by Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Jewish Press Editor
Writing memoirs can be a tricky business. What happens if you bare your innermost thoughts, only to find out the readers aren’t all that interested? Sure, your friends and family will love it; they share your memories and therefore are part of your story. Besides, they love you, so they have to like it. But what about strangers? Will they be able to connect? How do you predict that? I think we’ve all read memoirs where we as the readers were left on the sidelines, looking in. As if the author has no reason to expect anything more from us, and refuses to even say ‘hello.’
Ron Wolfson, with his recently published The Best Boy in the United States should have no such worries. He literally puts his reader in the room with him. His writing style lends itself to a shared experience; rather then talking at the reader, he grabs the reader’s hand and invites her or him along for the ride. And it’s an excellent ride.
Ever the educator, Wolfson makes you think. When he talks about his experiences as a grandchild, a son, a cousin, a husband and father, he manages to challenge the reader. You can’t read about his mother without thinking of your own, and you can’t follow his career path without asking yourself some tough questions about what you are doing in your own life. Wolfson doesn’t write for passive consumers; reading the words means committing to the journey.
And here I thought this would be easy.
In a way, it is; it’s a fast read, with short seemingly digestible chapters. It’s at times funny, and at times heartbreaking, but never, ever boring: Wolfson has, after all, something to teach his readers and he makes sure nobody dozes off in the back of the class room.
“Sharing our stories is the way we define ourselves in the world,” Wolfson says in his after word. He calls it the “Discussion Guide,” and neatly adds a list of questions that will help you tell your own story. How did your grandparents influence you? He asks, and How would you describe your life in one or two lines?
It’s hard to select a favorite segment (although I will forever remember not to buy gribenes from a moyel), but if you forced me to, I’d say it’s the way Wolfson weaves our responsibility as Jewish parents throughout his narrative. In an early chapter, simply titled “Mom,” he says: “Tradition. Tradition. Papas. Mamas. These were the ingredients of my geshmak (tasty) family. Little did I realize at the time that the traditions of my zaydie and bubbie, our extended family, and my mom and dad would profoundly shape my worldview and my identity as a second-generation American Jew, growing up in our “little village” of Omaha, Nebraska.”
Isn’t that true for all of us? Our lives may not be overly parallel with Wolfson’s; it’s very likely that many of us will have different experiences. But: the bottom line remains the same. Our families, whether they are related to us or not, define us and shape us. The people we surround ourselves with, the holidays we share, the joy and the hurt, it all adds up to a very rich story, which we pass on to our children. And I think that’s the real lesson Wolfson is trying to teach us. We have to see our memories for what they really are: opportunities to grow, to know ourselves, to pass things on to the next generation. And in that light, memories of your grandfather’s favorite arm chair from which he hugged you, the people you’ve known and lost, or the way you cook your brisket are all building blocks that make you, you.
There is one final important question Wolfson doesn’t ask, and I’d like to get an answer: can Bruce Friedlander still do his Elvis impersonation?
The Best Boy in the United States of America, A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses by Dr. Ron Wolfson can be purchased through Jewish Light Publishing.