Canadians fight inside and outside the ring

Yacov Lapinsky’s family was struck by tragedy on a sweltering August day in 1933.

The Christie Pits riot — the largest race riot in Canadian history — left Yacov’s son, Izzy Lapinsky, brain dead, and the rest of the Lapinsky family permanently scarred and disillusioned by their new surroundings and the myth of salvation promised in the Torah.

“The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky,” a new novel by Karen X. Tulchinsky, is written from the perspective of Yacov’s grandson, Professor Moses Nino Lapinsky, who begins writing a Lapinsky family history to defend the reputation of his prize-fighting father, Sonny Lapinsky.

The story is focused on an unspoken conflict between generations — the older resigned to injustice and the younger burning to fight back. In a phone interview from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, the author expressed the belief that this juxtaposition was true of all immigrant groups in North America.

Also true of all immigrant groups was their struggle with intolerance and racism. The Swastika Club, a group of British Canadian boys from the Beach area of East Toronto, drove the Jews from the beaches, and invaded Willowvale Park’s Jewish quarter — beginning 1933’s Christie Pits race riot.

Sadly, Yacov’s four sons — Sid, Lenny, Sonny and Izzy — are there. Nine-year-old Sonny has been ordered to stay home with Izzy, but desperate to join the fight, he takes the 4-year-old with him. Izzy is struck by a lead pipe while building a sandcastle at the beach. It leaves him permanently brain-damaged and his whole family traumatized with excessive guilt.

Yacov, whose own 5-year-old brother was killed in a Russian pogrom in 1913, is already deeply mired in self-blame; he begins to despise Sonny. Yacov is a dour man who acts out his frustrations by beating his sons. He is not a sympathetic character. When Sonny marries a non-Jewish woman, Yacov recites the mourner’s prayer and pronounces him dead. This alienation creates a tension that pervades the novel.

Sonny’s own anger fuels his successful career as a boxer — renowned as “The Charger,” he becomes world middleweight champion. The author vividly portrays the good and bad aspects of his fighting career; the brutal punishment he takes in the ring forces him to retire at the age of 31. She further depicts harrowing scenes from the battlefields of World War II, in which both Lenny and Sonny fight.

“The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky” is filled with poverty and suffering, but also with love and helpfulness. Its characters are real. Its humor arises naturally from the writing and dialogue, which often reflects a Yiddish cadence. When Sonny’s mother first sees her son’s battered face, she gasps: “Who’s the other boy? I’m calling his mother!”

The book moves from present to past, back and forth, circling the tragedies that shaped the Lapinskys’ history like a boxer, and moving in for the final blow: the crushing attack on a beloved child.

“The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky” by Karen X. Tulchinsky (494 pages, Raincoast Books, $15.95).