The Standard this week is all about books – our cover story is about book groups, Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer’s column is about the value of libraries, and our arts and leisure front page is about a lovely children’s book.
As the cover story begins, there are “so many books, so little time.” Publishers bombard us with review copies – sometimes of wonderful books, sometimes of duds – and the pile just keeps on growing.
Meanwhile, I’ve just finished reading an older book – from 1982 – that I’d like to commend to our readers. And I thank Susan Dworkin for recommending it.
“Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood,” by Kate Simon, is anything but the saccharine, warm and fuzzy stereotype of an immigrant childhood remembered through a nostalgic pink haze. It’s honest – sometimes brutally and bitterly so. Simon has a very individual eye and voice, and they give her memoir shining clarity, even when the light is on a harsh reality.
For example, the passage on “Dr. James and his unexplained short visits to mothers only, and never to deliver babies…. [H]e dedicated himself to poor immigrant women for whom there was no sex information, no birth-control clinics, nothing but knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths to prevent the birth of yet another child…. Some women died of septicemia; some of those who could not kill the fetus had to wait out the nine months and the delivery to let the infant die of exposure or suffocation.
“To prevent such suicides and murders, Dr. James went from one immigrant neighborhood to another, performing abortions…. [T]he fee a dollar or two or nothing, depending on the poverty he met.”
Simon’s own mother confessed to having had 13 abortions, and called James “that wonderful old goy.”
My local library (hooray for libraries!) has the memoir of her adolescence (1986), and I will put aside more recent books to read it.