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Lies About My Family

Lies About My Family: A Memoir

Amy Hoffman
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Lies About My Family
    Book Description:

    This wellcrafted family memoir is about the stories that are told and the ones that are not told, and about the ways the meanings of the stories change down the generations. It is about memory and the spaces between memories, and about alienation and reconciliation. All of Amy Hoffman’s grandparents came to the United States during the early twentieth century from areas in Poland and Russia that are now Belarus and Ukraine. Like millions of immigrants, they left their homes because of hopeless poverty, looking for better lives or at the least a chance of survival. Because of the luck, hard work, and resourcefulness of the earlier generations, Hoffman and her five siblings grew up in a middleclass home, healthy, well fed, and well educated. An American success story? Not quite—or at least not quite the standard version. Hoffman’s research in the Ellis Island archives along with interviews with family members reveal that the real lives of these relatives were far more complicated and interesting than their documents might suggest. Hoffman and her siblings grew up as observant Jews in a heavily Catholic New Jersey suburb, as political progressives in a town full of Republicans, as readers in a school full of football players and their fans. As a young lesbian, she distanced herself from her parents, who didn’t understand her choice, and from the Jewish community, with its organization around family and unquestioning Zionism. However, both she and her parents changed and evolved, and by the end of this engaging narrative, they have come to new understandings, of themselves and one another.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-257-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. viii-xii)
  4. spinning
    (pp. 1-18)

    Hair. In response to an often-debated question about human nature: yes, people can change. Sometimes it may take a while. At eighty, musing about my sexual preference, my mother said, “I used to be so upset about it. Now I can’t even remember why.”

    And just to be clear, she was not lamenting the forgetfulness of old age. Both of my parents’ memories are as good as they ever were,keynehora,knock on wood. My myopic father’s recall is as sharp as a hawk’s eye—he can retrieve the name of seemingly everyone he’s ever met, the date on which...

  5. at the lake #1
    (pp. 19-30)

    Among the members of Temple Beth-El, remembering the names of the Hoffman kids was practically a party game, like listing all seven dwarfs. There are six of us. Oldest to youngest: Amy, David, Judy, Priscilla, Rebecca, Joshua. Add to that my parents, and our interrelationships are nearly innumerable, eight to the nth degree. In my generation of middle-class Jews, being that prolific just wasn’t done, and my parents have never given a plausible explanation for their fecundity. It couldn’t have been their original plan, and I know they weren’t uninformed about birth control, because my mother has always told the...

  6. my grandmother was sent forth
    (pp. 31-46)

    My mother’s mother was sent forth, as God commanded: pick yourself up and go, from your land and from your birthplace. There, they had nothing to give her for the journey but feathers, gathered carefully day by day from the barnyard and the kitchen. Offal, but it was the best they could do. They presented them to her when she left, and with them she was to make apereneh,a featherbed. In the golden country, she’d have a place to lay her head. They hoped she would be able to make her way. She was fourteen, my mother says....

  7. the sylvia plath of the lower east side an immigrant tragedy
    (pp. 47-48)

    On his way home from the factory, my grandmother’s brother Meyer decides to go for a shave—this is in around 1935, let’s say late on a Friday afternoon. Sabbath is approaching, he’s just gotten paid, his wife is at home in the apartment, humming while a chicken roasts in the oven and his two little daughters play together, quietly for a change, in a corner of the room. The barber’s chair is soft, his towels hot, his razor sharp, and his conversation—baseball, politics—undemanding. Meyer feels a nick, but he waves away the man’s apology, tosses him an...

  8. the madorskys come to america
    (pp. 49-56)

    The Moiseyev Dance Company toured the United States for the first time in 1958, to usher in a new era of cultural exchange. My mother, who loves ballet, excitedly gathered the family to watch the special performance on theEd Sullivan Show.

    “Come see, Ma,” my father called my grandmother. She too enjoyed dancing, as well as singing, acting, performing—doing them, watching them. Her father, she would reminisce, would take her, Rose, his oldest and smartest, in the wagon with him when he traveled from Rogachov to Mogilev. Business finished, they attended the famous Mogilev theater. (Famous in Rogachov,...

  9. a precious family artifact the tape
    (pp. 57-68)

    My father’s grandfather on his father’s side was Baruch-Mordechai Zaetz, theZayde mitn bord,the grandfather with a beard; his grandfather on his mother’s side was Isaac Madorsky, theZayde ohne bord,the grandfather without a beard. My brother David was named for Baruch-Mordechai, so even now if you ask him what his middle initial M stands for, he says, “Mind-your-own-business.”

    In my opinion, he should be grateful that Baruch, at least, is only his Hebrew name, and that in English he’s David, and not Barry, like one of the college students to whom my parents rented our finished attic...

  10. the draft
    (pp. 69-79)

    The men in my family don’t tell war stories, they tell draft-evasion stories.

    At the age of eighteen, my father’s father, then called Moishe Zeitz, fled to America to escape conscription into the czar’s army—nothing unusual there, so did my mother’s father and innumerable Jewish grandfathers all over this country, because even if the Jewish draftees were lucky enough to survive bodily, they lost their souls. In the army, they couldn’t pray or study or celebrate the holidays; they couldn’t eat kosher food. So many sins, over so many years—for the Jewish soldiers there were no furloughs or...

  11. stuffing
    (pp. 80-90)

    My grandmother was known for her cooking. My father remembers her canning fruit all summer—peaches, plums, cherries both sweet and sour. She stored the jars on shelves in the cellar, where they glowed deliciously in the darkness, orange, purple, red.

    “She would get soup meat and ask for extra bones. Those were free,” his sister, my Aunt Norma, tells me in an e-mail. “The leftover meat she would grind and make meat blintzes. With the chicken she would make soup, then roast the chicken, use the wings and feet for fricassee, and the liver she chopped with chicken fat...

  12. communists and socialists and their ambitions
    (pp. 91-105)

    Sol. In 1900 the Baron DeHirsch Fund established the Jewish Agricultural Society, with the purpose of moving immigrants out of the urban slums and onto the land: “free farmers on their own soil,” in the words of the society. Most of the immigrants had never considered living outside the city. In Europe, the Jews were not allowed to own land. The society provided training as well as loans and published an informative Yiddish/English monthly calledThe Jewish Farmer,of all things, the juxtaposition of “Jewish” and “farmer” so incongruous it sounds like a Borsht Belt routine. Although at first the...

  13. my bat mitzvah
    (pp. 106-116)

    My Dress. Jean and Abe Lipstadt were friends of my parents from temple, a childless couple who wanted us to consider them our honorary aunt and uncle. At their request, my parents gave usspecial permissionto call them by their first names rather than Mr. and Mrs., the honorifics we were required to use with other adults. Jean seemed to want me, especially, to feel close to her, but I never did, despite her kindness and attention to me. At one time she had played the violin, and she encouraged me in my lessons, lending me her instrument so...

  14. the jewish policeman
    (pp. 117-122)

    In my early twenties I dated a lovely Jewish guy—yes, a guy. I wanted to be a lesbian, but none of the women I had crushes on would even look at me, which is not surprising since I did nothing to let them know my feelings. On the contrary I did my best to conceal them, not out of shame about the nature of my desires but rather out of awe: I didn’t dare address a word to those marvelous creatures. In the meantime, here was this Jeffrey, inviting me to restaurants and concerts, picking up the checks, and...

  15. jazzin’ with the greats
    (pp. 123-128)

    I keep a photo on my bookshelf of me and my father, dancing at my brother Josh’s wedding, October 1995, Hartford, Connecticut. My father’s bow tie is slightly askew, and he’s half-smiling, his right arm around my shoulder and my left hand in his, in the classic ballroom clasp. He’s wearing a rented tuxedo with a pink shirt and a boutonniere.

    He owns a tuxedo that he inherited from his brother-in-law, my Uncle Walter, but Joshua didn’t want him to wear it. They argued about it. “It’s double-breasted, Dad. It doesn’t match anyone else’s. It doesn’t even fit you right.”...

  16. my father’s regrets
    (pp. 129-138)

    My father and I snag a table in the hospital lunchroom.

    Upstairs, my mother struggles with one thing after another, all of which started, she claims, because she foolishly tripped on her shoelace and fell against the coffee table in the living room while turning off the lights in preparation for bed. Impossible, says my Sherlockian brother David. At that point in the eveningshe would not have been wearing her shoes.Okay, she admits, she’d secretly been having dizzy spells for months—but she is adamant that they had nothing whatsoever to do with her fall, she is just...

  17. the wedding
    (pp. 139-142)

    A few years ago—I never remember how many exactly, but I know it was Thanksgiving weekend—Roberta and I got married: because we live in Massachusetts, because it was there, so to speak. I don’t want to be too cynical, because the wedding itself was a kind of event I’d wanted to plan for a long time—family and dear friends, or rather, straight family and gay family, all gathered into the same room and introduced to one another. We held it in crazy, beautiful Provincetown. Everyone went home with a story to tell. A gay man stopped my...

  18. my father goes down to hell
    (pp. 143-145)

    On Yom Kippur my mother says she wants to go to theyizkorservice, but my father says he has no need of it, not because he is an unbeliever, which he is, but because even at his age not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of his parents. He doesn’t need to go to a special service to remember them.

    My parents now attend my sister Priscilla’s temple for the high holidays, because of a falling out at their formershul.“That rabbi was a nut,” my father says. “A right-winger.” The rabbi had put up a...

  19. at the lake #2
    (pp. 146-148)

    When I tell people I learned to swim in Lake Erie, they look at me funny. But that was back in 1959. I was seven and consented to submerge myself only because my brother David, two years younger, had done it first, humiliating me. By the late 1960s, the idea of a family vacation there had become ludicrous. Erie had by then become famous not for its sandy beaches and warm, shallow water but for being a toxic sea of industrial effluvia and sewage, with a polluted Dead Zone in the middle and the flaming Cuyahoga River emptying into it...

  20. acknowledgments
    (pp. 149-150)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 151-154)