Monday, August 6, 2012

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride 1995


"There are two voices in this complex and moving narrative, and -- on the surface -- they could not seem more different. One is the voice of a black musician, composer and writer ... The second voice is that of Rachel Shilsky, daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Inevitably, these voices are connected and ultimately convergent, for Rachel Shilsky and James McBride are mother and son." from a review by H. Jack Geiger in the New York Times 3/31/96

In this engaging memoir, which was designated an American Library Association Notable Book, James McBride, musician, composer and writer, sensed when he was quite young that his mother was different. She was white; her two husbands had been black, as were her twelve children. He realized she never talked about her family or her origins. He knew nothing about his maternal grandparents. He tried many times to solve the puzzle, but she deflected all questions. The older he got, the more confused he became about his identity as well as hers, and he felt that in order to better understand himself he had to know who she was.

Ruth Shilsky McBride Jordan lived with her family in poor neighborhoods in New York City, and when the children needed school clothes she would take them shopping on the Lower East Side and bargain with the merchants in what McBride learned was Yiddish. Eventually, through questioning his older siblings, he learned she had been born into an Orthodox Jewish family. When he went off to college, he extracted her maiden from her for a form he needed to complete. After being urged to for many years, she finally agreed to tell her story which she dictated into a tape-recorder. McBride uses her voice to tell her story in alternate chapters which are linked and contrasted to his chapters in which he tells the story of his growing up.

Rochel (Ruth) Shilksy’s story starts with her parents’ arranged marriage in Europe, a marriage of convenience between a physically handicapped young woman from a family of means to a poor young man. Rochel’s father became an itinerant rabbi in the United States but eventually settled in Suffolk, Virginia, where, when his contract to serve as a rabbi was not renewed, he opened a grocery store. His word was law; he compelled his wife and children to work all hours and subjected them to physical abuse. Eventually, Ruth ran away to New York where her mother’s parents and sisters lived, but once she started dating Andrew McBride, her family disowned her and cut all ties.

James McBride's mother paints a vivid picture of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family in a segregated southern town that was not open to the small Jewish community in their midst. She feared her father, felt guilty about leaving her increasingly helpless mother and her younger sister, but felt she had to leave in order to survive.

In his chapters Andrew McBride rounds out the picture of his mother’s life by filling in the details of what is what like growing up as her son and how despite her seemingly complete break with her Jewish roots, she instilled in her twelve children what are commonly referred to as “Jewish” values. For example, she made sure that they all were enrolled in public schools in "better" neighborhoods where the student population was predominantly Jewish. And she made sure her children took advantage of what the city had to offer – from museums to music lessons.

Delving into his mother’s past revealed stories that totally surprised McBride. He learned about his Jewish heritage and heard from her why she had no ties to her family and had hidden her painful past. Her finally, but reluctantly, revealing her past, helped him to better understand his roots.

To read a New York Times obituary and see a photo of Ruth McBride Jordan who died in 2010, click here.

People
Family
Fishel Shilsky – married to Hudis
    Sam (Zylksa) Shilsky – son of Hudis
    Ruchel Dwajra Zylska (changed to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, then first name changed to Ruth) – daughter of Fishel and Hudis; married to Andrew McBride; 2nd marriage to Hunter Jordan
        Andrew Dennis McBride – son of Ruth and Andrew; married to Becky
        Rosetta McBride – daughter of Ruth and Andrew
        William McBride – son of Ruth and Andrew
        David McBride – son of Ruth and Andrew
        Helen McBride-Richter – daughter of Ruth and Andrew
        Richard McBride – son of Ruth and Andrew
        Dorothy McBride-Wesley – daughter of Ruth and Andrew
        James McBride – son of Ruth and Andrew; married Stephanie Payne
            Azure McBride – daughter of James and Ruth
            Jordan McBride – son of James and Ruth
        Kathy Jordan – son of Ruth and Hunter
            Gyasi and Maya - children of Kathy
        Judy Jordan – daughter of Ruth and Hunter
        Hunter Jordan – son of Ruth and Hunter
        Henry Jordan – son of Ruth and Hunter
    Gladys Shilsky – daughter of Fishel and Hudis

Laurie – sister of Hudis; married to Paul Shiffman
Harold ? – brother of Hudis
Bernadette – sister of Hudis
Mary – sister of Hudis – married to Isaac
    Lois and Enid – daughters of Mary
Rhonda – sister of Hudis
Betsy – sister of Hudis

Friends
Israel Levy
Aubrey Rubenstein
Gerry Jaffe
Halina Wind – married to George Preston
    David Lee Preston – son of Halina; married to Rondee
    Shari Preston – daughter of Halina
Leon Wind – brother of Halina

Places
Dobryzn, Poland
New York City, NY
Ewing, New Jersey



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