Arts & Culture

Man of Letters

Jack Rabinovitch was one of my father’s truest friends—and a pillar in my own life

Photo by Chris Bolin/National Post
Jack Rabinovitch and Mordecai Richler at the 1999 Jack Award for Service to Canadian Literature Chris Bolin/National Post

When, back in 2001, my father Mordecai died, it fell upon me, the stage manager of the family, to organize the funeral. I did not for a moment imagine my father was going to die. Only in retrospect was I able to recall the signs—a conversation, the point of which I did not see at the time, with the head of the palliative care unit—and the faces of others (my wife!) who knew what was coming and saw what was invisible to me. The child, the partner, does not, simply cannot, contemplate the death of the loved one. No life is eternal, is what that first terrible death teaches those left behind.

So, when death did touch my family, it was all a surprise and I had no idea what to do though I did, without question, know whom to turn to. There was only one person to look to for guidance—and that, of course, was Jack Rabinovitch.

Jack was among my father’s truest friends; one since boyhood, when they were both students at Baron Byng High School in Montreal. Jack, obviously, had been my father’s friend for much longer than he was mine or my siblings’, but I knew from the beginning of my own adult acquaintance with Jack—when his partner Doris Giller, the former Montreal Gazette and then Toronto Star books editor, was still alive—that what Jack so resolutely, unwaveringly offered was constancy. Jack was a pillar.

“What do I do, Jack?” I asked him, calling from the payphone affixed to the wall outside the Montreal General ICU where my father’s body lay beneath a sheet pulled to his chest.

“Call Paperman’s, of course.” Paperman and Sons was Montreal’s preeminent Jewish funeral home, serving that community for generations.

I wish I was able convey to you the tone of Jack’s words. You might have thought it a rebuke, so abruptly but also purposefully was his advice delivered. Except that in my experience there was nothing complicated about Jack, and that’s what I was hearing. Things were black and white. You did right, or you did wrong. You loved your family and did the best for them. You loved your friends, until they crossed you. Friendship and morals were indistinguishable and inseparable for those two men. And I’ll go out on a limb and tell you this was an old-world Montreal quality of theirs, born on what were then the tough streets of the Jewish ghetto, where they were surrounded by French-Canadians, equally poor and ready for a scrap. It was a Montreal quality more than it was tony Toronto’s—where, in the later years of the prize Jack dreamed up with my father (but funded himself), the more slippery games of social advancement of Canada’s larger, colder, more WASP-ish city, simmered: folk wanting to see and be seen.

But I’m sure Jack could see all that, and that it was beneath him. Besides, the victory was already his: he’d made it, he was the boss, and almost single-handedly he’d altered the Canadian literary landscape. He’d made stars of writers so habituated to being impecunious that I’m sure one of the greatest pleasures of the evening for him was the camaraderie of authors, publishers and journalists celebrating and drinking—drinking heavily—in the bar of the Four Seasons after the prize-giving was taken care of, and mostly on his tab. In earlier days, no television cameras yet, the writers who’d not won jested with each other and seemed as happy as the one that did; publishers sitting on armrests and chatting with authors not “theirs”—i.e., not on their lists—and journalists were treated, mistakenly or not, as if they had something to contribute. Authors brought into the limelight were colleagues whose work spanned generations and the divides of the country’s magnificently complicated fabric and topography. There was not yet the sense of competition and corporate gain that have made, in recent years, something less of the prize. Younger writers, brought out of their isolation, were thrilled simply to be in the company of authors they looked up to and whose work they were curious about, not yet regarding each other as rivals in a serious, zero-sum game.

It was, back then, a real party, a celebration of unheralded CanLit and, true to Jack’s and my father’s St. Urbain Street–style, something of a middle finger put to government and the establishment. (When Jack was still with Trizec Properties and living in Montreal, my father went to visit him at the real estate company’s offices at Place Ville Marie and slipped on a wet floor, twisting his knee. “Sue me!” said Jack, “make some money.”) Jack himself was not yet “establishment” and being solicited by folk who wanted a seat at the table—his tables. And if, in more recent years, the live audience of the Scotiabank Giller Prize seems to have a certain ageing air that the CBC cameras deftly make their way around—fewer journalists, fewer authors and the young, and more folk with less time to read all those nominated books (the price of a dinner might be a more practical treat in those waning years), it is because the fault of Jack’s having remained so ardently loyal to his friends—that constancy—was also his great quality, and rare.

I came up against the brick wall of this loyalty much later—when, as a federal candidate for the NDP, I tried, however tactfully, to hit Jack up for money.

“How come you’re not on the hustings?” Jack asked—that brusque tone again.

I explained that I’d walked into a riding that was broke (hint, hint) and that there was much fundraising work to do.

“I wish you luck,” he said.

Well, that was true, I’m sure, though what I was also being reminded of was that Jack was not one to play the field. He was a Liberal, and that was it. He loved me, certainly, and I’d made a choice but it wasn’t his and I respected him for that. His refusal had foundation.

We feel, with Jack’s death, the passing of a great, selflessly generous literary patron. (In 2000, the year the Giller jury failed him and, rather than having to decide, gave the prize not to one, but two winners, Jack effectively doubled the worth of the prize and gave, unhesitatingly, the full amount of the award to both authors.) But it is also the passing of an era. A life is but a stitch in time and now the quilt made up of we who remain will find a new tension and be laid out differently. Time for another to take the stage, said Margaret Atwood when I went to consult with the author of Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature and make the case for my own literary portrait of the country. Now the fury, the argument and the podium belong to the Indigenous peoples, furnished with a mission and braced with purpose, its literary champions bound to enrage not only outsiders but their own communities, from time to time, as once Jewish novelists did. They were Jews who saw themselves as Canadians, sure, but also, like the storytellers of Turtle Island, as belonging to a greater transnational bunch, in their case the writers of the whole of North America’s Jewish tide—peers to Saul Bellow, Art Buchwald, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, et alii.

In a sense, Jack’s original ambition for the literary scene in Canada has been realized, and we see this in the competition between literary prizes’ courting glamour not through the fine work they celebrate, but ever more munificent purses. Good news for the author, certainly, though the vaunted “Giller Effect” of wildly augmented book sales is diminished because today the prize is but one of several ways to push a book (“Heather’s Pick,” “Canada Reads”) and gone are the days when it could be taken for granted that all the nominated books did well by it. I think, were Jack founding his prize today, he’d look to something like the Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Literature for a model, giving away a substantial amount of cash but also purchasing thousands of books earning royalties for the winning author, for distribution to Indigenous communities and libraries. What Canadian writers need today are not more plaudits, but a place for their work in high school curricula and the libraries that are, in the face of the Internet’s gaping maw, our best means of educating ourselves about ourselves. But the fella who first brought in the spotlight, taught Canadians how to use it—and, for a while now, has not needed to manage it anymore—was Jack. Good on you, old friend.

But what need is there to remember? Ours is the age of “presentism,” illuminating in its unforgiving interpretation of the past through the light of present day mores but disappointing in its forgetting of past achievements. (Hell, no need to be coy; in its outright ignorance of history.) The web is a fount of knowledge instantly at our fingertips but an oubliette of the ways so many things came to be.

This was proved to me yet again last Sunday, August 6, the day Jack died, when my household was contacted by a reporter from of one of Canada’s most important media outlets seeking, I kid you not, an interview with my late father. (So much of journalism is not worth saving.) I pointed out this would be difficult to make happen and proposed an alternative, though it was impossible not to chuckle. For I could see Jack laughing and shaking his head, my father too, the two of them loving the joke of it, the line they’d been supplied, and their mordant wit never faltering when the target was themselves. And I was reminded of the need for Jack’s or anyone else’s literary prize.

They both went out with a joke, those two.

After that hospital phone call to Jack, we visited the office of Paperman and Sons to make the necessary arrangements. As my family was seated against the walls, weeping, the funeral director told me from behind his great big desk that, “As Jews, we believe that we are born of dust and return to dust, and so we bury our dead in a simple cotton shroud.”

I nodded.

However,” he added. “It’s also available in linen.”

“I think maybe your Dad desperately wanted good company and for Jack to join him,” said my wife, Sarah, when we were told the awful news.

Of course no one of my family wanted Jack, at age 87, to die, or for his children and partner to have to experience the loss they know now. But there is solace in that thought: Jack and my father, Doris too, sharing deep glasses of Scotch, good stories, laughs and conviction, the table theirs and only theirs, no caution to their jokes and only the invited joining them.

Noah Richler is an author, journalist, and former political candidate. His most recent book is The Candidate (2016).

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