When she arrived alone in New York in 1924, eighteen-year-old Reisel Thaler resembled the other Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who accompanied her. Yet she already had an American passport tucked in her scant luggage. Reisel had drawn her first breath on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1905, then was taken back to Galicia (in what is now Poland) by her father before she turned two. She was, as she would boast to the end of her days, “American born.”
The distinguished biographer and critic Rachel M. Brownstein began writing about her mother Reisel during the Trump years, dwelling on the tales she told about her life and the questions they raised about nationalism, immigration, and storytelling. For most of the twentieth century, Brownstein’s mother gracefully balanced her identities as an American and a Jew. Her values, her language, and her sense of timing inform the imagination of the daughter who recalls her in her own old age. The memorializing daughter interrupts, interprets, and glosses, sifting through alternate versions of the same stories using scenes, songs, and books from their time together.
But the central character of this book is Reisel, who eventually becomes Grandma Rose—always watching and judging, singing, baking, and bustling. Living life as the heroine of her own story, she reminds us how to laugh despite tragedy, find our courage, and be our most unapologetically authentic selves.
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