosaic: Beyond Nationalism: The Canadian Literary Scene in Global Perspective, 14/2, 1981, 122. For a thorough description of Jewish-Canadian writing, see Greenstein’s “Introduction” in the 2004 anthology: Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada: An Anthology, Michael GREENSTEIN (Ed.), Lincoln and London: Nebraska P, 2004.

12  “Boundaries,” 122.

13 Idem.

14  “Boundaries,” 126.

15 Ibidem.

16 Ibid., 129.

17  While Richler’s generation of writers often needed to get away from what they thought of as a dull and restrictive environment, the following generation of writers of the late 1960s chose to have Canada as a home. Margaret Atwood and others of her generation who, while abroad in the “real America,” chose to return to Canada and embrace it as a literary subject, are thus accredited with the creation of a Canadian literature finally coming into its own. Instead of blaming Canada for being a culturally barren society, they decided to create the culture they accused it of lacking. Even while living two decades in England, Richler could never escape Montreal; it pervades most of his writing. Once he accepted being Canadian, his novels also became a part of this movement. See, for example, Margaret ATWOOD, Second Words, Boston: Beacon P, 1982; especially the essays “Canadian-American Relations: Surviving the Eighties,” “Travels Back,” and “Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club.”

18  Mordecai RICHLER, Joshua Then and Now, London: Macmillan, 1980, 190-191.

19  It is convincingly argued in Pierre ANCTIL’s article “A.M. Klein: The Poet and His Relations with French Quebec,” that Klein, the father of Jewish-Canadian literature, stepped beyond cultural boundaries and tried to understand French Canada on its own terms. His conscious efforts to depict the Quebecois accurately and endearingly in order to better relations was also a form of multicultural understanding. In Richard MENKIS and Norman RAVVIN (Eds.), The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader, Calgary: Red Deer, 2004, 350-372. What is suggested here and is elaborated upon in my forthcoming doctoral thesis is that Jewish Canadian women were multicultural in the sense of being able to reconcile their national and cultural mythologies, not necessarily through political means, but rather geographically.

20  To learn more about Canada’s closed immigration policies, see Irving ABELLA and Harold TROPER’s None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1945, 1983, Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1991.

21  Quoted in David LUCKING, “Between Things: Public Mythology in the Works of Mordecai Richler,” Dalhousie Review, 65, 1985, 243.

22  The terms “Francophone” and “Anglophone,” despite the suffix, do not only refer to the language one speaks, but demarcate one’s belonging to either French Canada or the dominant English culture. These are general terms used liberally here as they would have been in the 1960s. Their casual usage made an understanding of ethnic groups difficult because, for example, North African Jews who emigrated to Montreal are not considered French Canadian even though they are French-speaking.

23  Cf. Jon STRATTON and Ien ANG, “Multicultural imagined communities: cultural difference and national identity in Australia and the USA,” Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, 8/2, 1994, 3.

24 Ibid., 4.

25  Michael GREENSTEIN, Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature, Kingston, ON, Montreal, QC, London, ON: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1989, 5.

26  Mordecai RICHLER, Son of A Smaller Hero, 1955; Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1989, 25.

27  Leslie FIEDLER, “Some Notes on the Jewish Novel in English, or Looking Backward from Exile,” in G. David SHEPS (Ed.), Critical Views on Canadian Writers: Mordecai Richler, Toronto: Ryerson P, 1971, 102-103.

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Julie Spergel, « Constructing a Multicultural Identity at the Canadian Frontier: Mordecai Richler and Jewish-Canadian Writing », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, 131-145.

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Julie Spergel, « Constructing a Multicultural Identity at the Canadian Frontier: Mordecai Richler and Jewish-Canadian Writing », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 27 octobre 2009, consulté le 20 septembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2624 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2624

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Auteur

Julie Spergel

(Regensburg, Germany)
Julie Spergel, M.A., is a Canadian doctoral candidate currently working on her Ph.D. in English Philology at Universität Regensburg in Germany. Her thesis is entitled “The Deviant Geographical Formations of Identity through Memory and Metaphor in the Fiction of Jewish Canadian Women Writers.” She has a Master of Arts in Intercultural Anglophone Studies from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and another in Interdisciplinary Studies (Interpretation and Values in the Humanities) from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. Her article "Questioning Racial Passing as a Form of Cultural Lying in Nella Larsen’s Fiction" will be published in the forthcoming anthology Cultures of Lying.

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