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Mother’s Day Feature Two Generations, Two Styles: a Grandson Looks Back at His Family

On the first morning of Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5700, the day most of America knew only as Sept. 14, 1939, my mother, Eleanor Hatkin, put on a ruffled red dress that was one of the handful she owned. She walked with her family from their East Bronx tenement to Crotona Park, and in their holiday finery they posed long enough for a friend to shoot a portrait with my grandfather’s Brownie camera, a holdover from the days before the Great Depression when he had steady work.

As my grandparents, aunt and uncle then walked to Tifereth Israel for services, my mother remained in the park, at 14 years old emancipating herself from Judaism. She repeated the mutinous ritual 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, with the added gesture of eating shrimp at the Chinese restaurant, in defiance of both the fast and kashrut.

Back then, it seemed like my grandmother Rose was the Jewish mother of my lineage, the long-suffering one, the martyr. She was the one who picked bruised vegetables out of the market garbage rather than have her family take relief; she was the one who pinched loose change from my grandfather’s irregular pay to send to relatives in Poland; she was the one who heard her efforts consecrated in the Yiddish songs at the McKinley Square Theater — “A Mother’s Worth,” “A Mother’s Wish,” “A Mother’s Tears.”

My mother, in contrast, was determined to grow into anything but a Yiddishe mama. As the Nazis swept across Europe that fall of 1939, engulfing my grandmother’s siblings in Bialystok, my mother paid little attention, as if events across the ocean were the province only of those like her parents who’d been born there. She was an American girl, infatuated with Nelson Eddy movies, saddle shoes and Glenn Miller songs.

During the war, she would fall in love with an Italian Catholic named Charlie, and after he returned from military service in the Pacific they would make plans to marry. On the day they presented themselves to my grandmother, who by now knew that all of her relatives had been slain, she threatened to jump off the roof.

My mother acceded, but at the price of a lifelong grudge. During my childhood, my grandmother once snuck into our bathroom and methodically snapped every one of my mother’s lipsticks. My mother, drawing close to death from breast cancer in 1974, left written instructions that my grandmother be banned from the funeral. (My father did not comply.)

And yet, as I realize now, surveying my mother’s short and bittersweet life, she did indeed become a Jewish mother herself. I do not mean in the stereotypical ways, although she did exasperate me in high school by waiting up in the kitchen for me to return home from every late night out. I mean in finding a Jewish identity that she could claim and possess without hesitation.

She never became religious; that was not the way. As a concession, I suppose, to the popularity of Chanukah as pseudo-Christmas in suburban America, she let my brother, sister and me light the menorah. But instead of placing it in the window for the world to see, we kindled ours on a ping-pong table in the mildewed basement. My mother chose to be cremated, in a final, posthumous slap at Judaism, which prohibits the practice.

The war changed her, though. When word came of my grandmother’s siblings being marched off to Treblinka, when the first postwar newsreel about “Nazi Murder Mills” played at the movie palaces of the Bronx, she learned that my grandmother’s fears had been entirely grounded, tragically ratified. A Zionism for which my mother had shown no earlier appetite emerged in force.

One of the few stories of her own upbringing that she shared with me during mine was of how she danced in the streets on the night the United Nations voted to partition Palestine.

In the past several years, as I worked on a book about my mother’s life and times, I retrieved the letters she had sent to my sister and me at our colleges during her final months. I was struck at how often she wrote about Jewish things and themes — admonitions not to find the phrase “Jewed down the price” funny; anxiety and rage at the United Nations’ debate on the resolution branding Zionism a form of racism; worry about Israel’s survival during the Yom Kippur War.

When my mother had been confined to a wheelchair with cracked bones that refused to heal, her hands still functioned. After decades as a hobby artist, she embarked on a final project, sculpting a bust of Golda Meir, taking a toothpick to the clay to get every strand of hair just so. Then, too weak to carry her own creation, she turned to my aunt to carry the bust to a foundry to be cast.

One of the few copies made sits on a bookshelf in my living room. When I look at it, I see Golda, of course, one of my mother’s heroines. But I also think I see in the furrows and creases an aspect of my grandmother, as if in some way, conscious or not, that sculpture had provided the way for those warring women in my bloodline, those two Jewish mothers, to reconcile at last.

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of “Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life” (Simon & Schuster), from which this essay is adapted.

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