Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Book of Ruth

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Earlier this month, Ruth McBride Jordan passed away at her home in Ewing, New Jersey at the age of 88. It is tempting to say the unconventional path she tread is the stuff of fiction but, in truth, it is the backbone of an acclaimed work of non-fiction. Although she is not an author, Jordan can lay claim to half of the narrative that is The Color of Water, James McBride’s tribute to his white mother.

First published in 1996, the book has been aptly described as a beautifully crafted hymn and struck a deep chord (2 million copies) long before Barack Obama came to personify what it means to transcend race. Born in Poland in the early 1920s, Ruchel Zylska arrived with her Orthdox Jewish family in the United States at the age of two. Soon after settling in Suffolk, Virginia, Ruchel Dwarja Zylska became Rachel Shilsky, setting the stage for a life of seismic transformation that was to come. Altering her name could not change the fact that the Shilskys were Jewish. A land of opportunity was tainted by the soil of intolerance. As a young girl in Virginia Rachel Shilsky suffered the same indignities spawned by anti-semitism that the family knew in Poland.

She also suffered at the hands of her abusive father, a shopkeeper and itinerant rabbi. Despite the warm memories of preparing for Passover, Ruth McBride recalls wishing she was “eating over somebody else’s house where your father didn’t crawl into bed with you at night, interrupting your dreams so you don’t know if it’s him or just the same nightmare happening over and over again.”

And so Rachel Shilsky left her family and, ultimately, her faith. “I got rid of that name when I was nineteen and never used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941,” Jordan states in the opening pages of The Color of Water (her contributions aren’t written so much as they were transcribed). “Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.”

McBride, as she would soon become, made her way to New York, a city like none other to reinvent oneself. It was in Harlem where this Polish-born young woman met an African-American named Andrew McBride. He became a minister. She converted to Christianity. They would soon join others in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to form the Brown Memorial Baptist Church. By the time she was 36, Ruth McBride was a mother of seven children, pregnant with the son that would become James, and a widow. She would soon add four more children to her brood after marrying Hunter Jordan.

“As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from,” writes James McBride. “Where she was born, who her parents were. When I asked she’d say, ‘God made me’. When I asked if she was white, she’d say, ‘I’m light-skinned,’ and change the subject.” But the persistent curiosity of this future journalist could not be turned off like a tap. One afternoon, as a child, James McBride asked his mother why she cried so often in church.

“Because God makes me happy.”
“Then why cry?”
“I’m crying ‘cause I’m happy. Anything wrong with that?”
“No,” I said, but there was, because happy people did not seem to cry like she did. Mommy’s tears seemed to come from somewhere else, a place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit, and even as a boy, I felt there was pain behind them. I thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else in church, because maybe God liked black people better, and one afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.
A deep sigh. “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black people or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”

Inevitably, Ruth McBride Jordan could not pass as the light-skinned African-American woman her children thought her to be. Step into James McBride’s shoes as you watch your mother slowly, painfully excavate a past long buried, dislodging sharp memories unsmoothed by time. You identify as a black man, your roots in the black community run long and deep, and suddenly the life you’ve always known has to be reassembled. Suddenly, you have to reinvent yourself, much as your mother once did. As McBride writes: “I can’t describe what a shock it was to hear words like 'Tateh' and 'rov' and 'shiva' and 'Bubeh' coming from Mommy’s mouth as she sat at the kitchen table in her Ewing home. Imagine, if you will, five thousand years of Jewish history landing in your lap in the space of months.”

Jordan abandoned Judaism but Judaism did not leave her. Her interviews with her son James unearthed many episodes of a painful childhood, but amidst the shards were the riches of Yiddish and warm memories she had laid to rest. To hear Ruth McBride Jordan speak of her childhood all those years ago is to listen to a woman who waded through the waters of Judaism only yesterday. She speaks with a fluency, with an ease, about the rov, the rabbi of high order who oversaw the arranged marriage between Ruth’s father Fishel and her beloved mother Hudis. She talks of her Orthodox bubeh (grandmother) wearing a shaytl, or wig. She recalls the piezyna, the goose-feather quilts her mother brought from Europe that were “warm as a house.”

And so although she came to identify herself as a Christian, Jordan's Judaism was marrow-deep. Her values did not go unnoticed by her son James. “There was a part of me that recognized Jews as slightly different from other white folks, partly through information gleaned from Mommy, who consciously and unconsciously sought many things Jewish,” he writes, and continues, “It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us.”

And so the McBride Jordan children found themselves travelling to public schools an hour away from home, the only black students in schools that were predominantly Jewish because their mother knew Jewish parents put great stock in a child’s education. And if lunch bags weren’t always filled with the protein the family couldn’t afford Ruth McBride Jordan made sure her children’s upbringing included a substantial diet. As James recalls, “We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed to us instead of food.”

James went on to become a writer and musician. His eleven siblings – one predeceased Ruth – became the kind of professional the stereotypical Jewish mother would be proud of: doctors, professors, teachers. But Ruth McBride Jordan (nee Ruchel Dwarja Zylska) was no stereotype. I wish I had had the opportunity to meet her in person, to spend time in the company of this complex, charismatic woman. The complexities are laid bare in a journey lovingly chronicled by a son, a journey in which the churning waters of race, religion and identity converge. The charisma lies in how a mother expressed herself in her son’s memoir, words that came to define a life of singular, far-reaching choices. God may not have a color but Ruth McBride Jordan most certainly did.

Please note that portions of this blog first appeared in a talk I delivered at a High Holiday service in the aftermath of 9/11. Read essay

3 comments

Indeed, Emil. It's also a pleasure to be able-- on Open Book-- to recommend books; that is, to describe and highlight the features of an author's work in an appreciative manner. It's great to have a forum for a solely supportive mode.

Hi, Elana,

One of the pleasures of the web and sites like Open Book is being introduced to voices one might otherwise have missed. And so I'm delighted to have played matchmaker in bringing you and Ruth and Edwidge together, and thank you for doing the same through your reviews and interviews.

Regards,

Emil

Emil, thank you for introducing me to the extraordinary Ruth McBride Jordan, and,
in an earlier blog, to Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Your blogs are most thoughtful, informative, and suffused with love of literature, learning, and storytelling.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page