Non­fic­tion

Becom­ing Ordi­nary: A Youth Born of the Holocaust,<br />What I kept. What I let Go

  • Review
By – June 27, 2022

As we watch anoth­er war tran­spire in east­ern Europe, Michael Fox’s mem­oir reminds read­ers of the long rever­ber­a­tions of inter­na­tion­al geopol­i­tics on nation-states and fam­i­lies. Unfold­ing over twen­ty chap­ters, Becom­ing Ordi­nary traces one Jew­ish family’s dis­place­ment in the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth century.

Young Michael feels con­stant dis­com­fort as his fam­i­ly trav­els from Łódź to Paris to Pitts­burgh and then to New York City. This unease emanates not only from the geo­graph­ic dis­lo­ca­tions but also from the lin­guis­tic chal­lenge of being a Yid­dish-speak­er liv­ing in cities that each require a new tongue. Fox is the son of Chaim Leib Fox, a Yid­dish poet, writer, and jour­nal­ist (though the sto­ry of Chaim Leib is dis­ap­point­ing­ly a minor one in Becom­ing Ordi­nary). The mem­oir is pep­pered with Yid­dish (help­ful­ly cou­pled with Eng­lish trans­la­tions) a styl­is­tic choice that reflects Michael’s con­scious­ness — and many of his strug­gles. His quest is to becom[e] ordi­nary,” assim­i­lat­ed as an American.

Some of the most delight­ful sto­ries in Becom­ing Ordi­nary are about dif­fer­ent reli­gious edu­ca­tion­al encoun­ters that Michael and his broth­ers have at var­i­ous yeshiv­as. In Pitts­burgh, aid­ed in reset­tle­ment by the Hebrew Immi­grant Aid Soci­ety (HIAS), the boys all enroll in a yeshi­va after a vis­it from Lazar, a Lubav­itch­er, who young Michael remem­bers: Under his yarmulke he had red hair, and he had red payos behind his ears. A scrag­gly tuft of red beard cov­ered his chin. He was thin and intense.” The boys’ reli­gious edu­ca­tion resumes under Lazar’s direc­tion, though Michael strug­gles with Hebrew and feels the sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion at the yeshi­va lags behind that at the pub­lic school. Lat­er, after Lubav­itch sum­mer camp, Michael meets the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe him­self. While Michael hopes for a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence, ulti­mate­ly, his face was inscrutable to me as he looked out at us, not kind­ly as I heard it was, and he would not be my source of faith and belonging.”

Repeat­ed dis­ap­point­ments with reli­gious stud­ies and reli­gious lead­ers leave Michael grap­pling with G!d and reli­gion in ways that are nev­er resolved. How­ev­er, Michael does ful­fill his desire of assim­i­lat­ing into Amer­i­can soci­ety. He and his sib­lings find a space in the Unit­ed States for them­selves, and through that, they become ordi­nary.”

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry

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