Lilyville: Moth­er, Daugh­ter, and Oth­er Roles I’ve Played

By – April 12, 2021

When Lily Kaplan Feld­shuh was in her late eight­ies, she audi­tioned for a role in the 1999 movie A Walk on the Moon. As her daugh­ter, Tovah Feld­shuh, recounts in her mem­oir, Lilyville, Lily was not phys­i­cal­ly present. Instead, using Lily’s diaries as inspi­ra­tion, Tovah chan­neled her mother’s per­sona for the audi­tion. It worked. Tovah got the part and arranged for her moth­er to be an extra. Togeth­er they trav­elled to film — Tovah and Lily, plus Lily’s aid, walk­er, and Saks Fifth Avenue wardrobe.

But this bond between moth­er and daugh­ter took years to form. Tovah Feld­shuh grew up with a stal­wart mater­nal pres­ence but deaf­en­ing mater­nal silence. In Lilyville—which spans near­ly five gen­er­a­tions of the Kaplan – Feld­shuh fam­i­ly — she recounts her rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, and the emo­tion­al dis­tance that exist­ed between them for most of her life.

Lily, who was born to immi­grant par­ents in 1911 on her family’s din­ing room table in the Bronx, was the third of four sis­ters and the shyest. At sev­en­teen, she met Sid­ney Feld­shuh, whom she ulti­mate­ly mar­ried; he remained her sweet­heart until he died at eighty-six. In Tovah’s ear­li­est years, the rau­cous pres­ence of extend­ed fam­i­ly liv­ing steps away ingrained in her the val­ue and unbreak­able con­nec­tions of fam­i­ly. When she was in kinder­garten, Sid­ney and Lily built a house in Scars­dale, New York.

Sidney’s opti­mism, sup­port, and exu­ber­ance formed the sails at Tovah’s back, pro­pelling her for­ward as a con­sum­mate actor, singer, and play­wright. It took years for Tovah to real­ize that Lily’s silence belied her pride and respect for Tovah’s work and for the per­son she had become. It was not until the first anniver­sary of her father’s death that Tovah expe­ri­enced her mother’s latent spir­it. Rather than wear a black suit to his unveil­ing, Lily wore navy blue, explain­ing to Tovah that with the pub­lic unveil­ing of the memo­r­i­al stone, she felt that she had per­mis­sion to pub­licly become her own person.

From that point for­ward, Lily under­stood that liv­ing whol­ly and joy­ful­ly would be the great­est trib­ute to her beloved Sid­ney. At nine­ty-five, she became the old­est per­son in the world to under­go an exper­i­men­tal heart pro­ce­dure; at one hun­dred, she trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton, DC to receive the Coura­geous Patient Award. When she was 103, Lily met Tovah for lunch in New York every Wednes­day after the mati­nee for Pip­pin. Ulti­mate­ly, Lily suc­cumbed to a mas­sive brain hem­or­rhage and died at her Scars­dale home sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly from the Unit­ed States and England.

Lily’s silent, unwa­ver­ing and per­fect pres­ence dur­ing Tovah’s child­hood was her demon­stra­tion of love. What she was unable to express, she felt deeply. Decades passed before Tovah under­stood that her mother’s emo­tion­al dis­tance was a reflec­tion of her reserved nature; when Lily blos­somed, she became radi­ant and expres­sive. Lilyville is a three-act play cel­e­brat­ing the endur­ing bond of moth­er and daugh­ter. Like in any great script, the char­ac­ters are resplen­dent, flawed, and ulti­mate­ly redeemed in a dra­ma that is still being writ­ten by gen­er­a­tions of the Kaplan – Feld­shuh family.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Tovah Feldshuh

  1. Moth­er and daugh­ter rela­tion­ships can be chal­leng­ing — as can any par­ent-child rela­tion­ship. Do you have iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in your expe­ri­ence with the dynam­ic between Tovah and Lily?

  2. Tovah sur­vived her child­hood because of the uncon­di­tion­al love of her father. As a child, were you made to feel uncon­di­tion­al­ly loved? If so, by both par­ents or one?

  3. In hind­sight, Tovah was able to find many bless­ings that came from Lily’s tough love. Do you feel there’s a ben­e­fit to tough love? What are your par­ent­ing styles?

  4. Many of Lily’s moth­er­ing mantras came from the over­ar­ch­ing prin­ci­ple of pre­serve and pro­tect.” That led to: You are what you wear,” You are who you mar­ry,” as well as If you can’t raise your chil­dren, you’re a flea.” What are some specifics val­ues you attribute to parental dic­tates or habits?

  5. When Mama Lily lost her hus­band, she seemed to have a par­a­digm shift in how she would live her life going for­ward. Has any­thing in your life ever caused you to see the world in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent way?

  6. If you are not Jew­ish, what was your expe­ri­ence of the Feld­shuh-Levys with regards to the impor­tance of faith, tra­di­tions and fam­i­ly com­pared to your reli­gious upbring­ing? If you are Jew­ish, how was your expe­ri­ence of fam­i­ly and faith sim­i­lar or dis­sim­i­lar to Tovah’s family?

  7. Tovah had a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to trav­el abroad ear­ly in her life. What was your first inde­pen­dent” trav­el expe­ri­ence. Were you as coura­geous as Tovah? Like Tovah, did you have one par­ent who encour­aged you to fly” and one who encour­aged you to play it safe?

  8. Tovah felt com­plete­ly on her own when pur­su­ing her dreams. She con­tin­u­al­ly sought her mother’s approval of her work. Were your dreams rec­og­nized, nur­tured and encour­aged by your parents?

  9. Tovah sees her life as a the­ater piece and Lilyville unfolds in three acts. Do you have a metaphor for your life and how would that impact the telling of your own story?

  10. We’re you sur­prised that despite Tovah’s suc­cess her assess­ment of her singing was so strong­ly teth­ered to her mother’s com­ment, Don’t you have to be born with a voice?” In your expe­ri­ence has some­one inad­ver­tent­ly said some­thing crit­i­cal (or pos­i­tive) that lives on in you in your adult life? What would sur­prise us about your inner critic’s” voice (if you have one)!

  11. Tovah’s move from the cacoph­o­nous 955 Wal­ton Avenue in the Bronx to the refined silence of Scars­dale was seis­mic. Did your fam­i­ly move dur­ing your child­hood and if so, how did that affect you? If you stayed in one fam­i­ly home through­out your child­hood what were the advan­tages and disadvantages?

  12. Lily’s inter­ven­tion kept Tovah from mar­ry­ing some­one who ulti­mate­ly might have been a poor choice. Did your moth­er or father advise you against some­one you were in a rela­tion­ship with? Were their instincts right?

  13. Lily’s life spanned 103 years of major cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and tech­no­log­i­cal advances. Reflect on the eras your par­ents lived through and how they impact­ed the way you were raised.

  14. It’s quite remark­able that Lily con­tin­ued to evolve and adapt through­out her long life? Did your par­ents become more rigid and set in their ways as they aged or did they become more flexible?

  15. Have any of you reunit­ed with a par­ent after decades of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion? And do you regard that as a Tikkun Olam,” a repair­ing of the world? If so, how?

  16. Tovah claims that the last les­son her moth­er taught her was how to die. What did you learn from the pass­ing of your inti­mate fam­i­ly? Or, if they are all still alive, did Lilyville col­or your view of the end of life?

  17. Moth­er-long­ing is such a strong uni­ver­sal feel­ing. We feel it when our moth­ers are not there for us as chil­dren; we feel it after they are gone. How does this long­ing shape us? How did it shape Tovah in Lilyville?

  18. Tovah expe­ri­enced spir­i­tu­al vis­i­ta­tions” from her deceased par­ents. Have you ever felt the pres­ence of a depart­ed loved one in a way that defied a log­i­cal explanation?