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Michael Posner and Noah Richler at the Berney Theatre
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Noah Richler talking to member of the audience
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Michael Posner, Noah Richler and the producer of the event
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
A LETTER DISCOVERED: THE SHOCKING STORY OF MORDECHAI RICHLER 'S LAST COMMUNICATION WITH HIS MOTHER

NOAH RICHLER ANND MICHAEL POSNER AT RADY JCC'S TARBUT FESTIVAL:

By Rhonda Spivak, written November 25, 2010 and re-posted Jan 3, 2010

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the Rady JCC's recent Tribute to Mordechai Richer  involved a  reference made by  Mordechai's son, Noah Richler  to an angry, excoriating letter his father Mordecai  wrote when his father was age 45. This letter which Mordechai Richler sent to his own mother Lily revealed a shocking account of a defining incident from Mordecai’s childhood that he witnessed in 1944 in the family apartment on St. Urbain Street in Montreal.

The Tribute to Mordecai Richler, the iconic Montreal novelist,  was  presented as part of the Rady JCC’s Tarbut Festival at the Berney Theatre on November 16, 2010 . The event was set up as a dialogue between Michael Posner, a former Winnipegger, who is a reporter  for the Globe and Mail (and has written an oral biography of Mordecai Richler)  and Noah Richler, who is a writer himself, and  joined the founding staff of the National Post as its first books editor and then as a literary columnist.

The letter  referrred to at the event was Richler’s last communication with his mother, who died in 1997. Richler neither attended her funeral nor visited her grave. Up until last month, when Charles Foran,  released his  new  biography, Mordecai: The Life & Times, the letter had never seen the light of day. 

As Foran’s book makes clear Mordecai Richler’s parents, Moses and Lily, were extremely incompatible and in the winter of 1944, she began a secret affair with a German Jew who was renting the spare room at the back of the apartment. 

“When I was 12,” Richler accused Lily in the letter’s furious ending, “and had the misfortune to share a front bedroom with you, it did not strike you as undignified to consider your appetites first, your children later.” What did Richler witness? His mother and the boarder “humping together only 12 feet from  [him] a boy.”

In an article in the Globe and Mail on October 22, Foran  disclosed the contents of this secret letter for the first time. It so happened that I had read this article by Foran in advance of the Rady JCC event. But many, if not most people in the audience had not read Foran’s article such that when the letter was referred to at the event, they had no idea of what Noah Richler and/or Michael Posner were talking about..

On the stage at the Berney Theatre, Richler’s son Noah made reference to the letter briefly without ever specifically outlining the contents of the letter . Naoh merely referred to a letter his father wrote to his grandmother and noted  it was discovered by Foran  "in an archive in Calgary” while Foran was working on the biography of Mordechai. Michael Posner also did not outline the contents of the letter. [As a result, many audience members had no appreciation of the significance of this letter and missed the nuances of what Noah Richler said about it.]

Noah Richler said  at the event that his father "never wanted the letter to be read by anyone else," but he happened to put it in with the rest of his papers without thinking about it specifically, and he sent it off with all of his “scribbles” and other papers to the archive. Noah Richler said that his father was pleased that the archive in Calgary was interested in every little “scribble “ he wrote and “he packed it all up” and sent it to them.

As Foran detailed in his article in the Globe and Mail, the revelations and angry tone of the letter  affected Richler’s mother Lily. As Foran wrote:

“ At the time I found the letter, I already knew she [Lily] had had some kind of nervous breakdown in 1976 in the wake of opening her mail."

“He robbed me of my will to live,” Lily explained a year later in a note to Richler’s close friend Bill Weintraub, “to enjoy my old age after years of struggle and deprivation.”

On the stage of the Berney Theatre , Noah Richler said, “I was told that he [my father] regretted having written it [the letter]."  Noah added that he was told this "by his brother or his mother”—he couldn’t remember which.

Noah Richler also said, “The letter goes some way to explaining the rift between him [Mordechai Richler] and his mother.”

 Naoh added that the   letter was “cathartic” for his father to write, as he has been a “dutiful son” and had made sure his children had a relationship with her and “had supported her ’[financially].’

Noah also said that he remembers being taken to his grandmother [Lily’s] house in Montreal “where she had boarders” but that the visits “eventually stopped.”

After the event, one audience member commented naively to me that she wished that Noah Richler had explained more about the nature of his father’s rift with his grandmother Lily. I proceeded to explain to her the contents of the letter, and her jaw dropped.

Thus, to me, the most fascinating part of the evening was how the son Noah Richler referred to the letter briefly without dealing with its contents head on. The sensitivity and intimate nature of the contents appeared to make him unwilling to speak about the incident itself, yet he referred to the letter just enough to try to explain his father’s reason for sending it and further noted that his father apparently regretted sending it.  It was also fascinating to see Noah Richler say he couldn’t remember whether his brother or mother told him that Mordecai Richler had regretted sending the letter.  (One might have thought that this would have been significant enough for Noah Richler to remember, but that didn’t seem to be the case.)

After the event, when asked by the Winnipeg Jewish Review if he was surprised by the contents of the letter, Noah Richler said that he “was aware that there was a troubled relationship” but that the relationship wasn’t something that he would ask his father about. “It is a piece in the puzzle”, Noah Richler said, but it “is not shocking to me.”

For those interested in the subject of the letter and whether this defining incident ever appeared in any of Richler’s works, I recommend reading Foran’s article in the Globe and Mail :

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/mordecai-richlers-greatest-private-sorrow-and-the-one-story-he-could-never-tell/article1768675/

MORDECAI RICHLER: WORK, RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS WIFE FLORENCE AND ALCOHOL

There were many other interesting  and humourous aspects of the program, which offered an inside look at Mordecai Richler's life. As Noah Richler said  he loved his father “as a reader and a dad.”

Noah referred to his father’s drinking a number of times, saying “he was a hell of a drinker”, “he drank hard and very well”, but that not withstanding any carousing he did at night, he “was always there everyday working.” The son recalled that occasionally his father would make him breakfast, which consisted of “an egg possibly out of the shell.”

Naoh said that when Mordecai Richler’s health declined rapidly “it was very distressing to see him not be able to work—not be able to write.”

The son also said he admired his father’s  book, "Solomon Gursky Is Here" (which some say is a novel that is based on the Bronfman family which Mordecai Richler denied) . Noah said, however,  that  Barney’s Version was “the funniest book.” 

The evening also explored the nature of Richler’s relationship with his wife Florence, and her role in his success.

Michael Posner, who throughout the evening offered thought provoking questions and analysis, asked Noah Richler whether he thouight  his mother’s contribution to his father’s “creative output has been duly recognized?"

Noah Richler answered that “they balanced each other really well." His mother was his father’s “first reader”, and he’d “hand her the pages and she would go to the bedroom and read.” He recalled how in regard to the  Solomon Gursky book, his mother had told his father on first reading his draft that a whole section ought to come out, which turned out to be the exact same thing that Mordechai’s editor later told him.

Posner then explored the question of  the the sacrfices Florence made to be spouse of  Mordechai and a mother, rather than pursue her career as a fashion model and actress.

Posner and Richler discussed how Mordecai did what he needed to do, as he had promised his wife, “to make a living’, including teaching, editing anthologies, etc.

Noah also spoke of how his father, who was very in love with his mother, was restless when she wasn’t around.

“I learned that if I got a call from my father saying let’s go to dinner…it was because my mom was going to the opera or the theatre.”

Noah described in humourous fashion how these dinners involved his father “looking at his watch impatiently for two hours and saying very little and then saying “it’s time to pick up your mother."

Posner noted that Richler’s book "Barnie’s Version" involves a storyline that is a version of Richler’s pursuit of Florence, whom he first met the evening before his wedding to his first wife.  Florence at the time was married to her first husband, and the four of them ended up renting a villa in Italy.

Posner also spoke of how, in his view, although Mordecai Richler turned his back on the orthodoxy of his upbringing, “there is a fundamental moral strain through his work that is not only moral but fundamentally Jewish." He spoke of how Richler, whose grandfather was a Rabbi, had read “kabbalah and ancient texts.”

Thoughout the evening, Posner’s participation was very valuable as in many instances he had a mastery of dates and places of events and had a handle on facts involving Richler’s life that the son Noah Richler appeared to know less about.

An awkward moment occured during question period when a member of the audience asked Noah Richler if his father was a good business planner and whether he left a lot of royalties.

Richler, clearly displeased with the question, referred to a time when he once asked his father about his taxes, (if memory serves me correctly this was at a time when Richler had all sorts of papers strewn about). Mordechai responded to his son, "That's none of your business."

Noah Richler responded to the audience member in the same fashion regarding royalties, "That's none of your business."

During the event there was a number of video presentations, interspersed with the dialogue, that added to to the progam.  My favourite was one of Mordecai  Richler being  interviewed on television about the Separatist Movement in Quebec. In the clip, he said that  there will be a positive side if Quebec separates from Canada. "Both John Cretian and Brian Mulrooney will be foreigners," Richler quipped.

The Tribute to Richler was definately  a high calibre quality program, and one that the Rady JCC is to be commended for putting on.  Unfortunately, at times, Naoh Richler spoke quickly and quietly, which made it difficult to hear.  

 

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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