Monday, August 20, 2012

Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America by Ruth Gay 1996

Winner of the 1997 National Jewish Book Award

Ruth Gay uses the details of everyday living, such as food, furniture, and fashion to narrate the experiences of Eastern European Jewish immigrants adjusting to life in America. Drawing on her own life growing up with immigrant parents in the Bronx, and citing sources whose authors explore similar themes, she paints a picture of a community constantly evolving.

Gay starts with a chapter called “There” in which she discusses the conditions in Eastern Europe that precipitated the great wave of immigration during the decades at the end of the 19th century and those at the beginning of the 20th.  She discusses such topics as anti-Semitism and progroms, poverty, enforced military service, and the restrictions imposed by Orthodox Judaism. The main section of the memoir analyzes many aspects of the immigrant Jewish community in the Bronx during the period until World War II.  The last section of the book called “Here” serves as a conclusion, highlighting some of the major points in the main section.

The core of the book deals with two generations: the first generation – the immigrant parents, and the second generation – their children. Gay astutely uses domestic issues to illuminate the difficulties and accommodations that took place. Generally speaking, the immigrant generation started by holding on to their Old World customs. For example, when it came to food, they bought what they knew and prepared and served it according to custom. But little by little many abandoned the strictures of kashruth and varied their eating habits. Other religious traditions also were largely put aside. Mothers stopped shaving their heads and wearing wigs; fathers cut off their beards and forelocks. The custom of arranged marriages also became marginalized, mainly because many young immigrants had arrived without parents and had the freedom to make their own choices. 

Immigrant parents, no longer hermetically sealed in the shtetl, not comfortable with English, and  having adapted as much as they cared to, frequently did not want their children to move further away from family customs and traditions But their children’s assimilation proceeded whether they liked it or not. To illustrate these points Gay has an interesting discussion about how she and her friends looked to American movies and novels as well as magazine and newspaper articles for clues in how to look and behave like an American. 

This memoir provides a thoughtful investigation into the day-to-day lives of Eastern European immigrants in New York. The author quotes many interesting sources from early Yiddish and English memoirs, movies, theater, essays and fiction as well as contemporary magazine ads and Yiddish song lyrics that reveal what was on the minds of members of the community. She also frequently quotes and translates Yiddish words, phrases and sayings. A perfect example: when she skinned a knee as a child, her mother would say, “Es vet nisht shatn tsum khasene.” Her translation: “It won’t interfere with your getting married.”

This book includes a useful “A Note on Sources” where the author records the works she consulted.

To read the New York Times obituary of Ruth Gay who died in 2006 click here.

Click here for a link to a website dedicated to a historical accounting of synagogues in the Bronx.

The following list of family members and their relationships is brief and incomplete because the author seems to have deliberately left out family names out of respect for privacy. I have augmented the names she mentions in the body of the book as well as in her Acknowledgements with names mentioned in the NYTimes obituary cited above.

? – married ? Slotkin – author’s parents
    Ruth Slotkin – married Nathan Glazer (divorced) married Peter Gay
        Sarah Glazer Khedouri – daughter of Ruth and Nathan
        Sophie Glazer – daughter of Ruth and Nathan
        Elizabeth Glazer – daughter of Ruth and Nathan;  married to William Montgomery
    Shirley Slotkin Gorenstein – sister of Ruth
    Caroll Boltin – sister of Ruth
Asher (Harry)  – brother of author’s mother; married Feigele (Fanny)
Elke  – sister of author’s mother; married Moyshe -
Chana  - sister of author’s mother
Philip and Anna – uncle and aunt of Ruth – specific relationship not clear
Shloyme and Necha-Leah – uncle and aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear
Jake  and Lena – uncle and aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear
 Shayndel – aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear

Rutki, Poland
New York City, NY
The Bronx, NY

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.

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

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

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