A Different Kind Of Jewish Mother


By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

* * *

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • 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.