Title: The Street.
Author: Mordecai Richler.
Genre: Non-fiction, autobiography, religion, politics, immigration, short stories, war, WWII, Judaism, politics, bildungsroman.
Publication Date: 1969.
Summary: This collection includes 11 memoirs. In the Going Home Again, the author introduces his most formative years on St. Urbain street while he was in Junior High, and speaks about returning to Montreal and his impressions in 1967, as an adult. In The Street, the author describes returning to St. Urbain street in 1953 after a few years in Europe, and once again introduces the Jewish neighbourhood in which he grew up, and the many stores and characters on the street. In The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die, the family is put under an enormous and heart-breaking strain when the grandmother who moves in with them with only a month left to live, ends up staying for seven years. In The Red Menace, the author describes the two main political disputes on St.Urbain - liberals versus communists. In The Main, Richler discusses the street that united the five streets around it that made up the Jewish ghetto where he grew up, the racial tensions between French and English-speaking Canadians, Jews, and gentiles, and the changes that WWII brought to the Jews living around Main Street neighbourhood. Pinky's Squealer sees four boys from the Main street vacationing in Prevost come across a beach that bars entrance to Jews, and decide to steal the sign proclaiming so. In Bambinger, to make a little extra income, the family lets out a room to a refugee fleeing Hitler's Europe, but the narrator despises the giving up his room, as well as the unwelcome intrusion and discipline that the stranger intrudes into their home. Benny, the War in Europe, and Myerson's Daughter Bella is a story of Benny, who is not smart enough for schooling and comes back from the war in Europe injured and with severe PTSD, and the grocer's daughter, Bella, who tries to bring Benny back to himself. Making It with the Chicks describes Richler's and his guy friends' difficulties throughout their adolescent and teenage years fitting into the world of dating, romance, and sex. In Some Grist for Mervyn's Mill, the family rents out a room to a young writer, but the longer the neighbourhood, the family, and the sought-after Molly work their hopes for Mervyn's brilliance and inevitable success into a frenzy, the more it begins to look like perhaps Mervyn's reputation is perhaps severely premature. The War, Chaverim, and After tells of the author's zealous involvement in Zionist organizations and causes during WWII and his highschool days, and the quick dissolution of the group after graduation.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ Among us, at FFHS, were future leaders of the community. Progressive parents. Reform-minded aldermen. Anti-fallout enthusiasts. Collectors of early French Canadian furniture. Boys who would actually grow up to be doctors and lecture on early cancer warnings to ladies' clubs. Girls who would appear in the social pages of the Montreal Star, sponsoring concerts in aid of retarded children (regardless of race, colour, or creed) and luncheon hour fashion shows, proceeds to the Hebrew University. Lawyers. Notaries. Professors. And marvelously with-it rabbis, who could not only quote Rabbi Akiba but could also get a kick out of a hockey game. But at the time who would have known that such slouchy, aggressive girls, their very brassieres filled with bluff, would grow up to look so serene, such honeys, seeking apotheosis at the Saidye Bronfman Cultural Centre, posing on curving marble stairwells in their bouffant hair styles and strapless gowns? Or that such nervy boys, each one a hustler, would mature into men who were so damn pleased with what this world has to offer, epiphanous, radiating self-confidence at the curling or country club, at ease even with pot-bellies spilling over their Bermuda shorts? Who would have guessed?
Looking back on those raw formative years at FFH, I must say we were not a promising or engaging bunch. We were scruffy and spiteful, with an eye on the main chance.
..Graduation from FFHS meant jobs for most of us, McGill for the annointed few, and the end of an all but self-contained world made up of five streets, Clark, St. Urbain, Waverley, Esplanada, and Jeanne Mance, bounded by the Main, on one side, and Park Avenue, on the other.
♥ Flying into Montreal nineteen years later, in the summer of 1967, our very golden Expo summer, coming from dowdy London, via decaying New York, I was instantly truck by the city's affluence. As our jet dipped toward Dorval, I saw what appeared to be an endless litter of eccentrically shaped green ink wells. Suburban swimming pools. For Arty and Stan, Zelda, Pinky's Squealer, Nate, Fanny, Shloime, and Mrs. Klinger's rank-one boy; all the urchins who had learns to do the dead man's float with me in the winding muddy Shawbridge river, condemned by the health board each August as a polio threat.
I rode into the city on multi-decked highways, which swooped here, soared there, unwinding into a pot of prosperity, a downtown of high rise apartments and hotels, the latter seemingly so new they could have been uncrated the night before.
Place Ville Marie. The metro. Expo. Ile Notre Dame. Habitat. Place des Arts. This cornucopia certainly wasn't the city I had grown up in and quit.
♥ For the record, pot, like the Reader's Digest, is not necessarily habit-forming, but both can lead to hard-core addiction: heroin, in one case, abridged bad books, in the other. Either way you look at it a withdrawal from a meaningful life.
In our St. Urbain Street time, however, the forbidden food had been ham or lobster and when we have objected, protesting it wasn't habit-forming, our grandfathers, faces flaring red, had assured us if you start by eating pig, if you stray so far from tradition, what next? Where will it end? And so now we know. With the children's children smoking pot, making bad trips, discovered stoned in crash pads.
♥ O God! O Montreal! now branded by its mayor as the metropolis wherein recognition of Paris as the world's largest French-speaking city is taken as a measure of intellectual fallibility.
And hippies are hounded as plague-bearers.
♥ A time when a freshly-scrubbed young notary was elected to the city council for a dollar a year and, lo and behold, emerged one or two terms later a real estate millionaire, lucky enough to hold the rocky farmlands where new highways were to be built or schools constructed. This archetypal city councillor, now just possibly a church or synagogue board chairman, certainly a Centennial Medal holder, is the man most likely to inveigh against today's immoral youngsters, kids so deficient in industry that far from voting twenty times they don't go to the polls at all, or respect their parents who grew up when a dollar was a dollar, dammit, and to make one you hustled, leading with the elbows.
♥ So is Fletcher's Field High, right where it always was. These, however, are the latest arrivals from Poland and Rumania and soon their immigrant parents will put pressure on them to study hard and make good. To get out.
But many of our grandparents, the very same people who assured us the Main was only for bummers and failures, will not get out. Today when most of the children have made good, now that the sons and daughters have split-level bungalows and minks and West Indian cruises in winter, many of the grandparents still cling to the Main. Their children cannot in many cases persuade them to leave. So you still see them there, drained and used up by the struggle. They sit on kitchen chairs next to the coke freezer in the cigar store, dozing with a fly swatter held in a mottled hand. You find them rolling their own cigarettes and studying the obituary columns in the Star on the steps outside the Jewish Library. The women still peel potatoes under the shade of a winding outside staircase. Old men still watch the comings and goings from the balcony above, a blanket spread over their legs and a little bag of polly seeds on their lap. As in the old days the sinking house with the cooked floor is right over the store or the wholesaler's, or maybe next door to the scrap yard. Only today the store and the junk yard are shut down. Signs for Sweet Caporal cigarettes or old elections posters have been nailed in over the missing windows. There are spider webs everywhere.
~~Going Home Again.
♥ "How is it for the Jew in Europe?" she asked me.
A direct question from an old lady with a wart turned like a screw in her cheek and in an instant I was shorn of all my desperately acquired sophistication; my New Statesman outlook, my shaky knowledge of wines and European capitals; the life I had made for myself beyond the ghetto.
"I don't know," I said, my shame mixed with resentment at being reclaimed so quickly. "I didn't meet many."
♥ Here, as in the real America, the immigrants worked under appalling conditions in sweat-shops. They rented halls over poolrooms and grocery stores to meet and form burial societies and create shuls. They sent to the old country for younger brothers and cousins left behind, for rabbis and brides. Slowly, unfalteringly, the immigrants began to struggle up a ladder of streets, from one where you had to leave your garbage outside your front door to another where you actually had a rear lane as well as a back yard where corn and tomatoes were usually grown; from the three rooms over the fruit store or tailor shop to your own cold-water flat. A street with trees.
♥ But Tansky insisted it wasn't anti-semitism. Ours was a working-class area. That's why we didn't count.
St. Urbain was one of five working-class ghetto streets between the Main and Park Avenue.
♥ Among the wonders of St. Urbain, our St. Urbain, there was a man who ran for alderman on a one-plank platform - provincial speed cops were anti-semites. There was a semi-pro whore, Cross-Eyed Yetta, and a gifted cripple, Pomerantz, who had had a poem published in transition before he shrivelled and died at the age of twenty-seven. There were two men who had served with the Mackenzie-Paps in the Spanish Civil War and a girl who had met Danny Kaye in the Catskills. A boy nobody remembered who went on to becomes a professor at M.I.T. Dicky Rubin who married a shiksa in the Unitarian Church. A Boxer who once made the Ring magazine ratings. Lazar of Best Grade Fruit who raked in twenty-five hundred dollars from being knocked down by a No. 43 streetcar. Herscovitch's nephew Larry who went to prison for yielding military secrets to Russia. A woman who actually called herself a divorcée. A man, A.D.'s father, who was bad luck to have in your house. And more, many more.
♥ Our attitude toward the Royal Family was characterized by an amused benevolence. They didn't affect the price pf potatoes. Neither could they help or hinder the establishment of the State of Israel. Like Churchill, for instance. King George VI, we were assured, was just a figurehead. We could afford to be patronizing for among our kings we could count Solomon and David. True, we had enjoyed Bette Davis in Elizabeth and Essex. We were flattered when Manny became a King's Scout. Why, we even wished the Royal Family a long life every Saturday in the synagogue, but this wasn't servility. It was generosity. Badly misplaced generosity when I recall that we also included John Buchan, 1st Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, Governor-General of Canada, in our prayers.
♥ Our world was rigidly circumscribed. Outside, where they ate wormy pork, beat the wives for openers, didn't care a little finger if the children grew up to be doctors, we seldom ventured, and then only fearfully. Our world, its prizes and punishments, was entirely Jewish. Inside, God would get us if we didn't say our prayers. You ate the last scrap of meat on your plate because the children in Europe were starving. If you got it right on your bar-mitzvah who knows but the rich uncle might by buy a Parker 51 set.
In our world what we knew of the outside was it wasn't a life-saver if it didn't have a hole in it. If you ate plenty of carrots you would see better in the dark, like R.A.F. night-fighters. Every Thursday night on Station CBM Fibber McGee would open his marvelous closet. Joe was always gone for a Dow. Never before had so many owed so much to so few. V stood for Victory. Paul Lukas was watching it for us on the Rhine. The sure road to success was to buy cheap and sell dear. In real life Superman was only mild Clark Kent. A Roosevelt only comes along once in a lifetime. Scratch the best goy and you find the worst anti-semite.
After school we sat on the steps and talked about everything from A to Z.
♥ "A Jew is never poor."
"Oh, here he comes. Takifman, the fanatic. Okay, we've got the Torah. You try it for collateral at the Bank of Canada."
"For shame," Takifman said, appalled.
"Listen here, Time is a magazine of current affairs. The Torah is an old story. They are discussing here economics."
"The Torah is nothing to laugh."
"But you are, Takifman."
"A Jew is never poor," Takifman insisted. "Broke?" Sometimes. Going through hard times? Maybe. In a strange country? Always. But poor, never."
♥ But as her illness dragged on and on she became a condition in the house, something beyond hope or reproach, like the leaky ice-box, there was less recognition and more ritual in those kisses. I came to dread her room. A clutter of sticky medicine bottles and the cracked toilet chair beside the bed; glazed but imploring eyes and a feeble smile, the wet smack of her crooked lips against my cheeks. I flinched from her touch. And after two years, I protested to my mother, "What's the use of telling her I'm going here or I'm going there? She doesn't even recognize me any more.
"Don't be fresh. She's your grandmother."
♥ "Actually," Dr. Katzman said, "it's remarkable that she held out for so long."
"Remarkable?" the rabbi said. "It's written that if a man has been married twice he will spend as much time with his first wife in heaven as he did on earth. My father, may he rest in peace, was married to his first wife for seven years and my mother, may she rest in peace, has managed to keep alive for seven years. Today in heaven she will be able to join my father, may he rest in peace."
Dr. Katzman shook his head. "It's amazing," he said. He told my uncle that he was writing a book based on his experiences as a healer. "The mysteries of the human heart."
~~The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die.
♥ Two streets below our own came the Main. Rich in delights, but also squalid, filthy, and hollerong with stotews whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, wree ufly or damaged. The signs still say FANTASTIC DISCOUNTS or FORCED TO SELL PRICES HERE, but the bargains so bitterly sought after are illusory - and perhaps they always were.
♥ Looking back, it's easy to see that the real trouble was there was no dialogue between us and the French Canadians, each elbowing the other, striving for WASP acceptance. We fought the French Canadians stereotype for stereotype. If many of them believed that the St. Urbain Streets Jews were secretly rich, manipulating the black market, then my typical French Canadian was a moronic gum-chewer. He wore his greasy black hair parted down the middle and also affected an eyebrow moustache. His boot trousers were belted just under the breastbone and ended in a peg hugging his ankles. He was the dolt who held up your uncle endlessly at the liquor commission while he tried unsuccessfully to add three figures or, if he was employed at the custom office, never knew which form to give you. Furthermore, he only held his liquor commission or customs or any other government job because he was the second cousin of a backwoods notary who had delivered the village vote to the Union Nationale for a generation. Other French Canadians were speed cops, and if any of these ever stopped you on the highway you made sure to hand him a folded two dollar bill with your license.
..Aside from boyhood street fights and what I read on the sports pages, all I knew of French Canadians was that they were clearly hilarious.
♥ Actually, it was only the WASPS who were truly hated and feared. "Among them," I heard it said, "with those porridge faces, who can tell what they're thinking?" It was, we felt, their country, and given sufficient liquor who knew when they would make trouble?
♥ As I recall it, we were always being warned about the Main. Our grandparent and patents had come there by steerage from Rumania or by cattleboat from Poland by way of Liverpool. No sooner had they unpacked their bundles and cardboard suitcases than they were planning a better, brighter life for us, the Canadian-born children. The Main, good enough for them, was not to be for us, and that they told us again and again was what the struggle was for. The Main was for bummers, drinkers, and (heaven forbid) failures.
♥ During the years leading up to the war, the ideal of the ghetto, no different from any other in America, was the doctor. This, mistakenly, was taken to be the very apogee of learning and refinement. In those days there also began the familiar and agonizing process of alienation between immigrant parents and Canadian-born children. Our older brothers and cousins, off to university, came home to realize that our parents spoke with embarrassing accents. Even the younger boys, like myself, were going to "their" schools. According to them, the priests had made a tremendous contribution to the exploration and development of this country. Some were heroes. But our parents had other memories, different ideas, about the priesthood. At school we were taught about the glory of the Crusades and at home we were instructed in the bloodier side of the story. Though we wished Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General, a long life each Saturday morning in the synagogue, there were those among us who knew him as John Buchan. From the very beginning there was their history, and ours. Our heroes, and theirs.
♥ We were convinced that we gained from dissension between Canada's two cultures, the English and the French, and we looked neither to England nor France for guidance. We turned to the United States. The real America.
America was Roosevelt, the Yeshiva College, Max Baer, Mickey Katz records, Danny Kaye, a Jew in the Supreme Court, the Jewish Daily Forward, Dubinsky, Mrs. Nussbaum of Allen's Alley, and Gregory Peck looking so cute in Gentleman's Agreement. Why, in the United States a Jew even wrote speeches for the president. Returning cousins swore they had heard a cop speak Yiddish in Brooklyn. There were the Catskill hotels, Jewish soap operas on the radio and, above all earthly pleasure grounds, Florida. Miami. No manufacturer had quite made it in Montreal until he was able to spend a month each winter in Miami.
We were governed by Ottawa, we were also British subjects, but our true capital was certainly New York. Success was (and still is) acceptance by the United States. For a boxer this meant a main bout at Madison Square Garden, for a writer or an artist, praise from New York critics, for a businessman, a Miami tan and, today, for comics, an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show or for actors, not an important part at the Stratford Festival, but Broadway, or the lead in a Hollywood TV series (Lorne Green in Bonanza). The outside world, "their" Canada, only concerned us insofar as it affected our living conditions. All the same, we liked to impress the goyim. A lknock on the knuckles from time to time wouldn't hurt them. So, while we secretly believed that the baseball field or the prize-fighting ring was no place for a Jewish boy, we took enormous pleasure in the accomplishments of, say, Kermit Kitman, the Montreal Royals outfielder, and Maxie Berger, the welterweight.
♥ This was hardly petulant clannishness or naive fear. In the year leading up to the war neo-fascist groups were extremely active in Canada. In the United States there was Father Coughlin, Lindberg, and others. We had Adrian Arcand. The upshot was almost the same. So I can recall seeing swastikas and "A bas les Juifs" painted on the Laurentian highway. There were suburbs and hotels in the mountains and country clubs where were were not wanted, beaches with signs that read GENTILES ONLY, quotas at the universities, and occasional racial altercations on Park Avenue. The democracy we were being invited to defend was flawed and hostile to us. Without question it was better for us in Canada than in Europe, but this was still their country, not outs.
♥ The war in Europe brought about considerable changes within the Jewish community in Montreal. To begin with, there was the coming of the refugees. These men, interned in England as enemy aliens and sent to Canada where they were eventually released, were to make a profound impact on us. I think we had conjured up a picture of the refugees as penurious hassidim with packs on their backs. We were eager to be helpful, our gestures were large, but in return we expected more than a little gratitude. As it turned out, the refugees, mostly German and Austrian Jews, were far more sophisticated and better educated than we were. They had not, like our immigrant grandparents, come from shtetls in Galicia or Russia. Neither did they despise Europe. On the contrary, they found our culture thin, the city provincial, and the Jews narrow. This bewildered and stung us. But what cut deepest, I suppose, was that the refugees spoke English better than many of us did and, among themselves, had the effrontery to talk in the abhorred German language. Many of them also made it clear that Canada was no more than a frozen place to stop over until a U.S. visa was forthcoming. So for a while we real Canadians were hostile.
♥ For those of my age the war was something else. I cannot remember it as a black time, and I think it must be so for most boys of my generation. The truth is that for many of us to look back on the war is to recall the first time our fathers earned a good living. Even as the bombs fell and the ships went down, always elsewhere, our country was bursting out of a depression into a period of hitherto unknown prosperity. For my generation the war was hearing of death and sacrifice but seeing with our own eyes the departure from cold-water flats to apartments in Outremont, duplexes and split-levels in the suburbs. It was when we read of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and saw, in Montreal, the changeover from poke little shuls to big synagogue-cum-parochial schools with stained glass windows and mosaics outside. During the war some of us lost brothers and cousins but in Canada we had never had it so good, and we began the run from rented summer shacks with outhouses in Shawbridge to Colonial-style summer houses of our own and speedboats on the lake in Ste Agathe.
♥ She wasn't called Old Annie because she was sixty-two. Long ago, in Lithuania, the first three children born to her parents had not survived their infancy. So the village miracle-maker had suggested that if another child was born to them they should call her alte (old) instantly, and God would understand.
♥ I wasn't quite eight years old when I first got into trouble over a girl. Her name was Charna, she lived upstairs from me, and we had played together without incident for years. Then, one spring afternoon, it seemed to me that I'd had enough of marbles and one-two-three-RED LIGHT!
"I've got it. We're going to play hospital. I'm the doctor, see, and you're the patient. Is anybody home at your place?"
"It's more of an indoors game, like. Come on."
I had only begun my preliminary examination when Charna's mother came home. My punishment was twofold. I had to go to bed without my supper and my mouth was washed out with soap. "You'd better speak to him," my mother said. "It's a lot worse when they pick up that kind of knowledge on the streets."
"It looks like he's very well-informed already," my father said.
If I wasn't, it was clearly my mother's fault. Some years earlier she had assured me that babies came from Eaton's, and whenever she wanted to terrify me into better behaviour she would pick up the phone and say, "I'm going to call Eaton's right this minute and have you exchanged for a girl."
My sister would compulsively add to my discomfort. "Maybe Eaton's won't take him back. This isn't bargain basement week, you know."
"I'll send him to Morgan's, then."
"Morgan's," my father would say, looking up from his evening paper, "doesn't hire Jews."
~~Making It With Chicks.
♥ I told him that I wanted to be a writer too. "Kid," he said, "a word from the wise. Never become a wordsmith. Digging ditches would be easier."
♥ "You must understand," Mervyn said, "that, at the best of times, it's difficult for an artist to earn a living. Society is naturally hostile to us."
"So what's so special? I'm a plumber. Society isn't hostile to me, but I've got the same problem. Listen here, it's hard for anybody to earn a living."
"You don't get it," Mervyn said, retreating a step. "I'm in rebellion against society."
Tansky moved away, disgusted. "Gorki, there was a writer. This boy..."
Molly's father thrust himself into the crowd surrounding Mervyn. "You wrote a novel," he asked, "it's true?"
"It's with a big publisher in New York right now," my father said.
"You should remember," Takifman said menacingly, "only to write good things about the Jews."
Shapiro winked at Mervyn. The regulars smiled, some shyly, other hopeful, believing. Mervyn looked back at them solemnly. "It is my profound hope," he said, "that in the years to come our people will have every reason to be proud of me."
~~Some Grist for Mervyn's Mill.
♥ Mothers who had bragged about their children's health, making any childhood illness seem a shameful show of weakness, now cherished nothing in their young so greedily as flat feet, astigmatism, a heart murmur, or a nice little rupture. After a month in camp with the university army training corps my Cousin Jerry limped home with raw bleeding feet and jaundice. A Sergeant McCormick had called him a hard-assed kike.
~~The War, Chaverim, and After.