Rifke: An Improbable Life by Rosalie Wise Sharp (ECW Press, $19.95) may belong to the rags-to-riches genre, but this engaging memoir would be more accurately described as shtetl-to-Four Seasons.
The 70-year old Toronto author begins her account with an anecdote about an actual journey, in 1998, — an “around the world trip in eight days” with a stop in Brunei for the Sultan’s birthday party, on a private jet newly acquired by her husband Isidore Sharp, founder and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Sharp confesses that as the plane takes off, “we can’t stop grinning… two schleppers like us… raised in households where one bathroom sometimes served 12, and our parents came from a Polish shtetl with no indoor plumbing.”
But the narrative is not about how far Rifke and Issy have gone. It’s about where they came from. “Rifke” is a vivid insider’s view of a shtetl upbringing in the WASP bastion of North Toronto where, she writes, “We were occasionally called dirty Jews.” As a child living in the shadow of the Holocaust, she experienced the “unreality” of going to school with kids “whose grandmothers were not gassed but took them to see the Nutcracker ballet at Christmas.” Which was the real world? young Rifke wondered. As an adult, she travelled to Ozarow in Poland. She tells us: “In my line of Jews, I am the last link to the vanished world of the Eastern European shtetl… .it seems important to record the somewhat weird ways of my growing-up years, because there is not a single Jew left in Ozarow and I’m the last generation of the shtetl breed.”
Using Yiddish chapter titles and expressions, this book draws us through the decades and the fortunes of the author’s birth family and the family she forms with her adored Issy. She takes the reader into her confidence to such a degree that she reveals, publicly for the first time, that at 17, the shtetl girl became pregnant with Issy’s child. “I had no choice,” she writes. “I was smitten.” She tell us, too, of the passions instilled in her after reading Betty Friedan — Sharp went back to school and got a degree in art, designed hotel rooms and became a renowned collector, curator and scholar of ceramics, which she describes as “my cheerful madness.”
In later chapters she offers us glimpses of the jet-set life, of “consorting with kings and princes.” With the self-awareness that contributes to the bond that forms between reader and author, Sharp explains, “It doesn’t come naturally to me but I make a good show of it. Issy and I enjoy the company of the Saudi Prince Alwaleed, a major investor in Four Seasons… .We are often guests in his palace and his retreat outside Riyadh.”
She loves attending new hotel openings in foreign places, not because of the glamour, but “because I don’t know anyone there and I can move around unobserved. Mainly, she acknowledges, “On these trips, I derive much naches from watching my husband in action… .” The joy we derive from this book, though, is undoubtedly the joy of seeing Rifke herself in action.
Judy Gerstel, a writer in the Living section of the Toronto Star, grew up in what she describes as the shtetl of North Winnipeg in the 1950s and now enjoys the occasional luxury of staying at a Four Seasons hotel.