Backwards and Forwards in America

My mother is upstairs in the kitchen as I write. She is sweeping the kitchen floor, her arthritic hands holding tightly to the broom, as much for her own balance as for the task at hand. She is visiting for three weeks and we spend much of our time together sitting at the kitchen table talking. We review our lives over rye toast, ginger marmalade, low-fat cottage cheese, and perked coffee. Later in the day, we continue with iceberg lettuce salad and mark each nightfall with a festive glass of wine. We offer our memories to each other, so different still, of my growing up, her mothering, our shared parallel years.

Every morning of my childhood began backwards. I sat on the closed toilet cover facing toward the pale green tiled wall, as my mother stood behind me in her black watch plaid bathrobe, preparing my hair for the day. She brushed the unruly morning tangles, then, with the sharp point of the comb, made a perfectly even division down the back of my head and began the painstaking process of creating two absolutely exact braids fastened with a firm snap of the rubber bands that were saved for that purpose on the bathroom doorknob. It was a ritual of containment, binding the thick, wild explosions of hair that would fly in all directions if they were not bound. My blouse was carefully tucked into my skirt, my elbows carefully tucked below the table, my voice carefully modulated. Gender was the daily practice of containment.

I was not just a girl, but a six-year old girl in America. The America of the l940’s, a decade of living in the greatest country in the world. A country which won the war because of the courage of our boys. A country that, along with some other countries from far away, stopped the bad people the daily papers called “Nips” and “Krauts.” I read Photoplay and Modern Screen, Life Magazine and Ladies Home Journal for information about how big girls dressed and acted. I listened every night to the radio to hear the stories on Lux Radio Theater about grownup lives. The articles about manners and conversational tricks were for the white girls and boys of America. Nor were any of them were about Jews. Jewish movie stars changed their names and their noses. I studied carefully, because I wanted to be like Ruth Roman, Ida Lupino, Jane Greer, a bad, uncontained girl.

My coloring books had their own American version of ethnicity. There were three colors for girl’s hair, brown, red, and blonde. Blonde was best. The blond was always the most popular and sought after by the boys. Red was like Susan Hayward. A spitfire. Tempestuous, easy to anger and to tears. The brunettes were second best to the blondes. There was never a plain blonde, but lots of plain brunettes. I thought I was a plain brunette. Everyone, including me, was white. None of these lessons were lost on me. I was learning to be a girl in America.

I was also learning how to be Jewish in America. Except for very old grandparents whom you loved, Jews were dead people who had lived in places called shtetls. They left, after saving their money carefully, and came to America on ships. Then they worked hard and continued to save their money and brought over all the rest of the family or, at least, as many as they could. Now, here in America, they were called greenhorns. Once terrified girls and boys hiding in root cellars, then scholars and tradespeople, now they were not quite Americans who spoke with a funny accent, ate peculiar food, worshipped in alien ways and huddled together in neighborhoods that consoled and reminded them of their histories.

My history was shaped by the Grimes children, briefly in my grammar school class. They were both blonde, blue-eyed, slender and graceful, and belonged to the country club. We drove past it often. I would lean forward in the back seat, hoping the gate would be open and I could get a peek inside, but I saw only a small marker on a high fence with square letters that announced The Country Club. I was left to imagine the winding driveway, the terraced clubhouse, the men and women of impeccable breeding, drinking martinis and riding horses. This was where real life was, the life of the magazines, movies and the newspapers. It wasn’t good to be a Jew, so being Jewish carefully, according to the rules, non-Jewish rules, was the best you could do. This meant learning how well-bred gentiles dressed, set their tables, and raised their children. When my mother was sixteen and got her first job, determined not to marry young but to go to business like Rosalind Russell, she began to ready herself for a life of private homes, graceful table manners and witty conversation, so she, and now, by extension I, could go forward.

Class marked how and where we practiced being Jewish. Poor, non-assimilated people went to small, dark buildings called shuls. The men and women sat apart from one another, wore heavy woolen clothing and held to the old ways. These Jews were scornfully referred to, by my parents, as “backward.” (Working class people went to temple.) But we, the newly minted middle class, went to synagogue, whose very architecture assured my parents’ choice, soaring, as it did, to unimaginable heights like America itself.

Our rabbi was never “controversial” in his sermons, but left his prosperous congregants feeling self-satisfied about having the advantages of living in the best country on earth and remembering the mitzvah of planting trees to support the brave people, our brothers and sisters, who were building the state of Israel.

Only once, when I was eleven years old, did I have an intimation of something greater than the well-rehearsed exercise that was suburban Judaism of the late l940’s. My parents, brother, and I, all wearing our new clothes, my mother her fur, attended the High Holy Days services. The rabbi delivered a booming sermon I didn’t understand; the cantor completed the Kol Nidre prayer and, surprisingly, left the bima. As the service continued, two of the synagogue elders hurried down the center aisle to ascend the bima and whisper to the president of the congregation. Our rabbi rose and walked slowly to the microphone. The cantor was dead.

He had completed the holiest of all prayers, left the bima, and fell over dead.

“God allowed him one more year,” the congregants all agreed.

“It was God’s hand surely,” they said.

This experience of God as someone with a precise sense of timing frightened me. This meant he was watching, allowing his chosen people (for I had learned that we were chosen, especially if we acted well), to complete what they were supposed to and then die. This meant there was something I was supposed to do. This meant I would die. My family never spoke of it after that day. Yet I always tried to leave my homework a bit incomplete, just in case God was watching.

Class distinctions shaped how and what we ate and how and what my mother cooked. Roast beef not pot roast. Lamb chops not kasha. Tea in cups not glasses. Tablecloths made of linen not oilcloth. My parents’ generation of assimilating, upwardly mobile American Jews was careful to have no slippage. Nothing of the old ways. In both my grandmothers’ apartment houses, the lobbies were filled with the smells of browning onions, baking pies, simmering stews and soups from all the kitchens above the central stairwell, the odors blending in welcome. The importance of having a private home was that you didn’t have to smell other people’s kitchens. Or your own. There was always an open bottle of Air-Wick to absorb the odors of food on my mother’s windowsill. My mother never cooked fish when we were growing up and certain foods were saved for the times of year the windows could be open to “air out” the room. Kitchens didn’t smell. Having a kitchen smell of cooking was going backwards.

            When my brother and I were called to the table, we used good manners and didn’t interrupt each other or talk when grownups were talking. We ate everything on our plates because of the children, always very far away, who didn’t have food. Several times a year, we drove to New Jersey to visit my mother’s parents. I remember the tuneless humming of my mother’s mother, my Nannie, who, as I perched at her kitchen table, would make backwards food. In one white enamel pot were chicken feet and unborn eggs and in another prunes and raisins. While I ate a Kaiser roll with whipped butter, she told me stories of “before.” My Nannie would never let me help. “Time enough for you to be in your husband’s kitchen when you’re grown,” she would say fondly. As she chopped and stirred the unfamiliar foods, she told me stories about growing up in Poland, eating potatoes and turnips, stories about sharing beds and blankets with her brothers and sisters, stories meant to remind me about how good life was in America. How lucky I was. And implicitly, how grateful I was supposed to be. Sharing beds and eating potatoes sounded like fun though, and I loved the backwards food much more than the forward kind. Backwards food didn’t require table manners, you just picked it up and ate it, even making smacking sounds to show how good it was.

Sometimes I heard my grandparents talking in very quiet solemn voices about something called the camps. They said unimaginable things about live bodies being stacked among cords of wood and ignited. Jews being marched to the edges of pits they had dug themselves, then shot as they stood, soundlessly, at those edges. When I asked what kind of camps they were talking about, they wouldn’t answer except to assure me that camps were something that had happened very far away and not to worry because such a thing couldn’t happen here. I did worry though; because their descriptions of mass murder felt much more dangerous than the one bad person at a time killing I had seen in an Edward G. Robinson movie at the Circle theater. And I knew that when I got just a little bigger, maybe when I was seven, I was going to have to go to camp.

My grandparent’s kitchen floor had black and white octagonal tiles that my grandmother washed religiously every other day after breakfast. Just underneath the gleaming coal stove was a splash of what I had been told was borscht that had spilled years before, leaving a dull stain that always looked to me like blood. Images of the Czar, the Cossacks on horseback, and the camps jumbled in my mind, leaving behind my growing suspicion that the red stain had something to do with being a Jew.

Being Jewish in America meant being cosseted by protective silences. I was not to know the history that was, even in the moments of the end of World War II, being made. I was the eldest and the only daughter of a woman who had unquestioningly absorbed the American dream. The dream that one can invent oneself; remake oneself with sheer acts of will and determined forgetting.

I was learning to go forward in America; the country where everything was possible, where one could remake oneself, one’s history, one’s very Jewishness.

To be Jewish but not a Jew like my grandparents. My brother was to have the bar mitzvah, although I was a better student and he hated reading. I was to live in a Jewish neighborhood, marry well to a Jewish boy, have children and live a Jewish life. No accented speech, old-fashioned ways, hand me down clothes and values. We were Americans. Americans who happened to be Jewish. Being Jewish was simply an unquestioned given. The task was to become the right kind of Jewish. Not a “dirty” Jew, someone who called attention to himself, acted or spoke badly in front of the Gentiles. Not a commie or a slumlord, not a gambler or someone who did anything to go “backward, ” or bring a bad name to the Jewish people.

By the time I was thirteen, I knew that there were generic girl rules that had to be followed carefully as well. Let the boy take the lead. Discuss what is of interest to him. Be smart (get good report cards) but don’t be smarter than the boys. Ask questions but careful ones and not too many and only in certain situations. I followed the rules carefully. Married well. I became the mother of two daughters, now safely yet another generation away from the terrors of Eastern Europe. I worked very hard to follow all the rules for Jews. For girls. For women. For the white middle class culture of urban America in the late l950’s.

By l960, after both my daughters were born, I decided that a more ecumenical approach to religious observance would serve them better than the Judaism of my childhood. We had Chanukah, the girls giddy with the pleasures of finding eight nights worth of presents. And Christmas. Not an apologetic Chanukah bush, but a tree with popcorn and cranberry ropes and presents next to the yellow plastic water basin that contained it. We decorated Easter eggs and hid the matzo on Passover. I wanted my daughters to live in all of America, not the constrained, rule-driven world of Jewish-Americans following the endless practices of careful cultural, religious and gendered assimilation.

I was divorced in l963, the first in my family and in the lives of everyone we knew. It was a shanda and my family was terribly angry and ashamed. I had failed in my attempts to be a successful adult woman. It was a great shame not to have kept a husband to take care of me. A divorce was, still then, unimaginable. My daughters and I moved into a neighborhood in Greenwich Village.

Within a few years their school PTA chapter split in an angry debate in the citywide struggle about the value and danger of busing Black children out of their neighborhoods to white schools in surrounding neighborhoods versus gathering funds to upgrade existing neighborhood schools. I found myself, for the first time, aligned with radical Jewish mothers and some fathers, who were in support of the black parents’ insistence on busing their children. It was the first stirring of my pride in this different kind of Jew. There were no Jewish activists in my childhood. No political discussions. That was for Christians. You can’t change City Hall, I had learned. Life is not fair, I had been taught. You need to work to make it fair, I was learning.

I was restless and eager to participate in the world exploding around me. It was a time of the civil rights struggles in the south and the north, of the beginnings of anti-Vietnam activism. I got a job as a secretary in a dental office, a set of skills that served to support me and my daughters for the next 12 years, and I threw myself into the passions of American life. I demonstrated. I attended meetings. I handed out leaflets. I rang doorbells (all after work and with my young daughters beside me). Each meeting, whether it had as its focus anti-war activism, school busing, civil rights, was filled with Jews. The kind I had been kept from. They were verbal, passionate, outraged, engaged. I was faced with questions about what it meant to be a Jew. No longer the Jewish wife and mother I had been trained to be, I was becoming another kind of Jew. The kind I was warned to stay away from. I was becoming the Jew my parents feared.

It wasn’t until l970, when I saw an announcement for a consciousness-raising meeting and sat in a circle for the first time with other women quite unlike myself, that I began to have a sense of my own oppression as a woman and then later, nearly ten years later, as a Jewish woman. I began in the decade of the 80’s to see the limitations, the proscriptions, and the diminishment that characterized so much of my early socialization. They had been everywhere, those lessons. I had learned them in my home, on the radio, from the comedians ridiculing mothers-in-law, princesses, avaricious women, in the teachings of the synagogue, in the absence of teaching in my secular schools. I began to engage yet again with the process of unlearning and re-learning. Of shaping my own questions and my own answers.

Now, in the America of l996, I know that not just hair, but skin is red and yellow, brown and black. Now, in the America of multi-cultural activism, of anti-racist theorizing and practice, I stumble and bump up against that girl of the l940’s. That eager, watchful giraffe of a girl. How hard she tried to become a Jewish American. How attentively she apprenticed herself to those who promised to show her how to live, how to think, how to pray, how to understand herself and the world around her. She, like her grandmother, her Nannie, wanted to be a real American, the right kind of Jewish, the chosen wife of a good man and mother of a boy and girl, both brunettes, neither plain.

Now I sit in circles of women, listen, speak, read, re-think, and examine my privilege and my oppression. Now it is a different America. Now, in the America of l996, I live as a feminist, a Jew, a lesbian, an activist, a radical middle-aged woman. This means, in part, that I struggle to understand the ways in which the practice of gender, the practice of class, the practice of Judaism, the practice of white privilege has shaped and distorted my life and the lives of other women. Everything I was so carefully taught in the l940’s must now be unlearned. The tight bindings of gender, the three colors of hair marking all the difference that mattered, the careful predictability of religious practice have utterly changed in the past 25 years. I will never again have the sureness of meaning that shaped my childhood. Things seemed immutable in America then. No longer. Meaning shifts just as I feel it in my grasp. Sometimes I am exhilarated by the complexity and layered nature of meaning now and, at others, I grow overwhelmed and depleted.

I go upstairs to have a cup of tea with my mother who is pretending to be reading in the living room, but I know is waiting for me to climb the stairs so we can continue to talk. Writing about Judaism and feminism, I feel the rich complexity of such a different America, and I want to tell her, this old woman, my mother, who holds tightly to the certainty of what she labored so hard to learn. The right and wrong ways to live, to think, to act, to be a Jewish woman in America.

We begin, as we often do now, with the obituaries. Gone, my mother calls death. “Martha is gone,” she begins, holding up the paper to confirm her words. Another in a series of diminishments. The population in her world shrinks every month. I use the opportunity to tell her how death is a part of my world also. About how, now in America, death has a language. A psychological language, a political language, a spiritual language. I tell her that with the breast cancer epidemic, with AIDS, death has become a part of daily life. Ordinary catastrophic life in the America of the l990’s.

“I know. I know. This is not the first time people died by the hundreds of thousands. Died too soon,” she pauses remembering the newsreels, the stories, the Europe of the l930’s and 40’s.”It’s nothing new, that children and young people die before they’re supposed to. I just never thought it would happen here.”

I tell her that death is no longer a hushed, muted silence, punctuated by wailing, then a shuddering silence. Death is a field of study. So is loss. Even narratives of the elderly, they are called, is now a form. Procedures are emerging to engage the end of life. Hospices, living wills. We have never spoken of this, my mother and I. She has simply told me that her “wishes” are in the safe deposit box and she expects I will follow them.

She sits, looking puzzled, waiting for me to continue. I talk about how so much is new, unfamiliar, changing. How feminists are developing forms to honor life and death, forms that have emerged to witnesss and comfort the women and men of l996. Forms that emerge from a faith that as feminists, as Jewish women, we can create what we need. She listens attentively and I describe the Yitzkor service shaped by a group of my closest Jewish women friends.

Eight women attended the Kol Nidre service together. At its completion, we all rose to leave, and I was holding my breath, as I always do on that night. God is watching, and I still try not to be finished. The next afternoon, after the Yom Kippur morning service was completed, we all moved from the synagogue to re-gather in my living room. We eight women created, for the first time, a service to mourn the dead, name our losses, articulate our grief, and prepare for the closing of the gates and the New Year. We needed to embed this most holy day in the reality of loss, the insistence of responsibility, the demands of commitment and the joys of our connection. We began the Yitzkor service led in the prayers by the most learned of the group, a convert to Judaism. We sang, we chanted, we prayed, we talked, we witnessed and we held one another in our arms. Each of us found our own and the traditional words to speak what was in our hearts, to ourselves, to each other and to God. A circle of Jewish-American women, all feminists, some secular and political, others with a daily Jewish spiritual practice, punctuated the ancient prayers and chants of that most holy service with our dailiness. Our grief about parents, children, choices. Our grief, individual and collective. Our efforts to evaluate. The sounds of our Jewish women’s lives.

As I described the afternoon service, my mother interrupted,

“How can you do that?” You just can’t make things up. Things are supposed to be the way they’re written, the way they have been done for centuries. You just can’t call yourself a Jew and make it up. There is a right way to do things. An appropriate way.”

“Appropriate” described everything when I was a girl in the America of the l940’s. There were appropriate ways to sit and eat, to talk and dress, to catch a ball and talk to a grownup. Appropriate ways even to pray.

“And that’s not all. In the first place, your need to talk about everything is something I never had. I am private that way. I know what I feel. It isn’t necessary for me to say it in front of people. Some things are just private. I am loyal to the people I love. There is supposed to be a sense of privacy in a family. Not to talk over every little thing with strangers outside. I could never do what you do.”

Stung, I answered sharply,

“Ma, it isn’t necessary to compare and evaluate everything. I’m just telling you the ways we do ritual. Your way can just be different. Not better. Just different.”

She continued pensively, as if I hadn’t spoken, as if I weren’t even in the room with her.

“I remember when Nannie died. I couldn’t sit there in New Jersey while they were sitting shiva. They didn’t sit shiva. They were having a party. Platters of food, people stuffing their faces like they had never eaten before. Sitting there laughing, talking. As if she wasn’t dead. I made Daddy take me home. Being there with all those people, strangers, made me feel even more lonesome. I wanted to be quiet in my home to mourn for my mother.”

“I know Ma, but some women find that gathering and talking about the person who is gone makes them feel better, closer to the person. Can’t it just be that you don’t like it? That you never wanted to do it? Not that people who do it are wrong?”

But, as I impatiently swept butter onto my baked potato, she began to weep.

” Maybe I’m talking about me. I wonder what will happen when I die. Are you going to sit with your friends and talk about me? Tell things about me?”

Before I had a chance to reply, she balled up the napkin and continued,

“I think sometimes that my life would have been different if I could verbalize how I’m feeling the way you do. I just can’t do it. Something inside me can’t. It’s just a different time. Nowadays, women verbalize about things we never did. Maybe, if I had been able to verbalize, I wouldn’t have kept so much inside myself.”
She settled heavily in the chair and blew her nose in the napkin, signaling an end to the conversation.

Now, the kitchen returned to its spotless order, my mother’s yellow rubber gloves drying on the edge of the sink, I settle back in front of the computer to write about being a Jewish American woman in transition. About the multiple ways in which my life is surrounded by women. About how I verbalize about things that my mother feels are disloyal. About how I wrote two books that told private things to strangers. Things about sexual abuse, and things about dying. And living with dying. I feel the weight of my mother’s limited choices growing up in the America of the l920’s and 30’s. Limited opportunities for balance. I want so much for her–all that I take for granted. All that my generation of Jewish-American feminists has created. I want for her the way she wanted so much for me when I was a girl. Wanting such different things. I want to respect her capacity to change and respect my hunger to be known by her. I want to find the words that will allow me to do both at this time in our lives at the end of the 20th century in America.

This morning, as I was pouring her coffee, she said,

“When I’m gone, you’re the only one I’ll miss.”

Frightened and trying to lighten the moment, I replied,

“How can you miss me if you’re gone?”

“I make up a story,” she said.

“Doesn’t everybody make up a story they can believe in?”

“Yes, Ma, they do,” I said, taking her in my arms.

Now I have a Jewish cookbook and am trying to find the recipes my mother never wanted to learn. Now I attend a synagogue and try to read the transliteration without understanding so that my mouth creates the sounds of the ancient words linking me through thousands of years of Jews. Now I have a lace tablecloth, a wedding gift given to my mother nearly 60 years ago, that I use for feminist seders. Now every important event in my life is marked in some way by a circle of women. Now I am going forward and backward, creating, like my grandmothers before me, old forms into new. Some remain intact and others need alterations, like the top quality cloth she shaped and reshaped until it fit the next grandchild.

Now I understand that there is no finishing, even if God is watching. Now I see how the daily practice of faith, of political faith, of religious faith, is my only certainty. Bringing forward, looking backward, blending like the stews of my grandmother, imagining like the dreams of my daughters. Finding my footing, keeping my balance is only achieved in each moment. It is the work of my life.

Celebrating The Lives of Jewish Women: Patterns in a Feminist Sampler
(ed.) Seigel, Cole. The Harrington Park Press 1997