A YIDDISH MAMA IN VERMONT
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 25, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Author Deborah Lee Luskin has chutzpah.
What? For a family newspaper, the best I can give is an illustration from the great Leo Rosten's English-Yiddish dictionary: "The classic example is the boy who killed both his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan."
With Passover drawing near, this may be the perfect time for Luskin to launch her first book, "Into the Wilderness" (2010; White River Press, Amherst, Mass.). It's the story of a Jewish woman from New York named Rose Mayer, twice widowed, who moves to a very small, fictional town in Windham County, Vt., and starts a new life at the age of 64.
It's a cross-cultural, as well as a love-conquors-ignorance, kind of story. And aren't love and education, after all, the only cures for bigotry? New York meets Vermont, classical music at Marlboro kindles the savage breast, and romance blooms. The Vermonters learn about Passover seders, FDR-style liberalism, sour cream and keeping kosher. The Jewish woman learns about small towns, the beauty of the Vermont landscape, Republican-style liberalism, wood stoves and canning tomatoes.
Because I come from the milieu that Luskin is writing about, I was especially watchful while Luskin described Rose's early life.
Rose's family left their Eastern European shtetl (small Jewish settlement) and came to America when she was nine. It was the same trip my grandparents made, and I know that it takes guts to leave behind everything you know and love to begin again in a strange place. Those who made the journey saved their families from the Russian Cossack's pogroms and the coming Nazi holocaust. Those who stayed behind mostly perished.
Rose's father, who has both his feet nailed to tradition (and not to "Tradition!" as it is rousingly sung in "Fiddler on the Roof"), eventually turns on America. He presciently recognizes that the goldeneh medina - usually translated as "city of gold" or "land of opportunity and promise" or, simply, America - is all market and no soul: a fool's paradise. But no matter how difficult Rose's life is, she survives and thrives.
Luskin weaves many families' stories into Rose's early life, which are told in well-spaced flashbacks. "I've honored all my grandparents," she told me.
When the novel reaches the "present" - after the assassination of John F. Kennedy but before the assassination of Robert Kennedy - Rose moves to Vermont, makes new friends and meets Percy Mendell, a real Vermonter, a bachelor, gardener, and retired extension worker, a Republican and a pianist. He also appears to be a virgin - when he and Rose finally bed down together, he says it's his first time. I asked Luskin if she was sure about that.
"No, I'm not sure," she said. "He never makes love with a woman the way he does with Rose. There are first times and there are first times. It can be literal or it can be metaphor. He's a very self-contained man, so this blossoming at this time of his life is very big, and that's how I decided to leave it."
Rose encounters a bit of anti-Semitism in Vermont. While there has been a strong Jewish presence in the state in recent decades - Ben & Jerry, the founders of Magic Hat beer and Seventh Generation green household products, Gov. Madeleine Kunin, our beloved Senator Bernie Sanders, to name a few names - there has also been xenophobia, or fear of the outsider, or flat-out prejudice.
Luskin came to Vermont in 1984. "I found not so much anti-semitism as ignorance," she said. "And some of the ignorance resulted in anti-semitism. For example, I heard derogatory comments calling someone 'a New York Jew.' And I'm a New York Jew. And someone else saying, 'Don't Jew me down' - which means to bargain. Maybe I'm paranoid, but there was some whispering, some behind-the-back, some snubbing. It was very subtle."
When Rose finally marries Percy, she celebrates with her new Vermont friends and not with her son and his family. This part didn't ring true to me - all the Jewish women I know are very strong on family.
"What about when kids marry out of the faith and the older generation sits shiva (in mourning) instead of going to the wedding?" Luskin challenged me. "There are lots of indications, regardless of what Jews say about the importance of family, of walking away. We have an uncle we've never met. He's the black sheep. In my experience, Jews are always icing out their family."
Luskin, a journalist, Vermony Public Radio commentator and educator, is most passionate about stories.
"I believe that what makes humans different from all other species is our narrative capability," she said. "As far as we know, no other species tell stories. Maybe that's what the whales are doing. Maybe they're telling the story of the ship that chased a great white whale. Maybe there is an alternative 'Moby Dick.' I have no idea. But humans are story-dependent, and stories are our saving grace."
It takes nerve to write a book that takes on the task of describing the meeting of two cultures and two heritages, both of them containing some very touchy individuals (myself among them). It takes chutzpah. Yet I had a tear in my eye when I finished reading. Lifetime Channel? Hallmark Channel? Are you listening?
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.