Every fall, for the past 23 years, Jack Rabinovitch brought together friends and strangers alike to celebrate Canada’s literary community. The Giller Prize, which was founded after his wife Doris Giller’s death, was not just Canada’s most-revered literary prize – although it was most definitely that – but also a boozy, slightly irreverent, and glamorous party devoted to books and writers, two things that until the prize’s founding in 1994, lacked a certain amount of glam. While Mr. Rabinovitch was the host, he stridently – and perhaps stubbornly – directed the spotlight onto the nominees, the judges, the guests – anyone but himself.
On Wednesday, many of the same people whom Mr. Rabinovitch hosted at the Giller Prize ceremony over the years came together, once again, this time to celebrate him.
Mr. Rabinovitch died on Sunday at the age of 87, a few days after falling down the stairs of his Toronto home. On Wednesday he was laid to rest, with hundreds of mourners gathering at the city’s Beth Tzedec Congregation to pay their respects to the man who, through a small act of literary philanthropy, did more to alter the course of Canadian letters over the last few decades than just about anyone else in the country.
“Jack Rabinovitch lived his life very full, although we all feel a sense that, at 87, his life was still cut short,” said long-time friend Bob Rae, who delivered one of the eulogies.
He is best-known for establishing what is now called the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a year after the death of his wife, the literary journalist Ms. Giller, but on Wednesday Mr. Rabinovitch was remembered for the whole of his life, which saw him rise from poor Montreal roots to become a successful real estate developer and philanthropist. He was at turns described as a man of integrity and principle, of boundless curiosity and kindness, and a consummate storyteller, even if he was never a writer himself. He was a man “who was committed to reason over emotion, humour over pathos, and honesty over bullshit,” eulogized his youngest daughter, Elana Rabinovitch, who called her father a man with “a lust for life and all that it offered.”
And what a life. If Mr. Rabinovitch hadn’t been born, one might have found him in the pages of a Mordecai Richler novel – who, coincidentally, went to the same high school as Mr. Rabinovitch and, years later, helped him establish the Giller. Yet although he was driven to make it out of “the ghetto” – the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood where he was born and raised – that same ghetto “would ultimately be the source of all his stories and would never leave his soul,” said his eldest daughter, Noni. “The other side of the tracks defined and shaped who my dad was at his core. He never forgot where he came from.”
“To say that Jack had street smarts doesn’t really capture the extent of his intelligence,” said Mr. Rae, the former Ontario premier who befriended Mr. Rabinovitch while he was volunteering as chairman of the building committee of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital in the late eighties and early nineties. “He had dreams and he had hopes, but he had very few illusions.”
There were likely more than a few people who thought that the Giller Prize would be smoke and mirrors. When Ms. Giller, Mr. Rabinovitch’s second wife, died of cancer in 1993, he wanted to do something to honour her legacy; she’d run the books pages at the Montreal Gazette, and was assistant books editor at the Toronto Star after the couple moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s, so a literary prize was a fitting tribute. Still, at the time, Canada’s literary prize culture was fairly moribund – the Governor General’s Literary Awards dominated the landscape. Mr. Rabinovitch, even though he had the support and help of Mr. Richler, was an outsider.
“When Jack started the Giller Prize nobody would have predicted this,” said veteran publisher Douglas Gibson, standing in the atrium not long after the service concluded. By “this” he meant the most important prize of its kind in Canada. “This funeral is a huge event for the literary world in Canada. You look around and you can see major authors every 10 feet. They’re paying their respects to a man who changed the whole literary climate in Canada.”
Indeed, many members of the country’s literary community – authors and agents, publicists and publishers – came out for Wednesday’s funeral, even if they only knew Mr. Rabinovitch in passing.
“He did something incredibly good for Canadian literature,” said the writer Alison Pick, who served on the Giller Prize jury in 2015. “I think we all owe him an incredible amount. It’s isolating being a writer – you’re at home in your track pants in front of the computer for hours and days and months and years, and then you get to put on a nice dress, or a tuxedo, and get together with your community and celebrate.”
Mr. Rae, who sits on the prize’s advisory board and has also served on the jury, said that the Giller Prize “was based on three of Jack’s loves: Doris, writing, and the game. The Giller Prize is a game.”
And it changed the game. For starters, what began as a fairly intimate affair at the old Four Seasons Hotel ultimately transformed into a glitzy televised ceremony, complete with celebrity presenters and a red carpet. The prize also became a rallying point, of sorts, for the country’s literary community, said Louise Dennys, a long-time editor and publisher with Penguin Random House. “We were a scattered bunch, in many ways, before that, but he drew us together. He made something that was great fun that, at the same time, honoured the spirit of everything that we tried to do as book people ... and he did it in a way that was truly extraordinary, and has changed the literary world as a result.”
Among the politicians and business leaders, academics and cultural figures in the pews were Scott Griffin, owner of House of Anansi Press and founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, and Noreen Taylor, founder of the RBC Taylor Prize, two individuals who later embraced the same sort of literary philanthropy as Mr. Rabinovitch.
“He really was a trailblazer in establishing a role for private philanthropy celebrating literature in this country,” said Ms. Taylor, who turned to Mr. Rabinovitch for advice when planning her own non-fiction prize in the late nineties. “Here was someone who said private philanthropy can make a major difference in celebration of literature. He definitely opened the door for what the RBC Taylor Prize finally did.”
It’s not necessarily fair to say all this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Mr. Rabinovitch – the Gelber Prize, a smaller non-fiction award, had been established in 1989, for instance – but the Giller Prize, and Mr. Rabinovitch, showed what was possible. He created a prize that helped usher in a new type of CanLit – one that was cosmopolitan and borderless; that not only honoured the Margaret Atwoods and Alice Munros, but recognized first-time and unknown writers, too; that became a shorthand for excellence, even if not everyone agreed with the winner; that became the way tens of thousands of Canadians do their holiday shopping each year, the sales bump greeting each winner earning its own nickname: “The Giller effect.” Still, even as it grew, it was still an excuse for Mr. Rabinovitch and friends to gather in the same room, place small bets on which book would prevail, and eat French fries, a staple of the dinner each year.
As people exited the synagogue and were greeted by one of the nicest days the city had seen all summer, there was some talk about what would happen now. The next Giller Prize gala takes place on Nov. 20, a little more than three months away. One thing the crowd made clear: While it was named after Doris, it will always be about Jack, too.Report Typo/Error