TEVYE S GRANDCHILDREN: REDISCOVERING A JEWISH IDENTITY. By Eleanor Mallet. Pilgrim Press. 212 pages. $25.
Eleanor Mallet, descendant of Eastern European Yiddish-speakers, grew up in a Reform Jewish family for whom assimilation was key. To that end her parents sent her to Putney School in Vermont and to Oberlin College. Not understanding Yiddish, she missed intimacy in family gatherings where it was spoken. And not knowing Hebrew, she found herself an outsider again when her sons, with their celebratory view of Judaism, chatted.
Armed with an inquiring mind and a keen sensibility, Mallet successfully explored the mosaic of Jewish history the better to find her own place and family experience in it. She even learned Hebrew. She had heart for her task, as evidenced by the digging she did as a religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
In the mid-1980s, she was first in the nation to follow up locally on a National Catholic Reporter expose of pedophile priests in Louisiana. She uncovered similar incidents in western Pennsylvania a decade before church pedophiles became national dish.
Her sensitive and facile writing ability, best seen in her former columns at the Cleveland Plain Dealer some of which were excerpted in her earlier book, The Notion of Family (Orange Frazer Press, 1999) resulted in a series of very readable essays that reflect exhaustive reading, travel to Germany, Israel, and Eastern Europe and repositories of Jewish lore and culture, talks with modern scholars, and her own thinking.
This is an intellectual and emotional trip by a modern Jewish woman committed to a multicultural world as she comes to grips with her ethnic, racial, and religious pasts, the better to fit under her own skin and into the American mainstream.
Her purpose lends universality to her exploration. One needn t be Jewish to find it worthwhile.
Though Mallet s generation was one of Jewish invisibility, she said the dissonance she felt about her Jewishness, and her passionate attachment to it, drove her task.
Jewish history is rife with themes of loss and survival, and with countless definitions by Jews themselves of what it means to be Jewish. For Mallet, a middle-aged married woman with two adult children, the effort to find out where she came from in Judaism was as affirming as it was sad.
For the rich cultural and spiritual legacy of Judaism that her American-Jewish sons exult in and through which they express love in the family to come into its own today, she says, requires letting go cosseted elements of the past. She is not about forgetting. She knows first-hand how anti-semitism can blind-side one.
But context is important. One lets go to move forward. Her vision is of an internalized, and nascent Jewish American culture, unlike the communal experience of earlier centuries, yet fortified by the millennia of Jewish savants who constantly update notions of what it means to be Jewish.
Those more orthodox than she may cavil with where she has been and where she thinks she is going, but it s hard to imagine that anyone traipsing behind her will be bored.
Eileen Foley is a former Blade associate editor.