Five friends share their remembrances of the recently departed Montreal writer and QWF member, Joel Yanofsky.
There is a tear in the fabric of Montreal’s literary life, and, yes, a tear to be shed, too. Joel Yanofsky, who embodied what it is to be a writer, a Montreal writer, has left us.
His struggle with the cancer that took him was short and fierce. He did not go gentle. Instead, he left us with jokes, quips, and admonitions – he was the same Joel we’d always known, giving us his best until the end.
The end came on Dec. 23. Three days earlier, on the last day he could have managed it, a small group friends – Elaine Kalman Naves, Mark Abley, Scott Lawrence, Mike Shenker, Joe Fiorito and I – joined Joel for a Zoom call with his wife Cynthia, who was in the hospital room with him. There was sadness, but not too much, because Joel kept it away – he took charge of the event, a writer in control of his material.
It was what brought us together, first as editor and writer, and soon after as friends. When I became editor of The Montreal Gazette’s Books section, inherited from the previous editor, Mark Abley, in the early 1990s, Mark gave me a list of freelance reviewers who could be depended on. Joel was on the list and soon at the top of it. He took on all assignments, was meticulous in meeting deadlines and turned in clean copy. He was an editor’s dream, and as a bonus, endlessly funny.
In recent years Joel turned often to the classroom and workshops to spread his wit and wisdom. It is probably how many members of the Quebec Writers’ Federation got to know him, along with his work, in four books: Jacob’s Ladder, a novel; Homo Erectus, a book of essays; Mordecai and Me, a critical reflection on Montreal writer Mordecai Richler; and Bad Animals, a memoir about being father to an autistic son. He was rightly proud of the books: “I want them promoted on my headstone,” he told us. But there was also a ton of feature and critical writing, as readable now as it was on the day it was published.
That’s because Joel in all of his writing offered readers his most personal self. It was his way of sharing and caring. We saw it especially in Bad Animals, the story of his loving relationship with Cynthia and his son Jonah. They were closest to his heart.
The rest of us were in the force field of his talent. Five who were on that Zoom call were at his graveside a few days later and offered eulogies. Here are some of our words:
Elaine Kalman Naves
I’ve been friends with Joel for almost 30 years but the past three have been a special gift, because we began to embark on a new collaboration. Both of us were trying to write new books and were having difficulty. I suggested that we form an editorial partnership. It was a partnership in which we shared our new work chapter by chapter, month by month, providing each other with deadlines and feedback. Since both our works in progress were deeply personal, we had to win each other’s trust in a new way. We had to level with each other when we thought something wasn’t up to par and this honesty stood both of us in good stead as writers and as friends. It was a uniquely special bond because with each new work, we writers strive to break new ground, to write the best thing we’ve ever written. Joel was writing a memoir that was going to be a love story to his family: to Bernie and Jean his parents, to Renee and Marilyn his sisters, and to Cynthia and Jonah who occupied the epicentre of his heart and life. And oh yes don’t let me forget about the cameo roles for the dogs!
My friend Joel fought a heroic fight. Cancer savaged his body but it did nothing to quell his fierce intelligence and razor wit. It did nothing to vanquish his love for Cynthia and Jonah and his loyalty to his friends. To the end he remained alert, engaged, and very very funny.
I loved Joel. I loved the collegiality and friendship that we shared. I will never forget his stoicism, his bravery, and his irrepressible humour. By strange coincidence we are burying him in this off the beaten track cemetery, where my own father lies. I will now have an additional reason for coming to visit here.
Joel carried his wit everywhere, even into the final days of his life. When he joined up in a small-group Zoom meeting to say goodbye to a few friends, Joel managed to poke fun at us and spread the laughter. He called it his Doom Zoom.
I was privileged to be with him near the end. On the night of the U.S. election six weeks ago, as he was recovering from emergency surgery, we shared text messages well into the morning. We traded updates – his medical, mine political. At 3:30 a.m. he wrote:
“I wake up every half hour, feeling like I slept for days. … But this was emergency surgery, and I was a mess, so maybe it will be for the best. Any good news in the Senate?”
Eventually, days later it became clear that Trump would be defeated. I gave Joel the news. He replied: “I’ll order the hospital champagne.”
He was the most loyal and generous of friends, a man with a tremendous gift for friendship. He was also among the wittiest people I’ve ever known. And that’s a difficult balance for anyone to keep, because so often wit goes along with other qualities, like malicious cynicism. Joel’s wit was not malicious. He was always aware that life is a gift and that life can be cruelly short.
Let me give you just one example of his wit. Less than three weeks before his death, I texted him one day in hospital when he was feeling low and I told him, “Nobody is judging you now. In an email the other day, one of our male friends called you ‘lovely.’ I was surprised by the adjective but not the sentiment.” He wrote back, “Who called me lovely? Not that there’s anything wrong with it.” I told him, “Trevor” – the name of a taciturn novelist now in his seventies. Joel texted back, “Be still my heart.” I said, “Of course he may be a little old for you.” And Joel replied, “I’m in no position to be choosy.”
He was also a friend in full. We shared so much: working together, our lunches, the ball games, poker games, kibitzing, joking, kvetching, storytelling, telling secrets, gossiping – that and more. What a loss for us all. I miss him already.
What many people don’t know about Joel was how much of a competitor and athlete he was. He certainly didn’t give that appearance.
“Don’t make trouble. That’s all I ask,” Max Kravitz said to his son Duddy. Joel used this passage as an epigraph to his book Mordecai & Me. He loved quoting other authors, and this one could serve as his M.O.
Joel didn’t make trouble, at least not to the naked eye.
But I’m here to tell you that he could be all kinds of trouble in the competitive arena. For the past few decades, up until COVID shut it down, Joel was part of a fierce weekly basketball game–and I know how fierce it was, because I broke a finger there once, which amused Joel enormously. He was a fine player. And he was relentless on the squash courts, an energizer bunny, and I know how relentless he was, because I have three once-broken ribs to attest to it.
The trouble he caused at the poker table was on another level. The sweeter the expression on Joel’s face, the better his hand. When he started singing or humming “Luck Be A Lady Tonight,” you knew things probably weren’t going to go well for you. When he looked at his cards and said, “That’s not a hand, that’s a fist,” you were smart to get out of Dodge. Over the more than three decades this game has gone on, with a rotating cast of characters – Joel was far and away the biggest winner. He made good money off us all. Right Mark? Right Bryan?
Peace, old friend.
A legacy project in Yanofsky’s name is being set up with the Friendship Circle of Montreal, which supports individuals with special needs and their families. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Joel Yanofsky Library and Resource Centre of the Friendship Circle, c/o the Friendship Circle of Montreal, 514-735-2255.