In Christian mythology the Wandering Jew is a subject of scorn. Bereft of a homeland, this accursed wraith crosses the landscape again and again, often as not bringing some tragedy or distress in his wake. Seen as the symbol of the Jewish Diaspora, the wanderer is the subject of suspicion, fear and accusation. This solitary and often tragic figure gives rise to repression and becomes the justification for unspeakable acts, of which the 20th Century Holocaust is merely the latest and best known.
Mordecai Richler has given us an astonishing and riveting account of one of these wanderers as he might have appeared in North America. As a child, Montrealer Moses Berger encounters the Gursky family. It's the first step in what will become an almost heroic quest for the truth behind the Gursky family's shadowy ancestor, Ephraim Gursky and the grandson, Solomon, who accompanied him on a journey in Canada's North. Ephraim, against all reason, apparently shipped aboard the HMS Erebus with John Franklin's ill-starred expedition into the Arctic. Richler demonstrates the Christian attitude toward the Jews with accounts of the many searchers for Franklin's remains. Those necrophiles uniformly scoffed at the notion a Jew could have been aboard, let alone survived, since "all know" these urban dwellers wouldn't have the fortitude or presumption to attempt such a feat. The evidence, however, suggests . . .
Richler has woven a rich tapestry with this mixture of invention and history. He does it so well that separating the threads of fact and fiction becomes an insurmountable task. And why not? He's given us a unique picture of the world's second largest nation. A fresh picture indeed, given that the nation of "two solitudes" conveniently forgets those of its number who are neither English nor French. If Ephraim Gursky sailed with Franklin and initiated a dynasty of Inuit Jews with such names as Gor-ski, Girskee, or Goorski. They wander, like their mentor, into the southern lands wearing, against all reason [again!] Jewish prayer shawls. They seem as homeless as their cantor, fulfilling, even in these outlandish circumstances, the Christian prejudice against wandering Jews.
Homeless he may be, but rootless the Wandering Jew is not. No matter where they settled, the Jews brought an endless capacity for adaptation, seizing whatever opportunities emerged to assist in their survival. Wherever they settled, they viewed it as "the next best place". The homeland of Israel remained within their consciousness, but they would do the best they could in whichever land they occupied. In the Gursky's case, circumstances kept opportunity at bay until Americans, in a flush of Protestant fervour, enacted Prohibition, almost certainly one of the least honoured pieces of federal legislation ever enacted. This was the moment the Gursky clan was able to seize, starting from minimal beginnings to emerge as a mighty empire built from alcohol. Richler has again merged fantasy with reality as his account of this aspect of the Gursky family would be better spelt "Bronfman".
Mordecai Richler's inventive mind and well-honed writing skills have provided us with a true masterpiece. He knows people, certainly the Montreal Jewish community, but far beyond that urban confine also. He takes us to the Arctic, the Prairies, flirts with England, pokes into America. The only missing scene is Van Dieman's Land [Tasmania], where Ephraim Gursky arrived as a transportee only two years before Franklin arrived as governor. These, however, are simply locations in which Richler can place his people. His cast is enormous, but he handles the lot with unmatched skill, presenting every persona as fully credible. We may not know the Jewish community intimately, but reading this book is an excellent means of viewing that community and how it sees the world. Moses Berger's quest for the Gursky story makes him the pivot around which this superb novel orbits as he encounters the key players in the story - especially the Wandering Jew.
It's good to see this book restored back in print. That gives more people an opportunity to comprehend Richler's absolute mastery of story-telling and conveying moods. He remains Canada's leading writing talent. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]