Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


Mordecai & me: Journalism instructor finds passion in Montreal's most celebrated author

by Tristan Baurick

Photo of Joel Yanofsky

Joel Yanofsky’s new book, Mordecai & Me, comes from the Concordia instructor’s passion for the famed Montreal writer.
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Concordia journalism instructor Joel Yanofsky’s new book, Mordecai & Me, is drawn from what he describes as “an ongoing 30-year relationship” with Montreal’s most celebrated author.

It’s a relationship built less on handshakes and face-to-face encounters and more on a close connection to the ink and pulp of Mordecai Richler’s books.

With a passion verging on self-described obsession, Yanofsky poured his knowledge of the novelist into his new book and fused his own story alongside. Mordecai & Me is a literary crossbreed, splicing autobiography with biography, personal confession with literary criticism.

Well-received since its early September release from Red Deer Press, Mordecai & Me garnered a number of favourable reviews and ranked second on the Montreal Gazette’s bestseller list this week. Critics and readers like it, but what would Mordecai think?

“He’d say it’s presumptuous, none of my business, an invasion of privacy,” Yanofsky admits, weighing the late author’s closely guarded private life and disdain for media attention. “I worry about what he’d think a bit, but I can’t take it too seriously. Richler used other people’s lives in his writing all the time. Writers just do that.”

Richler was at his best when he drew inspiration from real people and his own experiences, Yanofsky said. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and St. Urbain’s Horseman illustrated the depth Richler could achieve when he stuck close to his roots in the Jewish community around St. Urbain Street.

“Richler showed that you could write about obscure places and find all kinds of universal themes,” Yanofsky said. In his 1997 novel, Jacob’s Ladder, Yanofsky explored his own Jewish community in Laval’s Chomedey district . “Richler gave me the knowledge and courage to do this.”

Yanofsky imparts this lesson in his Advanced Print Workshop, teaching journalism students to mine their experiences for the gold that makes stories shine.

“Everyone comes from a place that is, in its own little way, exotic, weird and has its own strange problems,” he said.

A longtime freelance writer and Gazette columnist, Yanofsky has drawn material from his own life for articles in The Village Voice, Reader’s Digest, The Globe and Mail and Canadian Geographic.

“I try to give students the practical nuts and bolts I’ve learned and help them get published,” he said. “If they’re writing about what they’re interested in, it makes their job a lot easier.”

But writing about one of your great passions, Yanofsky understands, is no guarantee for published success. Yanofsky struggled to find a publisher that would take a chance with his odd tale of a famous writer and the fan that admired him. He credits a partnership with Concordia’s Canadian Jewish Studies as a significant factor in Mordecai & Me’s success.

Professor Norman Ravvin, the chair of Canadian Jewish Studies, edits a Jewish writing series co-published by Calgary’s Red Deer Press and the Institute for Jewish Canadian Studies. Ravvin was looking for a novel for the series but was impressed with Yanofsky’s pitch for Mordecai & Me. Ravvin helped edit the book and helped procure funding.

“Ravvin liked the my idea for the book and trusted my instincts,” he said. “I consider the Jewish Studies department a full partner in the book.”

Yanofsky will read from Mordecai & Me at the book’s launch tonight at 7:30 p.m. at MAI, 3680 Jeanne-Mance St.