Off the Shelf: Family joys and pains by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The source of our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows can be one and the same: our families. Our love makes us far more vulnerable to slights, rejection and criticism when it comes from a family member. Acknowledgment and acceptance of our true selves – the good and the bad – is not always easy to give or receive. Three recent memoirs explore family connections and the love that flows between human hearts.
“The Color of Love”
Marra B. Gad is an incredible person: that was my reaction to reading her moving memoir “The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed Race Girl” (Bolden Books). Gad is a mixed race, adopted daughter of white Jewish parents. Unlike many of these adoptions, Gad’s mother was Jewish. In fact, once Gad was born, the rabbi who saw her was so upset to learn that she was mixed race that he offered to find her parents another baby to adopt. Fortunately for Gad, her parents fell in love with her at first sight. That didn’t mean that life was easy for them. Far too many extended family members rejected Gad for her color and far too many Jews refused to accept her as fully Jewish. 
After adopting Gad, her parents had two biological children, but not everyone treated the three equally. These people were then no longer welcome in Gad’s parents’ home because they expected all their children to be loved and respected. One beloved relative, Great-Aunt Nettie, managed to hide her feelings until Gad’s sister’s wedding. Gad’s mother was very close to this aunt, who in some ways had been like a mother to her. But when Nettie makes a racist comment, Gad’s mother dismisses her from their lives, that is until 15 years later when they’re informed that Nettie is suffering from dementia and needs help.
At this point, Gad’s mother suffered from health problems of her own and Gad’s other siblings were in no position to travel to help Nettie. Since Gad traveled to California from Chicago for work, she agrees to help, even though she knows that Nettie will not be happy to see her. What Gad does then is remarkable, especially in light of Nettie’s behavior toward her. The change in their relationship as Nettie continues to decline mentally makes for heartwarming reading. 
The prose of “The Color of Love” is easy to read, but it’s heart-wrenching to see how people treated Gad. She’s rejected by Jews for being black and by blacks for being Jewish. Although she would love to have married, too many Jewish men see her as exotic – someone fun to date, but not someone they could bring home to their mother. Both her parents come across as wonderful, loving people, as does Gad herself. She chooses to help Nettie when no one could blame her for refusing to even see her. Gad picks kindness over selfishness and love over anger. This beautiful memoir will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
“What We Will Become”
Sometimes when deciding how to deal with the future, it’s necessary to review your past – to understand your relationship with your parents before you can understand your relationship with your children. This is the case with Mimi Lemay whose memoir, “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), offers two starting points: the first, what occurs when one of her young daughters declares she is a boy and, the second, when looking at her own troubled relationship with her mother.
Lemay was born to an American mother and a secular Israeli father. Their marriage breaks up when Lemay is young and her mother moves them back to the United States in order to live as ultra-Orthodox Jews. Lemay’s mother believes that her two children have a special purpose in this world that can only be accomplished through a spiritual Jewish life. Yet, as she gets older, Lemay finds herself attracted to something different. That creates problems with her mother, especially when Lemay enters the secular world.
The contemporary narrative – that of Lemay, her non-Jewish husband and her child who wishes to change genders – is intertwined with the tale of Lemay’s growing up. What becomes clear is that Em (not the child’s original name, but one chosen for this book) truly believes she is a boy. This leads to rebellion and unhappiness when the child is dressed as a girl or asked to do girl things. When the child starts school, this also creates problems for her older sister, who feels that Em is not being treated well because she stands out and refuses to accept gender norms. 
It doesn’t spoil the memoir to reveal Lemay comes to understand that, just as she had to find her own way in the world, she must allow her child to do the same. Offering Jacob (as he decides to be known) the opportunity for a fresh start at a school where no one knows him, she sees her sullen, introverted child blossom into a happy, outgoing person. Learning the statistic of suicide for transgender children whose parents do not accept them, Lemay publishes a letter to her son (with his permission) online; the letter went viral and led her to write this memoir.
Not everyone will agree with the viewpoints offered in “What We Will Become,” but Lemay now feels her life does have a purpose, not just the one her mother expected. Leaving her Orthodox community allowed her to accept her child as a boy – to accept his own definition of himself. You don’t have to support that idea, though, in order to appreciate the love she feels for her children and the new understanding she has of her mother.
“The Survivors”
Adam P. Frankel planned to write a history of his mother’s family and their survival during and after the Holocaust. However, his interest expanded when he not only learned about the idea of inherited trauma, but the effect he feels that trauma has had on his own life. In his ambitious, but flawed, “The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing” (Harper), Frankel explores three generations of his family in order to understand his relationship to his mother.
The opening section of the memoir is the most interesting. It relays how his grandparents survived the war and came to the United States. Although there are many similarities to other such stories, Frankel manages to make them feel fresh and absorbing. What he does note is that, over the years, this side of the family kept secrets, which affected the next generation in unexpected ways. Frankel then writes of his mother’s behavior and his belief that she inherited the trauma her parents experienced – a section that also includes information on the research currently being done on inherited trauma. Even for those who don’t accept this idea, Frankel’s mother definitely suffers from some type of mental disorder, although the family often refused to acknowledge it. 
Her illness affects her marriage, but it’s only one of the causes of her divorce. Frankel writes lovingly of his father’s side of the family, particularly his grandfather whose example gives rise to Frankel’s desire for public service. (Frankel was a speech writes for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and worked for the president during his first term.) Frankel’s life changes when he begins to doubt whether he is his father’s biological son. After pushing his mother for the truth, he learns he is the result of an affair with a friend of his mother’s, someone he’s known his entire life. Frankel finds it difficult to cope with the knowledge and seeks to distance himself from his mother. The change in their relationship affects other family members, since Frankel refuses to speak of the true reason behind their estrangement.
The difficulty I had with “The Survivors” is that the memoir tries to be too many things. When it focuses on individual parts of Frankel’s life, the results are interesting, but those parts never felt as if they jelled into a whole. Still, its ending is very moving as Frankel comes to terms with the most difficult question raised by his new knowledge of his birth: whether or not his father’s family would have rejected him if they knew he was not connected to them by blood.