Part 3 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

The Simulated Shtetl: Losing the Charm of Jewish Distance in Canadian Cinema, and a Walk Down the Old St. Urbain's Street

"All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat. Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic, and quarrels, and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums; slower cats prowl the fish market."

-Mordecai Richler, (
1931-2001), Canadian author, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955)

Being a Lubavitcher Chassid, albeit a decidedly odd one whose life hinges on a fusion of intensive Torah study and an undying hunger for independent and international cinema, I felt a strong desire to include this little detour in the heart of my Canadian study. However, this is no lark. This chapter is integral to a deeper discussion of the points engaged in the article as a whole, as I will examine how the Jewish Canadian microcosm directly informs the Canadian macrocosm, and vice versa. I have taken notice of how antithetical the Jewish-themed films of Canada are to the Jewish-themed films from most every other country, particularly the U.S. Perhaps among the most famous Jewish Canadian figures is venerated Montreal author Mordecai Richler, who is often regarded (perhaps recklessly) as the Canadian Philip Roth. Richler, whose writing bears only some resemblance to Roth, certainly possesses a style and a narrative drive all his own, completely disparate from Roth; nevertheless, the comparison is there to be made. The most famous of Richler's work, in both literature and subsequent film adaptations, is, of course, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the novel of which was published in 1959 and the film of which was released in 1974. Richler also has enjoyed adaptations of his other novels, including The Street (1977), Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), The Wordsmith (1979, directed by Claude Jutra for television), Joshua Then and Now (1986), St. Urbain's Horseman (2007) and most recently Barney's Version (2010), all of which feature some form of Jewish subtext. Two of the films, including Duddy Kravitz, were directed by Richler's longtime best friend and fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff.

However, other non Richler-based films such as Lies My Father Told Me (1975), The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick (1988) and an adaptation of Chaim Grade's well-regarded play The Quarrel (1991), the latter two featuring actor Saul Rubinek, suggest and outright demonstrate a sturdy and resonant Jewish voice existing in a most forthcoming sense within Canada's film industry, more so than in most other national cinemas. There are even oddly conspicuous moments in films like Robin Spry's NFB-funded Prologue (1970), a film about a group of 60's political radicals which opens on the close shot of two Jewish headstones that the two lead actors eventually walk past before the opening titles roll. There is never another nod in Spry's film to this peculiar, anomalous opening image. Granted, the United States has seen its share of Jewish-themed works but, with the possible exception of works like Fox's adaptation of Chaim Potok's The Chosen (1981), Jewish culture is exoticized and driven home with a big prettified sledgehammer rather than the sensitive, deft touch of Canada's filmmakers, who discard the forced, terminal quaintness that American films seems intent on perpetrating in similar works. One can even catch moments in more mainstream Canadian films like George Kaczender's Montreal-set Agency (1980) when ubiquitous Jewish-Canadian actor Saul Rubinek, playing an outwardly Jewish copywriter, jokingly places a yarmulke on his head before entering a funeral service in a Catholic church.

Much of the landscape and sets in films like Duddy Kravitz and Maximilian Glick seem almost shtetl-like in the most becoming sense. An early scene from the latter, for example, shows Saul Rubinek, playing a Lubavitcher rabbi, standing in the middle of a snow-covered field davening while donning the customary tallis and tefillin for his morning prayers -- the old-world Jew in an old-world landscape, but one which is actually twentieth-century Canada. For all we know, it could be somewhere in czarist Russia or Poland. To someone acquainted with shtetl literature, paintings and photographs of Jewish villages in eastern Europe, novels like Malamud's The Fixer or any artistic works that commemorate and preserve shtetl life well after their existence crumbled, Canada would seem a most sensible destination for the displacement of Jews. One can imagine, with very little effort, Duddy Kravitz's jaunts through the picaresque Montreal's so-called St. Urbain Street "Jewish ghetto" being transposed to a European Jewish ghetto. The St. Urbain's Street milieu is one that Richler knew all too well. He grew up there and many of his novels and stories are set there. Jan Kadar's Lies My Father Told Me (1975) is set in the same Montreal Jewish ghetto, in the 1920's. For the most part, things look very much the same in the filmic Jewish ghetto of the 20's as they do in Duddy Kravitz's 1950's. Then again, the old country is ever the old country, even if it's the new country.

Later, in 2005, Allan King's documentary portrait Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company would chronicle a core group of senior citizens living out their days at the Apotex Centre's Jewish Home for the Aged in Toronto. The sounds of classic Yiddish tunes like "Oyf'n Pripetchik," "Bay Mir Bistu Shein," "Tzena Tzena" and "Tumbalalaika" are often heard echoing the corridors. These residents have had a great stake in Canada's past. For example, Ida, one of our main characters, is the widow of the Toronto City Hall Controller, and Ida makes a point of clarifying that he was prominent in the "goy world" in Toronto. At another point, two of the women, Ida and Claire, gossip about a fellow resident who was married to a goy. Film writer and critic Michael Koresky writes, "These characters. with their varying levels of degeneration, form a valuable testament to a dying group of first and second generation immigrant Jews in Canada." The camera, for one, follows Ida in a quest to single-handedly eradicate the misplacement and displacement of Jews within Canada's cultural and social records, wheeling her chair through a lobby in search of photos of her prominent husband on an expansive hall-of-fame wall.

As a Lubavitcher myself, I am aware of a thriving cluster of Chabadniks and Chassidim living prosperously in Montreal and I myself would love to one day live in Montreal myself (also because I love the city and not just its Jewish cluster). Looking at the history of Jews in Canada, one gets a true sense of logic about the big picture. After repealing its law requiring the oath "on my faith as a Christian" in 1832, largely thanks to the Jewish Ezekiel Hart who made history by taking public office to a storm of controversy and outrage in 1807, Canada passed laws that were passed into the books guaranteeing Jews the same political rights and freedoms as Christians. A Jewish population began to accumulate around Montreal and, by 1850, there were approximately 450 Jews living in Canada. At the outset of pogroms in the Russia of the late nineteenth century, United States received the overwhelming majority of the immigrant victims of these anti-Semitic acts, but Canada was a destination of choice due in large part to the Canadian Pacific Railway's role in developing Canada after its confederation. As the twentieth century dawned, the Jewish population of Canada grew to nearly 160,000.

With each generation, there were the expected waves of anti-Semitism, perhaps the most grievous of which was the appointment of Frederick Charles Blair to the post of Director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources in 1935. Blair publicly counciled Jews to "divest themselves of certain habits" in order to attain the status of popularity held by "Canada's Scandanavian friends" and limited the number of Jewish immigrants admitted into Canada, thus limiting options for European Jews looking to escape the persecution and ultimate extermination during the years of World War II and the Holocaust. Blair further bemoaned the Jewish problem, rhetorically asking the reason for the unpopularity of Jews throughout the world, perhaps finding solace in the fact that he was not the only one with an open Jewish prejudice.

Overall, the Jews, the ones who had safely maintained Canadian citizenship before the embargo, prospered, particularly in Québéc City and, especially, Montreal. It would not be until the late 50's when Mordecai Richler would begin emerging as the Jewish voice in Canadian literature. A large majority of Montreal's Jewish population were originally quite resistant to Richler's work, considering it "bad for the Jews" (this was the main criticism leveled at The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz when it was first published in 1959). Residents of St. Urbain's "Jewish ghetto" in Montreal remembered Richler growing up as something of a hooligan who spurned his Jewish heritage and Jewish education, opting to skip out and play pool instead. Looking into his work, many realized that the mythic symptoms of "undesirable Jewishness" that resulted in the derision leveled at the Jewish people by the likes of Frederick Charles Blair in the 1930's were, all things considered, personified in the very existence of Duddy Kravitz as a character. One undoubtedly heard Canadian Jews kvetching, "He writes of us like we're gonnifs (swindlers)!" Kravitz is an almost sociopathic, opportunist little monster always with an eye towards the almighty dollar. The ironic part is that he is actually rather likable -- a classic quixotic Canadian in the tradition, one might say, of Shebib's heroes in Goin' Down the Road. It also did not reflect well upon Richler within Canada's Jewish communities that he married a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) and exhibited what many deemed the attitude of a flagrant self-hating Jew on a literary smear campaign. Now, however, Richler's reputation among Canadian Jews is mostly intact and even rather warm. His most apparent similarity to his American facsimile Philip Roth (who debuted in the literary world in 1959 with his first book, Goodbye Columbus, four years after Richler's first, The Acrobats) is that he shares a compatible, like-minded sensibility in depicting the prototypical modern Jew and his path in the pointedly modern world -- and after all, the equally irrepressible Duddy Kravitz and Alexander Portnoy would make a priceless cruising tag-team. The question is, which one gets the blond?

"Coming from Canada, being a writer and Jewish as well, I have impeccable paranoia credentials. I'm criticized by the feminists, by the Jewish establishment, by Canadian nationalists. And why not? I've had my pot shots at them. I'm fair game."

-Mordecai Richler

One source that came to Richler's defense around the time of the controversial premiere of the film was the Canadian Jewish News, with its front page emblazoned "Duddy Kravitz Not Anti-Semitic." Rabbi Eliezer, one of the rishonim of the Talmud (i.e. the leading 11th-15th century rabbis of the oral Torah who were the deciders of Jewish law) said, "A serious Jew is one who actively struggles with his Jewishness." To reiterate the Roberson Jeffers line from the last chapter, "Pleasure is the carrot dangled to lead the ass to market; or the precipice." These two quotes are key to realizing that the Canadian Jewish News' assertion about Duddy Kravitz's anti-Semitic status is correct.

Duddy is indeed a definitive example of the anti-hero figure and certainly the quintessential Jewish anti-hero -- a shameless, embarrassingly self-centered opportunist. But one of the things that allows Duddy to safely "go about his way" without the socio-cultural critics of his fictional persona digging in too deeply is the fact that he is victim of a commonly Canadian condition with which Donald Shebib's marginalized Maritimers, Pete and Joey, were afflicted in Goin' Down the Road: they have big city aspirations and big dreams of success, no matter how steeply the odds are stacked against them in Canada. Duddy is not the "victim" of Jewishness; however, the Jewishness is a secondary aspect. Pete and Joey's dreams in Goin' Down the Road are quickly dashed when they reach Toronto, and they wind up settling for Robinson Jeffers' carrot. What makes Duddy different is that he will not settle for Robinson Jeffers' carrot -- he, as a Jew from an economically challenged lineage and with the 1950's socio-cultural odds against him, is lunging right for the precipice and will accept no compromise. When Duddy finally confronts his uncle, who is on his deathbed, as to the reasons why he neglected him and quietly scorned him growing up, Duddy, for the first time in his life, is able to angrily open up to his uncle and reveal an equally hostile resentment and, ipso facto, reveals himself uniquely as a Jewish Canadian. A hyper-complex predicament, that.

He tells his uncle, "You don't think I read? I've read books, big deal! They always make fun of guys like me...pushers, guys who want to get somewhere. You know, I’m going to have place of my own one day. And when I do, there aren't going to be any superior shits like you to laugh at me or run me off." In this case, Duddy Kravitz defines an overarching Canadian spirit at large (the need to bust loose of one's imposed limits and achieve existential somethingness) and, when his own extra "baggage" is added, he becomes Rabbi Eliezer's "serious Jew" even more so as a direct result of his national identity. Thus, it no longer becomes the troubling Jewish stereotype about which many cried wolf. Duddy often appears somewhat proud of his Jewishness, a case in point being when he quietly but clearly judges his brother Lenny when he tells him that he much prefers the company of goyim to yiddin.

The Jewish Canadian predicament is also present in Richler's other novels as well, particularly St. Urbain's Horseman, which many of his devotees and scholars feel is his most important, most personal work. Mordecai Richler, the man who carried his youth on St. Urbain Street under his arm throughout his life's adventures and the Richler who still, in his own way, attempts to speak the truth of his rabbi grandfather, holds a mirror up to the Jew in the shtetl landscape of Montreal, and a larger Canada. Duddy Kravitz's grandfather is not a rabbi, but instead a poor immigrant, but everything Duddy does, every bad deed, is a misguided attempt to please his zeyde (grandfather), who tells him, "A man without land is nothing."

Martin Knelman notes that there was a boom on Richler property shortly after the film of Duddy Kravitz was released. It was Alan J. Pakula who originally bought the rights to St. Urbain's Horseman (which was produced as a two-part television film in 2007), followed by Norman Jewison making a bid for The Incomparable Atuk. Mike Nichols also pursued adapting Richler's Cocksure in 1976. The overarching point of this chapter of the article ultimately boils down to one thing. Hollywood product routinely chooses to "de-Jewcify" its films, unless the Jewishness can be overwhelmingly pronounced as cute, quaint or particularly other-worldly -- or if the film is about the Holocaust. Decades ago, a friend of mine who presented a script to a producer (co-written with Elliott Gould, who was still popular at the box-office) was immediately met with that standard Hollywood question, this from a Jewish producer no less: "Do the guys in this story have to be Jewish?," only to come right out and proclaim the whole affair was "too Jewish."

What is refreshing and fascinating about Canadian Jewish films, particularly the Richler adaptations, is that they unabashedly confront hard truths about Jewish identity and its conundrums, which exist fully within an unmistakably Canadian canvas. I am again flashing to an image of a wide-shot of Saul Rubinek as the Lubavitcher rabbi davening in the middle of a snow-covered field of Ontario in The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, which I first saw right around the time of my own bar mitzvah. I also flash to our hero's breeze through St. Urbain's Street at the end of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Clasically Jewish environs in the United States, like the Lower East Side for instance, predominantly died out much too early in U.S. history, and the magic itself vanished into thin air. Orthodox Jewish clusters exist in most every American city, granted, but what is fascinating here is that Jewish Canada appears so communal as to suggest the ethos of shtetl life, regardless of the populations' range of belief constructs, well after the U.S. incarnation faded away. Perhaps this explains why Sergio Leone used Montreal for a few of the locations featured in Once Upon a Time in America, which is set partly in New York's Jewish East Side of the 1900's. Paul Mazursky also shot extensively in Montreal for his Isaac Bashevis Singer adaptation Enemies, a Love Story, set in 1940's New York. It could be said that this observation might be the result of "Richlerisms" and/or machinations on the part of the creators of the works to perpetrate such an idyllic illusion, but one gets a strong sense of its complementary existence in reality either when reading someone like Richler or seeing a Canadian Jewish film. The St. Urbain's Street of the twenty-first century is highly gentrified, it would seem, however.

The character of Canadian Jewish cinema and literature, while appreciably and thankfully lacking most the meretricious contrivances and precious ornament that pervade other Jewish cinemas, also suggests a proportion to the actuality. Refreshing it is, for once, to not be trounced with overwrought and preciously distancing klezmer music at the appearance of a conspicuously Jewish character. The Canadian approach affects a "haimish" quaintness that is not cloying and, ultimately, it is an indication of Canada's early and enduringly deep-seated proclivity towards the personal in its arts and culture, enabling unencumbered, uncompromised portraits of this phenomenon. I said it before and I'll say it again: the old country is ever the old country, even if it's the new country.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART FOUR with The Pulp on Maple Leafs: The CFDC, American Tax-Shelter Films, Southern Comfort and Canuxploitation

1 comment:

  1. Hi Daniel,

    I am a fellow film blogger, with a site about rare/hard-to-find films ( and I recently posted a pretty lengthy interview with Canadian filmmaker Paul Lynch ( I was going to post about Donald Shebib once I've seen all his movies, but some of them (particularly "Between Friends") are extremely hard to find. I stumbled upon your blog and read this entry (I will link to it, by the way) and was wondering if you knew how I could obtain a copy of that film. Please let me know, would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!