A scholar laid bare
Reviewed by Kera Bolonik
Sunday, March 2, 2003
Naked in the Promised Land
By Lillian Faderman
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN; 356 Pages; $26
For the past 20 years, California State University literature Professor Lillian Faderman has been moonlighting as a social historian, rescuing lesbians from obscurity with chronicles of their political, literary, social and romantic lives from the Renaissance to the end of the 20th century. But this pioneer of gay and lesbian studies, renowned for such groundbreaking works as "Surpassing the Love of Men" and "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers," boasts a personal history that proves just as surprising, multifaceted and clandestine as many of the subjects about whom she's written.
With "Naked in the Promised Land" she offers her own stories about growing up with a mentally ill single mother, coming of age in the 1950s as a first- generation Jewish American and as a lesbian, and of her experience working in the sex industry.
Born in 1940 to an unwed Jewish immigrant and a father who refused to acknowledge paternity, Faderman lived in near-poverty in the Bronx and East Los Angeles with her mother and her maternal aunt, Rae. Sisters Mary and Rae came to New York in 1923 and toiled away in sweatshops in hopes of earning enough money to bring their Latvian family to the States.
But the Nazis would kill the shtetl-dwelling Fadermans before the women could save them, a fact that profoundly tormented Mary and literally made her sick throughout her life.
Most of Faderman's childhood fantasies revolved around being her emotionally disturbed mother's personal heroine, and she thought becoming a Hollywood movie star was the quickest way to achieve it. Faderman devoted herself to acting classes well into adolescence and even got a nose job, believing it would improve her casting-call chances. When she threatened to drop out of high school to pursue drama full time, a progressive-minded, erudite counselor intervened, making an indelible impact as he rerouted the girl's attention from the stage to the lecture hall.
For most of her young life, Faderman bore the burden of taking care of her mother by herself, often reveling in her altruistic role. But by 14, she recognized that it would eventually suffocate her and was ready to relinquish some of the responsibility. "If I were all she had in the world, I'd never be able to live my own life. . . . I needed to give her to someone else -- a husband."
The precocious daughter enlisted the help of a shadchen -- a Jewish match- maker -- only to encounter one lascivious candidate after another, men who wanted a wife in Mary and a lover in teenage Faderman. Finally, Albert Gordin, a harmlessly nutty, asexual pathology lab worker, proposed to marry and support her mother, an offer neither could refuse.
Faderman also had to contend with her own burgeoning sexuality, which was at odds with everything she knew. Unknown to her family, the teenager developed an unrequited infatuation with her well-coiffed, seductive drama teacher before becoming involved with a string of brooding, surly unemployed women like Jan, the pimp; "Nicky," the tortured writer (a.k.a. Frankie Hucklenbroich, who would take a few bad turns before publishing "A Crystal Diary"); and D'Or, an obsessive-compulsive hand washer.
She also secretly worked as a pinup model, initially in exchange for audition head shots, but the money hooked her in; by college, she was paying her tuition by stripping at clubs like Big Al's Hotsy Totsy Club and President Follies.
Faderman had no choice but to master the fine art of compartmentalization, keeping her home, work and romantic lives from ever converging. She was mostly successful in this respect, though she searched in earnest for a way to simplify her life without sacrificing her independence. At one point, Faderman even married a "Jewish doctor," a gay psychologist she met at a cabaret club, to appease her mother and aunt, with disastrous results. The easier she thought she could make her life, the more complicated it became. That is, until she arrived at California State University at Fresno.
Academia was supposed to be the hardest road for a woman with a doctorate to travel in the mid- to late 1960s, but Faderman's career defied all expectations from the moment she secured a tenure-track position at Fresno. Once Faderman surrendered her Florence Nightingale fantasies to realize an American dream of her own, everything finally fell into place: She became one of the most powerful administrators in the California State University system, a leading scholar in women's and gay and lesbian studies and a prolific and nationally celebrated author. She also struck up a romantic relationship with a beloved female colleague, and together they raised a son, Avrom, named for the maternal grandfather Faderman never met.
Lillian Faderman's achievements are nothing short of awe-inspiring, in light of her triumph over sexual, gender and class oppression. But her memoir is far more episodic than it is substantively introspective: Long-term relationships end as abruptly as trysts, Faderman demonstrating herself in these pages to be fearful of confrontation. In one rare but telling passage, she gives us a glimpse of an argument with an especially critical girlfriend, D'Or, who provoked her by quoting a Cornell study on exotic dancers that drew a link between female strippers and fatherless households. "I'm just explaining why you're so willing to take your clothes off in front of strange men. There's never anything wrong with the truth, Lillian." This elicited a "Go to hell" from Faderman -- plus three more years in their relationship.
Ironically, Faderman seldom provides a larger social or historical context with which to fully appreciate her various erotic, emotional and intellectual pursuits amid the gay and straight Los Angeles nightclubs and politically charged California university campuses. A life as daring and rich as hers warrants a more psychologically probing memoir: Had Faderman showed less metaphoric flesh, then "Naked in the Promised Land" just may have bared a bit more soul.
"Naked in the Promised Land" by Lillian Faderman
A lesbian scholar remembers her youth as a pinup model, stripper and wide-eyed adventurer among the denizens of the seamy Sunset Strip.
By Laura Miller
Feb. 26, 2003 | If Lillian Faderman has a particular genius it's for being first, or at least early; she was one of the first historians of lesbianism, launched pioneering classes in women's studies before the discipline officially existed and, according to her new memoir, "Naked in the Promised Land," co-edited one of the first multicultural poetry anthologies (also before the mantra of "diversity" was instituted). So it's surprising that she's late to join the ranks of feminist intellectuals going public about their experiences working in the sex industry.
Faderman's sex-work credentials are impeccable, if not downright historical. No come-lately tattooed gyrator on the stage of some contemporary, progressive, woman-operated strip joint like the Lusty Lady, Faderman worked as a nude and pinup model and as stripper back in the waning days of burlesque, supporting herself and her female lover while a college student at Berkeley in the '50s and '60s. She also dabbled in the Sunset Strip lowlife scene that the novelist James Ellroy has described so memorably (though Faderman takes a less swoony view of it).
And when Faderman was shedding her clothes for money, there was no possibility of squeezing material for a graduate thesis out of the gig; for her, it was strictly a matter of survival and a secret she had to keep from her family and fellow students. She discovered her lesbianism back in the days when that meant slipping into what to a cursory glance looked like an ordinary bar, until you noticed that the "boys" roaming around the dim, smoky room were actually girls decked out in duck pants and pomaded hair.
"Naked in the Promised Land" aims to account for a remarkable life. Faderman was the illegitimate daughter of an immigrant shopgirl and spent her first six years in the Bronx, raised as much by her homely aunt Rae as by her pretty mother, Mary. The two Jewish sisters had been sent to America to gather enough money -- preferably by marrying well, as Mary was expected to do -- to bring the rest of the family over from their shtetl in Lativa. Instead, Mary fell in love with a sharp-dressing operator named Moishe, who refused to acknowledge Lillian as his daughter. The money never materialized, the sisters' family vanished somewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe and Faderman's mother would be tormented with guilt for the rest of her life, sometimes to the point of madness.
After the sisters decamped to Los Angeles hoping for better luck, Faderman resolved to become a movie star to rescue her mother from a life of drudgery. She had a minor career as a child actress in local theater, but scored no significant cash until she began working as a pinup model at the tender age of 15, initially in order to pay for publicity stills. Faderman was, not to put too fine a point on it, stacked. "Absolutely outstanding!" crowed the agent who booked her, under the name of Gigi Frost, "38-21-36 ... Doesn't own a bra. Doesn't need one."
But whatever Faderman's figure earned her in cash was equaled by the other troubles it caused. As a naive 13-year-old, she'd drifted into dating a 24-year-old man, only to be shocked when he finally made a pass at her. Having convinced her mother to find a husband by engaging a matchmaker, she found herself fending off the advances of the candidates and their pals. A sleazy agent picked her up for a "screen test" then whipped out his penis in the car. The cool pachuco boy she admired at school took her out, felt her up and then told his friends about it. The silent film star who hired her to pose for his camera offered her money for sex. And so on. "A girl alone in the world is like a rabbit chased by a pack of hungry coyotes," she concludes, and you can't blame her for it.
Meanwhile, Faderman conducted several other lives. She hung out with fellow budding actors in their 20s, people who sound like supernumeraries from "Mildred Pierce," with their "late nights at Tiny Naylor's and weekends at the beach with the gang." She wore bobby socks and oxford shoes as a student at Fairfax High School. And although she had had an excruciating crush on her first drama teacher, a down-at-heels glamour girl with a voice the child Faderman likened to "liquid gold," when a gay male friend took her to her first lesbian bar, it was a revelation. "I'm never leaving," she announced.
At one of these bars, Faderman met a tough, charming butch who introduced her to "scary, funky" sex in a $2-a-night hotel. The butch, Jan, promised "I'm gonna make you cry Daddy" and had a "low, dirty laugh" and some odd scars that she explained thus: "Some john told me he'd give me five bucks if I could hold a lit cigarette to the back of my hand until he counted to three. I got two booboos there 'cause I ended up with ten bucks." Shacked up with Jan, Faderman meets junkies, hookers and pimps, and by the end of the week, with their money running low, Jan starts wheedling, "We can have everything. You know how much money you can make us with that fantastic body of yours? You know how quick it would be?"
Faderman manages to pull herself out of that pit, running scared from a "recklessness in me that resonated mindlessly to what was savage in her ... I had to control it or I'd do something crazy." Determined to pull herself together, she goes looking for a psychologist, and gets referred to a guy who counsels "underprivileged youth in trouble." She's told that "his clients are mostly male juvenile delinquents," whereupon she replies, "That's okay, I'm a juvenile delinquent even though I'm a girl."
After a few more travails, including a less dangerous girlfriend and a brief marriage to a gay man -- a loving arrangement between two avowed homosexuals that went terribly wrong once they became enamored enough of each other to sleep together -- Faderman, meets Sabina D'Or (nee Shirley Ann Goldstein). They fall in love and Faderman moves into D'Or's San Francisco apartment and attends college at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, D'Or has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which prevents her from working and Faderman must support them both by getting a job at Big Al's Hotsy Totsy Club as both a waitress and "Bubble Bath Girl," an act involving an empty bathtub and a machine that emitted colored bubbles: "I was supposed to saunter on to the tune of 'Night Train,' test the nonexistent bathwater with a provocatively graceful bare toe, disrobe, then slide into the bubbles and cavort charmingly for five minutes ... for this I was paid an extra five dollars a night ... no small sum in 1959." Later, she becomes a minor burlesque star under the name of Mink Frost.
D'Or, however, disapproves ("It's so tawdry!") and at one point irritatingly informs Faderman of a newspaper article about a study of exotic dancers that found the lot of them to be "women ... from the lower socioeconomic classes [who] were rejected by their fathers." This, and D'Or's tendancy to say things like "Ours is a mystical connection, rarefied, nebulous, beyond the sexual, far beyond good and interesting companionship," marks this relationship for an early death.
Two more serious girlfriends (the last one a keeper) and a Ph.D. later, Faderman becomes a professor, chair of the English department and an acting dean at California State University at Fresno, not an illustrious school, but one of the first to promote a woman to such exalted ranks and an early center for feminist studies. Her groundbreaking book, "Surpassing the Love of Men," published in 1981, argued that many "passionate friendships" between women of the 19th century and earlier could well have been erotic. (The book, though too didactic by today's standards, is considered a classic.) And in 1975, she finally gave her mother the grandchild she'd been begging for, conceived via in artificial insemination and raised by Faderman and her lover.
Yet for all the abundant, even overflowing material provided by her own life, Faderman seems unable to make much of this book. The simple, even slightly dazed tone of the early chapters, appropriate for a child or even an innocent adolescent's memories, never really deepens. Some matters seem to scream out for more reflection. How did Faderman feel about remaining in the closet to her mother and aunt, to the point even of inventing a phony husband? How did she square her years working in the sex industry with the often simplistic notions of such work held by other feminists of her generation? What does she think of younger women's efforts to overthrow those notions? (Since some of Faderman's pinup photos appear in the book, and she appears to have saved many of them, she seems to have seen some value in them, if only a personal one.) Was it difficult to reconcile her sense of men as predatory with the fact that some of her firmest supporters have been male? What exactly is her notion of feminism and how did it evolve over time, how did she use it to understand her own life? Does she see how the demanding, helpless and slightly crazy D'Or was a lot like her mother?
Instead, "Naked in the Promised Land" suffers from a weakness far too common in memoirs; call it the "I remember the smell of Grandma's house" syndrome. Often the memories that are dearest to the writer are the least interesting to her readers. Colorful and melodramatic immigrant relatives with their funny curses ("May an onion grow out of her nose!" is a particularly choice one here) and the food they cooked and the stories they told and the sayings they said, are a dime a dozen in memoirs and are all more or less alike.
About the writer
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.
A checkered career
Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir by Lillian Faderman. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 356 pp.
Reviewed by Judith Barrington
THROUGH THE LIFE OF one woman, Naked in the Promised Land captures the history of an era. One lesbian's fear of her own sexuality and her struggle to balance her need for family with her desire for an independent life represent, in many ways, the story of American homophobia and sexism, taken for granted in the 1950s and '60s. It is as if Lillian Faderman had added a personal example to the history she unfolded in her last book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America.
Naked in the Promised Land also speaks for a generation of American Jews whose parents were damaged survivors of the Holocaust, whether they themselves survived the camps or lost beloved family members to the Nazis. As the title implies, it is a quintessentially American story: it's unlikely that Faderman's trajectory from difficult childhood to university professor could have happened anywhere else.
At the center of this powerful story is Faderman's rejection of the life envisaged for her by a seriously unhappy and possessive mother. Mary believed that her brother was lame because she dropped him as a baby--and that she was responsible for failing to get him and the rest of her family out of Latvia before they were all killed. Haunted by the past, she had "spells," which the young Lillian tried to nurse her through, taking on a responsibility for her wounded parent that would stretch far into adult life.
Here is Faderman's recollection of her mother's condition:
I could tell by looking at my mother's face when a bad time was coming: there would be a deep flush on her cheeks and neck and chest, and her mouth would change. She'd keep swallowing her lips, or she'd spit out an imaginary speck that would not be gone from her tongue. Her eyes would change too. Someone else looked out from them, a person who barely saw me, not even when I stood in her line of sight to distract her attention from the terrors in her head. (p. 40)
Luckily Faderman was close to her only other relative, her mother's sister, Rae, whom she loved with a passion equal to the one she felt for her mother. Rae did not need taking care of and, in fact, proved at crucial junctures to be a lifeline, giving Faderman a little money to help her through college and accepting her choices even though, like her sister, she couldn't understand or approve of them. These two recent immigrants, who spoke Yiddish and wore themselves out in sweatshop work, were frequently an embarrassment to "Lilly," as they called her. But the immensity of their love far outweighed their inability to help her seize the opportunities of America. Without that love, Faderman would probably have failed to create the successful life she eventually achieved.
Desperately trying to save her mother from her grueling life and from mental illness, Faderman tries to become a film star, but ends up instead earning money as a pin-up girl, posing nude and later working in a burlesque chorus. Still nursing Hollywood acting ambitions, she tries to save enough for a nose job and, with her Aunt Rae's help, manages to get one. But constantly hit on by men, she comes to see the advantages of staying in school and aims for a college degree--and then for a doctorate. Her life becomes infinitely complicated when she starts falling in love with women; for a short time, she is married to a gay man, for respectability and, perhaps, a little love.
Although she frequents lesbian bars and lives with more than one woman lover, Faderman never really has a triumphant "coming out." In her work life and at home with her mother and aunt, she lies, seeking to keep the support of those she loves and who love her, and opting not to cut herself off from them or hurt them more than they have already been hurt. That she has to make such a choice, with all its frustrations and difficulties, disappointments and sacrifices, again signals the way the book reflects the larger story of lesbian life in the mid-twentieth century.
Eventually, Faderman decides to have a child--the grandchild her mother has begged for, the child who represents a future that will balance the losses of the past. Neither her mother nor Rae question the fictitious marriage to an absent husband with which Faderman explains the baby, and, without being told explicitly that she is a lesbian, they accept the presence of Phyllis, her partner and co-parent.
ONE OF THE THINGS that impresses me about this story is the determination with which Faderman solved her various predicaments from a very young age. When she realized that she wasn't immediately going to make it as an actor, she found her way into modeling. When modeling threatened to become an end in itself and she was in danger of dropping out of high school at sixteen, she called up her reliable instinct for taking the right path and, without anyone to think it through with, decided to get herself some help:
I opened the Yellow Pages to Psychologists and with a steeled finger dialed a number.
When Dr. Sebastian Cushing heard that I was only sixteen and my family had no money, he told me about a counselor who was hired by the Rotary Club to talk to underprivileged youths in trouble.
When had I not been an underprivileged youth in trouble?
"But his clients are mostly male juvenile delinquents." Dr. Cushing oozed sympathy over the phone.
"That's okay, I'm a juvenile delinquent, even though I'm a girl," I told him truthfully, and scribbled Mr. Maurice Colwell's number on the yellow page. (p. 165)
Faderman has proved to be an invaluable scholar of lesbian history and an able writer of nonfiction. Naked in the Promised Land exhibits a similarly competent narrative style. She manages to capture the emotions and thoughts of her young self extremely well, but I found myself wishing for more reflection on the part of the adult narrator, who remains almost entirely invisible. For example, in describing her early involvement in creating the new field of women's studies, she says, "In later years our passion came to seem excessive, but in 1970 it felt exactly right." Here, I want to know more of her current thoughts on the subject, want her to expand this intriguing piece of retrospection--but she simply picks up the narrative and describes how the passion of 1970 felt back then.
I also find myself confused by the short italicized passages in the present tense. This switch from past to present, presumably to create a vivid scene which stands out from the surrounding narrative, has become popular in memoir. It works well in Vivian Gornick's classic, Fierce Attachments, where the author's walks with her mother around New York come into vivid focus when she switches to the present tense. But in Faderman's book, many of the italicized sections are no different in perspective or content from what precedes and follows them. (And at least once when the italics end the tense doesn't switch back to the past.)
Bookstores are bulging with memoirs, but there are very few lesbian stories and even fewer written by activists who made contributions to the lesbian and gay movements. Here, then, is the personal story of a woman who played a major role in that history and whose earlier writings were groundbreaking in lesbian studies. For this reason as well as for the good read it offers, I am again grateful for Lillian Faderman's words.
Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman talks about her brave new memoir—and her tantalizing past as a stripper
By Regina Marler
From The Advocate, February 18, 2003
You can probably count on one finger the academic memoirs that include topless pinup shots of their authors. Having fully emerged from the closet in the wake of her 1981 classic, Surpassing the Love of Men, lesbian historian Lillian Faderman now bares herself further by revealing that she put herself through graduate school by performing as a stripper at Big Al’s Hotsy Totsy Club in San Francisco. Her new book, Naked in the Promised Land, is the story of Faderman’s youth and of her relationship with her troubled mother, who of course knew nothing of her sweet Lilly’s nude modeling career in high school or of her later years on the burlesque stage.
“That’s one of the themes of my life: secrecy,” says Faderman, interviewed in her Fresno, Calif., home. Her mother and her intensely protective aunt were kept in the dark, but so were her classmates at the University of California, Berkeley—well-heeled radicals whose support of civil liberties did not extend to a gay girl’s job in a strip joint. And there was no greater openness for Faderman among the dancers of Big Al’s and at the President Follies, where she performed a burlesque act as Mink Frost. Both her sexual orientation and the fact that she went to college were kept hidden from her fellow strippers—women who at least understood the practicality of their shared profession. Around 1960, where else could a working-class girl earn over a hundred relatively honest dollars a week?
Thirty years later, Faderman put pen to paper on a long flight and wrote a brief memoir called “A Disquisition on Ambition at 30,000 Feet.” What had driven her—the daughter of an immigrant garment worker—to earn her Ph.D., to publish books, to pioneer the field of lesbian history? And how could she reconcile the underprivileged child Lilly and the driven, daring young woman Lil with the esteemed scholar Lillian? “There had to be something in common with those three personages,” she reasons.
As a girl she had dreamed of becoming a movie star to rescue her single mother from the drudgery of the garment factories. Mary Faderman arrived in New York City at 18 with her younger sister Rae in 1923. Their plan was to marry rich men and send money home to Latvia to bring over their brother and sisters. But after Hitler imposed his final solution, they were the only survivors of their large Jewish family.
The fact that Mary had been preoccupied with her love affair with Lillian’s father (who consistently denied paternity) and had not sent enough money back home to save her parents and siblings became an unending source of grief and self-reproach for her. Mary’s resulting mental illness was the central emotional event of her daughter Lilly’s life, the hinge on which her precarious childhood swung.
After a move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles—the better to break away from Lillian’s father—Lilly’s white-knight fantasies of rescuing her mother grew more intense: “I would learn to sing and dance and act,” she writes, “and I would become a child star. I would work hard. I would never be lazy…. Every nerve of me was set for the race.”
Despite all her work, she felt she could never do enough, never make her mother happy and secure. This sense of inadequacy lingered into adulthood. Her first attempt to write a book-length memoir reached only 80 pages before she realized it was “a litany of failure. The story I kept telling myself was the story of my guilt.” Yet in 1999 she caught sight of a familiar-looking notebook on her bookshelves—a journal she had kept in 1979, while her mother was dying. For years Faderman had recalled her part in those events with pain, as further proof of her failures as a daughter. But here was the evidence that she had been there, loving and steadfast to the end, supporting her mother. “It was crucial and freeing,” Faderman recalls, and these passages are incorporated almost word for word in Naked in the Promised Land.
No life is without its necessary secrets. Faderman’s memoir is dedicated to her son, Avrom, 28, who has never before seen the topless photos included in the book, let alone read descriptions of his mother’s high school tryst with a butch lesbian pimp. She laughs uneasily as she explains that he has just started reading the book: “I figure he can skip that part.”
Marler writes for the New York Observer and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Keeping her own promise
Naked in the Promised Land, Lillian Faderman, Houghton Mifflin: 368 pp., $26
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real-Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."
February 16 2003
The first words of Lillian Faderman's frank and moving book evoke the preoccupations of every American autobiography since Benjamin Franklin but give them a 20th century spin.
"How could I not have spent years of my life lusting after the golden apple?" she asks. "When I was three months old and a war was raging across the ocean, my mother rocked me in her arms in a darkened theater. On the silver screen, here in America, in the Bronx, was Charles Boyer, a duke with a mansion in Paris.... My mother -- a shopgirl, an immigrant, no husband -- stared with open mouth, rapt, all but drooling at Boyer and paradise." In four sentences, we have it: ethnic origins, poverty, violence and, glittering in the near distance, as close as the movie screen but as far away as Boyer's Paris mansion, the vision of a better life.
But while the American Dream promises one thing, the American reality is quite different, an idea reflected in Faderman's title, which evokes Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land." Born in 1940, just three years after Brown, she shares with him the experience of escaping economic deprivation and personal despair and the knowledge that escape was far from inevitable. Education was Faderman's salvation, but it wasn't just book learning. "Naked in the Promised Land," as with all meaningful autobiographies, is about the discovery of self and a place to belong.
The main story begins with a 7-year-old en route by train to live in California, dreaming of becoming a movie star and rescuing her mother, and ends with a 39-year old English professor at Cal State Fresno, about to publish a pioneering lesbian history, "Surpassing the Love of Men." In between, Faderman was a shy preteen acting student with a crush on her female teacher; a tough, angry girl dressed like the pachucas at her East L.A. junior high; a teenage model who posed nude for girlie magazines to finance a nose job; a nervous but thrilled visitor to gay bars (her first sexual experience was with a butch pimp who tried to persuade her to turn tricks); wife to a gay man; and a stripper supporting her neurotic girlfriend while they got their bachelor degrees from UC Berkeley. Faderman was never a hippie, but she certainly took a long, strange trip to her final destination, and though the tone of her text is earnest, the tart, ironic chapter titles ("My Movie-Actress Nose," "How I Became a Burlesque Queen") suggest that there were a few laughs along the way.
Not when she first arrived in the Golden West, however. East L.A. was nothing like her Hollywood fantasies. Faderman's mother had been persuaded by her sister to move west to escape Lilly's father, who would never marry her. She made the move but couldn't escape her guilt over relatives who had perished in the Holocaust or the bouts of mental illness that left Faderman terrified. "Naked in the Promised Land" recalls another American memoir, Alfred Kazin's "A Walker in the City," in its painfully candid portrait of the mingled love and shame Faderman feels for her roots. Her mother and aunt embarrassed her with their Yiddish accents, the heavy food they pressed her to eat, the miseries of their existence they shared with her. Her mother's "tragic stories of pogroms and other annihilations and sweatshops and a bad man," Faderman writes, "unwittingly gave me the antithesis of the fox's advice never to desire the impossible. What could she know, after all, about what was impossible or possible for her American child?"
And for a while that child didn't have a clue either. Her early lessons were all in what wasn't possible. "If you were a woman and hoped to act, you had to look like a light-hearted shiksa unless you were old enough to play Molly Goldberg," she realized. "The golden apple would never be mine." Not until her mother's new husband moved them to the Westside and she connected with a counselor for "underprivileged youths" did she meet someone who convinced her she could shape her own destiny. Not shocked by a teenager who modeled nude and hung out in gay bars, the counselor remarked, "If you're a homosexual, you don't want to get married, right? So you gotta work to eat.... So you better finish high school and get yourself into college."
When she walked out of his office and headed west on Sunset Boulevard, for the first time she had a plan: "I would go back to school, and I'd figure out what I wanted to be and how to do it ... become somebody." How many times have those last two words been spoken in American books, plays and films?
The former truant got A's at Hollywood High, but her "front marriage" at 17 spoiled her chances for a scholarship to UCLA. "You're married already. Why do you want to go to college?" a teacher asked. After the marriage collapsed, a girlfriend lured her to Berkeley, and she discovered her scholarly vocation in the English department and reluctantly declined to join her fellow students protesting against HUAC. She was working too hard, and anyway, "wouldn't they be horrified if they really knew me? I couldn't tell these sons and daughters of the upper and middle classes about Gigi Frost, the Bubble Bath Girl.... I saw no other lesbians on the Berkeley campus."
She discovered her kind of activism in graduate school at UCLA when she fell in love with Bink, an idealistic teacher at Marshall High School, whose black, Mexican, Jewish and Asian students learned to question the sacrosanct canon "long before Ivy League scholars thought of it."
"How come everyone has to read 'The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,' but you don't get to read 'Black Boy' unless you're in Miss B.'s class?" one boy asks. "She'd made books come alive for them, opened a universe of ideas." Faderman too "caught fire with those novel ideas"; she and Binky collaborated on an anthology of fiction and poetry by writers of all colors intended to show "that literary study has to be integrated just as society does, that white men don't have a monopoly on eloquence." Faderman reminds us with unapologetic passion that the academic "political correctness" so routinely decried today is the outgrowth -- overzealous, perhaps -- of very real gaps in the standard curriculum.
While her male colleagues were steered toward Columbia and Cambridge, she was offered the choice of four state college positions. Cal State Fresno, though it ultimately broke up her relationship with Binky, was a blessing in disguise. "Here we were, in the fall of 1970, on a little campus in the middle of the agribusiness capital of the world, and two women professors were teaching feminist courses in the English Department," she writes. "It couldn't happen at a place like UCLA or Berkeley, where the faculty was hidebound. It certainly wasn't happening there." Multiculturalism, Faderman's account of the battles at Fresno reminds us, wasn't an abstract idea imposed by elitist ideologues; it was a movement by people once shut out of the academy or forced to assimilate on its terms who asserted that their experiences and their literature were worthy of study and critical reflection.
It all came together for Faderman in 1974, when she got pregnant by artificial insemination, knowing that this would end her rise through Fresno's administration but not yet realizing it would send her in a new scholarly direction. (Someone, she decided in the tranquil early days of motherhood, should write a history to put gay and lesbian literature in context: Why not her?) She named her son Avrom, after the grandfather she never knew.
The book closes in 1979 at her mother's deathbed, where she and Faderman rediscovered the loving intimacy they had left behind in the Bronx. Lillian never managed to grab the golden apple she believed would save her mother, but this exhilarating narrative of her life to this point shows her achieving a different kind of success as she went to the tree of knowledge to transform her own life. *
Pleased to Meet Me
'Naked in the Promised Land' by Lillian Faderman
By Carolyn See,
whose reviews appear on Fridays in Style
Friday, February 21, 2003; Page C04
NAKED IN THE PROMISED LAND
By Lillian Faderman
Houghton Mifflin. 356 pp. $26
This is how absent-minded it's possible to be: I picked up "Naked in the Promised Land," and although several people have said to me over the years, "Did you ever know Lillian Faderman?" that question slipped my mind; I didn't make the connection, until -- with the single difference of gender preference -- I began to read the story of my own life. To think how often I've preached to creative writing classes: "The real purpose of the writer is to alleviate loneliness, to make a connection with the reader that validates his or her existence!" Only I always thought I would be the one making the connection, not the other way around.
So I read this book with considerable bias. To be raised poor in Los Angeles by a hysterical single mother -- yes, I remember that. To be seduced into some pitiful storefront drama school taught by folks who know less than a pack of wild squirrels about how to "make it" in Hollywood. To spend numberless nights with that screaming raving nut case who happens to be your mother. To yearn with a measureless yearning to get out of the cage that is your life. To find yourself in sour furnished rooms, strolling Hollywood Boulevard at 2 o'clock in the morning because there's no point in going home and you're only 16, literally wondering where your next meal is coming from. And then to lock on to the idea of academic life at UCLA because it really does look like civilization compared with where you've come from. To study and study and hold on, and then get your PhD, only to get sold down the river by the white guys in charge. And then to make it anyway! Oh, and throw in an absolutely wacky first marriage with wedding pictures that make you wince. And throw in after that a disastrous trip to Mazatlan, watching tropical sunsets over the Pacific with expat drunks on the balcony of O'Brien's Bar. No, this isn't self-indulgent me, talking about my life; it's Lillian Faderman, talking about her own.
Faderman's mother was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia whose only friend in the New World was Rae, her equally clueless but not quite so forlorn sister. From the town of Prael to New York and thence to L.A., where Faderman's mother would work in a sweatshop, the sisters suffered but survived. Faderman grew up wild with ambition: She would "save" her mother and aunt by becoming a movie star.
Poverty's face is meticulously drawn here. When Lillian's mother marries a poor wretch who's been trepanned after having a nervous breakdown in the desert outside Veracruz, Lillian is banished from the furnished room she shares with her mom and relegated to an old army cot that's been set up in the landlady's dining room. "Furnished room." "Army cot." "Coffee Dan's," the restaurant on -- was it Hollywood and Highland? Where the young and dispossessed spent long, oddly glamorous nights. These nouns evoke a life specific to time and place. (The ads for "furnished rooms" in the L.A. Times this morning? Fewer than 40 in a city of 11 million.) Either these evocations are valuable or they're not. But Faderman is strong in her belief that all voiceless humans deserve voices, and a respectable place in our American history.
Faderman had an amazing figure. She parlayed that into jobs as a nude model, then a stripper. She decided early on that she was a lesbian, but in her youth took up with more than a guy or two. She was literally making up her life as she went along. At UCLA, as a graduate student, she encountered a bunch of men as white and slick as Crisco who were making it up as they went along, too. They needed graduate students to teach, and girls were nice. But the good job offers -- after years of hard work -- went to the men. Faderman was told there was only one job the year she got her degree -- at Fresno State. Her male classmates went to major universities.
This account ends in the mid-'70s with the birth of Faderman's son, destined to be raised by two devoted mothers, the transportation of Faderman's academic career (she becomes a dean, respected historian and general lesbian hell-raiser at Fresno State, which she learns to love) and the eventual discovery of her own heart's desire, Phyllis, a kind and good lady. But it's the early scramble and chaos here that's enchanting and true to life.
So, Lillian! It's so nice to meet you finally, if only in print. You made me remember Coffee Dan's, and sleeping under newspapers. You made me remember those fairly awful guys at UCLA, but looking at the bright side, they did let us play; they just tried to rig the game. Only five years and a measly gender preference separate the two of us. Didn't we live at an amazing time, in an amazing place? And my God, Lillian. Weren't we brave?
By Amanda Heller, 3/16/2003
Naked in the Promised Land
By Lillian Faderman
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pp., illustrated, $26
A boy grows up in chilly London dreaming of the exotic island nation (a fictive twin to Romesh Gunesekera's native Sri Lanka) where his grandfather was born and his father died. Finding himself alone as a young man, he flies off to this alluring place to see it for himself. But its reality is the nightmare version of his cherished boyhood dream. The homeland about which his grandfather had woven tales of tropical peace and plenty has in recent years known nothing but warfare, oppression, and insurrection. The land that legend held to be on the edge of heaven is now a vision of hell.
The hero, Marc, meets and falls in love with Uva, an ecological freedom fighter working in her jungle hideaway to repair the ravaged body of her homeland. The two lovers are violently separated and must struggle through wartime horrors to be reunited in a distant Eden. But even in their tropical Arcadia, death stalks ever closer.
''Heaven's Edge'' conjures a frightful vision, a postapocalyptic dystopia whose death pallor cannot be beautified by the narrative's daubs of magic-realist color. The novel posits a world in which power is invariably cruel and irrational, and invariably the enemy of peace. It may be a fable, but its moral is as unsettling as the morning's headlines.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Naked in the Promised Land
BY COLLEEN KELLY WARREN
Special to the Post-Dispatch
"Naked in the Promised Land"
A memoir by Lillian Faderman
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $26
One might think that the story, complete with photos, of an ex-stripper and nude model for "girlie" magazines - a nice Jewish girl who spent her high school years hanging out in a shady underworld of lesbian addicts, pimps and prostitutes - has elements of trashy sensationalism. Instead, "Naked in the Promised Land" is a thoughtful and honest account of a life that took many turns before taking the scholarly path that led the writer to a doctorate in literature and a groundbreaking career in gay/lesbian studies.
Lillian Faderman was born in 1940, the illegitimate child of an immigrant woman whose life in America, working in sweatshops, never achieves the cinematic promise of the Hollywood movies she regularly attends with her daughter. Movies are an escape from the survivor guilt that Lilly's mother feels at having left family behind in the Holocaust.
Disappointed in love and in life, she is frequently overcome by psychotic episodes marked by wailing, pacing and wringing of hands - "the chicken dance," Lil later dubs these displays.
Lilly's dream as a child is to somehow save her beautiful mother by becoming a movie star. To that end, she spends every spare dime and minute of her childhood taking acting and elocution lessons from a third-rate studio that lands her no-pay engagements at nursing homes and store openings. But by the time she is in junior high school, she has adapted the tough-girl persona of "Lil," a defense strategy in the East Los Angeles Latino neighborhood where she lives in a cheap boarding house.
Her beloved aunt Rae, the sole stabilizing influence of Lilly's childhood, is scandalized by her niece's blood-red lipstick, see-through blouse and too-tight skirt: "'Is that the way you dress?' my aunt says ... the first time she sees my transformation.
"'Yeah, that's the way I dress,' I tell her. What does she know about surviving at Hollenbeck Jr. High? She's never even been to school. ...
"'Oy vey iz mir, oh, woe is me,' she says, slapping her cheek."
At 16, Lil looks much older. Lying about her age, she converts her physical attributes into cash for acting lessons, posing for nude photo shoots: "Why should I hide what I've got? ... I'm 36-22-36. The world can like it or lump it."
Soon she is frequenting gay bars, staying out all night and living two lives, both of which seem to be unraveling. Luckily, she consults a psychologist "for underprivileged youths in trouble" before implementing her plan to quit high school. He recognizes the girl's intelligence, gives her books and advice, and is instrumental in changing the course of her life.
The author's emergence from Lilly to Lil and, finally, Lillian, a college professor, is revealed in a memoir that is honest and intelligent. Besides describing the arc of one life, it is, as well, a kind of chronicle of the times - the post-war '40s, the gee-whiz optimism of the '50s, and the heady political activism of the '60s and '70s.
Colleen Kelly Warren is a St. Louis writer.
The Naked Truth
Many would be surprised at the unconventional and often dangerous roads that Lillian Faderman, a pioneer of gay and lesbian studies, navigated in order to become the esteemed academic icon she is today. Stumbling and fumbling along many unexpected twists and turns, Faderman takes us on her unrelenting journey in her new memoir, chronicling the tempestuous terrain of her early years with naked candor.
An illegitimate child born in the Bronx in 1940 to a guilt-ridden Jewish immigrant mother, Faderman's father never even acknowledges her as his child. Growing up "in the shadow of [her] mother's tragedy," Faderman pursues fantasies of becoming a movie star in order to save her mother from the slave labor of the sweat shops and the psychological agony her mother experiences from the guilt of having left her family in Latvia in 1923 where they eventually perished at the hands of Hitler's Holocaust.
After moving to Los Angeles in the late forties, Faderman dons many identities in her quest for her own, from the "little momzer" (bastard) that her landlady used to call her as a child, Lillian Foster (actress), Gigi Frost (pin-up girl), Mrs. Mark Letson (wife of a gay man, for the sake of her mother and aunt), and Mink Frost (Burlesque Queen) to that of Dr. Lillian Faderman, feminist, esteemed academic, writer, lesbian and mother. And though her mother and her beloved aunt, whom she affectionately calls, "My Rae," know or understand little of her life, Faderman writes tenderly of their unconditional love.
As Faderman carves her own path through the inflexible patriarchal world of the late twentieth century vis-à-vis her search for stardom and her eventual rise up the academic ladder of success, her story is told with a clear, honest and endearing voice and has all the delicious qualities of a fictional novel.
Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir
By Lillian Faderman
Houghton Mifflin, $26, 356 pages
How I Became an Overachiever
How could I not have spent years of my life lusting after the golden apple- the heft of it, the round, smooth feel of it, the curve of it in my small hand? When I was three months old and a war was raging across the ocean, my mother rocked me in her arms in a darkened theater. On the silver screen, here in America, in the Bronx, was Charles Boyer, a duke with a mansion in Paris, another in the Loire, another in Corsica. His sumptuous abodes were concocted by a lunatic confectioner: furniture, curtains, ceilings, walls-all of billowy whipped cream. If the movie had been in Technicolor, everything would surely have been ivory, heaven blue, sun gold. My mother-a shopgirl, an immigrant, no husband-stared with open mouth, rapt, all but drooling at Boyer and paradise. When she remembered, she dandled me a bit in her arms, praying I would be silent long enough to let her see-one more glimpse of the duke, of his mansion, of the story. This she told me.
I did not cooperate. From fitful sleep I awoke to bawl, to shriek with new lungs, with all my strength. To the lobby and back with me. One more glimpse for her, and to the lobby again.
"See," she softly crooned. "Look, see." Standing in the back of the theater, she held me up to better see the screen. It was the handsome duke she wanted us to see, and the many mansions. For a moment my mouth was open too in rapt attention.
We went home together, I in her arms, in the late October cold sunset to our little rooms in the Bronx. She wrapped the blanket tighter around me and held me to her breast so that no cold could reach me. But her head was full of Duke Boyer with his bedroom eyes and kissy mouth and mansions.
For my first three months we’d been living on "relief," as welfare was called in New York in 1940, and my mother didn’t have to work. We could go to movies together to our hearts’ content. But it couldn’t last.
"You have to sue the baby’s father," the relief worker told my mother in the loud voice she used for people who didn’t speak English well. "The Bronx can’t be supporting you and her forever." She printed the address of the public lawyer in big, careful letters and told my mother what subway to take.
"That’s not my baby," my father swore on the stand, and the judge believed him. He didn’t have to pay my mother a cent.
The Bronx didn’t have to pay any more cents either, the relief worker said. That was when my aunt-the funny monkey, my mother called her-came to live with us and take care of me, and my mother went back to the garment factory where she’d been a draper before I was born. No more movies and outings in the cold for me.
My aunt kept me well bundled in the cramped and overheated apartment and crooned Yiddish lullabies to me all day long. Unter Lililehs viegeleh . . . Under little Lilly’s cradle stands a pure white goat. The little goat went to market, to buy you raisins and almonds. A foghorn voice came out of her short body. I stared up at her with huge love eyes. She held me to her heart and I crawled in forever, she said. A kush on dyneh shayneh bekelech, a kush on dyneh shayneh pupikel, a kiss on your pretty little cheeks, on your pretty little belly button. Smack, smack would go her lips in big goopy kisses on my briefly exposed skin, and I was beside myself with glee.
My mother called her Rae, and I’d never heard the word aunt, so when I began talking I called her My Rae. I became roly-poly because My Rae was always sticking into my mouth big spoonfuls of whatever she was cooking in our small kitchen-prune compote, potato and carrot tzimmes, boiled chicken with noodles, My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding. "Open the moileleh, the little mouth," she said and grinned ecstatically when I did. In went the compote, in went the tzimmes. "A michayeh, a pleasure," she said.
I learned to walk months later than most kids because when My Rae wasn’t cooking or making her sewing machine go whirr, whirr with the piecework she did for money, she never let me out of her arms.
They were the only two of their family who, in 1923, had made it to the safe shores of America, long before Hitler marched through Prael, their shtetl in Latvia, and wiped out everyone else-a crippled brother, two sisters, the sisters’ husbands, the sisters’ five children. It was not supposed to work out that way. "This is what you must do," the grandmother I never saw told her eldest daughters, my mother (a sylph, an eighteen-year-old beauty) and my aunt (a bulldog, the chaperone). The poorest of the poor were going off to America and sending back dollars and pictures of themselves dressed like the nobility. Why should her two daughters be any less lucky? They were to marry rich men in America and bring the rest of the family over.
They’d been in America for almost twenty years, their parents had died, and neither my mother nor my aunt had married, not even by the time I was born to my mother and her lover in 1940. She’d been with him for eight years. He’d told her from the beginning that he wasn’t the marrying kind, but she loved him, so she couldn’t help herself.
Then, not long after my mother lost the paternity suit against my father, Hitler invaded Latvia. When the silence from Prael continued, month after month and year after year, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, my mother blamed My Rae for all of it.
"You! It’s all because of you. I could have brought them, but you said no. ‘First we get married,’ you said with your big mouth. Lousy bitch, I’ll tear you to pieces like a herring. A fig on you," and she thrust her thumb between her index and middle fingers, waving it in front of My Rae’s nose in a shtetl version of giving someone the finger. I sat on the bare floor and bawled. "And Moishe would have married me, but you had to butt your lousy two cents in."
"The cholera should take me. I should die in their place." My aunt wept for her multiple sins.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was getting dribbles of information during the war about the fate of those overseas. My aunt went to them and kept going back. Nothing. Then at the end, in 1945, came the tardy news that in the summer of 1941 the Jews of Prael had been made to dig their own graves and were murdered on the spot. No one survived.
My mother shrieked, tore her hair, fell to her knees. I fell on top of her, shook her to remind her, "You have me, Mommy. Mommy, don’t cry." I didn’t know to weep for the relatives I’d never seen, but something terrible was happening to her. I wailed. Now we shrieked together, high keening sounds, and my scalding tears were fluid fire down my cheeks.
My aunt, wailing herself, still remembered me. She lifted me up and held me to her heaving breast.
My mother sat upright on the floor and stared. "Everything you took from me. Now you want to take my baby," she screamed. "A mameh ohn a boich vaytik, a mother without a bellyache you want to be. You lousy bitch, you can’t!" She threw a shoe at my aunt’s head.
Maybe my aunt reasoned that since so many in the family had been killed, she had a moral responsibility to remain alive. She left us still keening and came back to the apartment a couple of hours later with a train ticket to California in her hand.
"I can’t no more. I’ll die," she yelled at her sister as she threw things into a cardboard valise. She wet my face with kisses and more tears and left me alone with my mother. I was five.
I cried even louder and harder than my mother for a long time. And then My Rae’s image faded from my mind. As hard as I tried, I could only remember her foghorn voice and her long blue eyes.
My mother cursed the walls, naming both her sister and her lover, my faithless father, whom she hadn’t stopped loving. Then, despite the paternity suit, she and my father began again. Maybe they’d never stopped and I didn’t know about it because my aunt had kept me distracted with lullabies and tzimmes. Now we moved into a furnished room on Fox Street, "by a Missus," my mother called it, who would take care of me while my mother worked and on Saturday nights and all day Sunday, when she was with her lover. Mrs. Kalt, the woman’s name was. She talked to me in Yinglish and patted my back with gruff, absentminded strokes when I cried because my mother was gone, and sometimes she gave me three pennies so I could run to the dark, sweet-smelling candy store on the corner and buy myself a charlotte russe with a little mound of whipped cream that I could wrap my tongue around.
My mother and I slept in the same bed, and some nights I was startled awake by soft whimpers, like a forlorn child’s, but they were my mother’s. Was she crying for Moishe? For the lost relatives? I didn’t know, but I cried too, the same wretched little sobs. We held on to each other and whimpered together.
But we weren’t always miserable. Some Saturday mornings, to my ecstasy, she took me to Crotona Park. I struggled to reach her arm as we walked along the paths. "Mother and daughter," she said. Our skirts blew in the gentle breeze, and I held on to her tightly. Sometimes we’d stop to rest on a bench and she’d sing-her voice sliding up and down-songs from "Your Hit Parade" that she must have heard from the other women in the shop. It had to be you, wonderful you. It had to be you, wonderful you, she knew the lyrics imperfectly. "On this bench me and Moishe sat the first time I went out with him," she confessed to me or the wind one morning.
Of course our movie-going resumed: All This and Heaven Too, Together Again, Back Street-that was her favorite; I saw it at least four times. "What’s a backstreet, Mommy?" I asked. If she knew, she never told me.
Though I didn’t understand most of what I saw, I learned to speak English without a Yiddish accent through the movies. And it was there that I came to understand female gorgeousness: women with glossy waved coifs, spider-leg eyelashes, and bold lipstick, elaborate drapes and .ounces over statuesque, well-corseted figures, shapely legs (but never as shapely as my mother’s) in seamed nylons and high heels; women who were sophisticated, glamorous. My mother tried to copy them on the Saturday nights she went out with my father.
I watch as she looks at her face in the speckled mirror. She burns a wooden match and the cooled tip becomes a brush that she draws across her lids once, twice, a third time. I hold my breath just as she does in her concentration. The smudges are uneven, and she rubs her fingers over them, smoothing them out. Now her eyelids look heavy over her eyes, which are luminous and large Next she takes her tube of lipstick and pokes her pinkie finger over the top of the worn-down stick, then dabs the color on each cheek.
She rubs, rubs, rubs, rubs with her finger, and her cheeks become rosy. I know those cheeks well because I have kissed them with loud, smacking kisses and with soft, butterfly kisses. I don’t know if I like the new color, but I know from movie posters that glamorous women must have rosy cheeks. Her lips are next. She applies the blood red stick directly. I see she has not followed their lovely outline. The blood red laps over and makes her lips larger, like Joan Crawford’s. For a moment I want their delicate pink back, the graceful shape I sometimes studied while she slept. But now they look like a movie star’s lips, and she nods at them with satisfaction. "Hubba, hubba," I say in my best Bud Abbott voice. She smiles, but I’m not sure whether she is smiling at me or something she sees in the mirror.
Next she combs her dark curls, then puts Pond’s cold cream on her already creamy shoulders and neck. My eyes do not leave her for a second; but after she kisses my cheek and slips out, they well up with tears.
Him I never see.
I watched her so many times as she made up her face to look right with her makeshift cosmetics. Did she see in the old mirror the beautiful face that I saw? Did he tell her how beautiful she was?
Her lovely figure should have clothes like the movie stars’, I thought. But I knew, because she told me, that we were too poor for her to buy herself nice clothes. "Someday, I’ll wear the beautiful dresses," I promised myself, trying to picture my grownup self in them and not remember the sound of the door closing behind her.
It was through the movies that I learned to think big: I would become a movie actress, since my mother admired them so much. Though she hardly read or wrote English, and she never lost her Yiddish accent, she knew the names and lives of all the actresses as though they were her sisters: Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Greer Garson, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck-those were her favorites. She remained in love with Charles Boyer. "He looks like Moishe," her lover she meant, my father. I hated Boyer and his big lips.
Her eyes and mouth almost always looked sad when she didn’t make them up, but on Saturdays during the day and in the evenings during the week I had her to myself, and I was happy just being close to her. What else could I need? We had "kitchen privileges" with our furnished room, but she didn’t like to cook, and we both loved to dine out, as she called it. Sometimes we went to the Automat, where you could put nickels in a slot and, like magic, the little window popped open so you could take out the wonderful goyishe dishes on display. Lemon meringue pie. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on squishy white bread. Mashed potatoes and gravy with ham steak-forbidden and for that reason delicious.
Or we went to a little restaurant on Southern Boulevard, with a menu in Yiddish and white tablecloths. Calves liver and fried onions. Gedempfte flaysh with apricots. Stuffed cabbage in a sweet and sour sauce. "What will madam have?" the waiter, who wore a little black bow tie, asked my mother, and me also. He wrote our order on a pad with the stub of a yellow pencil he pulled from behind his ear.
Or we took the subway all the way across the city, with me clinging to her skirt so I wouldn’t lose her, and we went to the Katz Deli on Delancey Street, with sawdust on the floor and great bowls of sour pickles on the table. Huge corned beef sandwiches, so big that she and I could split one. Lox and cream cheese on Russian rye bread. Scrumptiously greasy potato latkes.
I was almost always the only child in those restaurants, and I forgot I was a child. I took my ordering very seriously. I saw how the men at the other tables did it for themselves and their wives, and I did the same: "I believe I will have . . ." I said, in a voice I tried to deepen so I would not be mistaken for a child.
dresses she must have had to drape for such outings. I think whatever money she
had after paying for the furnished room and the sitting services of the Missus
she spent on our entertainment. Though we could afford nothing better than a
furnished room, we lived lavishly on movies and dining out.