A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous And Radical
Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted To Be a Respectable Jewish Mom),
by Her Bastard Son
By Clancy Sigal
Carroll & Graf, 288 pages, $26.
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I n the past few years, there has been an impressive list of memoirs that triumphantly defy the stereotype of the meddling, conniving Jewish mother. Into this dynamic subgenre enters “A Woman of Uncertain Character,” a Jewish woman’s immigrant life lovingly interpreted, mourned and ultimately celebrated by her son, Clancy Sigal, a screenwriter and political activist. Sigal creates a gritty fairy-tale of growing up with a sexy, zaftig, politically astute yet vulnerable single mother. The happily-ever-after ending is the posthumous relationship between the author and the ghost of his mother, Jennie. “Not even for a moment,” Sigal writes, “have I doubted that Jennie is alive within me, watching me work out my life, including this story.”
Jennie Persily came to America at the turn of the previous century, the height of Jewish emigration from Russia and Eastern Europe. Her family settled on New York City’s Lower East Side, where Jennie witnessed the tragic consequences of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The fire, which killed 146 immigrant girls and women, helped galvanize the labor movement. Sigal describes his fiery, redheaded mother as a 24-year-old virgin intensely dedicated to workers’ rights and hopelessly smitten with the older and married Leo Sigal, whom she met on a picket line. The two carried on a stormy, illicit love affair for two decades that ultimately left Jennie brokenhearted and Sigal fatherless.
At first glance, Jennie and Sigal’s relationship is easy to dismiss as Oedipal. But to label it as such is to miss the nuances of their fascinating life together, as well as Sigal’s idiosyncratic account of the Jewish labor movement. As a young boy, Sigal crisscrossed the country by train with his mother, stopping over for months at a time in small Southern towns so that Jennie could unionize disaffected workers. The work was grueling and dangerous, especially when the FBI was on Jennie’s trail. But Jennie the “warrior queen” was a spectacular presence at a labor meeting. The preparations for her public appearances were regal. “Fetching Ma her lipstick and eye shadow, I pretended to be Prince Valiant, squire to royalty, before galloping off to the great jousting tournaments known as labor meetings,” Sigal writes.
Sigal’s crisp descriptions of those “tournaments” from the point of view a 6-year-old boy are an example of the anecdotes that illuminate this mother-and-son memoir. “Of course,” he writes, “I was bored witless by all the ‘I move the resolution back to committee, Brother Chairman’ rituals so important to the members, most of whom had escaped foreign tyranny where Robert’s Rules of Orders came from the stinging slash of an overseer’s whip or the barrel of a Cossack’s rifle. But it soaked into me like blood, the debating sacraments, the haggling, factionalizing, shouted Gospel songs of redemption, call-and-response, tactical debates, strategizing, and maneuvering and name-calling. It’s still in my veins. Perhaps that’s why today I get along so well with Christian evangelicals and fundamentalist preachers’ kids.”
Sigal re-creates his tough childhood on Chicago’s South Side in a prose that is part detective caper and all love story. During the Depression, the Sigals failed at running a laundry. Leo ironed the same shirt, while Jennie watched over the eerily still cash register. Sigal found camaraderie with the neighborhood toughs — Jewish kids who disdained school and rumbled with rival gangs.
Sigal’s portrait of midcentury Chicago alters the image of America as a melting pot in which various ingredients are eventually indistinguishable. As concocted in his tough-guy, keenly observant prose, Sigal’s Chicago of the 1930s and ’40s was a cholent in which progressive politics, Yiddish culture and American idealism came to a slow boil.
To that end, Sigal’s Chicago neighborhood was a mix of the old and new. On one corner of the Lawndale district were the Midwestern offices of the original Yiddish Forverts in a “Moorish turreted” building. The seedy landscape was also dotted with synagogues where, on Saturday mornings, “cantors’ voices ululated through the Lawndale district …. There was an emotionality to the Jewish life around me — all that yelling, arguing, out-front loves and hates — that distanced me even as my life depended on it for sustenance and continuity.”
By the time that Jennie died alone in California, mother and son had not seen each other for three years. When Sigal heard the news months later in England, where he fled from McCarthyism and subsequently stayed for 30 years, he uttered the words “Baruch dayan haemet,” or “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” It is the blessing a Jew says on hearing of a death. It is a prayer that acknowledges how we Jews give ourselves over to fate rather than trying to make sense of bad news. This memoir, Sigal’s personal Kaddish to Jennie, embodies the beauty and the paradox of those words.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about the year she said Kaddish. She is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.