Where Have All the Jews Gone?

The Writing Game in Canada

By Norman Ravvin

Published August 27, 2004, issue of August 27, 2004.
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When Toronto-based writer Matt Cohen died in 1999, he had just completed a memoir titled, “Typing: A Life in 26 Keys” (Random House, Canada 2000). Alongside its sharply drawn portrait of the Toronto literary and counter-cultural scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Typing” included a provocative challenge to the Canadian literary establishment, which Cohen felt was guided by its roots in a “conservative, small-town, restrained Protestant tradition.” Within this context, his own accomplishments notwithstanding, Cohen did not think writing by Jews about Jews stood much of a chance. As proof, he cited the worse-than-lukewarm response received by a trio of his own most Jewish-focused novels — “The Spanish Doctor” (McClelland & Stewart 1984), “Nadine” (Viking 1986) and “Emotional Arithmetic” (Lester & Orpen Dennys 1990) — which were well received abroad.

“They thought I had gone insane” in Canada, Cohen writes, and critics and friends alike wondered when he “would write about Canadians again.”

In a column penned for The National Post, Robert Fulford belittled Cohen’s premise as if it were nothing but a “Hate Letter From Beyond,” as his column’s headline put it. There was a minor stir in response to Cohen’s claims, and a bit of discomfort from the likes of Margaret Atwood, who remembered her friend as an “odd little outsider and grumbling isolate” and weirdly dubbed the three books mentioned above as Cohen’s “European Jews’ trilogy.” But the issue has not since resurfaced in any serious way — in critical, journalistic or writerly circles.

One can’t help but notice the lack of Jewish writers in the recent accolades about Canadian literary success. Fulford points his readers in the direction where the true critical excitement has been focused for more than a decade — around the post-colonial, or, one might say, transcultural work of such transplanted writers as Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje. He mentions, as well, Carol Shields’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize. But in Cohen’s way of looking at things, Shields might be seen as one of the queen bees — beloved by a mainstream readership — in a tradition of writing that has little room for Jewishness as a fundamental part of the picture.

So, to coin a show tune that never will be sung, “Where have all the Canadian Jewish writers gone?”

Well, Leonard Cohen slipped off the edge of the avant-garde folk-rock scene into pure pablum pop with his recent “Ten New Songs.” Mordecai Richler, a notably slow maker of novels, published his last, “Barney’s Version,” in 1997 and died in the summer of 2001. Irving Layton, once the angriest denouncer of Canadian Christian (he spelled it Xian) philistinism, is an old man in a Montreal convalescent home. And A.M. Klein, the father figure and so-called instigator of Canadian Jewish writing in English, slipped into silence in the mid-1950s and died in 1972.

Strangely, in the minds of some Canadian Jewish readers, these luminous careers still account for a live tradition, when much of what supports this notion is myth and fond memory (in the case of Cohen and Richler, there’s always a soupcon of rancor, as well).

Younger writers, including Cary Fagan and Elaine Kalman Naves, have not reached the same audience. They are rarely taught alongside Richler’s classic “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” or Leonard Cohen’s “Beautiful Losers.” They do not make up a coherent host of voices, as did the earlier gang. It is difficult to say whether this generation’s impact is still gathering steam, whether the new voices are not as distinct or whether there is a lack of venues for their reception — a dearth of magazines, publishers, and professorial or journalistic voices willing to make the younger writers as well known as their precursors.

The absence of a viable critical and reviewing cadre is highlighted by a peculiar new anthology from the University of Nebraska Press, titled “Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada.” Here, editor Michael Greenstein falls into all the familiar traps. He overplays the Montreal influence, and he strives to find other literary centers, overstating the impact of little-read Winnipeg writers like Jack Ludwig. And even more troubling, in a 60-some-page introduction meant to survey the field, he quotes from no relevant Canadian Jewish critics or literary journalists — as if in order to know Canadian Jewish writing, we must turn to Northrop Frye or Leslie Fiedler. Though Fiedler was no father confessor, Frye’s New Testament fascinations make him a kind of pope for the very tradition that Matt Cohen mistrusted.

This approach to anthologizing Canadian Jewish writing robs it of any clear link with the mainstream, whether that link might be the discomfiting one proposed by Matt Cohen or one of healthy interpenetration.

So, where have all the Canadian Jewish writers gone? Well, we have the recent breakout of David Bezmozgis, made possible, one must point out, by his publications in The New Yorker. And there is a collection, myself included, of writers in their 40s — no spring chickens we — who are quietly building on what’s come before. There are Fagan and Lilian Nattel in Toronto; Karen X. Tulchinsky in Vancouver; Naves and Robyn Sarah in Montreal, and more. And among the most intriguing recent developments is the recovery of interest in Yiddish Canadian writing, exemplified by the reappearance in print of Chava Rosenfarb, a longtime Montreal writer who now lives in Alberta. (Please see excerpt to the left.)

In a recent CBC Radio program, Naves, Tulchinsky and I strove, at the moderator’s urging, to convey the state of Jewish fiction in Canada in light of the heavyweights, most of who have passed from the stage. None of us made large claims for the future of the Canadian Jewish literary voice. None, Leonard Cohen-style, goaded the host. (And certainly, none of us emulated Richler and lit up an expensive cigarillo in the full No Smoking convention hall.)

We were there to talk up our own new books, but the past haunted much of what was said. The past, of course, was when Jews were still up-and-coming Canadian ethnics. Certainly they weren’t white, yet. They had gutsy ghetto attitude and, for additional color, some had parents who were barely assimilated who could contribute a bit of the funky Yiddish past to a literary tableau. It ain’t easy, you have to admit, competing with all that.

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