National Post (National Edition)
`The heart and soul' of English literary community in Montreal
JOEL Y AN OF SKY 1955-2020
MONTREAL • Joel Yanofsky, an award-winning author, literary journalist and teacher described by friend and former colleague Mark Abley as “the heart and soul of the English-language literary community in Montreal,” has died. The cause was cancer. He was 65.
The Montreal native, who grew up in the Laval suburb of Chomedey, taught many writers and aspiring writers and journalists through the Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF), where he led writing workshops for more than 20 years, and at Concordia University.
He reviewed books for many Montreal book clubs and his reviews and articles appeared in publications including the Walrus, the Village Voice, Canadian Geographic and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a longtime literary columnist and book reviewer.
When Abley took over as editor of The Gazette's book section in 1989, his predecessor, Heather Hill, briefed him. Some contributors specialized in certain kinds of reviews, she said. ” `And then there is Joel Yanofsky: He can do anything — and he will do it well',” Abley recalled. “I soon found out she was absolutely right.”
Yanofsky reviewed a range of fiction and non-fiction works. “He was intelligent and tremendously well read, but he also had a gift for saying things in a deeply personal way,” he recalled.
“Joel believed in personal writing,” said Elaine Kalman Naves, a longtime colleague and friend; between 1995 and 2000 the two shared a column space in The Gazette about books and writing.
“He was a recognizable literary figure in this city and well beyond,” she said. “We have lost a great comrade — and a great person.”
To Halifax-based writer and editor Dawn Rae Downton, learning of Yanofsky's death means “I just feel a vast piece of the side of the world has been blown out.”
She and Yanofsky met in 1989, when both won fellowships to an arts program at the Banff Centre, and have remained friends. Aside from her husband, she said, Yanofsky has been the most important person in her life. “It was just the way he was — funny and generous and loyal. He had this vulnerability to him that he didn't show often. He learned he could keep his emotions inside, just not for very long. Where you find out who Joel is is in his books: That was where he would reveal himself.”
Yanofsky was a two-time winner of the QWF Mavis Gallant prize for non-fiction — once for his 2003 book Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind, and again for his 2011 book Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism. He wrote two other books — the novel Jacob's Ladder (1990) and the essay collection Homo Erectus … and Other Popular Tales of True Romance (1996). He was at work on a fifth, a family memoir.
Yanofsky was in his early 20s when he lost his parents, Bernard and Jean Yanofsky, to illness; his sister Renee died in 2013 and his sister Marilyn in 2018. He is survived by his wife, art therapist and artist Cynthia Davis, and their son, Jonah.
A couple of weeks ago, when Yanofsky was still reading texts and emails from friends, Abley wrote to him to express support. Yanofsky responded with “the help goes away again, without helping” — a line novelist and shortstory writer Franz Kafka had written on his deathbed. In that missive, Abley said, “Joel was telling me what was going on.”
Said longtime friend Joe Fiorito, novelist and poet and former columnist for The Gazette and the Toronto Star: “Joel was exceptionally widely read, but what made him such a good reviewer is that he was able to synthesize so many different sources, and make the kind of breathtaking comparisons a reader might never have considered.”
As Gazette book editor during the 1990s, Bryan Demchinsky often assigned work to Yanofsky “simply because he was so reliable and such a good writer. I knew I could count on him,” he said.
“And out of that work relationship, a friendship grew.”
Yanofsky was a terrific poker player and the organizer, and the heart of, a long-running poker group that included Abley, Demchinsky and Fiorito.
Recalled Fiorito: “Joel had this manner at the table: He would get this little sideways grin and you never knew if he was bluffing or if he had the real thing.
“He was really competitive, but he hid it with a kind of lightness and a mordant wit,” he said. “He didn't like to be seen trying to win — and, if you noticed, he would get that grin again.”
Friends said there was great strength and depth in Yanofsky's relationship with his wife and their son.
“The relationship that the three of them had, Cynthia and Jonah and Joel, was one of the defining elements of his life,” Fiorito said.
“Sure, he had a strong circle of friends, but their togetherness as a couple and the focus around Jonah bound them together and changed him in a way — made him focus on something that was a little more elemental than literature.”
In a statement, Davis said: “I am very grateful for the 23 years I was lucky enough to share with Joel. He was completely devoted and always kind to those of us blessed to be loved by him. I cannot imagine a better husband or father to our son. Joel made everything fun for us and we miss him so.”
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.