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).