Richler navigates modern Jewish life


"This Year in Jerusalem" recounts novelist Mordecai Richler's personal odyssey through the crazy-quilt varieties of modern Jewish life.

I'm using modern strictly in a chronological sense. As Mr. Richler's book demonstrates, the central fact of Jewish life is that, at one and the same calendar time, some Jews mentally live in the distant past, others with their imaginations attuned to the future.

Mr. Richler, a Canadian writer best known for his novel "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," later made into a movie, was born into an Orthodox family. His maternal grandfather was a noted Talmudic scholar who doubled as a short-story writer, spinning tales of the golem -- a kind of Jewish Frankenstein's monster endowed, thanks to a medieval mystical formula, with superhuman powers capable of keeping anti-Semites at bay.

As an adolescent, Mr. Richler rejected religious orthodoxy, betting his own future on Zionism, the idea that the Jews' redemption required them to have a land of their own. College and his writer's vocation made Mr. Richler an intellectual, suspicious of the more aggressive aspects of Israeli foreign policy.

He was a peace marcher in London in 1956, when Israel joined Britain and France in attacking Egypt. Even then, he retained a bit of his grandfather's vision.

"Secretly I was thrilled by the Israelis' brilliant campaign in Sinai," he confesses, "and by Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed general, our protector, who had just possibly been raised to life by a rabbi, a Ba'al Shem, schooled in kabbalistic lore, inserting the secret name of the Holy One into his mouth, the letters in the correct order."

The title of Mr. Richler's book is a play on the traditional Jewish New Year's greeting: "Next year in Jerusalem." His narrative alternates descriptions of visits to Israel with childhood memories and later-life encounters with buddies from the Zionist youth group that prepared them for aliyah, immigration to the Holy Land.

Hollywood, he recalls, also shaped his adolescent understanding of how he would help win the Jews a homeland by wresting Palestine from its Arab occupants.

"I expected that once we had graduated from university," Mr. Richler notes, "Jerry, Hershey, Meyer, and I would make aliyah together, becoming elite desert fighters like Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston in 'Beau Geste.' "

Their lives didn't follow that script. One member of the group became a petty hustler and perennial loser. Another wound up more interested in making money for himself than a homeland for the Jews.

Mr. Richler took a middle route, becoming a writer specializing in the ambiguities of Jewish life, in both his Canadian homeland and Israel. When he tracks down the few members of the group who did wind up in Israel, Mr. Richler has mixed emotions. On one hand, he's a bit envious of those who were able to keep the Zionist faith. On the other, he is pained because the Jews' homeland has prevented Palestinian Arabs from having one of their own.

Yet ethical second-guessing can't dissolve powerful memories of that wondrous day in 1947 when the news came that, with United Nations backing for the establishment of Israel, his people's age-old dream was about to be fulfilled.

"In our neighborhood," Mr. Richler recalls, "people charged out into the streets to embrace. Sticky bottles of apricot brandy, left over from a bar mitzvah here, a wedding there, were dug out of pantries, dusted off, and uncorked. Men and women who hadn't been to a synagogue since last Yom Kippur surprised themselves, turning up to offer prayers of gratitude and then toss back glasses of schnapps with slices of schmaltz herring."

Like his grandfather the short-story-writing rabbi, Mr. Richler is equally adept at framing moral issues and chronicling the endless byways of Jewish history.


Title: "This Year in Jerusalem"

Author: Mordecai Richler

Publisher: Alfred Knopf

Length, price: 294 pages, $23

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