A memoir traces the history of a Jewish family from Russia to New England.
Novelist Skoy (What Survives, 2016) turns to nonfiction in this exploration of her family history that presents a panorama of Jewish life, from Bershad, a shtetl in what is now Ukraine, to the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The central character in the book is Skoy's father, Nathan Mitnick, who is introduced as an ailing 91-year-old man so intent on dying that he asks his daughter to poison him with potassium. “Have I ever known him?” the author wonders. “How well does one ever know another human being? Has there always been a part of him that stayed behind in those frozen places of his past where I’ll never walk?” Life in Bershad, then part of Russia, was brutal, with one of Mitnick’s uncles beaten to death by the anti-Semitic sons of local farmers and another burned to death in a synagogue while Cossacks guarded the doors. “If this is the best God can do for his chosen people, I wish he’d choose somebody else,” Mitnick’s father would say. Mitnick eventually fled with his mother and brother in a hay wagon, ending up in the U.S., where he fashioned a career as an ophthalmologist, raising his two daughters in Philadelphia and New Bedford. With a keen ear for dialogue, Skoy skillfully portrays the joys and sorrows of family members’ lives and the idiosyncrasies of the relatives and others who revolved around them. There’s Uncle Morris, “casting an eerie shadow between the kitchen and the living room, like an apparition from Auschwitz,” and Aunt Kathie, who converted to Roman Catholicism, even going to a convent to become a nun. In one particularly comical episode, Skoy’s mother makes the best of the situation after she crashes the family car into a drugstore during a driving lesson. “As long as we’re here, we might as well pick up my prescription,” she reasons. And at the center of the action, there’s Mitnick, who, memorably, can’t fathom why Sammy Davis Jr. would convert to Judaism. “Whatever could’ve made him want to be Jewish?” he asks. “He has to be nuts.”
The author deftly captures the humor and pathos of Jewish life and the many quirks of her colorful family.