Reisel “Grandma Rose” Thaler Mayer liked to tell stories. Born on the Lower East Side in 1905, and sent back to her father’s family in Mielec in Galicia (now Poland) after the tragic death of her mother two years later, Reisel’s life was full of travel, adventure, hard work, cousins, Yiddishisms, friendships, and family. Although she regaled her children with tales of hidden loaves of bread, meandering men, witty women, and gossip about neighbors and landsmen, her narrative had many holes that left her daughter curious.
That daughter, Rachel M. Brownstein — professor emerita of English and gender studies at Brooklyn College — set out to record her mother’s story and the rich history of Jewish immigration and women’s lives that it encapsulated. In the resulting book, Brownstein captures the complexity, courage, wit, and pains not only of her mother but also of an entire generation of Jewish women, whose lives marked the historic transition of the Yiddish world from Europe to America. In fact, although Reisel’s greatest pride throughout her life was that she was born in America, her lens for reading and interpreting her identity and relationships was her Yiddish past.
Brownstein, eighty-six, rereads her own life through her mother’s. In a series of conversations, interviews conducted by her son, and journal entries, she conveys her mother’s nonlinear story by moving in and out of various roles: scholar, historian, linguist, archivist, Yiddishist, storyteller, therapist, feminist, and daughter. She emphasizes the metaphor of the milliner — which was one of her mother’s first jobs in New York when she returned at the age of eighteen-and-a-half — to describe the process of weaving the memoir together. “Piecework is what my mother did as a milliner in New York in the 1920s,” she writes. “The term might also describe what I have done here, stitching together her stories about her life.” Many pieces are missing; Brownstein poses a number of questions while attempting to fill in some answers. Who did she meet? What did she do? What was she thinking? How did she feel? What drove her? What scared her? What did she dream about?
The result is an exploration of the particulars of her mother’s journey — the uniqueness of being a non-immigrant immigrant, for instance, and the pains of being a motherless daughter in a world in which women’s roles as mothers were considered paramount. More than that, though, the book is a mosaic of the ways that memory creates reality, and how the retelling of stories shapes intergenerational identities, belongings, and challenges.
It was very important to Reisel that her daughter become a scholar. “The day she came upon me, mopping the linoleum,” Brownstein writes, “she sat down hard on a chair and began to cry. ‘I was the brawn,’ she would recall, in the years after my father died; ‘your father was the brains.’ She did not want me to be like her — but on the other hand, of course she did.”
Ultimately, the journey is less about recording her mother’s experiences and more about communicating her character. “My mother’s emphasis, the burden of her tales, was always on her having always been exactly who she was, and on her energy and honesty and resilience, her plainness and respectability, her dignity, her truth to her history and to America and to herself. Especially the last. As she saw it, a person’s dignity was reinforced, indeed trumped, by truth to herself. She had made for herself a character she was proud of having invented and sustained: that,” Brownstein concludes, “was what she had done with her life.”
Dr. Elana Sztokman is a Jewish feminist anthropologist, educator, activist, and author, and two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. Her most recent book is When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture (Lioness Books, 2022).