Category Archives: Memoir

Dear J. D. Vance,

Dear J. D. Vance,

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Thank you for Hillbilly Elegy. Your writing is so accessible and straightforward that as I read, I felt you were talking to me. But if you had been talking to me, you’d be the first Scots-Irish Rust Belter I’ve ever had the opportunity to converse with. I’m one of those coastally oriented urban liberals who doesn’t know many folks who don’t share her politics. So your book was an opportunity for me to hear from somebody who might help me understand all those angry unemployed white men I heard so much about during the recent presidential campaign. You gave a voice to a group of people I would otherwise never meet.

But I read your best-selling memoir not only to learn about you and others from the Rust Belt. I also read it to learn about memoir writing because I’d like to write one. I was immediately struck by the way you introduce yourself and your story: “My name is J. D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession. . . .”  You don’t “sound” like a hillbilly. You sound like an extremely reliable and smart narrator who’s taking me into his confidence from the get-go. Your professed openness and your simple vocabulary prepared me to read a memoir that is both credible and unpretentiously written.

Next you assure readers that you’re not telling your life story to chronicle something “extraordinary” that you’ve achieved. This was immediately reassuring to me because my life has not been extraordinary in either achievement or debacle, factors which, separately or together, fuel many memoirs. Instead, you explain that you are using your life story to illustrate how a kid from a poor and very screwed up family in a decaying steel town achieved something “quite ordinary” for many American

Yale Law School Logo

Yale Law School Logo

young people. You went to college, graduated, and got yourself accepted to Yale Law School in spite of obstacles neither I nor most of your classmates faced. You had considerable support from your less than perfect mom, your tough old-time grandparents and your sister. Their love fostered your aspiration to join the white collar work world which meant getting an education. So in that way you differed from many of the other kids in Middletown, Ohio. But even so, your path to college and grad school wasn’t easy.

Vance and Grandmother

Vance and Grandmother

You claim that you were able to accomplish what you did not because you are especially brilliant, but rather because this “handful of loving people rescued” you. These “loving people,” most notably your hillbilly grandparents, were hardly poster people for parenting a homeless teen. But those grandparents saw that you could not flourish in your mom’s care. She was addicted to pain killers and attracted a series of stepfathers each of whom you had to learn to love and then lose. So Mamaw and Papaw, stepped up and did the best they could. And you acknowledge that four years in the marines between college and law school helped too.

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

You mention the “spiritual and material poverty” of the community you grew up in. To contextualize this sad state, you trace the history of the Scots-Irish migration from Appalachia to the Midwest and the remarkable persistence of the values they brought with them such as loyalty and patriotism. But there are others, equally persistent. One of these is a historical preference for whiteness. Along with that goes a distrust of outsiders and/or those who appear different from themselves. Introspection is not highly prized, but being tough and willing to fight to defend one’s family is. You point out that a man will battle fiercely to defend the honor of his mom or his sister, and then, after marrying, he’ll cheat on his wife and joke about it with his buddies. At the recent Women’s March in Seattle, I thought of those wives.

Unlike many, you don’t think that having more manufacturing jobs is the silver bullet that will bring back the good times before the local steel mill closed. Rather you show how over the generations various factors, especially drug use and the resulting breakdown of families, contributed to the failure of many Scots-Irish to embrace the work

Closed Steel Mill

Closed Steel Mill

ethic they profess to hold dear. Unaccustomed to self-examination, when they are fired for not doing their jobs, they blame their bosses. “How could he fire me? I have a pregnant girlfriend!” Or they blame “outsiders” or the government. You comment on how a man has energy enough to sire eight kids, but not enough energy to work to support them.

Parents appear oblivious to the effect of their neglect, instability, and poverty on their children. You illustrate through your own story how difficult it is for a youngster to do well in school with no one to make him do his homework, let alone help him with it, with no quiet place in which to study, and with hunger and high level domestic drama as constants. And you note again that there persists also a stubborn refusal to examine one’s own behavior, accept responsibility for it, and try to change it.

Before I read Hillbilly Elegy, I assumed that many white Midwesterners in the Rust Belt were Evangelical Christians. But the folks you describe have drifted far from organized religion of any kind. You say that the churches they once attended were more judgmental than supportive, so when times got hard, their members turned to drugs or booze. But what unchurched Rust Belters have in common with many fundamentalists of any stripe is the almost inchoate realization that modernity─ globalization, diversity, feminism, technology, new jobs requiring new skills ─ threatens those enduring values they brought with them from Appalachia and which still seem to be the bulk of their belief system. And it is this culture that you expose and yet still identify with. For although you have gotten that education, the white collar position, the lawyer wife and the cherished kids who will never wonder where they are sleeping or who is the daddy of the month, you identify still as a hillbilly.

As a would-be memoirist, I envy you your underexposed background. Perhaps because not too many hillbillies write memoirs, your upbringing seems exotic and makes me almost wish my own tribe, Jews descended from immigrant Eastern European Jews, had not been chronicled quite so extensively. While Scots-Irish avoid self-examination, many of my landsmen (and women) have filled library and bookstore shelves with lengthy accounts of neuroses caused by their overly protective Jewish moms, by poverty or affluence, by immigration, or, of course, by antisemitism. I’ll have to find something unique in my own background or an especially intriguing way of describing it to justify my desire to leave behind yet another story of yet another nice Jewish girl.

J. D. Vance

J. D. Vance

In Hillbilly Elegy you explain why so many American white men feel left behind, forgotten, and frightened by the whirlwind of changes in our country and our world. Since their migration north, they seem incapable of taking any action of their own to adapt. They remind me a little bit of those Jews who refused to believe that the Nazis would invade the countries where these same Jews held respected positions and led gratifying lives. So they ignored the warnings of their relatives abroad and stayed in Europe until it was too late to leave. I hope Hillbilly Elegy inspires many of your friends and relatives to prepare themselves and their children for the world as it really is rather than for the one they would like to revive. This book is a great gift from you to them and to those of us seeking to understand them. It took great love of kin and country as well as great courage to write it.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Anne Frank,

Early Edition

Dear Anne Frank,

Thank you for The Diary of a Young Girl. Born in 1940, I was only two when you began your diary and ten or eleven when my mother gave it to me. By then you were dead and I had a little trouble processing this sad chronology. I’d paid no attention to the drone of Sunday school teachers and rabbis and I don’t recall my parents ever sitting me down and explaining the Holocaust. So I don’t think I knew about concentration camps where millions of Jews were worked to death, starved, or gassed. In retrospect, it occurs to me that maybe my mother gave me your diary as a way of informing me of this historical horror, just as she’d given me a book featuring diagrams of tubes and circles to explain sex. So you not only introduced me to the Holocaust, but you also taught me about diary-keeping.  Like your many other readers, I was hooked by your oft-quoted opening line, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Your voice, youthful, urgent, and full of hope and your desire for a nonjudgmental ear spoke for and to me.

Photo of Anne

I identified with you at once. We even looked alike. A photo of you in my copy of your book could have been a photo of me. We had the same thin faces, long bumpy “Jewish” noses, mostly straight brown hair, prominent dark eyebrows and eyes and wide mouths. If it had been deemed safe for you to venture out of hiding to see an eye doctor, you, too, would have been prescribed glasses. We both had elderly grandparents who moved in with us and we both went to birthday parties, were expected to do well in school, read a lot, and were eager to be “popular.” Yet again, like you, I was a daddy’s girl and very aware of my parents’ fear of antiSemitism. Unlike you though, I didn’t share my parents’ fears. In fact, in the early Fifties, I thought my mother’s preoccupation with being perceived as “too Jewish” was totally uncalled for. After all, The War was over, we won, and in America one was free to worship as one wished.Red Leather Diary and Key

Even as I identified so strongly with you, I was a little disappointed in your diary because contrary to your expressed wish to fill it with confidences, it seemed you had no secrets, let alone shameful ones, to share, whereas I did.  For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a diary of red leather with gold trim and a lock and key. I kept this little book and the key in a drawer in my desk in my room and unburdened myself on its pages every night. I treasured my diary and considered it the big sister I didn’t have. To my horror, one Sunday afternoon when I was at a movie with friends, my father opened it, read it, and then confronted me with what I’d written about myself, myJudge Daddy classmates, our neighbors, and him and my mom. None of these outpourings upset him but I’d also penned a rather lurid entry listing things I wished to do with certain boys I knew. Alas, my dad believed I’d actually done them, or feared I might do them. It took me a long time to convince him otherwise and a lifetime to get over the dreadfulness of having my own secrets exposed to my beloved, but notoriously stern father. Did I mention that he had served as a municipal judge? His intrusion and his reaction to my fantasies put a heavy and durable damper on my urge to write down stuff I made up. It’s no co-incidence that I didn’t really begin writing for publication until after both of my parents died.

Definitive Edition

It was not until 1995 that I read The Definitive Edition of your diary. In the preface to this book, edited by your dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler, I learned that the edition I read back in the early Fifties had also been edited by your father not long after your death. He had expunged all references to your sexuality and all of the disparaging remarks you made about your mom and the others with whom you had shared the Secret Annex. So it wasn’t until I was forty-five with a teenage daughter of my own that I finally came upon all your girlish confidences I’d hoped to find in the earlier version. That’s when I understood that your biggest secret was really the one you struggled to keep from the Nazis, the fact that you all were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to the death camps.

 

The Secret Annex

Secret Annex

But even on my very first reading of your edited diary, I’d been aware that while I had been safe in Passaic, New Jersey learning to skip, dunking Oreos in milk, and taking care of my dolls, you had been imprisoned for years in a small secret annex with your family and some other folks you didn’t know and hadn’t chosen. There you all shared chores, money, food, and bath and bedrooms, and gave up much of your treasured privacy. Even as a child I’d noted how your affinity for reading enabled you to pass the time constructively, keep up your spirits, and write clearly and expressively. I doubted that I would have been able to handle the privations and unremitting proximity and dread that you describe so memorably. And without your detailed recording of the trials of your years in hiding, I doubt that I would have been able to begin to comprehend the series of events we call the Holocaust. Even in your teens you were a writer and you recorded your experiences for posterity. That would include me.

Thank you for keeping this diary under such duress. I’m glad that in your too-short life you did what journalists do. You wrote history as it happened, so when you died at Auschwitz, the world lost not only a young girl, but a clear and compelling witness and writer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

Everything I learned about what an American family should be like, I learned from your Little House books, and I loved learning it! Thank you for teaching me all about ideal parenting, nature, and pioneering in the America that lies west of New Jersey. Now that I actually live in a leafy green burb about as far west of The Garden State as one can get, I sometimes feel a bit like a pioneer myself. Then I recall your books and smile.

I never told my parents, but they often didn’t measure up to Laura’s Pa and Ma, especially in the do-it-yourself department. I loved the way her Pa

Pa's Fiddle

Pa’s Fiddle

can put up a house, put together a bed, and, with the help of a few neighbors, make a barn happen. When the pantry is empty, he just goes out and shoots a wild turkey or deer and voila! dinner’s on the table which, of course, he’s crafted himself. After the meal, he plays the

Pioneer Woman

Pioneer Woman

fiddle and sings and tells stories, so they don’t need a TV. And her Ma’s no slouch as a DIYer either. Without a single appliance, she manages to skin, pluck, and cook whatever Pa shoots and provides delicious gravy and sides. She thinks nothing of spending days on her knees hulling corn for a special seasonal dish or waiting for the sap to flow to provide sugar. She sews, knits, or crochets all their clothes and linens, milks cows, and hauls water for laundry that she hangs on shrubs or prairie grass to dry.

Unlike Laura’s Pa, my dad seldom built anything, but occasionally managed to steady a wobbly table, blow up a bike tire, or open a sticky-lidded jar. He had a few hammers, wrenches, screw drivers, and pliers which he arranged in orderly rows in a “workshop” in the basement. Confronted with a leak or a power problem, he’d utter a stream of profanity and call a plumber or electrician. When I was seven he and my uncle sheet rocked our attic and turned it into a bedroom and a bathroom so he and my mother could move upstairs when my grandfather came to live with us. My uncle was unemployed at the time, but my dad had to be in the office, so his role, enacted on evenings and weekends, was more supervisory than hands-on. I was an adult before I realized how smart you have to be to supervise somebody performing a task you have no clue how to do yourself.

Bendix

Bendix

Like Laura’s Ma, my mom could do a lot of housewifely things. She was a splendid cook who kept up-to-date by going to New York to take lessons in Chinese and French cooking. She could bake anything. And whatever she cleaned, which was everything, stayed that way. But often she didn’t feel up to cooking or cleaning, and we had no word for depression back then. She wanted to return to teaching, but my dad disapproved, and we had no word for feminism then either. Perhaps she figured that if her domestic prowess couldn’t keep her beloved husband from straying, why bother. So she got him to agree to hire a live-in housekeeper/cook whom she taught to do what she no longer had the heart for.

Most amazing of all, Laura’s parents never argue or complain about all the work they have to do, while mine─ whose lives seemed pretty cushy in comparison─ fought and kvetched a lot. So all this ideal family stuff in your books could have struck me as dull and sermon-like had you not fashioned each chapter around Laura’s take on an exciting event and used the seasons, senses, settings, and struggles that are the stuff of pioneer life to keep young readers interested. I always admired your informative and lively writing, as in this description of bedtime in Little House in the Big Woods.

Ma kissed them both and tucked the covers in around them. They lay there awhile, looking at Ma’s smooth, parted hair and her hands busy with sewing in the lamplight. Her needle made little clicking sounds against her thimble and then the thread went softly, swish! through the pretty calico that Pa had traded furs for.

Laura looked at Pa, who was greasing his boots. His moustaches and his hair and his long brown beard were silky in the lamplight, and the colors of his plaid jacket were gay. He whistled cheerfully while he worked and then he sang.

  So imagine my surprise when I read A Wilder Rose, a recent novel by Susan Wittig Albert, based on your letters and diaries and those of your daughter Rose Wilder Lane. In her Author’s Note which precedes the novel, Albert tells us that A Wilder Rose is

the tale of two exceptional women: a mother who had a fascinating pioneer story to tell but whose writing skills were not up to the challenge of shaping and polishing it for publication; and a daughter, a gifted and much published author who had both the skill to turn her mother’s stories into memorable books and the publishing connections that would get them into print.

A Wilder Rose

A Wilder Rose

Albert’s novel is rich in details of the Depression and of your life and that of Rose, your daughter and, ultimately, your editor. As a

Editor at Work

Editor at Work

writer, a daughter, and mother of a daughter, I was fascinated by the forces that drove each of you to undertake and continue a contentious collaboration. Albert has done a splendid job of researching and contextualizing this partnership and turning it into an exciting novel of her own that is worthy of its two talented writer-subjects.

While I was surprised to learn the significance of Rose’s contribution to the books that I loved as a little girl, this knowledge did not make me love those books any less. You knew you had moving and memorable stories to tell, and I’m grateful to you for doing what you had to do to tell them and share them with me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Children's book, Memoir, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear President Obama,

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father

To celebrate your winning a second term in the White House, I read your memoir Dreams from My Father. I enjoyed it very much not only because I’m a supporter of yours or because you’re president, but because your family history and early adventures make a great American story and you tell it clearly and with grace. Your book is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance, and in the Introduction you explain that you opted to tell the story of your life rather than to compose an essay on race relations and civil rights. I’m grateful you made that choice. I’ll take a story over a lecture any time. Part of what makes your memoir moving is your candor and insight into how you were shaped by seemingly random events in the lives of your grandparents and parents. Their experiences took place long ago and far away and you learned of them through stories and, in turn, they sparked the longer story that you embrace as your inheritance.

Stories glow throughout this book, sometimes as brightly as my halogen desk lamp and other times dimly in the background like distant stars. You learn ofHalogen Desk lamp

Halogen Desk lamp

your mostly absent father through stories that were “compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening

Distant Star

Distant Star

then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.”  The story of your mom and dad’s interracial romance and marriage is another one you weave into an heirloom American tapestry. And so it goes. Everyone in your family, everyone you meet, has a story and you share these so your reader comes to appreciate your ability and willingness to listen to and understand other people. Contradictory as it seems, your own story is not all about you.

I admire your dogged efforts to know your elusive father and to include him in your life and your life story even though you discover him to be less than perfect. Your attention to the stories of others, especially your relatives, makes me wish I’d paid closer attention to stories my mother told and probed her for details before it was too late. She rarely discussed her family history or her own early life except to say that on hot summer nights she and her brother slept on their Newark, NJ fire escape, that this brother died in WWI,

Poppy in Flanders Field

Poppy in Flanders Field

and that after their mother died, their father remarried and this stepmother was also dead. When I was about ten years old, I asked what these women died of, and my mother replied tersely, “He worked them both to death.” This Simon Legree was hard for me to reconcile with the devoted grandfather, or Beanpa as I called him, who lived with us. He was my Monopoly and Canasta opponent, the man who walked me to and from school until I was old enough to go by myself, the same benefactor who bought me a white organdy party dress embroidered with baby blue flowers. I deeply regret not ever pressing my mother for details even if they threatened my little-girlish world view. I might have understood her better.

You make complex concepts and experiences vividly accessible without oversimplifying or condescending to your readers. For example, when you describe your early inattentiveness to the fact that you are biracial, you say, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me ─that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk─ barely registered in my mind.” When, a few paragraphs later, you introduce the term miscegenation, the reader is prepared to follow your one paragraph history of interracial marriage in America. This ability to express complexity clearly and interestingly to a wide audience is crucial to presidents, and they don’t all have it.

Black Writer

Black Writer

Your communicative competence helped during your tenure as a community organizer, another part of your life I especially enjoyed learning about. Reading of how you struggled and occasionally failed and how you admitted each failure and learned from it made me more tolerant of my own struggles as a teacher and, more recently, as a writer.  Those same communication skills and your Kenyan ancestry enable you to feel at home in a variety of international settings and in several languages. You are truly a man of the world, the whole world.

You self-identify as a black American, so it’s fair for me to compare your coming of age story with some others I’ve read by other talented black male writers who came before you and before

March on Washington    1963

March on Washington 1963

major civil rights legislation in this country: Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown. Like their prose, yours occasionally reflects the references and rhythms of the black preacher. But, you are not enraged, hungry, addicted, or given to religious extremism. Your fleeing father did not leave you without family, and your mother, stepfather and grandparents did not mistreat you but nurtured you instead. You hardly feel invisible or unmanned. On the contrary, your bicultural, biracial, multilingual, splintered extended family and somewhat nomadic upbringing have made you strong and given you the perspectives of both outsider and insider wherever you happen to be. And you’re a terrific writer.  I can’t wait to read the books you write when your term as president ends. Meanwhile, thank you for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Memoir, Uncategorized

Dear Shalom Auslander,

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin’s Lament

After reading two books by and about women who left Hasidic communities, I wanted to read a male’s account of forsaking that way of life, so I read your memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I expected your perspective to be different not just because you had the chutzpah to title your book thusly, but also because you are a riotous humorist whose outbursts in Tablet, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have often made me grin.

I wasn’t disappointed. Your account of your introduction to God in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York where you were raised is a

God

God

carnival ride of blasphemy. There you were taught early on by your parents and teachers that God was a strong and powerful man who liked the people only when they obeyed him. “But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he hated us. Some days he hated us so much he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days holidays. On Purim we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.”

You illustrate God’s disproportionate punishments for disobedience by reminding us that he punished Sarah, “a woman who would giggle,” by making her barren. And he severely chastised Job, because, on a bad day, the poor man dared to ask, “Why?” Then, after Moses escaped Egypt and searched the desert for forty long years to find the Promised Land, God killed him at the border because four decades ago Moses had “hit a rock.” For a smart and sensitive little boy, all this was hard to digest. What you took away from it was that the “people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him too.”

Scared Child

Scared Child

Not Kosher!

Not Kosher!

You let the reader know that, since the death of his first born son, your father is perpetually pissed off, and often drunk. Even though, as a kid, you understood the underlying reasons for his rage, you were disturbed and helpless when he routinely hauled your older brother down to the basement and beat him bloody. So was your mom. To keep the peace that always threatened to disrupt Sabbath meals, you did impersonations, staged spills, and posed questions. But when a classmate’s dad died of a heart attack, you regretted that your own father was not chosen by God instead. And when the rabbi reminded your class that until a boy is thirteen, his sins are held against his father, you began to deliberately (and hilariously) violate Jewish laws in secret hoping to do in your own dad by snacking on non-kosher candy bars. Given that your God and your father both have serious anger issues, it’s no wonder that your own rage blazes through the pages of this book.

You leave Monsey with enough anger to fuel several novels. Part of your memoir’s complicated wave of humor and fury arises from the fact that although you have separated yourself from the Monsey community and moved with your wife, son, and dog, to a rural town near Woodstock, New York, you have not stopped wrangling with God. You have not become an atheist or forsworn Judaism and all Jewish customs. I find it amazing that you still believe in the existence of God even though you continue to insist he’s a “prick.” This is a theological compromise I find fascinating. It’s particularly so in your acknowledgements, amusingly entitled, Whom to Kill, where you express concern that God will kill you for writing such a blasphemous book and beg him not to kill you or your wife or son or dog, but instead to focus his homicidal wrath on those who helped you write the book! You are joking here, but throughout this coming of (r)age story, you make it clear that  you believe God exists but you can’t stand him. Likewise you can’t stand those who take the Torah literally. When, after much consideration, you and your wife have your son circumcised, but not ritually, even this most Jewish of acts strikes another blow to the wedge that distances you from your parents. Their faith may be uncompromising but their love is conditional.

The Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In

Given all your fears, your rage, and your history, I’m glad you see a shrink. Shrinks have it in their power to re-parent us so that we can overcome some of our worst fears

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

and avoid repeating some of our biological parents’ worst mistakes. But don’t get too “normal” because all your fears and fury, the lousy parenting and religious mishegas you endured have forged you into a witty and insightful writer. I can’t wait to read your novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Memoir

Dear Anna Quindlen,

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

I just finished your memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and, of course, I loved it. I’ve always relished the way you draw on your own experiences,

Sandwich Generation

strewing your New York Times columns with first-person pronouns: “That’s what makes life so hard for women, that instead of thinking that this is the way things are, we always think it’s the way we are.” I still savor the sharp images you use. A passing jet is “a shining exclamation point in the blue sky” and women sandwiched between nurturing kids and nursing aging parents are “caregivers cubed.” Reading your personal and poignant prose once again took me back to my first encounter with your columns in the early Eighties.

NYT Logo

The New York Times seemed austere, dense, a paper for corporate types and lawyers to peruse over leisurely wife-made breakfasts. A working mom, I seldom had time to skim the front page of my local paper before leaving my kids’ egg-crusted

Man Reading Paper over Coffee

dishes on the table and tearing off to teach my community college classes. Then a female colleague recommended your column, so I read it. To my amazement, it was actually about stuff that interested me, “women’s stuff” like grocery shopping with kids, the amniocentesis dilemma, and working from home with a toddler drooling on your lap and an infant waking from a nap. I recalled a time when my comments on the student essays I read at home were punctuated by yogurt splotches when I returned them to their authors. Who knew this detail of my messy double life mattered? You did. You taught me that certain issues that mattered to me, what we now call “women’s issues,” were actually newsworthy, New York Times-worthy. Thanks to you, when menopause hit, I knew this daunting passage mattered, and I wrote a series of mysteries featuring Bel Barrett, a Kegeling, sweating amateur sleuth who tracks killers in between mood swings.

There’s more to my affinity for your memoir than my appreciation of your style and subject matter though. Your unashamed membership in the middle

Rest in Peace Middle Class

class is both refreshing and validating. In an era of victim-lit, your references to your comfortable, albeit not opulent childhood during which you were neither abused nor addicted is a relief. Your mother’s illness and death saddened you but did not destroy you and neither did being the oldest of five sibs. You went to college, married a lawyer, got several great jobs, had children, and found a way to stay home with them and still write. None of this sounds like gripping memoir-fodder, but it is when you put it out there and describe what you learned from your relatively untroubled life. In Lots of Candles, you refer to your good fortune unabashedly each time you mention your healthy kids, your happy marriage, your two homes, and, of course, your extremely rewarding work. As a result of that work, you,  a woman and a writer, both traditionally underpaid, are able to retain your place among the middle class, a cohort vanishing even as I type. Kudos and thank you for your game-changing columns, your inspiring memoir, and your engrossing novels.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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Dear Deborah Feldman,

Unorthodox

Oy vey! That’s what I kept exclaiming as I read your moving memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Story of My Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Thank you for having the guts and persistence to get it published. Remember how you had to hide books under your bed or in your underwear drawer because

Girl Reading Max Hendrick Sketch

Hasidic girls aren’t supposed to read anything but their prayer books? Well, Ms. Feldman, I bet many of those girls are now stashing copies of Unorthodox under their beds or burrowing them among their heavy high socks and panties. For some of these teens, unwitting hostages in a repressive and cloistered community, your memoir will be a validation of their own “unacceptable” perceptions. And for a few of these same girls it will be a road map out.

In Unorthodox, the devil really does show his medieval misogynistic face in the details. Who knew that according to the Talmud, Rachel, righteous wife of renowned Rabbi Akiva, stuck pins in her legs to prevent her skirt from billowing up and exposing those legs?

Marilyn Monroe-Skirt Billowing

Or that girls at your high school are treated to a daily “modesty lecture” where this masochistic act is cited as exemplary? Or that married women, have to prove they are no longer menstruating/“impure” by submitting numerous unstained white cloths to a rabbi for inspection? I found your detailed critique sadly instructive.

Your gift for description sneaks me into the closed world you fled. So I’m with you on that day you’re happy to be sent home from school to modify your dress: “The moment when the spring sunshine hits my face is like the taste of Zeidy’s Kiddush wine, my first breath of fresh air a long slow tingle down my throat.” And your depiction of your relationship with yourself and with God after your flight from Hasidism reads like poetry. “I have come home to myself, and God is no longer a prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.”

Your family history needs no embellishment to be prime memoir material. Your lesbian mom left the Hasidic world without you, and your dad is developmentally disabled  and mentally ill. Being raised by your ideologue grandfather, your Holocaust-scarred grandmother, and your materialistic and controlling aunt was, at best, a poor fallback position. With no reading of books or newspapers, no TV, little contact with male age mates, and a lot of negative and erroneous information about your body, how were you supposed to be prepared to have sex let alone enjoy it? And those pre-marital sex ed sessions you endured were worse than useless. No wonder you didn’t know where your vagina was and, when your husband proved similarly clueless, no wonder there was literally no there there for either of you. Your frankly clinical account of your efforts to figure out your own body is chilling.

Hasidic Bride En Route to Wedding

In fact, a lot of what you say about life as a Williamsburg Satmar is disturbing. And seeing our stained Jewish linens billowing in the wind feeds my fear of anti-Semitism, an ongoing threat. A modern Reform Jewish feminist, I still feel guilty when writing Jewish bad guys and gals because I hear my mother’s whispered warnings sounding in my ears. Her whispers became shouts when I was writing The Bones and the Book because not all the Jews in that novel behave well. Some are downright criminal. With my dead mother kicking up such a ruckus in my head, it was very hard for me to implicate even those fictional characters, so I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you to expose the community where you grew up. But even my mother would acknowledge that, kept hidden, soiled laundry eventually reeks.

Bravo! You speak for other women rendered powerless in a community of damaged men who see women primarily as breeders and domestic servants. Inspired by you and other female Jewish authors, I’ll continue to mine our rich tradition and tell women’s versions of the stories I find there.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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