Amer­i­can Born: An Immi­grant’s Sto­ry, a Daugh­ter’s Memoir

  • Review
By – June 30, 2023

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).

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