Miriam Yudelson Katz was one of my first and is one of my most loyal readers. Plus, she lived in Cleveland AND we’ve met In Real Life. That makes her a VIP around these parts. So when she asked me to review her mother’s new memoir, I made up my mind to put it at the top of my priority list.
I didn’t need to worry. From the moment I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
Firstly, “knowing” the protagonists’s daughter and some of her life’s story, it was a sad and suspenseful journey to read about the backstory that led up the pivotal events of her life.
For me, it was also a precious insight into worlds I knew nothing about – the Reform community of the South in the 60s. The Yudelson’s journey toward greater observance and deeper religious connection was fascinating to me. The way that journey was framed by the Passover seders was a haunting and beautiful literary technique as well as a powerful Jewish message – that the linkage of our faith from one generation to the next is what it’s all about.
The stories of my native Cleveland and of the non-Orthodox Jewish communal life, a community that I was not a part of until my adulthood, was equally interesting for me at my juncture in life. There were many other treats, like the ladder analogy of personal growth, one that I use regularly in my teaching.
But it was the account of the wrenchingly raw grief that the author chronicles that honestly kept me riveted. I’ve experienced different types of grief and loss in my life, and the account of how the traditional Jewish shiva plays its part in the necessary psychological stages of this process was so real and so powerful.
This is an unvarnished account of one woman’s journey in her Judaism. It describes without apology the successes and failures of various communities to meet the needs of a Jewish family seeking community and fulfillment. Every educator should read this book to see what he or she can learn, but more importantly, every human should read it to deepen his or her understanding of the most basic human needs: for love, for life, for solace, for meaning. You’ll thank me.
Thanks, Ruchi! Shameless plug: "With an Outstretched Arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith" by B.J. Yudelson can be purchased through Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or BarnesandNoble.com.
Miriam, you must be so proud. I haven't read this book, but is it weird to have your life in a published account?
What are the differences between northern and southern Reform? What do non-observant Jews, or people in general, do if they don't have a shiva? I think it's great to have really detailed prescriptions for exactly what to do after a death, to allow people to go on auto-pilot rather than force all kinds of deliberations and decisions. But I don't know really what the rules of shiva are except for hand-washing and family eats first.
Hi SBW! Yes, it is a bit strange having all of the difficult and painful elements of my life written up for the world to explore, but also sort of cool to have favorite childhood anecdotes compiled this way. I have very few secrets left.
Please find a way to read it. I think you will find it very interesting, particularly how my mother balances her intellectual and spiritual needs as she redefines Judaism's role in her life.
Southern Classical Reform, as my mother lived it in the '40s and '50s, was aloof, formal, confined. They were trying to blend with the WASP world around them to a large degree. Did you ever see or read "Driving Miss Daisy"? That play was written by my aunt's classmate and depicts the same Atlanta Reform community. I think northern Reform communities were less concerned with blending in, because Jews had such a presence in their cities.
Miriam, sorry if this is too personal, but did your mom run the details by you all to see what you were comfortable sharing? Also, what prompted her to write this memoir now?
SBW, I think you in particular will find this account riveting.
Miriam, how fascinating that your aunt's classmate wrote that! I just loved the movie, and was also very struck by how reform they were such a very long time ago. Here's a bit of interesting info:
I read an absolutely fascinating serialized novel in a Orthodox magazine – it was a work of historical fiction (heavier on the historical) about a family split apart by the religious changes in Charleston against the backdrop of the Civil War. I'm waiting for it to come out in book form so I can recommend it to everyone I know (and do a review here of course).
When my mom retired, she joined a memoir writing class. Several chapters of the book started as short essays she wrote in that context. A few were published as chapters in anthologies. Over time, her teacher and classmates told her that she had good material for a book, so she started filling in the gaps and pulling it together. It has been a work in progress for about six years.
While she was working on it she frequently asked us for our recollections of specific events. Sometimes she would send me a section and ask if it was okay with me, particularly with some of the more personal parts of my life. So I had read bits and pieces along the way. My dad didn't read any of it until it was complete, and she was a little nervous about how he would respond. Fortunately, he reacted positively so she went ahead with publication.
I look forward to reading your review. I don't think this is mentioned in my mom's book, but my family was living in Georgia by the time of the Civil War, and I have a great-great-uncle who died fighting as a Confederate soldier. So I am a big fan of Civil War fiction.
Ok, it's on its way to me. You know I can be doggedly critical in my responses to books–will I ever stop quoting with disdain Tatz on the circle dance?? But of course a memoir merits a different standard and more tact, and is less likely to push my buttons (one of which is when "reasons" for something are cited that are not real reasons or that masquerade as something they are not–again, a Tatz problem and probably not an issue in the memoir genre).
Haha! I will continue to rue the day I recommended it! I look forward to your thoughts. The novel I mentioned is due out this fall and I'll review here.
I doubt the book will push any buttons precisely because it is memoir. Not much to disagree with in another person's experiences and perspectives. While the book has powerful, universal themes, there is no attempt at proselytizing or trying to change anyone. It is her life, her point of view, and makes no claims to be anything more. And my mother certainly doesn't claim to understand any of the reasons for why life is what it is!
P.S. I really want you guys to read Nirenberg, "Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition". It's fat and long and scholarly, and maybe dry for your tastes, but I'm curious as to how Os would respond.
I think it's brilliant, and it is ALL ABOUT how "reasons" for anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior have over centuries been fabricated that have nothing to do with actual Jews or actual Judaism but serve strategic interests in different historical contexts. He shows how a historical repertoire of negative (mis)representations of Jews gains some of its power simply from repeating older "truisms" about Jews and Judaism; and especially they gain currency when they serve to disempower some OTHER group–i.e. by comparing that OTHER group to Jews (represented inaccurately anyway), in order to discredit or disempower that other group.
OK. I'm going to take another stab at that (fat long and scholarly) book. What you say, and what I gleaned from what I did read, completely jives with what the Talmud itself has to say about anti-semitism. Does the book address why specifically the JEWS as a scapegoat?
There is no metaphysical reason offered for why the Jews are the preferred "denigrated other" in western civ only historical ones. He tries to suggest that the repetition of the mischaracterizations over centuries adds to their power. Some of the main criticism of the book is that he privileges Jews as the preferred "denigrated other" and thereby reinscribes some of the aura of metaphysical "otherness" that Judaism itself seems to contain.
Sorry that wasn't as clear as it should have been. Nirenberg gives only historical, and not metaphysical, reasons for this longstanding and multiform persistence of anti-Judaism in western civilization. BUT despite that some people have criticized the book because they think it sort of subtly reintroduces–in its emphasis on the importance of the Jews as a kind of magnet for hatred–a hint of the idea that Jews are inherently, metaphysically "other", even though Nirenberg doesn't assert that and insists over and over that the book is about "imaginary" Jews, i.e. about how Jews are represented in all these strategically negative ways that have nothing to do with real Jews in the different historical contexts he describes.
Miriam and Ruchi, thanks for urging me to read this book. Lots to say. Miriam, you must be so proud, but I’ll talk about this in a more distanced way, as just a reader with no horse in the race, so to speak.
My favorite part was reading about the mixed-up, piecemeal, ad hoc way that the author and her husband, especially while the children were young, put together different Jewish elements, congregations, and choices. They were involved with multiple congregations of different kinds at the same time. The spouses and children were not all on the same page. They met different needs at different moments and shifted back and forth; as I reader I found it sometimes hard to remember which congregation was which, but I found that aristically correct and even in a way brilliant too–literarily effective in keeping things a bit disoriented. I also appreciated the rather matter of fact way of telling all those changes and differences, without emphasizing whose way was better or what was an “improvement” over what. In other words, I liked the embodiment of ambivalence and multiple perspectives in the multiple kinds of practice and congregation attendance, which says maybe as much about me as it does about the book.
One thing that I didn’t like as much, but I expected much more of it, was the author’s “foreshadowing” early on of increasing observance to come. For her, yes, this is a story of increasing observance, but the “it was meant to be” quality that emerges in the earlier chapters to me undermines the artistic quality and genuine reality of the rocky, piecemeal quality of how the family grew in observance. I admit that have a personal and aesthetic grudge against foreshadowing in all kinds of books, this complaint is not unique to this memoir. I think it leads to moralizing (ok, not surprising in a memoir of someone becoming O) and covers up the role of contingency and randomness in how things happen (ok, an O Jew doesn’t believe so much in contingency and randomness). The “ladder of observance” metaphor irritates me in the same way and in my view does not fit the memoir as well as the narrator tries to make it do so. There are sideways, diagonal, and all kinds of movements here and the upward/downward quality of the ladder image annoys me, but I know it is precisely the point for Os–more observance is better.
Reform life in the south was fascinating to read about. I was impressed at the emphasis on social justice, and very impressed. I would say that in my experience that is more prominent today than it was during my non-southern Reform childhood. In some ways the author’s family of origin actually seemed rather more Jewish than mine, and in some ways less. I did learn rudimentary Hebrew at Sunday school, for instance. But then again, that was about 20 yrs after the author’s childhood, maybe there was already a difference in Reform that the author hints at toward the end, when she notes that Reform seems to have reincorporated more traditional elements (I am citing what she wrote, in no position to adjudicate its accuracy). Reading this made me want to understand the history and sociology of Reform Judaism more thoroughly; I believe that O probably has more historical shifts than it might acknowledge (don’t want to offend with that, but maybe it is offensive), but Reform Judaism seems to accept its own historical quality–that it is itself not static but changing–and so it would be interesting for me to understand better how a doctrine/movement acknowledges its own contingency and changing nature.
The representation of pain and mourning throughout the book over the loss of a daughter was obviously hard to take, especially because at the moment my teen is ill with something that has a small but not minuscule fatality rate. For the book, though, I found that the Judaism did not seem to comfort the author all that much. The mournfulness was left with its loose ends, its devastation, not tidied up with acceptance of God’s will. It went on and on and on, where I had expected the author to describe more closure and comfort from her Judaism.
So I guess my review of the book reflects me, no surprise there. I appreciated the ambivalence and conflict that structured the whole thing, starting with the opening dilemma over breaking the Shabbat rules vs. honoring a dying parent. The narrative itself was not all that suspenseful or fast-paced but I found it nonetheless very absorbing and did not get distracted or bored as I sometimes do when reading memoirs. In my worry over my own daughter I had picked up some hyper-suspenseful thriller novels to take my mind far away from myself, but was starting to feel disgusted at the jingoism and cheerful murderousness in them, so I have special thanks to offer for sending my way something that was absorbing without being awful.
It was interesting to read Miriam's story, of course, "knowing" her as I do on this blog. The honest portrayal of your parents' marriage was fascinating, I would have liked to understand better how they over a very long time came back to each other emotionally.
You really have excellent reason to be proud. It also illuminates your own strength of conviction that I have seen on here, combined with non-judgment of other ways of being Jewish and a real sense for the practical aspects of "ad hoc" or mixed-up Jewish practice (I use these adjectives as praise, even if others might see them as pejorative).
Sorry to need two pastes to get this onto the blog. Mincing words is not my thing, I thought you both might appreciate my response even if it is a bit over-thorough. Congratulations, Miriam and thanks Ruchi.
Thanks, SBW, for taking the time to write such a thorough response. I have directed my mother here to read it, so perhaps she will chime in as well. (BTW, reviews on Amazon or Barnes & Noble are appreciated.)
You are absolutely correct that O Judaism, both in America and worldwide, has more historical shifts than the community currently tends to acknowledge. What was considered "good enough" to Orthodox rabbis like my former FIL in the '50s and '60s would be totally unacceptable in most American communities today. Much of what I was taught in the '70s and '80s is considered too liberal now. All of which is why I have no interest in keeping up with the Cohens, so to speak. And of course, as you point out, my parents' jumbled journey is also why I don't care about fitting into sociological boxes. My Jewish observance is based on me and my relationship to God, Torah, halachah, Jewish tradition, and Jewish history. I try to keep the influence of peer pressure and how others define O Judaism to a minimum. The result is that my children are mavericks.
On NPR this morning I heard an interview with someone in the Middle East (didn't catch the intro to know exactly where) who was mourning a recently killed child. The man said he used to think about his dead son 100% of the time, but now it is only 80%. The interviewer asked if he could imagine a time when it would only be 50%, then 25%, then 0%. I laughed at that. I know that in time his loss will fill less and less of his conscious thoughts, but it will never reach 0%. A parent never forgets a child (and a sibling never forgets a sibling).
I have two responses to your comment about my parents' marriage (and they would probably each respond to it differently from me). One element to patching things back together was the effort and input of a very good therapist. (I haven't reread that section of the book in a while, so I don't know if my mom mentions that.) And the other is a meme that circulates on Facebook occasionally: a picture of an elderly couple with the caption "We got married in a time when if something was broken, you fixed it instead of throwing it out." I think my parents were committed to the concept of being married for life and kept reaching towards that ideal. They accepted each other's flaws, didn't force beliefs on each other, and found ways to live parallel as well as intertwined lives. And they are grateful to have achieved it as they face my mother's terminal cancer together.
Thanks again for your response. I hope we can still be "friends" now that you know many of my darkest secrets 😉
SBW, I am really impressed that you took the time to acquire, read, and review. Really enjoyed reading both of your responses. Lots to think about.