The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

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Novel by Mordecai Richler, 1959

Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) strongly reflects the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish communities in North America. This work, set in the poor Jewish district of St. Urbain Street in Montreal, depicts the ethnic and class contradictions and difficulties of a tricultural Canadian society: wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant managers and executives, largely poor French Canadian workers, and the Jewish community caught between both groups. The novel shows the world primarily through the eyes of young Duddy Kravitz, the second son of a poor and uneducated Jewish taxi driver. Throughout the novel Duddy is struggling to find a clear identity, respectability, and prosperity in both his own family and the world around him. Upon completing high school, Duddy decides he must make a name for himself in business and achieve the dream of acquiring some land of his own, for his revered zayde (grandfather), Simcha Kravitz, has impressed upon him the idea that a man without land is nothing. Duddy's adventures in business take him through nearly all layers of Montreal society, both Jewish and Gentile. Through Duddy's interactions with different people, Richler uses his satiric wit to demonstrate the moral corruption and distortion that take place in a society founded on hypocrisy, prejudice, and injustice. By the end of the novel Duddy acquires his prize of a "promised land" at the price of his honor and nearly all his most important relationships.

Although this novel is not set directly in the lands of the Holocaust, some of the situations depicted by Richler shockingly parallel the hierarchies and class structures of the countries that had the concentration camps and other atrocities. In many ways Duddy is a type of survivor and hustler in that he constantly seeks ways around the rules of Canadian society to achieve his ends. He understands that he cannot trust most of the people around him, and he feels compelled to use every situation to achieve some advantage over others or to escape a bleak fate as a taxi driver or waiter for the rest of his life. As some European Jews were compelled to escape the fate of most Holocaust victims through false identity papers or secret deals, Duddy persuades his French Canadian girlfriend, Yvette, to use his money for purchasing land in areas where the owners will not sell land to Jews and to sign her name for it. Duddy also makes secret deals with the wealthy Gentile businessman Mr. Calder so that Mr. Calder will not have Duddy's older brother, Lennie Kravitz, expelled from medical school for illegally performing an abortion on Mr. Calder's daughter. Duddy's worst act is to buy some land with a check he had forged in the name of Virgil Roseboro, an epileptic man who became crippled when he had a seizure while driving a delivery truck for Duddy's business. Other hustler-survivors who have made their fortunes through less than ideal means include Mr. Cohen, a wealthy scrap metal dealer who does not mind endangering his French Canadian workers if it helps his business, and Jerry Dingleman, a Jewish gangster and drug dealer whom Duddy's father idealizes as a type of local messiah.

Even when Jews are isolated from the rest of society, their interactions are a microcosm of the inequities of the larger society. At Rubin's scenic summer resort camp for Jews in Quebec Province, where Duddy works as a waiter in the early part of the novel, wealthy Jews take advantage of their poorer brothers and of poor French Canadians by making them hustle for scarce money. Duddy's brother, Lennie, and wealthy Jewish college students such as Irwin Shubert seek to hide their Jewishness and imitate Gentile society. They point at Duddy as an example of a stereotypically pushy Jewish businessman, but in essence they all are acting in response to both outer and inner pressures. In satirizing the state of Canadian society, Richler views no social group as innocent or immune. All three groups in the society are intertwined and are responsible for the state of affairs. Unfortunately Richler sees no clear way to improve the situation for any of the three different communities.

Richler's novel can be deftly compared with works of other North Americans who have handled issues of Holocaust-related Jewish alienation, distorted Jewish self-images, and survivor guilt. Arthur Miller 's play Broken Glass (1994) and Barry Levinson's film Liberty Heights (1999) also deal with the ways that Jews' moral quandaries about fitting into Gentile society without betraying themselves paralyze their relations with Gentiles and within their own community. As Richler, Miller, and Levinson indicate, Jews in North America may have escaped the most drastic effects of the Holocaust, but they must not forget the parallels between their lives and those of their indirect kin in Europe.

—Alisa Gayle Mayor

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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

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