Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Color of Water

By James McBride

Ruchel Zylska was born in Europe and immigrated as a child with her parents to the United States. Her father Fishel (good name for him as he was a kind of "fishy" guy) was a traveling rabbi, moving his family from city to city, from temple to synagogue. He was an unpleasant person and soon wore out his welcome at every new job. Finally he decided to give up the traveling rabbi business and opened a kind of general store in Virginia.
Fishel was neither a loving father or loving husband. He married his wife Hudis for her family connections and made no secret of his disdain of her. His children were obliged to work in the store all the time except on the Sabbath and when they were in school. They despised their father and quickly left home as fast as they could.
Ruchel, who was called Ruth, became enamored of a young black man and soon found herself pregnant. Her mother sent her to New York to stay with the mother's sister and an abortion was performed. But Ruth decided that New York was the place for her and, once back in Virginia, quickly escaped again, returning to her aunts in New York. It was there that she met the man she was to marry, Andrew McBride.
This was not what Fishel wanted for his daughter. He wanted to marry her off to a suitable Jewish man not to a black man and a Christian to boot. Ruth found herself cut off from her family, told that she was dead to them.
Ruth and Andrew had eight kids together and after he died she remarried and had four more with that husband. She never spoke of her past life to her kids, she never practiced the Jewish religion, becoming instead a born-again Christian. Her break with her past was total. Her kids never even met any of her relatives.
Her son James never knew his father. He died while Ruth was pregnant with James. Ruth was left in dire straits, with no support from her family and no money coming in. She did what she could, but the family always struggled, even after she remarried. She never talked to her children about her past, even about the fact she was Jewish. She had left her Jewish past behind. But as James grew older, he became curious about her past and his heritage and he gradually coaxed the story out of his mother. It was a journey of discovery that helped him to understand some of the puzzles that used to confuse him as a little kid and come to grips with his mixed blood heritage.

This was a interesting story. Ruth raised her twelve kids and saw to it that they graduated from high school and went on to college. Sure they struggled and times were hard, but somehow they all made it through. It is a story about a family who overcame the many strikes against them, with their determined Jewish mother as their guiding star.

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