Mordecai Richler’s Reception in Israel

The notion that Mordecai Richler’s writings have been well-received and popular in Israel has been widely assumed and repeated. Indeed, readers in the Jewish State usually find interest in any Jewish writer depicting the Diaspora experience. Of the many Jewish authors in Canada, Richler’s name has been put forward as an example of a Canadian cultural icon in Israel. Adrienne Kertzer, for one, implied as much when, in her review of Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, she wrote: “Montreal’s other major Jewish writer [after A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen], Mordecai Richler, the writer who, until the recent international success of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, is likely the Canadian-Jewish writer best known outside Canada” (141-3; see also Fulford, Levene). Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in a 2002 address to the Canada-Israel Committee dinner honouring Israeli president Moshe Katzav, also mentioned the popularity of Mordecai Richler in his remarks on bilateral Canada-Israel cultural relations:

Canada and Israel have shared and enjoy the vibrancy of our two cultures. Canadians have revelled in the richness of Israeli music, theatre, literature and art. We avidly read the works of your foremost authors. Just as Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood are very popular in Israel, Canadians see the latest Israeli plays and attend numerous Israeli exhibits at our museums…We are thrilled at the keen interest that Israelis have shown in Canada through the highly successful Canadian Studies Programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Chrétien’s emphasis on Atwood’s popularity among Israeli readers, with ten of her novels as well as other works translated into Hebrew, is well founded; however, his emphasis on Richler’s popularity does not reflect the reality in Israel.

In order to better locate and explain Richler’s place in the Israeli cultural scene, this study looks at the reception of his works by three distinct audiences—the general public, the Anglophone population, and the academic world.

The General Israeli Public

Richler’s potential readership in Israel is limited despite the country’s high adult literacy rate (97.1% in 2004), because not all Israelis read English or the other languages of Richler’s translations (see Table 1).[1] Because Israel is an immigrant-absorbing country, Hebrew is not the first language of a considerable portion of the Jewish population.[2]

English is the mother tongue of only a small part of Israel’s population (approximately 120,000), although it is a second language for many. English as a second language is mandatory in schools and universities for both Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students. This, however, does not guarantee the linguistic proficiency required to read and comprehend Richler’s writings in the original.

Cultural and religious reasons further account for the relatively small size of Richler’s Israeli readership. The Arab (and Arabic-speaking) population of Israel cannot be expected to show much interest in Diaspora Jewish literature. Approximately twenty percent of Israel’s Jewish population belong to ultra-orthodox communities that place varying degrees of restrictions on reading secular literary works. The coarse language, descriptions of sexual acts, and putative immorality in many of Richler”s writings would result in their censorship by the religious leadership. Furthermore, the ultra-orthodox have identified Richler as a “self-hating” Jew and as having been antagonistic toward Jewish orthodoxy despite his distinguished lineage. [3]

The Israeli publishing industry determines which foreign-language books are translated into Hebrew based on which are likely to turn a profit on their investment. Fiction is popular in Israel, and bestsellers can sell as many as 100, 000 copies or more (Cohen). To offset costs, publishers can apply for the International Translation Grants through the Canada Council for the Arts in order to defray up to fifty percent of the translation costs of a Canadian work (Israeli publishers received grants for two translations in 2004 and four in 2005. No grants were awarded before 2004) (Canada Council for the Arts). Indeed, Richler, with five works in Hebrew, is one of many Canadian authors whose writings have been translated. Over the past ten years, ten novels by Margaret Atwood and five novels by Carol Shields, as well as works by Michael Ondaatje, Nancy Huston, Alice Munro, Yann Martel, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Nadine Bismuth have been translated. Lucy Maud Montgomery was translated as early as 1951, and selected writings of Stephen Leacock appeared in 1955.

Certain of Richler’s works are not likely to be relevant to Israeli readers (for example, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, with its discussion focusing on internal Canadian relations and politics). On the other hand, This Year in Jerusalemprovides autobiographical details of Richler’s life, his connections to Israel and Zionism, and his impressions of Israel and the political situation; in theory, it should have had more appeal. What then might account for its relatively poor reception in Israel? One answer is that Sheldon Teitelbaum, a Los Angeles-based senior writer for theJerusalem Report, criticized its disjointed structure, labelling the book as “an exercise in self-justification” (see also Ravvin; Zimelman). Teitelbaum remarks:

…his book ends up offering as much insight into what life in Israel is really like as one might find in a portrait of Southern California as seen through the eyes of expatriate Newfoundland fishermen…. When another Montreal native, Saul Bellow, undertook a similar stint in Israel, the result was the thoughtful memoir “To Jerusalem and Back.” But when Richler piles his bits of reportorial cod on the racks to dry into something approaching a point of view, what we are left with in the end is the reek of fish turning nasty in the sun.

Reading a book I badly wanted to like, I began to understand why so many French Quebecois head for their bunkers every time Richler publishes a portrait of his native Quebec…. (56-57)

Small wonder, then, that Israeli publishers did not consider Richler’s views on Israel and related experiences to be marketable and decided it was not worthwhile translating into Hebrew.

In all, five of Richler’s works (including one of his children’s books) have been translated into Hebrew. In comparison, ten of his works have been translated into French, ten into German, eight into Italian, and seven into Dutch (see Table 1 for all translations).

Two of the Hebrew translations were published following the release of the film versions of Richler’s works—The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (first published 1959; film released 1974; Hebrew translation 1976) and Joshua Then and Now (first published in 1980, film released 1985, and Hebrew translation 1987). These films piqued the interest of the Israeli audience; the publishers capitalized on their popularity by quickly proceeding with the translation of these volumes. These films are shown from time to time on Israeli television and cable channels and at Israel’s cinemas. They are also available at video rental stores (Ben-David 10).

The English-speaking Audience

In Israel there are an estimated 200,000 (2003) native English-speakers. Popularly and ironically known as “Anglo-Saxons,” they make up approximately three percent of Israel’s population. This group (and a small number of Israelis with a high level of English proficiency) read English-language literary works in the original; however, for many years English-language books were expensive, and not all of Richler’s works in English were available to Israeli audiences. Today with the opening up of markets through e-commerce (for example,, it is easier for Israelis to obtain copies of Richler’s writings.

Some of Richler’s works received favourable reviews in the Israeli English press (Gefen; DiAntonio). The review “The Road Not Taken” considered This Year in Jerusalem to be of some interest to certain sectors of the English-speaking immigrant population in Israel. This work could serve as a source for comparison between the lives of Zionist youth who fulfilled the dream of aliyah (Hebrew for ascent, the act of immigration to the Land of Israel) and those who remained in the Diaspora. For Richler, part of the reason for his 1992 visit to Israel was “to find out what had happened to my old chaverim, whom I had known when they were young, when everything was possible. Were they at ease in Zion? Or did they regret having made aliyah” (This Year 55).

Part of Israel’s native English-speaking population (right-wing and orthodox Jewish) find Richler’s political views visà-vis Israel and his views on orthodox Judaism offensive. Richler’s name is on the right-wing Jewish shit list (“self-hating and israel-threatening” list) (Masada). This is due to Richler’s support for a twostate solution in Israel (and a one-state solution in Canada) (Ball). His views were not particularly significant in Israel until his visit to the country in 1992. Sam Orbaum explained, “If no one here [in Israel] detests him, it’s probably only because he hasn’t been here since 1961” (“Make ‘em Mad” 10). Attention paid to him during his stay in Israel and the subsequent publishing of Next Year in Jerusalem raised Richler’s profile in Israel.

Richler’s negative portrayal of Jews in certain novels contributed to the shunning of his writings by orthodox Jews in Israel. Some critics claimed that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz played up negative Jewish stereotypes. Further, Orthodox Jews took offence at his attitudes towards Jewish leadership. These attitudes are exemplified by Richler’s reaction in 2000 to the statement by an Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi that the victims of the Holocaust were reincarnated sinners who had to die to atone for their vile deeds. He declared: “Unto each religion, its own zealots. Iran suffers its crazed ayatollahs, and my people endure too many nutty rabbis.” (Richler, Unto Each ReligionA14). [4]

Recently there has been a rediscovery of Mordecai Richler in Israel. This began with obituaries and review articles following Richler’s passing in July 2001 (see “Author”; Orbaum,“Canadian Author 10”). Book reviews continued to appear after his death. A new review ofBarney’s Version appeared in the Jerusalem Post in 2006 (Septimus 27). Jerusalem Post reporter Sam Orbaum, a cousin of Richler’s, has helped to ensure that Richler’s name appeared in Israel’s English press. [5]

Academic Audience

Richler’s writings have been studied to a limited extent in courses in English Literature, Comparative Literature, and Contemporary Jewry at universities and colleges in Israel. [6] The departments of English Literature at Israeli universities have had a strong tradition of teaching American and British literatures, while the literatures of Canada and of other Commonwealth countries have received less attention. Through the initiative of a number of Israeli academics, and sometimes with the support of the Government of Canada’s Faculty Enrichment Awards, a number of courses in English and French Canadian literature have been developed and taught. A few of these courses are survey courses in Canadian Literature while others are thematic and include Canadian authors—for example, a course on women writers that includes Margaret Atwood.

The experience of academics has been that when Richler’s works (for example, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) were taught, the predominantly female student population’s reaction was negative because of perceived misogynistic undertones. Furthermore, Richler’s works have not been ranked high on the research agenda in Israel. Most Israeli Canadianists in the field of literature are women. They often find his writings sexist and choose neither to teach nor to conduct research on them. Nonetheless, Professor Richard Sherwin of Bar-Ilan University and Professor Danielle Schaub of Oranim College have on occasion included a work by Richler in their syllabi, and presumably others have as well.

An academic niche for Richler’s writings has been in the field of contemporary Jewish culture. Richler has been part of the discussion in courses dealing with Diaspora literature, Jewish Diaspora experience, and anti-Semitism in North America. Often Richler has been discussed together with the writings of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. [7]

Recent published anthologies of Jewish writing—Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada edited by Michael Greenstein and The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories edited by Ilan Stavans—include works by Mordecai Richler. These anthologies facilitate the accessibility by Israeli university faculty and students to Richler’s writings and can be used in survey courses.

Until recently, the study of Richler’s writings was not on the Israeli academic agenda. No academic articles on Richler or his writings by an Israeli academic have been identified. [8] However, a growing number of researchers are developing an interest in Richler; at the eleventh Biennial Jerusalem Conference in Canadian Studies held in 2006, researcher Sara Kaufman of the University of Haifa presented a paper entitled “Canadian Tug o’ War: Ethnic and National Tension in the Novels of Mordecai Richler” (Israel Association for Canadian Studies). In addition, in my own research on the migration of North American Jews to the Land of Israel, excerpts from This Year in Jerusalem were utilized in order to provide colourful examples of the Zionist youth movement experiences in Montreal of the 1940s (New Zion; Canaan).

In summing up, the teaching and study of Richler’s works has not been significantly integrated into Israeli academic curricula and research programs, partly for structural reasons—emphasis on the British and American literary canons—and partly out of preference. Quite simply, few academics teaching Canadian literature have selected Richler’s writings.

Summary: The Reception of Richler’s Writings in Israel

With the limited embrace of Richler’s works in Israel, a challenge exists as to how it might be possible to awaken greater interest in Richler in Israel to expose readers to his satirical characterization of Canadian life and insights into the Jewish community of Montreal. Often the integration of the writings of a specific author into teaching and research is the result of the interest taken by a specific academic. Studies dealing with the history of Canadian Studies in different countries around the world often point to the important contribution of particular Canadianists to the development of a field or discipline in Canadian Studies locally. [9] The interest and drive of a passionate academic can lead to the research and teaching interest in a specific writer. The challenge is to cultivate this interest.

In order to pique the interest of an Israeli academic, the level of awareness of Richler and of his writings needs to be raised through visits to Israeli universities and colleges by experts on Richler as well as the publication of articles that connect his work to Israeli concerns. If Israeli researchers are interested in and recruited to engage in the study of Richler’s writings, they will subsequently integrate material into courses and inspire a new generation of graduate students. There is intense competition for the limited funding available for the study of Canada in Israel through grants and scholarships from the Government of Canada, the International Council for Canadian Studies, Israel Association for Canadian Studies, and the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies at the Hebrew University. The existence of support for research and scholarships specific to study of Richler could guide activities in this direction. If Richler were to be embraced by Israeli academia, his works would be diffused into a larger general audience.

Of Richler’s works, there appears to be a market for the translation of two more of his works into Hebrew—Barney’s Version and Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur. The former has gained international recognition and popularity. The later is a sequel to an already popular children’s book. He is better known in Israel for the films of his works than for his writings. This could serve as a factor in drawing the general audience to Richler’s writings in Hebrew translation. Furthermore, the animated television series Jacob Two-Two, which has yet to be aired in Israel, could serve as a catalyst for interest in Richler’s books for children (“Jacob Two-Two”). Some recent articles on Mordecai Richler in the Israeli press and the 2005 Hebrew translation of Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang may contribute to a rediscovery of his other writings.

In all, contrary to what has been assumed, there has been limited interest in Richler and his writings in Israel as a result of the narrow reception by the different Israeli audiences—the general public, English-speakers, and academics—for their respective reasons. The potential exists to expand this market, but it requires investment in research, teaching, translation, and promotion.


  1. In April 2007, the State of Israel’s population stood at approximately 7,150,000 inhabitants. Statistics in this section regarding Israel’s population are drawn from Israel Central Bureau of Statistics,Statistical Abstract of Israel (57). [1]
  2. The largest sources of immigrants were the former Soviet Union (938,000), North Africa (234,000), Romania (108,000), North America (77,000), and Ethiopia (71,000). Israel Central Bureau ofStatistics, Statistical Abstract of Israel (57). [2]
  3. He is the grandson of Rabbi Judah Yudel Rosenberg (1859-1935) who is best known for his Hebrew edition of the Zohar, a cabalistic text, as well as several volumes devoted to legends and folk-medicine in Yiddish. [3]
  4. For a detailed discussion see Soloway. [4]
  5. Schechner; Orbaum; Ben-David, “Obscenity”; Septimus; Richler,Jerusalem 118. [5]
  6. The discussion in this section is based on personal communications with Prof. Hedda BenBasat, Tel Aviv University, e-mail communication March 1 and 4, 2004; e-mail communication between the author and Prof. Simone Grossman, Bar-Ilan University, March 1 and 3, 2004; e-mail communication between the author and Prof. Richard Sherwin, Bar-Ilan University, March 1 and 7, 2004; e-mail communication between the author and Prof. Danielle Schaub, Oranim College, March 1, 3, and 7, 2004. See also Glass, Canadian Studies. [6]
  7. The film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was on the reading list and part of the discussion for the course “Contemporary Canadian Jewry” offered by the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and taught by the author of this paper in 2001-02. [7]
  8. Based on searches of RAMBI—The Index of Articles on Jewish Studies, MLA International Bibliography, and Google Scholar. Richard Sherwin of the Department of English at BarIlan University presented, “The Rorschach Use of Wilderness in Margaret Atwood’sJournals of Susanna Moodie and Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here” at the Tenerife Conference on Canadian Studies, 7 November 1994, La Palma, Tenerife. Rachel Feldhay Brenner of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at University of Wisconsin, after completing her BA in English Literature and French Civilization and her MA in English Literature at Tel Aviv University, went on to complete her PhD at York University on “The Formative Influence of The Holocaust in the Writing of Mordecai Richler.” [8]
  9. See: Gutiérrez-Haces; Foster; Glass; Hoerder and Gross. [9]

Works Cited

  • “The Author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Died.”Maariv [Hebrew] 5 July 2001. Print.
  • Ball, David. Letter. “An Appeal for the Oslo Agreement.” New York Times Review of Books 16 July 1998: 45.12. Print.
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  • —. “Obscenity in the Eye of the Beholder.” Jerusalem Post 13 July 2001: 16. Print.
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  • Foster, Lois. A Profile of Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand: A Report Prepared for the International Council for Canadian Studies. Australia, ACSANZ: March 1995. Print.
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  • —. Canadian Studies in Israel: The First Twenty Years: Research Report No. 5. Jerusalem: Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2003. Print.
  • —. Canada or Canaan: Canadian Jewish Immigration and Settlement in Palestine until 1948. Ms.
  • Greenstein, Michael, ed. Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada: An Anthology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2004. Print.
  • Gutiérrez-Haces, María Teresa. “Présentation de l’Association mexicaine d’études canadiennes (AMEC).” ACS Bulletin AEC 16.2-3 (1994): 27-28. Print.
  • Hoerder, Dirk and Konrad Gross, eds. Twenty-Five Years Gesellschaft für Kanada-Studien: Achievements and Perspectives: Beiträge zur Kanadistik Band 12 (Schriftenreihe der Gesellschaft für Kanada). Augsburg: Wissner, 2004. Print.
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  • “Jacob Two-Two.” Nelvana Enterprises, 20 March 2008. Web.
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  • Levene, Mark. “Tall Cows and Tapestries: A Perspective on the English-Canadian Canon.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67.3 (1998): 680-98. Print.
  • Masada Resource Group. “Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening.” 2008. Web. 20 March 2008.
  • Orbaum, Sam. “Make ’em Mad, Mordecai Richler!” Jerusalem Post 6 November 1992: 10. Print.
  • —. “Canadian author Mordecai Richler made them all mad.”Jerusalem Post 6 July 2001: 7. Print.
  • Ravvin, Norman. “What I’m Doing Here.” Rev. of This Year in Jerusalem, by Mordecai Richler. Canadian Literature 151 (1996): 191-93. Print.
  • Richler, Mordecai. This Year in Jerusalem. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995. Print.
  • —. “Unto each religion, its own zealots.” National Post 26 August 2000: A14. Print.
  • Schechner, Mark. “Crumb-Bum Hero.” Rev. of Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler. Jerusalem Post 30 January 1998: 12. Print.
  • Septimus, Daniel. “Richler’s Rich Living.” Rev. of Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler. Jerusalem Post 27 January 2006: 27. Print.
  • Soloway, Jason A. Negotiating a Hyphenated Identity: Three Jewish-Canadian Writers. MA Thesis. London: University of Western Ontario, 1999. Print.
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
  • Teitelbaum, Sheldon. Rev. of This Year in Jerusalem, by Mordecai Richler. Jerusalem Report 11 March 1994: 150. Print.
  • Zimelman, Eliot. “Road not Taken.” Rev. of This Year in Jerusalem, by Mordecai Richler. Jerusalem Post 1994: 28. Print.

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