Writers eulogize Joel Yanofsky as their ‘heart and soul’

Joel Yanofsky
Bryan Demchinsky photo

MONTREAL—Two months have passed since Joel Yanofsky died at 65, but emotions were still raw as fellow writers remembered him as, in the words of Mark Abley, “the heart and soul” of Montreal’s tight-knit anglophone literary community.

The virtual tribute, hosted by the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) Feb. 27, saw friends, colleagues and those he mentored speak unreservedly about how much they loved and admired him.

As Mike Shenker, a former Montreal Gazette editor, observed: it is rare for men to form new friendships, let alone meaningful ones, yet to his surprise he did so with Yanofsky.

Yanofsky appeared shy, even withdrawn, melancholy, perhaps world-weary. He revealed his very different inner self through his personal writing style.

Those who did get close to him – and there were many — spoke of a warm, generous, funny and decent human being. A “true mensch,” said Sean Michaels. His ironic wit was always at his own expense, but his opinions and advice were honest.Many of those eulogizing him were friends for 30 years and more.

Event host Scott Lawrence said days before his Dec. 23 passing from cancer, Yanofsky held a video call, “a doom Zoom,” from the Jewish General Hospital palliative care unit with his closest friends.

“We shared stories – some of them true—and each told him in our own way we loved him. Then he did a 20-minute roast of us. He had the last word. It was a brilliant, wise and brave performance, the bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Lawrence.

Yanofsky cemented those relationships through poker, at which he was a natural, and, improbably given his height, basketball games.

Yanofsky did all manner of writing: fiction and non-fiction books, literary criticism, including a books column for the Gazette, essays on different topics for other publications, reporting (including for The Canadian Jewish News), and co-authoring biographies. In recent years, he tried his hand at musical theatre; one unfinished project is Prequel: An Old Testament Comedy in Two Acts. His published books are the early collection Homo Erectus and novel Jacob’s Ladder, zany tales drawing liberally on his own romantic mishaps.

Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind wove together his idolizing of Mordecai Richler and his surprise, at a relatively late age, in finding happiness in marriage and parenthood. It won the QWF’s 2004 Mavis Gallant Prize for non-fiction and a Canadian Jewish Book Award.

Charles Foran, author of the definitive Richler biography later on, speculated that the irascible Richler, who died in 2001, would have given the nod to Yanofsky’s heartfelt work over his.

Yanofsky earned a second Gallant Prize in 2012 for Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, a candid exposition on the worry and joy of raising his son and only child, Jonah. He admitted his level-headed wife, Cynthia Davis, bore most of the burden.

In his memory, the Joel Yanofsky Library and Resource Centre has been established at the Friendship Circle, a support program for children with special needs which Jonah has benefited from.

Yanofsky was a nurturing teacher who led QWF workshops and informally supported numerous other aspiring writers. Grateful for his guidance is Neil Smith, the youngest tribute participant, whose novel Boo won the 2015 Hugh MacLennan Prize. Yanofsky showed him “how to make art out of tragedy.” Roma Bross, who took up creative writing later in life – in her fourth language, English – remembered how elated she was when Yanofsky, whom she did not know then, reviewed her debut story collection To Samarkand and Back in The CJN in 1988. He “gently pointed out its flaws,” and in so doing admitted her to the writers’ club, she feels.

Yanofsky could also take direction. Former Gazette books editor Bryan Demchinsky praised him for his “clean copy, being on time, having something to say and few axes to grind.” Their professional relationship grew into an enduring bond that he likened to a marriage.

Others participating were: Elaine Kalman Naves, Gina Roitman, Joe Fiorito, Julie Bruck, David Homel and Claire Holden Rothman, as well as Cynthia and Jonah. To her “embarrassment and delight,” his wife of 23 years often appeared in his work “exaggerating my qualities and downplaying my flaws.” She would often protest the facts, but “Joel captured emotional truth, and that is what is important.”

The best is yet to come.

This website—the one you’re on right now—is just the tip of the iceberg. The CJN is building a whole new platform, which will be launching summer 2021. Jewish Canadians will be able to find community events, listen to relevant podcasts, connect with national networks and, of course, read breaking news stories, in-depth analysis and unique perspectives that matter. Subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on social media, to be the first to see our newest iteration go live.