The Jewish Nomad: All dressed up for the Giller Prize (like it’s 2019)

The red carpet view for Instagram.

Getting into Toronto’s first major in-person awards ceremony since the pandemic began required something I hadn’t done much of in a while: filling out a form to describe my food restrictions.

And, I must admit, this return to what used to be everyday behavior was kind of exciting.

Ilana Zackon crossed the red carpet in the end.

Elana Rabinovitch, executive director of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, must’ve felt similarly when I met her on the red carpet at the newly reopened Park Hyatt in Yorkville.

“You’re the gluten-free one!” she exclaimed. (Granted, our similar first names might’ve helped her recall.) 

The gala to honour Canada’s top fiction writers is in its 28th year—or maybe 27th, if you subtract the 2020 event being stuck in virtual mode, like everything else.

But the basic concept has remained the same: a jury of authors read over 100 submissions (there were 132 this year) before announcing a dozen selections, whittled down to a shortlist of five.

The winning title gets $100,000—four times the top amount handed out when this tradition started—with a $10,000 award for the other four. 

The Giller Prize was created by the late Jewish Canadian philanthropist Jack Rabinovitch to honour the memory of his wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, soon after she died of cancer in 1993, at age 62.

And now, the annual competition is overseen by Jack’s daughter, Elana. 

It also involves a CBC broadcast, which was hosted this year by two actual celebrities: Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and poetry sensation Rupi Kaur. 

But this black-tie night also has the feeling of a family event, with everyone there to support each other. I’ve never seen such camaraderie between competitors, with the tinge of excitement over who’d leave with $90,000 more than the others—to say nothing of the certain sales and career boost.

Working the red carpet also brought me face to face with a member of the Giller advisory board: Margaret Atwood.

For an upcoming book club discussion on the Bonjour Chai podcast, I’d just been reading a recent graphic novel, Gideon’s Bible. Rick Salutin wrote it with his son (also named Gideon) to relay the conversations they had about God, the Book of Genesis and the biblical Gideon, and life itself.  

And it’s in her foreword that Peggy (we’re on a first-name basis now) talks about attending Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ont., at the same time as Rick—which linked them for life. (Rick even made her Gideon’s godmother!) 

Atwood shared with me that her favourite bible story is the Book of Job, even if she calls it “a problematic book.”

Back then, she also befriended a “proto-rabbi” who taught the future author how to swear in two languages she didn’t know: Hebrew and Yiddish. 

While she said she remembered the words, she slyly refused to repeat them on the red carpet. (Guess you’ll have to run into Peggy to ask her in a less dignified setting.)

At the end of the one-hour ceremony, Omar El Akkad was crowned the winner for What Strange Paradise, a novel about the global refugee crisis from the perspective of a child. 

The other finalists were Miriam Toews for Fight Night, Angélique Lalonde for Glorious Frazzled Beings, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia for The Son of the House and Jordan Tannahill for The Listeners.

Lalonde, Tannahill, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Toews, El Akkad

Jack Rabinovitch died in 2017, at age 87. But by founding the Giller Prize, not only is Doris forever recognized in literary lights, so is the legacy Jack left behind. 

“Every year that he’s not here is a painful one,” said Elana Rabinovitch. “But to carry on his vision and the tradition that he established feels like an honour.” 

And getting some of Canada’s greatest authors—and their enthusiasts—back together in a room, for the first time in 20 months anywhere, was something to celebrate in itself.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai