Celebrating Jewish Literature: What objects can teach us about the past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When discussing what might be learned about the past from found objects, our first reaction might be to think of archeological sites. Scholars study the remains of former cultures to learn how people behaved and to hypothesize what life might have been like during that time period. Richard Rabinowitz focuses on a different era in his nonfiction work “Objects of Love and Regret” (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press): after his mother, Sarah, died in 2015 in her 100th year, he wanted to better understand her life and did so using common household items as a starting point.

Rabinowitz has a poetic approach to viewing the past. In his introduction, he writes, “Our lives are a dance with history. Most of us dance first as family, later as a couple, or as a town or nation. Often we follow the choreography of others, sometimes we add a step or two of our own. History – the experience of those who came before us – is within us and around us, inescapable. Remembered, recorded or not, forgotten, retrieved or not, we rent rooms in History’s house for a time, and then we are gone.” Rabinowitz uses ordinary items – a bottle opener, a cigar box, a perfume bottle, scissors, etc. – to spark reflections about his mother, in addition to writing about the life of his father, Dave, and both sets of his grandparents. But it is his mother who is the true focus of his book. Working with his older sister, Beverly, who has a more vivid memory of the early years of her life, he comes to better understand his mother and his parents’ relationship.

The author is relatively clear-eyed about his relatives’ flaws, although he is more forgiving of his mother’s. He notes that his grandfather on his paternal side was so disliked that Dave didn’t invite him to his wedding. In fact, Rabinowitz only learned his grandfather was alive when someone informed Dave of his father’s final illness. On the maternal side, Sarah was extremely close to her own mother, Shenka, as shown in the first chapter when she buys her mother a bottle opener – one that has remained in the family – in order to make her life easier. Rabinowitz explores the use of the time-saving device during a period when there were few. He also posits that although his mother was glad to work to help her parents with their finances, she also felt guilty about not being able to help her mother prepare for Shabbat dinner.

His parents’ marriage was far from perfect: Sarah sought to have a peaceful household. Dave, on the other hand, was volatile, partly because of the difficulty he had making a living. Dave did love Sarah’s family and the acceptance he found there must have helped the two become a couple. Both came from families that struggled to make ends meet, something that continued once Dave and Sarah were married. Dave was a not completely successful salesman, although he did finally own a jewelry store. Even though the store was successful for a period of time, economics played a role in making his business no longer viable. Outside financial and social forces – fraud, red lining, etc. – caused them to move from the home they loved – now no longer in a safe neighborhood – and created additional problems for the sales business Dave developed after the store closed. 

Rabinowitz notes that his parents identified deeply as Jewish. Shabbat and holidays were important, but, even when they belonged to a synagogue, religion itself did not play a major role in their lives. The true center of Sarah’s Judaism was in her kitchen. This included carefully cleaning for Passover and preparing all the traditional foods. Although she tried to fit into America, there was one exception: Sarah’s cooking reflected that of her mother and their Eastern European past. For all her love of peace in her household, she also saw Jewish-style discussions – what others might call arguing – as important. Listening patiently was considered a sign of not caring: jumping in to argue a point was. 

Sarah’s character became clearer to Rabinowitz as he also reviewed the discussions he had with her when she was alive. Looking back on an interview he did with her when she was living in Florida, he notes his mother always “avoided consolatory phrases. She never said things like ‘it will all work out,’ ‘it was all for the best,’ ‘you’ll be fine,’ or ‘it was meant to happen.’ As I learned more about her early life, I noticed that she always conveyed a painful, unresolved undercurrent to her stories. Anti-semitic pogroms, the stigma of being a newcomer [to the U.S.], unemployment, helplessness in the face of illness – all of these were always close to the surface. When she complained that young people today have such a hard time making ends meet, the strain of her own household in East New York in 1937 was obviously on her mind. Even stories that should have been tinged with triumph could have a sad ending.”

“Objects of Love and Regret” works best when offering a view of Jewish American life that no longer exists. Sarah is not exactly an every woman, but much of what she experienced would have been familiar to other Jews living in the greater New York City area of her time. It also serves as a way for readers – particularly young readers who never knew this generation – to understand the choices they made, and how those choices still affect their children and grandchildren.