||A Novel Zolf
by Barbara Wade Rose
MANY YEARS AGO in the wintry village of North Winnipeg there lived a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued boy named Laibel. The boy lived with his older sisters and brother and their parents in a two-bedroom shack heated by pipes that ran upstairs from the kitchen stove. They froze in the winter. Sometimes fires would start in the wooden-walled basements between the apartments. But almost everyone in the neighbourhood lived the same way, so they all counted what blessings they could. Laibel`s father, Falk (blessed be his memory), was a teacher in the old country who had come to Canada to start a new life for his family. Falk was a five-foot six-inch fancy dresser and school principal who decided to become a writer. Not a writer such as you or I might know. He raised the money to publish three books of memoirs by organizing rallies and placing advertisements in the paper. Not for him the polite letter sent off to the publisher, answered by the equally polite letter of rejection. Yoshua Falk went from door to door like a travelling salesman. He was either a good writer or a good salesman, because he sold over 5,000 copies of each book. Written in Yiddish, yet.
Sometimes the boy Laibel went with his father. Laibel loved books and was a swift reader. By the age of 10 lie had read most of the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, and Dickens -- in Yiddish and English. Laibel`s favourite writers were the great old Jewish story-tellers, Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Loeb Peretz, the men who wrote about the lives of the ordinary Jews of shtetl Europe. Everything Laibel saw around him in North Winnipeg told him this world was still alive.
Laibel`s sharp wit opened many doors for him. As a boy on the street, lie made his friends laugh. As a man, he became a letz, a scornful wit, and a nationally known broadcaster and satirist. Everyone knew of him. He travelled across the country for a television show, "This Hour Has Seven Days," that you and I speak of only in respectful whispers. lie became friends with the powerful and famous. Leaders in politics, of the country itself, laughed at Laibel`s jokes and asked him to write their speeches. He wrote books that carved up Canadian politics, all received with laughter and applause. Here was, the people decided, one of the funniest Jews they`d ever heard.
He was no longer known as Laibel. It is a Yiddish name that means "lion," but Such names don`t sit so well with the world at large. Laibel left his name behind on the first day of public school, when the children in the schoolyard taunted him with names like Ketchup Label. Who needs such troubles? he decided. While waiting in the registration line-up he tapped the shoulder of the boy in front of him and asked what his first name was. It sounded good. Soon he arrived at the registration desk himself. And so it was that Laibel told the teacher filling out the registration form that his name was Larry Zolf.
AAH, HERE IT is," says Zolf, and he pulls the book out from the waist-high shelf of the bookcase in his cluttered study. It is a biography of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by L. lan MacDonald. Zolf flips to the Zs in the index, rider which there is only one entry, and turns to page 177. Brian Mulroney is on the campaign trail, fantasizing about the journalists` analysis of voting results from the Atlantic provinces. Zolf reads aloud: "`Pow,` Mulroney said. `They hit the Gaspe coast and the whole thin,,, sinks. And Knowlton says, What do you think of that, Barbara? and she says, I don`t know, let`s ask Larry Zolf.` "His thick fingers close the book and slide it back into place.
Larry Zolf loves this kind of stuff. A shelf and A half in this room full of books is de% ()red to hardcover and paperback works by other people that contain a comment, however small, about Larry Zolf. But there are several other shelves. There are even books stacked knee-deep along the floor because the shelve., are full. History, politics, humour, fiction. At the far end of the room, towards the deck at the back of the house, is a shelf containing works by Robert Benchley, Evelyn Waugh, and Bernard Malamud, some favourite Zolf authors. On the floor a copy of Peter
Gzowski`s Morningside Papers lies next to a hardcover history of the Jewish Defence League. And high on the top shelf behind the desk where Zolf writes are Falk Zolf`s three hooks. Larry Zolf reaches Lip, run, his finger along the Yiddish titles, and translates the characters into English. On Foreign Soil. The Last of a Generation. Our Cultural Heritage. Two were memoirs of Falk Zolf`s own life and of the lives of his fellow European Jews, while the third was a study of Yiddish culture.
Zolf turns away from the bookcase. As he walks back to his seat he admits he has a deep ambivalence about his father`s occupation, although Falk Zolf came to know most of the bigname writers in New York City and was frequently on the Yiddish best-seller lists -- mostly through his own efforts. "My father wrote with total confidence," he says. "Sometimes I find myself writing that way and it scares me, but I`m much more willing to edit. I had to learn to edit during all my years in television." A few minutes later he adds, "Once I translated a piece of my father`s in the Globe and Mail and got raves from idiots who thought that I had written it. That really drove me crazy.
He sits in a director`s-style canvas chair on the far side of the desk. Larry Zolf is 55 now, a little greyer bur otherwise the same recognizable face and figure from his on-air days. He has been described variously by his colleagues in the media as a walking Care Bear, the CBC`s roving stomach, and a national treasure. They speak, of him as if the word "zolf" could be found in the back of the dictionary if anyone looked hard enough. Zolf, a verb meaning to speak opinions sharply, with wit, within hearing of the tape recorder.
For the last 10 years Zolf has worked as a consulting producer for "The Fifth Estate" and for CBC news specials. He also does political commentary for "Newsworld" mid CBC radio`s "Sunday Morning" Writing fiction is Saved for the weekends. Zolf`s first "fictional biography," Scorpions for Sale, was published by Stoddart last fall and has been short-listed for the Stephen Leacock Award for humour. It`s a collection of tales about the Winnipeg-based Shtarker family and Daniel Shtarker`s career in the CBC. The book is highly autobiographical but Still a departure from the satirical non-fiction essays for which Zolf became famous: Just Witch Me, about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Dance of the Dialectic, about Canadian politics, and survital of the Fattest, about the Canadian Senate.
The successful venture into fiction seems to have stimulated his creative juices. A comic novel, called The Unapprehended Insurrection, has just been finished. It details the rise of a deputy minister of finance to the post of prime minister, aided mid, abetted by a Faustian journalist. Zolf is also part way through a collection of short `Stories.
"My idea of fiction," lie explains, "comes to me in a Yiddish world. If I write about the 1920s and `30s the voice I use is a Singer-ish Yiddishtype voice." The voice in Scorpions for Sale comes from the streets of North Winnipeg, peopled with Jewish socialists from Europe and other immigrants. "I love the Jews:` Zolf comments. "They are crazy people. They give me my stories." The small group of Winnipeg Jews he knew tended to be, as he puts it, socialists by night mid exploiters of the workers by day." That fact is markedly pointed out in Scorpions for Sale, "There are two emotions I can`t stand," he says. "Self-pity and hypocrisy." But, he hastens to add, he like,; all his characters, no matter what they do.
Being Jewish gave Zolf his appearance. A result, he thinks, has been a certain lack of promotability. "Look at Morley Safer or Mike Wallace," lie says, citing two veteran broadcasters of CBS`s "Sixty Minutes." "Two nice Jewish boys but they sure dot* look Jewish." He recalls the time an executive`s wife at the CBC suggested he have a nose job. Is he joking "`No," lie replies, citing a series of meetings where the suggestion Was discused and handed down. The idea seems incredible no",, in the day of the multicultural newscast. "I said I`d love to if She Would pay for it," he adds. "I`d be Larry Thomas, mid with that deep voice I have I could do voice-overs for the United Church Sentinel." He laughs. The pool of the deep voice carries a drop of absinthe.
SINCE THIS EARTH is a revolving planet, as the great Peretz says, things did not always go so well for our friend Laibel. He was fired and then hired again. There was a little trouble with the bottle and a lot of trouble with his health. He fell sick, off and on, for a few years. The people who had laughed and bought his hooks heard less and less from him and, lying in his hospital bed, Laibel at times wondered how much longer he would have to live. He worried about who would tell the stories of the Jews he had grown Lip with, the heroes, the villains, the lovers, and the thieves. So, as he recovered, he began to write about them, his father`s ghost watching silently from the mantelpiece as characters and incidents tumbled forth upon the page. Names were changed to protect the innocent. Laibel showed the stories to his chachem friend, Robert Fulford, who laughed and praised and agreed to edit them for publication. A publisher thought they were terrific. Everything was turning Out well, was it not? A long-ago dream was being realized. Laibel even had an invitation to he the guest speaker at a dinner for a writers` trust. All the big names in Canadian literature would be there. The topic for the evening would he Politics anti the Pen -- two areas where he was a master. He Could talk if he wanted, he could read his short stories, anything, for a half hour or so -- it was fine with them. Another career for Laibel was about to blossom.
DURING THE 1950s Zolf left Winnipeg for Toronto, where he Studied history and met people like New Democrats Gerald Caplan and Stephen Lewis. After getting his master`s degree Zolf did a brief stint in New York City as A stand-up comic, "in front of the most vicious audiences you can possibly imagine," he says. Even as a stand-up his interest blended media and politics -- he staged press conferences for events in history such as the crucifixion. The career lasted no more than 50 performances. "I didn`t sleep for 26 days because of the pressure," he recalls. He returned to Toronto and eventually joined the CBC, but Zolf retain, a healthy respect for comics. "Satirists are serious people," he says. "I once met Mel Brooks -- he was one of the smartest men I`ve ever met in my life. They can`t be dumb. If you satirize something without understanding it, your satire bombs."
Although he has a solid CBC background in both writing and producing documentaries -- some of which have won awards Zolf is one of those Canadian personalities who have become known for being known. Even in 1968 the writer Merle Shain was assessing his notoriety in a newspaper article titled What is This Thing Called Zolf? Zolf is the man who got hit with a cane by the former federal cabinet minister Pierre Sevigny for working too hard as an on-the-spot reporter. He is the man who walked up to Trudeau at the 1973 press launching for Dance of the Dialectic and said, "You look familiar. Who the fuck are you?" He is the man who has advertised for many years what he insists is a perfectly serious desire to be named to the Senate -- a desire that must delight reporters writing about him, since they mention it often. For every article written about him or about a ubject in which he has an interest, there will soon be an accompanying letter to the editor from Larry Zolf himself. He believes things strongly. He has a talent for self-promotion. He zolfs better than anyone.
But in spite of his success the Senate-heir-apparent was afraid to write fiction for several years. "I felt I was safe and ruthless with my scabrous intellect and wit," he says jokingly. When pressed, he adds that, with a university background in history, lie felt unqualified to turn to fiction, as some of his school colleagues in languages or literature had done. Zolf may also have feared the long shadow his father cast -- not simply because his father`s books were vanity-published. "My father took an enormous amount of pride in me when I did things well," Zolf recalls. -However, when I did things badly there was an enormous incurrence of hate and animosity` Although there was a lot of love in his family, he stresses, there were times when achievement was the only barter accepted for it.
Zolf acknowledges that fame was probably a factor in getting his first fiction published. While lie says thats one of the pluses of being a public figure, hes not Sure it`s all a benefit. "Writing a novel," he says," is supposed to be done by somebody obscure. Then, when they become well known they can become Public figures, but always in a mystical way. You adopt a cause, like PEN, and become a performer-writer. Now, for example, Mordecai Richler is a political expert. I`ve seen him at conventions, hopelessly confused about what`s going on, but he`s got some article to write. It`s a kind of Mosaic code." He picks LIP a sheet of paper from the desk and speaks in a stage whisper. "Here`s my latest analysis. It`s on Meech Lake." He holds the paper up for a moment like a holy relic and then tosses it back on the desk. "Give me a break," he says in his normal tone of voice. "Writing
is either entertaining or its not."
AT THE Politics and the Pen dinner, Laibel dutifully ate his supper and listened to a rambling master of ceremonies for over 45 minutes. Fine, he thought. I can listen. My turn will come. He walked to the stage as the stars of Canadian literature cheered and clapped. He sat in a straight- backed chair and talked to them about politics for 20 minutes, to laughter and more applause.
It was a wonderful moment. So Laibel decided to prolong the moment by reading the audience one of his short stories. There was a tiny voice in his head that suggested perhaps he had gone on long enough. But who could resist Suddenly Laibel started to hear other voices. These voices came from somewhere off in the darkness, from the audience, telling him to get off the stage. Someone was waving a napkin in the air. Someone else was tapping his glass with his fork. This was not a Ukrainian wedding -- who did these people think they were` This was a literary event.
Laibel left the stage, offended. After the dinner was over lie was even more offended when one of the hecklers, a very famous journalist, wrote about the evening in his Column as if it were Laibel`s fault.
Laibel wrote letters. Everyone wrote letters. Everyone`s name got mentioned in everyone elses column. It was, in all, a big brouhaha. It was as if Laibel had broken some unwritten rule by being something other than a letz.
POLITICS TEACHES you to think like somebody else," says Zolf. He is referring to a newsletter he writes occasionally for CBC staffers on the Liberal leadership race. He still works on the odd speech too, favours for friends who are politicians, or the president of the CBC. "What I`m best at are the hacks, the murderers, the thieves :1 he continues. "Sex, ambition, greed, malevolence, stupidity -- politics has it all." Zolf`s CBC newsletter sets up the Liberal leadership race accordingly. "Should the race become two-way," it advises, 11 there is only one beneficiary -and that`s Jean Chretien. If that happens, Chretien`s present cries of firstballot victory will be the sound of sweet victory and not the harsh howl of the toothless wolf." The newsletter has enough descriptions of a Copps camp and a Chretien blitzkrieg to make the race sound like the Battle of the Bulge. Politics may come closest to the colourful world Zolf left behind, the North Winnipeg of the Depression era where zany antics and characters like Babkes Buchalter and Shabsi Spilkes made life more interesting. Journalism itself may also occasionally serve as a substitute.
"I like it when the characters sing, dance, and die at the complete and total whim of the narrator," Zolf reflects on his foray into fiction. "The Old Testament had it right. You slay the sons of Amalek. You raise the exalted and kick the shit out of the third-rate hacks. But when I did that in non-fiction I got Sued an enormous number of times." His Biblical reference is to a story in the first Book of Samuel. The young David, on the run from a raving King Saul, asked the priest Amalek for bread and Goliath`s sword, which the priest had in his keeping, as provisions. When a witness told Saul about it he decided it was a betrayal. Saul had Amalek and all 85 members of his family put to death.
THE DINNER HAS almost been forgotten. Laibel is busy writing more stories.
A character who looks a little like one of the men who shouted wisecracks at Laibel during the writers` dinner will soon be appearing in Laibel`s next book. The character will he a rolypoly journalist, a conniver. The book will not show the man at his best. Laibel knows very well the art of Politics and the Pen.
And then, of course, the dance of the dialectic will start all over again. Everyone will send off letters. Columns will he written. Names will be mentioned. Guest spots will be hooked. God will continue to work in mysterious ways.
And who are we, ordinary people, to comment about such things?