Tag Archives: Memoir

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 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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