My childhood memoir, SAVING MYSELF: A LOS ANGELES CHILDHOOD is about growing up Jewish in Los Angeles in the 1940s. It deals with an historic time, an historic place and surprising anti-Semitism and prejudice against young Jewish girls during that time.
Set in the early 1940s and 50s, SAVING MYSELF evokes the wonder and terror of anti-Semitic Eagle Rock, a small section of Los Angeles where the Simonoffs are the only Jewish family in their small neighborhood. The book is from the viewpoint of a child as a young girl trying to understand the early loss of her birth mother as well as abandonment by her friends because she is Jewish. She is constantly told by a Christian neighbor boy, on the way to school and on the way home, “You killed Christ.” She is refused membership in the local chapter of the Girl Scouts because she is Jewish. She is finally abandoned by her own religion when she is denied her place as a Bat Mitzvah to become responsible for her own deeds, spiritually, ethically and morally, because she is a girl.
She is not allowed to read Torah, the exclusion from traditional rites of passage—one loss after another spanning all the years of childhood. The memoir truly captures the child’s voice.
Not until sixty is she able to put it all together. Like many who suffered early and continual loss, this memoir comes full circle in a journey toward spiritual, transformational wholeness with her Bat Mitzvah at age sixty-two as it did for her adoptive mother at the age of seventy-five. It is the universal wish for a sense of belonging. It is the story of loss, then redemption.
Here are two short pieces from SAVING MYSELF. I hope you will want to read more.
Mother, I look for your remains inside walls and crypts, caged behind a two-inch slab faced with your name.
I bring flowers, gather water for the vases no longer there, and search for these down the row, dusty rings that held them, vases dusty, memories all dust in the burial chamber.
Can I exhume more than isolated facts and recreate a whole from decomposed matter? You’re a handful of dust I can’t mix with memory and make whole.
What do I expect, some part of the sky to crack open and hand you to me, creating a facsimile when even your books—Moliere, The Count of Monte Cristo, in French—mold, fade, or just plain disappear?
What I have now are musty smells only books hold, something about the air the morning you died, my memory of you before words, as I lay in my crib, covers binding, trying to claw my way out and run to you when you called me.
I hear you, without voice, utter, “It’s too bad I couldn’t leave a note like a suicide. But I will sneak these last bits of me between pages of my favorite books. Scatter hints around the country so you will not walk into places a stranger.
“It’s a puzzle. Place all the pieces out in front of you. Memoires of me. How my smile looked. Picture of my hand holding your hand.
“Think of it, Jeanne, as a scavenger hunt, with these fragments a map, a language that mirrors early morning, some sand left in your eyes.”
My Father’s Story
My father didn’t know what to do when my mother died. After he buried her, he decided to leave. He was angry that his wife suddenly left. No notice. One minute they were sleeping, but even before the alarm clock went off, she started pulling at him, trying to wake him out of a good dream, a deep sleep.
“She’s dying,” he shouted.
So he called the ambulance. After it came, he took me to my grandmother’s house. Then came back to our old house, and packed two bags, one for me, and one for him, in the suitcases he and my mother saved since their honeymoon. They still had the stubs of train tickets inside. One said “New York City” and the return ticket: Union Station, Los Angeles. He couldn’t shake the loss. He didn’t think he could raise a child alone. He said he had no choice. He said, “I can’t see it ending up another way. Someone else will take care of her.” He was sure of that. After all, he came from a family with three sisters and a brother.
“I just have to do this first. Get my head back on straight. Take care of the immediate,” my father said.
He stayed with me at Bubbie’s until the funeral. I was not allowed to attend.
My father figured I understood.
And so he began the trip to his cousin Emanuel’s in San Bernardino before the traffic of people coming home from work was too heavy. He would lose himself in the trail of automobiles. A Chevy, a Pontiac, a Ford. Each one of them holding a stranger, each one having nothing to do with the other. They were all going in one direction, out of the metropolis of Los Angeles with its skyscrapers, into the spread-out farmland, the orange groves. Each driver had his window rolled down. Oranges were in blossom, their fragrance alive and present, like the comfort of a mother’s morning song to her small child, as they ate breakfast oranges, sliced open, alive, the juice flowing out. My father saw my mother do this many times. She would take half an orange, place it face down, and pull the handle to move the press that pushed the juice through a small hole into a glass. He saw her now through his tears. He continued to drive the frontage road, numb, staring.
He began to sing a song, the last one he danced with my mother:
“I’ll be loving you, always. With a love that’s true. Always. Not for just an hour. Not for just a day. Not for just a year but always.”
Then fear took over. He was singing only to himself. She was gone.
He steered his car away from the sunset, east toward San Bernardino, toward his future that would hold him, at least until tomorrow.