On December 19 Bravo will premiere its original documentary on the life of controversial Canadian literary figure Mordecai Richler, The Last of the Wild Jews. Like most readers, I first came to Richler’s work through his 1959 novel about Jewish life set in the Montreal neighborhood in which he grew up during the thirties and forties, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. While the novel was a considerable artistic success, even spawning an acclaimed film starring Richard Dreyfus in 1974, it was also responsible for some negative criticism from the Jewish community both in Canada and the United States. His portrayal of what many saw as the aggressive materialistic Duddy was perceived as the work of a “self hating Jew.” Similar criticism had been leveled at novelists like Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.
Nonetheless his work, like theirs, has been a popular success, and he was part of what seemed like a Jewish Renaissance in the arts. There were the writers of course, but there were also the comedians: Myron Cohen and Jackie Mason who brought the Yiddish culture into the mainstream; Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce and Jackie Leonard, with their “take no prisoners” stand-up comedy. Like them, Richler is seen as a provocateur—one of the wild Jews.
While it may be debatable whether he is the “last” of this wild bunch, there is no question that he belongs. It is not only his willingness to look at the Jewish community critically, it is also his pugnacious attack on any and everything he finds unjust. Besides his satirical picture of aspects of Jewish life, the documentary focuses on two of his other crusades, his attacks on Canadian Nationalism and Quebec separatism.
Richler is not shy about speaking his mind. From the beginning, the film makes that clear. “I don’t trust television people,” he tells one TV interviewer. Talking about the North America, he says, “I wish it were one country.” Why, he wants to know from an interviewer, is he always referred to as a Jewish writer, why not simply a writer. Even at a high school reunion, he finds it necessary to make a snide crack about the musical entertainment. This is not a man who tries to avoid controversy. It is not strange that he gets threatening phone calls. It is not strange that he has his share of detractors.
Although the film does include a good bit of biographical information, it is not really a biography. Yes, it talks about the school he attended, reveals that he met the woman he loved as a soul mate a few days after he was married to another woman, and discusses his move to England when he was nineteen. But we are shown only highlights. We learn relatively little about his family. We hear nothing about the novels prior to Duddy Kravitz, and little about anything he wrote afterwards, except for Barney’s Version, a film version of which just happens to be due out in the near future. The real focus of the documentary is on the Richler’s penchant for controversy.
Director Francine Pelletier’s approach to her unconvenional subject is fairly conventional. Like many documentaries there are the talking heads, old friends talking about the man, literary figures talking about his work. Richler’s wife Florence talks about the difficulties of living with a man who put his work before everything else in his life. His friend Ted Kotcheff talks about being the first to read Duddy Kravitz and eventually securing the funding to make the film.
Margaret Atwood discusses the psychological crutches he depended on in social situations, and Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker gives some insight into his significance as a writer and what it means to be a “wild Jew.” There is archival footage of the Yiddish community in Montreal at the time Richler was growing up. There are scenes from both the film of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version.
If Richler never quite achieved the reputation of some of the other “wild Jews” in the States, it may be less because of the quality of his major work, than it is because of his focus on Canadian issues in his later work. Even though much of his writing was published in American periodicals, more than likely, it makes a difference to parochial readers if your book deals with Jews in New Jersey or Chicago as opposed to Jews in Montreal. Still, it is clearly arguable that Mordecai Richler at his best is as good as they come, and this is a message that comes through loud and clear from this estimable documentary.