Who She Was

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Samuel G. Freedman has written other books about the American Jewish experience, but Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life is a more deeply intimate story, written after Freedman revisited his mother’s grave for the first time in twenty-six years after her death. His mother, Eleanor (Hatkin) Freedman, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Samuel was fourteen years old and died while he was in college. When he realized, at age forty-five, that his mother was a stranger to him, Freedman regretted his rejection of her during her illness. (He had gone so far as to pretend that he did not know her when she visited his campus.) At her grave, he felt compelled to seek to understand his mothernot just as his mother, or his father’s wife, or someone who died young and painfullybut as a person in her own right. He asks, “What did it mean to have come of age during the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust?” and “Who was my mother before she became my mother? Whom did she love? Who broke her heart? What lifted her dreams? What crushed her spirit? What did she want to be? And did she ever get to be it in her brief time on earth?” To answer these questions became a need that led Freedman to write this book as an act of penance for his years of neglect.

As his mother shared little of her past or family lore with him, Freedman used his skills as a professional journalist to reconstruct his mother’s life. He contacted potential sources through Internet services and letters to one thousand alumni of the college she attended. He consulted genealogists; school, medical, and immigration records; legal documents; newspapers and magazines of the period; archives; and other historical sources. He used his mother’s own short stories about her childhood, his personal memories, and those of Eleanor’s brother and sister. The yield was a wonderful mix of anecdotes from relatives, Eleanor’s high school and college classmates, former boyfriends, letters, postcards, diaries, yearbooks and autograph books, home movies, and photographs. Yiddish sayings and photographs (especially the photographspictures of Eleanor with her family, Fannie and Eleanor clowning on their roof, Eleanor with her girlfriends at Coney Island, with her boyfriend, Charlie, and with her first husband, Lenny) add life and poignancy to the text. Writing the biography as a novel, in the context of the American Jewish experience during the Depression and World War II, actually increases its realism.

Eleanor’s story is essentially the tale of a woman growing up, finding love, experiencing regret and disillusionment, and finally, trying to make the best of it. It begins in February, 1938, with Eleanor’s first day of high school, just before her fourteenth birthday. She is portrayed as a “star,” adored by her family yet bored, defiant, and ashamed of her parents. Longing for a better life than her parents have been able to eke out during the Depressiona refrigerator, nice clothes, and “steak on Sunday and turkey on Thanksgiving”she dreams of becoming a scientist, like her heroine Madame Curie. She has outgrown the childhood joys of her Jewish working-class neighborhood of East Bronx (now South Bronx), and her world seems as “cramped and confining” as the narrow daybed she shares with Fannie, her younger sister.

Freedman re-creates both the dreary, cramped, and cold tenement-house apartment where Eleanor lives with her family and the neighborhoodits tenements, storefront synagogues, trolley cars, peddlers and street musicians, men looking for work, and children jumping rope on the sidewalks. Rose, Eleanor’s unhappy, careworn, Polish immigrant mother, has been in America for twenty years and still longs for her homeland. She pinches pennies to send money to her relatives overseas and helps her sister’s husband and children immigrate to Uruguay. Her sister remains in Poland. Sol, Eleanor’s father, works in a shoe factory in Lower Manhattan, loves America, and finds purpose in life and escape from his domineering wife by working for the Jackson Democratic Club. Rose keeps a kosher house, and Sol goes regularly to synagogue, but Eleanor associates Judaism with “superstition in the Old World and hypocrisy in the New” and resists going to synagogue. She is close to her sister Fannie, who, in contrast to Eleanor, is dutiful, undemanding, and content with her world.

In high school Eleanor excels in a predominantly Jewish group of 150 honors students in a school of 3,000 students. She has a crush on Hy Keltz, a graduating senior who is handsome and athletic, but poorer than Eleanor and not as bright as she. She pursues him, and when he takes a full-time job as a deliveryman after graduation, she enjoys an idyllic summer, dating Hy, going to the New York World Fair, and picnicking and renting bikes in...

(The entire section is 1973 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 15 (April 1, 2005): 1338.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 99.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (April 24, 2005): 30.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 60.