Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) is beyond doubt the most iconic author to emerge from the Montreal Jewish community. Born a “St. Urbain Street boy” to a poor family in the Montreal Jewish ghetto, Richler’s ancestors nevertheless included his maternal grandfather, the influential religious leader and scholar, Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg. Richler’s own status as Montreal’s most famous and celebrated Jewish author is ironic, given his fraught relationship with the community and his often biting portrayal of its idiosyncrasies. In dozens of novels, screenplays, and works of non-fiction, Richler explored what it meant to be a Jew growing up in the tight-knit, isolated, mostly poor, and largely immigrant world along St. Urbain and ”the Main.” His writings provide an incomparable study of what life was like in this community, and are a portal through which one can view its unique and dynamic past.
Richler graduated from Baron Byng High School in 1948, where he was president of his class, before dropping out of Sir George Williams College (today’s Concordia University). He briefly lived in France and Spain in the early 1950s and then spent more than fifteen years in London, England, before moving back to Montreal in 1972, because he worried “about being so long away from the roots of my discontent.” Richler remained in Montreal until his death from cancer in 2001, always writing and publishing on subjects as varied as sports, travel, and – to great and lasting controversy – Quebec separatism.
Richler survives in his widely-read works of fiction, most notably The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980), Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) and Barney’s Version (1997), and in the legacy of the Montreal Jewish community, from which his life and work cannot be disconnected. Richler described and defined the community for Canada and for the world and, whether he liked it or not, the community defined him, too.
Compiled by Richard Kreitner
Foran, Charles. Mordecai: The Life & Times. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada, 2010.
Kramer, Reinhold. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
Richler, Mordecai. Mordecai Richler Was Here: Selected Writings. Ed. Jonathan Webb. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007.
Vassenji, M.G. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009.
*Images courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and the Library and Archives Canada.