8 Memoirs to Add to Your Reading List
Jewish women tell their stories of adventure, spirituality, heartbreak and healing.
By Sandee Brawarsky
People used to wait until their later years to write memoirs, to gain the perspective of a lifetime (and to reach a time when many of the players in their stories were no longer alive). These days, few wait very long.
Memoirs are now one of the strongest genres—they might be full autobiographical works or episodes of life crafted into an artful narrative. Jewish writers help fill the shelves, with stories of growing up in exotic places or in difficult families (and sometimes happy families), spiritual quests, true adventures, serious illness, Holocaust chronicles, mourning or celebrating other lives. Some stories break your heart; others show how people have healed theirs. To read a good memoir is to feel like a resident of another’s life, and that feeling lingers after the final chapters.
Last summer, I taught memoir writing to a group of seniors. We gathered weekly, and they generously read their assignments to the others in the group. From the beginning and with not too much coaxing, they wrote and rewrote with directness and telling details. It was almost as if there was something contagious about the act of remembering: One anecdote inspired many others. Their intentions are not to publish their books (although they’d love to) but to create something for their families. One man without a family just doesn’t want to be forgotten. A woman who joined us several times had no interest in writing, but she liked to hold court and tell her stories with flourish. For me, the experience confirmed the notion that everyone has a great story to tell.
Chanukah is a particularly good time to think about memoirs, since Jewish holidays use the past as a way of framing the future. Here are eight suggestions of outstanding new titles.
Paris: A Love Story (Simon & Schuster) began as a journal Kati Marton kept after the sudden death of her husband, Richard Holbrooke. It’s a memoir of loss and also of resiliency. Marton tells the love story of her marriage to the prominent statesman and, before that, her marriage to correspondent Peter Jennings, the father of her two children. The book is also the story of her strong connection to the City of Light, developed in her student days and deepened over the decades.
As she writes, “In a life of multiple uprootings, Paris has been my one fixed point.” Now, Paris is a place to begin again.
Marton, who was born in Budapest, witnessed her parents’ arrest and imprisonment on false charges of espionage. They came to the U.S. after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. She learned of her family’s Jewish identity many years later—her parents hid their Judaism as a way to protect themselves, so they thought, and protect their children. In the last part of the book, when she describes her recent return to Paris, she wanders the city with a Jewish eye, finding a school from which the Nazis rounded up Jewish children and deported them to death camps and the opulent mansion, now a museum, of a Turkish-Jewish banking family, also deported to Auschwitz.
“Paris’s complicated relationship with Jews feels personal to me,” she writes, noting that Theodor Herzl, who was inspired to become a Zionist while covering the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, came from a Hungarian background similar to her own.
Marton’s life at times sounds as charmed as a fairy tale, with her glamorous and successful career as a foreign correspondent and author. She writes of hosting star-studded dinner parties with Holbrooke every night in their home in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel while he was ambassador to the U.N. She also writes with amazing candor about both marriages.
Ellen Schecter’s Fierce Joy (Greenpoint Press) is also a memoir of a life of great resiliency. Schechter writes clearly and intimately about her experience with illness and her quest for meaning in the wake of devastating news. This is a soulful book, as Schechter finds a measure of healing, even as no cure is in sight.
The author of a novel for young readers and a family Haggadah, Schecter has had a distinguished career writing for children’s television. She was doing work she loved and was happily married with two children when she was diagnosed more than two decades ago with two autoimmune diseases (systemic lupus and a rare, potentially fatal neurological disease—CIDP). She writes of medical procedures and trials, medical professionals, learning to walk with braces and then a cane and other challenges, but the center of the book is her own evolving sense of self.
She comes to feel whole again with the help of some compassionate doctors and a Jewish healing support group. Schecter also comes to see that beyond cooperating with doctors, one can’t control a disease, despite what some self-help authors might suggest. But, she realizes that she can influence her own behavior and responses, live in the moment and still feel much gratitude.
She engages in worship and study with a warm Jewish community and becomes a Bat Torah, always deepening her learning and experience of that which is larger than herself. Amidst loss and pain, she finds the fierce joy of the title.
In Sailing in Kansas: An American Jewish Memoir (White Poppy Press), Kathy Green looks back at her years growing up in Leavenworth, Kan. Green mentions early on that she is suffering from Parkinson’s, but that is not at all the subject of this evocative book. Her identity is unusual: She’s a middle-European Jewish intellectual raised in small-town Kansas. While her mother was a third-generation Middle American, her father was raised in Berlin and her grandfather was an elder of the Berlin Stock Exchange. Her father came to America with a doctorate in economics and found work with the IRS. Her paternal grandfather, who raced sailboats for the Kaiser, also lived in Leavenworth, in a room smaller than those of his servants in Germany. Green, an educator in Boston whose husband is the president of Hebrew College, began this memoir two decades ago, after visiting Berlin.
Helène Aylon’s memoir Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist (Feminist Press) is written in a linear style, following the eras of her life, along with inserts of her works of art that draw upon her experience. The book begins with her birth in Boro Park, Brooklyn in 1931. Her creativity, curiosity, spirit and artistic accomplishments took her far from the Orthodox community she grew up in, but her connections to Jewish life remain deep.
She recalls Boro Park as a neighborhood where it was rare to see a Christian or a secular Jew, “which amounted to the same thing in Boro Park.” From an early age, she caused anxiety, challenging her parents, not helping to cook or help with the younger kids. Always artistic, at 13 she announced that she would become an artist, and at 14 she identified as a Communist. By the time she was 16 she was “ready for serious rebellion,” flirting with the lifeguard, the only non-Jew, at summer camp. She would have liked to have attended Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, but she stayed at Shulamith School for Girls.
At 18 she married a rabbi and moved with him to Montreal. She writes, “I didn’t know yet how to imagine a truly different life than the one I’d been raised for.” They had two children before she was widowed at 30.
She went to college, always loved being a mother and began doing art seriously at a studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Discovering feminism was her salvation. “It was a birth, a rebirth that dazzled my imagination like a sunrise, and plucked me out of the guilt that was caving in on me.” Her first professional commission as an artist was a mural for the Jewish chapel at Kennedy Airport.
Aylon writes with great candor about her subsequent life in Manhattan, San Francisco and back in New York and about her activism and inspiration. The latter part of the book includes her striking artwork involving God (which she spells in the book with a pink dash in between the G and d), Jewish texts, self-portraits and the earth. The work has been exhibited internationally.
Throughout, her mother, who lived a bit past her 100th birthday, is a reference point. Her mother lived by the advice she repeatedly shared, “You be the good one.” The author dedicates a piece to her mother “who steadily walked/the straight and narrow/while I went around in circles.”
Alex Witchel believed that her mother would be “on the other end of the phone for all eternity.” But her very accomplished and competent mother began to suffer from dementia, at first trying her best to hide it. A staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, Witchel writes lovingly in All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, With Refreshments (Riverhead) of losing her mother in plain sight, as the dementia brought further decline.
There’s much to admire in Witchel’s stylish prose and, moreover, in her devotion to her mother, as the daughter steps into the role of caretaker after the two have shared a joyful, close relationship. Many adult daughters will relate to Witchel’s longing to fix things, her huge efforts, and her slow and painful acceptance of her mother’s condition. She finds some comfort in cooking her mother’s recipes, “basic 1950s housewife food, kosher division,” and she includes some of them in the book, like “Chicken with Prunes.” Making her mother’s dishes, “watching the familiar dishes take shape over the heat, smelling the signature Mom-is-home aromas that signaled safe harbor at the end of the day,” brings her closer, but, still, she knows she is cooking alone. “It is not home cooking without the home.” She also includes her own recipe for “Chicken with Rosemary and Garlic,” created by a friend, that continues to nourish her husband and stepsons.
Laurie Rubin opens up to readers about her emotional life, passions and the challenges she faces as a blind woman. Do You Dream in Color: Insights from a Girl Without Sight (Seven Stories Press) is filled with light and color, as she structures the narrative around the spectrum. Blind from birth, she says that she always has experienced color, and she describes her sense of colors and meaning.
Now a mezzo-soprano in her 30s who has performed internationally, Rubin details her childhood, from her early understanding of what “seeing” means to others to her selection of an ice pink bat mitzvah dress and all the preparation she did to become the first blind person in her L.A. synagogue to become a Bat Mitzvah. From a young age and throughout her life, she expresses much determination, confidence and a winning sense of adventure. In a straightforward style and with humor, too, she writes about her studies, her loves and her impressive career.
“I am a 66-year-old woman with cerebral palsy,” Harilyn Rousso writes in the beginning of her memoir, Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back (Temple University Press). Hers is not so much about overcoming her disability, but rather about overcoming prejudice against her disability. Rousso is an activist, artist, educator, social worker, psychotherapist, writer, painter and advocate who has worked in the disability rights field.
The book follows her journey from “passing”—pretending that she didn’t have cerebral palsy—to embracing her disability. In the late ’70s, she began exploring her disability identity, and she writes with honesty and power.
Named for her grandfather Harry (they were expecting a boy and then had to scramble for a name, still wanting to honor him), she tells of growing up in a “mixed” Jewish household, with an Ashkenazi mother and Sephardic father. In fact, her parents had to marry in secret as both families were against the marriage; they had a celebratory wedding several years later. While many members of the extended Sephardic clan came to rely on her mother, she was still regarded as “other.” Her father’s family, originally from Monastir in what is now Macedonia, found great success and prominence in America.
Trudi Kanter’s memoir, Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler (Scribner) was privately published in 1984 and rediscovered last year in a secondhand bookshop in London by an editor who has given the book new life. This is a memoir of escape during the Holocaust and it’s a love story. Kanter was a hat designer with an elegant presence and cosmopolitan lifestyle in Vienna in 1938. She fell in love with a wealthy businessman, Walter Ehrlich, and plotted and courageously guided their escape to Prague and then London. She had amazing resolve and managed to get her parents to safety as well, outwitting the Nazis at every step.
Kanter wrote this while in her 80s, at a time when memoir writing was less common. She remembers her life in full detail and full color. She died in 1992, and little is known of her life after 1960 when Walter died. In a note, the publisher expresses the hope of hearing from people who may have known her to fill in last chapters of her life.
Sandee Brawarsky is an award-winning journalist and essayist. She is the book critic for the New York Jewish Week. Her “Bookmarks” column appears in The Jewish Week and other newspapers, and her articles and essays have appeared in Jewish Woman, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Jerusalem Post. She frequently moderates literary forums sponsored by The Jewish Week and has led book groups in New York and New Jersey.