James McBride's memoir, The Color of Water, weaves together with alternating segments the story of his mother's life and the story of his and his sibling's lives. The segments about his mother, Ruth Shilsky, are narrated in the first person, so we have her "voice."
The segment entitled "The Old Testament" belongs to Ruth, and in it, she recounts her early years with her family, focusing most on her father, Tateh, which is a Yiddish word for father, quite commonly used in Jewish families even today. Ruth's father was an itinerant rabbi, moving from congregation to congregation when his contracts expired. Ruth says "he was a lousy rabbi" (McBride 31). The family finally settled in Suffolk, Virginia, where Tateh opened a grocery store, which was a financially successful endeavor.
But Tateh was truly a monstrous husband and father. He was cruel to his wife, who had serious physical disabilities. He was cruel to his children, forcing them to work long, hard hours in the store and really allowing them to have no childhoods at all. Worst of all, though, was that he sexually molested Ruth from a fairly early age.
Ruth shares with us how Tateh affected her in this passage:
...it affected me in a lot of ways, what he did to me. I had very low self-esteem as a child, which I kept with me for many, many years; and even now, I don't want to be around anyone who is domineering or pushing me around because it makes me nervous (33).
Tateh had a profound effect upon Ruth, as she says, in many ways. I think it is fair to say that he created circumstances that caused her to flee as far as she could from him, to flee as far as she could from Judaism, and to create a life for herself as unlike his as possible. It is remarkable that this woman healed herself of the damage he had done to her, living a full and rich life in a new setting, a new religion, finding good men to love and raise her children with.