Mordercai Richler, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen are Jewish Canadian writers. These three writers have tremendously impacted the Canadian literature and their writings prove that a person’s culture is capable of influencing his/her writing. Some of the most intelligent literary names in Canada are of Jewish faith. It is important to note that while Judaism influenced the works of Richler, Layton and Cohen, none of the three writers can be described as an observant Jew. (Jones, 326)
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Living life in a certain way and having a set of ideas that are opposed to those generally accepted by the society is termed or described as counterculture. The trio of Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen share such a way of life and such ideas. These three authors were counterculture to their Jewish origin. (Wayne, 421)
This narrative essay will attempt to connect the lives and writings of Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen. These three writers are from Montreal Canada, they are all Jewish, they have all lived abroad and they share a similar way of life and ideas that differ from those accepted by the Jewish Canadian society. This essay will examine their separate lives and writings before attempting to connect it.
Mordecai Richler was born January 27th, 1931. He was a screenwriter, poet, essayist and an author. Richler had always maintained that he desired to be a sincere witness to his immediate environment. It was also his dream to write at least a single book that he will be remembered for after his death.
He was often described as a pillar in Canada’s literary history and as one of the greatest Canadians. His contribution to the Canadian literary history can never be forgotten. While he was alive, some critics tried to distinguish Richler the polemicist from Richler the author. (Charles, 338)
“The apprenticeship of duddy Kravitz”, “Barney’s Version” and “Jacob two-two” are considered as some of Richler’s best works. “Solomon Gursky was here” is a novel which was written by Richler in 1989 and in 1990, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious the Booker Prize. Apart from been one of the most intelligent and reputable Jewish Canadian writer, Richler also had a reputation for always stirring controversy.
Some of Richler’s admirers and followers hailed him for his boldness of saying the truth. He was also described as the last honest man by some of his admirers. However, his critics thought differently. Richler was seen by his critics as a person who was only good at doing things that were quite difficult like; sketching interesting and unusual scenes. They believed he lacked the ability of creating logical and well organized narratives. He frequently had conflicts with the Quebec nationalists. (Mordecai, 866)
In the 1970s and 1990s, Richler’s articles in American publications increased the tension that already existed in the volatile situation between him and Quebec nationalists. His articles condemned Quebec language laws and it linked Quebec’s political party to Nazism. This stirred a lot of controversy and it created a division in the Quebec societies.
A fraction believed Richler’s perspective of the Quebec society was stereotyped and archaic. But the other fraction of the Quebec community argued that Richler was only defending the rights of the Quebec Anglophones by questioning the rigid norms that existed in the Quebec societies. (Jones, 109)
Richler used Jewish themes and symbolism in his writings. His book “The apprenticeship of duddy Kravitz” had a character named Kravitz who was a money hungry and self centered person. These traits were usually attributed to the Jews. The book “The apprenticeship of duddy Kravitz” attracted a lot of criticism. He was briefly married to a French Canadian woman and he died in July 3rd, 2001. (Wayne, 155)
Irving Layton was born March 12th, 1912. Layton was born as Israel Lazarovitch to Jewish parents in Romania thus making him a Romanian born Canadian. Layton was a poet who had a reputation for saying things exactly the way the appeared. This earned him respect and a large number of admirers but it also made a lot of enemies for him too. Layton’s work provided the much needed break through for modern poetry to showcase its depth and richness. These are qualities that poets before his time had ignored. (Wayne, 300)
Layton had a lot of books to his credit but his most outstanding and notable publications were; “A red carpet for the sun” and “The collected poems of Irving Layton” which were published in 1959 and 1971 respectively. The book “A red carpet for the sun” won Layton the governor general’s award. He also, wrote “Butterfly on the Rock” in 1991 and “A wild peculiar Joy” in 1982.
While at the McGill University, he became a socialist and this resulted to his been banned and blacklisted in the United States for two decades. Layton’s books earned him an international reputation and made him a celebrity on Canadian television in the 1950s. His works were greatly appreciated abroad particularly in Italy and South Korea. These two countries also nominated Layton for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. As an influential teacher, he taught vigorously and influenced his students.
His influence on his students made some of them choose writing and arts as professions. According to Moses Znaimer a television magnate and a student of Layton, he choose the media due to Layton’s influence. Irving Layton can be described as an intelligent and accomplished writer. He was married to Betty but he had a son named David with Aviva Cantor. He died in January 4th, 2006.
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Born September 21st, 1934, Leonard Cohen is a Jewish Canadian writer, poet, novelist, musician and songwriter. He is mostly known as a musician with hit songs like “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne”. Cohen grew up in a Jewish community and his name “Kohen” means priest or priesthood in Hebrew. In spite of his family’s deep roots in Judaism, Cohen is presently a Buddhist even though he has severally maintained that he is comfortable with his old religion of Judaism. (Mordecai, 239)
His writings usually dealt with issues of sexuality, religion and isolation. His first book of poetry was published in 1956. He has a successful career in music and writing that has spanned over 5 decades. His first novel was published in 1963. The Judaic allusions usually found in Cohen’s songs, poetry and prose are not surprising given his family background.
He proudly identifies himself as a Jew but he strongly condemns the new trend in the Jewish communities that permit and allow businessmen and Rabbis to take over community buildings. Cohen describes the new trend in the Jewish communities as “organized Judaism” and he expressed his dissatisfaction in the book “The Favorite game”. He feels that righteousness and spirituality which were the usual practices of Judaism are replaced with pride and material desires. (Mordecai, 511)
He is a companion of Canada’s highest civilian honor which is called the “order of Canada”. More than 2000 musical performances of Cohen’s songs are recorded. He is inducted into both the Canadian songwriter’s hall of fame and Canadian music hall of fame respectively. (Smith, 241)
Given his tremendous achievements in music and writing, Cohen is regarded as one of Canada’s biggest and greatest artist. His songs and books are filled with Jewish culture and wit. He regards poetry as a form of prayer and feels God is not associated with the present organized Judaism practiced in Jewish Canadian societies. The Holy Bible according to Cohen is the most important book in his life and his 1961 book of poems “The spice Box of Earth” is filled with reference to the Bible and Jewish traditions.
With a career that spans over 50 years, Cohen Leonard can be described as an accomplished songwriter, musician, poet, essayist and novelist. (Smith, 229) His accolades are gained from European and American countries. Notably among his musical achievements are; songwriters hall of fame induction, meteor music awards in Ireland, Grammy lifetime achievements award and Porin award in Croatia.
On March 10th, 2008 Cohen was inducted into America’s Rock and Roll hall of fame and two months later, he embarked on a world tour which lasted over 2 years. While on tour, he performed 246 shows in Croatia, United States, Israel, Australia and Europe. It has been described as his greatest musical tour. (Smith, 413)
Leonard Cohen is by all standards a successful and accomplished songwriter, musician and poet. Lou Reed described him as one of the greatest and most influential songwriters of his generation. (Charles, 342)
The Connection between the lives and works of Richler, Cohen and Layton
Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler are all Jewish Canadian writers. These three authors are all from Montreal which has a reputation for producing intelligent and splendid authors. It is worthy of note that, apart from Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler, the Montreal Jewish community has also produced a notable author like A.M Klein. (Smith, 301)
Cohen, Richler and Layton share common beliefs about Jewish culture and religion. Apart from the three authors been Jewish Canadians from Montreal, they also spent part of their lives abroad. This is believed to have influenced their criticism of certain aspects of the Jewish communities. Irving Layton was born in Romania to Jewish parents and his family migrated back to Canada a year after his birth.
His professional career made him spent some time abroad particularly in Europe and Asia. Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen also spent part of their lives abroad either in educational pursuit or their professional career respectively. (Wayne, 222)
The works of Richler, Cohen and Layton are usually filled with Jewish symbolism and these three authors believe their traditional Jewish culture is losing its ground to a new trend of businessmen and Rabbis who are more interested in material gains. There is also a spiritual flair in the works of these authors but their spirituality differs from the current Jewish system. Cohen has deep Jewish roots and his works concentrates on exploring sexuality, religion and isolation.
These are issues which he strongly believes are affecting the Jews. Mordecai Richler on the other hand was known for saying things exactly the way he witnessed it and this earned him a reputation as the last honest man. According to Richler, the truth was uncomfortable but it was necessary to speak for those who did not understand the turn of events or for those who were too afraid to speak boldly. (Mordecai, 222)
In spite of the fact that Richler, Cohen and Layton are from the Jewish culture, they wrote against issues they felt were affecting the Jewish communities and culture negatively. These three authors believe Judaism is supposed to be a spiritual and religious practice. But it is sad to note that the spiritual and religious values of Judaism are replaced with material desires. (Jones, 112)
Despite coming under heavy criticism, Cohen, Richler and Layton continued to express their opinions about the negative change and old traditions of the Jews. There are changes which affect the Jewish societies negatively and there are old Jewish traditions which the trio of Richler, Cohen and Layton believe should be changed. These reasons and their exposure abroad made these authors counterculture to their Jewish origin. Irving Layton died January 4th, 2006 while, Mordecai Richler died July 3rd, 2001.
But Leonard Cohen is still alive to continue the great work he and his contemporaries started. Furthermore, Irving Layton’s son David has continued the great work his father started. It is very glaring that the Canadian literature will continue to be filled Jewish wit and culture. Lastly, the Canadian literary history will not be complete without mentioning Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler and the Jewish community of Montreal which they come from. (Charles, 201)
Charles, Stephanie. Like one that dreamed: A book in memory of Canadian writers. Toronto: McGraw, 2010. Print.
Jones, Grace. The life and works of Leonard Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Mordecai, Richler. Barney’s Version. Canada: Knopf, 1997. Print.
Smith, Jerome. Unfinished Journey: A review of Jewish Canadian authors. Toronto: Summerhill, 2005. Print.
Wayne, Edwards. A complete guide to the works of Irving Layton. Toronto: Totem Press, 2009. Print.