Mother’s Life No Longer a Mystery


When Eleanor Freedman died of breast cancer in 1974, she left behind three children, a husband, and a life marked by failed promise. She was 50 years old. Her oldest son, Samuel, was 17 at the time of her death. Now Samuel Freedman, who grew up to be a New York Times journalist and author (“Jew vs. Jew” won the National Jewish Book Award in 2000), has turned his journalistic eye toward his own family.

In his new book, “Who She Was: The Search for My Mother’s Life,” Freedman tells a story of extraordinary tensions in an ordinary Jewish home in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. Much of the strain was a ripple effect of the Holocaust on Jews who fled to America, and then had to watch helplessly as the relatives they left behind perished.

Freedman was inspired to learn more about his mother’s life after avoiding her grave for more than 25 years — either out of grief or denial — when he came upon it at the funeral of a relative. One of his last memories of his mother was having her come to visit him during his freshman year of college. In typical adolescent logic, he told her she could accompany him to class only if she promised to pretend she didn’t know him. While countless other teenagers have committed similar offenses, it haunted Freedman that one of his last interactions with his mother had been so rejecting. He not only rejected her while she was alive, in her death he had remained adamantly uncurious about her.

“We had been stopped and frozen forever,” Freedman reflected over the phone from his home in New York, where he teaches journalism at Columbia University. “I had always thought of her life as having a classic immigrant trajectory: fighting against the ties of tradition and family, and emerging bruised, but unbowed. I think the truth though is something much sadder.”

He began to uncover his mother’s life by interviewing anyone who’d known her that he could find — even a high school boyfriend who lived in Chattanooga, Tenn. Freedman discovered a young woman who longed to embrace the opportunities America provided, but was routinely unable to do. Despite being a gifted student, Eleanor could not attend college because of her father’s inability to sustain an income. She was also unable to marry a man whom she waited for throughout World War II, an Italian Catholic named Charlie Greco.

“The big surprise was, having known only a general outline of her life, finding out how much pain she had endured,” Freedman said.

His mother, Eleanor, constantly battled her own mother, Rose, over weight, religious observance and money. Their endless fights culminated in Eleanor having to give up the love of her life, Charlie, when Rose threatened suicide if her daughter were to marry a non-Jew.

Rose, devastated that she was unable to save her sister from perishing in the Holocaust, blamed every non-Jew she met for the loss she had suffered, and Charlie, despite all his good efforts to win Rose’s favor, was no exception.

Eleanor was never able to forgive Rose for rejecting Charlie, and spent the rest of her life at war with her mother. When Freedman was young, he would come upon his grandmother snapping all of his mother’s lipsticks in two. And Eleanor, when she knew she was dying, requested that her mother be barred from her funeral.

While the book offers vivid and novel-like descriptions of Eleanor’s life throughout, it is at its most compelling when it brings to life the tensions and conflicts that Jews in the Bronx faced from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. Many of these Jews, including Rose, had been modernists in Europe. But coming to a strange world in America and then witnessing the Holocaust from afar resulted in such confusion and panic that they reverted to the traditional Jewish roles many had abandoned in their young adulthood.

Rose was changed by America and by being unable to extract her beloved sister from Europe. (Her efforts did save several family members who immigrated to Uruguay and live there today.) Rose reacted by reverting to a balabuste from the Old Country. Speaking only Yiddish and pawing through garbage at the grocer’s to salvage vegetables, she diminished the joy Eleanor found in America and its possibilities.

“The book allowed me to really see how the Holocaust affected my family,” Freedman said.

He’d known that he lost relatives in the war, but never understood its deep impact on his own life: “I was able to get into the marrow of the experience of who was lost, the failed efforts to save people, the human toll. That kind of loss twists lives beyond recognition.”

On Wednesday, April 20 at 7 p.m., Samuel G. Freedman will read from “Who She Was” at Dutton’s Beverly Hills Books, 447 N. Canon Drive Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 281-0997.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (August 2005, Dutton).


The hidden benefits of Meshuggeneh relatives

The Passover seder is a wonderful chance to connect with
certain relatives that you love, along with hearing again the inspiring account
of moving out of enslavement and fear while moving toward freedom and
compassion for all who are hungry or mistreated. But for the majority of Jewish
families, it’s also a stressful time when personality clashes and unresolved
conflicts with a few particular relatives spring up once again.

In fact, from the research study of over 1,350 people that I
did for my recent book, “When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People,” it
was found that more than 70 percent of us have at least one relative who gets
on our nerves year after year — a parent, sibling, child or in-law who tends to
be judgmental or asks invasive questions such as, “When are you getting
married?” “Have you put on some weight?” “When are you going to have children?”
or “How come your kids aren’t as well-behaved as your sister’s kids?”

So you might ask, “Why should this Passover be different
from all other Passovers?” Will it be just another long evening of feeling
irritated by your most difficult relatives, or is there some other way to
handle the situation more effectively?

A Change in Perspective

One way to deal more effectively this year with your most
difficult relatives is to change the way you view them. For example, here are a
few hidden benefits from having meshuggeneh relatives who (like the charoset
and bitter herbs we eat together in the Hillel sandwich) are a little bit
nutty, somewhat sweet at times, and occasionally bitter or hard to take. Please
see for yourself if the following perspectives on difficult relatives might
assist you in enjoying more fully the upcoming seder.

1) Having Some Kvetches in the Family Can Remind You of What
It Was Like for Our Ancestors in the Desert. 

If you study the Book of Exodus, you will notice that
there’s a lot of complaining. Even within a few days after the miracle of the Sea
of Reeds parting, many of our ancestors were complaining about the food, the
weather, the lack of structure as compared to how familiar everything was
during slavery and the fact that their leader, Moses, kept going off to take
meetings without letting them know when he would return.

So when one or more of your relatives start complaining that
the seder is too long or too short, or that the matzah balls are too hard or
too soft, you can say a prayer of thanks that, “You have blessed us, Holy One,
with a chance to remember that we were fearful slaves in Egypt. Please help us
overcome our fears so that we no longer will be such kvetches and we will
instead trust that You are guiding us in a holy direction.”

2) Consider the Possibility that a Difficult Relative Is
Like Sand in an Oyster. 

In order to become a pearl, you might need to practice and
improve your own skills at combining chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah
(limit-setting or firmness). Our Jewish teachings say it’s important to stand
up to people who are saying or doing hurtful things, but never to shame, attack
or mistreat someone (because each human being contains a spark of holiness —
even if it’s extremely covered over in your particular family member). A
difficult relative is sometimes like a good workout at the gym — you might feel
the burn but hopefully you will be successful at treating your most meshuggeneh
relative with a balance of kindness and firmness.

3) Having Some Disagreements at the Seder Table Can Remind
Us That We Jews Are Supposed to Be “Yisrael,” the Ones Who Wrestle and Strive
With God.

Don’t worry if your Uncle Harry is a dogmatic nudge, if your
sister-in-law is a devout atheist or if your family is constantly arguing about
their diverse ways of practicing (or not practicing) their Judaism. The word
Yisrael literally means the people who wrestle and strive with the mysteries of
the Eternal One. We argue and we discuss, therefore we exist. If we stopped
arguing and discussing, we would no longer be on this chosen journey of
searching for truth, fairness and the repair of the world.

4) Don’t Get Bent Out of Shape If You Have Relatives Who
Show Up Late, Have an Attitude or Don’t Show Up at All. 

If you look at one of the most fascinating passages in the
seder, you will see it says there are four types of people: The one who fully
partakes of the tradition; the one who questions and wonders if it applies to
him or her; the one who stands off to the side; and the one who is too young or
simple to ask questions.

Your task, according to the seder text and Jewish teachings,
is to treat each of these four individuals with dignity and love. They each
have something to teach the rest of us. They each are a part of our extended
family and, possibly, are each a part of our own inner psyche.

Maybe each one of us has a part of our minds that can accept
miracles and ancient teachings without question, while another part of us needs
to ask difficult questions, a third part of us feels isolated or left out at
times and, finally, there is a part of us that is either so very young or so
extremely pure in our souls that we don’t ask questions at all.

To love and appreciate each of these parts of ourselves and
to treat with compassion each guest at the table is one of the great teachings
of the Passover seder. Good luck!

Leonard Felder is a licensed psychologist whose eight
books on how Jewish spirituality applies to daily living have sold more than 1
million copies. His most recent book is “When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good
People” (Rodale, 2003). For more information, log onto

Curtain to Rise on Women’s Conflicts

In a rehearsal room at the Odyssey Theatre, Colette Freedman propped her electric-blue high tops on a chair and good naturedly laughed at herself. "I’m truly flawed," the 30-ish actress-playwright said. "I am totally a hypocrite."

Well, not totally. While her "Deconstructing the Torah," an evening of one-acts, skewers part of herself, it mostly dissects conflicts faced by Freedman and other modern Jewish women.

In "Serial Killer Barbie," a spurned seventh-grader plots to kill the popular blondes at school. In "First to the Egg," a nerdy sperm woos an ovum who prefers strapping Aryans. In "Shoshanah’s Shabbat," a woman placates her mother by inventing a fictitious beau, Schlomi Finkelstein, when she’s really dating a non-Jew.

While Freedman did feel like killing the cliquey blondes at her Baltimore high school, she didn’t lie to her Conservative parents about her Quaker boyfriend at Haverford College. But she could tell they disapproved.

"They thought he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough," she said wryly. "That was a euphemism for, ‘He’s not Jewish.’"

Meeting her smart, funny Jewish fiance — "My first nerd," she said — on three years ago not only pleased the folks, it also inspired Freedman, then an actress and script reader, to write her first one-act, "First to the Egg."

With trepidation, she submitted it to Circus Theatricals under a pseudonym, Naomi Lefkowitz, but came clean when the piece was accepted for a 2002 production. More playlets followed, all featuring Jewish women who are "flawed but not caricatures," she said.

In the Odyssey rehearsal room recently, several 20-something actresses told the author they related to her characters. Jade Sealey, who plays a cliquey 13-year-old, recalled feeling "left out and kind of a weirdo" as one of two Jews at her Santa Fe, N.M., junior high. Another actress, Jamie Mann, who plays Shoshanah, said her parents deem her rock musician boyfriend "unsuitable," because he did not attend elite schools.

Zack Ruben, who grew up in Israel, said she hasn’t married her non-Jewish beau, in part, because of her distressed mother. "These one-acts capture the kinds of identity issues and pressures we face as young Jewish women," she said.

Freedman believes the characters work because they’re versions of herself. "I’ve put my foibles and my frustrations on paper," she said.

The play runs March 9-April 13 at the Odyssey Theatre. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.

Bigger Picture Hits Small Screen

A new cultural awareness program is about to make a lot of waves – as in airwaves.

Sponsored by the Santa Monica Bay Region of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the Black/Brown Leadership Training, which brought together 15 Latino and African-American teens, was filmed for a Fox News television special, “Black and Brown: When Colors Collide,” airing tonight. The television special will focus on this exchange between the two groups on issues of cultural identity and racial diversity.

Founded in 1927, the NCCJ – originally the National Conference of Christians and Jews – is a human relations organization dedicated to fighting bigotry and promoting diversity through educational programs. The NCCJ’s goal with the Black/Brown Leadership Training is to encourage youth to become future community leaders through a host of skill-building projects. Aashish Parekh, program director at the Santa Monica NCCJ chapter, told The Journal that the program’s genesis was a reaction to racial tension and violence that plagued Santa Monica’s lower-income Pico neighborhood two years ago. Santa Monica High School counselor Oscar De La Torre was a driving force behind the program, made possible by a Kellogg grant.

Currently, the Santa Monica-based NCCJ branch is searching for funding for phase two of the program, which will send the teenagers to Israel, where they will spend six weeks living on a kibbutz. Parekh feels that the teens will glean important skills “living in an environment where it’s a collective community; where in order to succeed and survive they must all work together.”

Parekh believes that the chance for the teens “to meet Israeli and Palestinian kids with similar conflicts and to realize that, hey, wow, other kids are going through the same things as we are” will be invaluable. And he knows that the follow-up phase will be crucial to expanding the participants’ understanding of the world at large. After all, these teens have never left their own neighborhoods, let alone traveled abroad.

The National Conference for Community and Justice’s television special airs on Fox Television Channel 11 on Fri., Sept. 29, at 10:30 p.m. For more information on the Santa Monica Bay Area region of the NCCJ and its programs, contact the branch’s executive director, DeBorah “Sunni” Smith, at (310) 264-1717. You can also visit the NCCJ Web site