Living With And Without Revered Maid

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 11, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The other night I dreamed that my parents, siblings and I were sitting in the sukkah, making polite conversation with our guests, when the sukkah’s rickety wooden walls were breached by the high-pitched and insistent cry of my mother’s name: “Al-ice, Al-ice.”

My mother, reddening slightly, got up from the table with all the dignity that she could muster, and made her way to the back steps of the house, where a platter of food and the formidable Gladys, who had prepared it, awaited. Determined to maintain the protocols of bourgeois life, even (especially?) within the humble precincts of the sukkah, Alice returned to the table, a bit deflated. After all, the maid had just summoned her peremptorily — and by her first name, no less.

Even though this incident appeared in my dreams, it really did happen years ago, when I was growing up. At the time, my parents and their guests laughed it off and put the episode behind them as quickly as they could, but I remember it vividly, as do my siblings. It stays with us still — a funny, if unsettling, moment in the history of our family.

My father, given to grandiloquence and euphemism in equal measure, called Gladys our “family retainer.” The rest of us called her, simply, “Gladys.” By whatever name, she cooked, cleaned and kept after us for years. Had my parents not moved to Israel, Gladys would probably have remained in their employ until she retired.

A light-complected and freckled African-American woman given to wearing prim cardigans over her starched uniform and to smoking cigarettes and drinking copious amounts of iced tea while watching soap operas on television, Gladys possessed the grand last name of Beauregard. The proud owner of a home in a neighborhood that had once seen better days, she lived with her sister. Oh, and from time to time she would ask for, and receive, some legal advice from my father. From these meager facts, a life.

Stern and unsmiling, Gladys cooked up a storm. On those days of the week when dairy was the requisite bill of fare, she made bread pudding from the shards of challah that had outlived the Sabbath, as well as fried fish and a rich and frothy rice pudding. And on occasion she “helped out” when my parents gave dinner parties, then de rigueur in our suburban neck of the woods.

My mother, who preferred reading to housework, pretty much left Gladys to her own devices. Then again, maybe she was cowed. I know we were. We could never please Gladys, who, with a dismissive scowl, would reprimand us for the noise we made, the mess we created, and our collective failure to pick up and put away in our respective bedrooms the neatly folded piles of laundry that, on laundry day, sat proudly in a bin at the foot of the stairs. We were a disappointment to Gladys, and she let us know it.

Little wonder, then, that we stayed clear of her. Not for us the easy, familiar banter or the trading of confidences that characterized the relationship that so many of our friends in our leafy, affluent neighborhood had with the African-American women who cared for them. Perhaps Gladys and Alice chatted about this, that and the other thing. I’d like to think so. But we kids and Gladys never did. She wouldn’t have it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.