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.