In her new collection of life stories, Peace in the House: Tales from a Yiddish Kitchen (David R. Godine, $23.95), Faye Moskowitz calls her childhood “preparation for a love affair with words.” With candor and elegant simplicity, she remembers a Jewish girlhood in the Midwest of the ’30s and ’40s, exploring the tensions between immigrants and their second-generation children. Often hilarious, at times heartbreaking, Moskowitz’s stories weave together present-day accounts and insights about her complex and painful childhood. She creates a conciliatory bridge between the past and her life now, showing new found appreciation for what she has learned from Judaism and the women who raised her, like her extended family, landsleit, and her mother, whom she loses at an early age to cancer.
Moskowitz’s accounts of Jewish women who have been silenced, forced to keep ugly secrets, and evade shame in their communities are provocative and disturbing. In one story, she describes the plight of an Orthodox neighbor in the ’30s, whose only comfort from a violent and abusive husband is writing plaintive letters to an advice columnist at the Forward’s Bintel Brief. Her desperate attempts to quell her husband’s rages are met with pat advice to keep “a pleasant atmosphere in the home.” Here, Moskowitz presents the cruel irony of what it means to keep ‘peace in the house,’ unveiling women’s powerlessness in the domestic sphere and the cost to their dignity and freedom.
In another poignant essay, she describes her quest to relearn her mameh loshn, mother tongue. Though Yiddish— especially when spoken in the outside world of the gentile—made her feel ashamed of her Jewishness, the process of relearning the language unleashes her earliest and fondest memories: the conversations of her mother’s friends around the kitchen table while the men were at work.
With these stories, Moskowitz redefines her relationship with the traditions and culture so integral to her spirit. She also discovers respect and admiration for the courageous first generation of Jewish women whose struggles as wives and mothers were not so different from her own. These masterfully written tales rove seamlessly between the present day and a fascinating era of Jewish American life.
Deborah Osmond lives in Montreal. Her articles have appeared in academic publications on Jewish and British history and in the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.