The Day Mother Changed Her Name and Other Stories
by William D. Kaufman
(Syracuse University Press, 190 pp. $19.95)
In the title story of his mesmerizing collection of tales, Bill Kaufman explains how his immigrant mother outsmarted his third-grade teacher, Miss Brady, who demanded that his mother explain why she didn’t write a note to excuse his absence at Passover. It’s clear that the teacher is a martinet with no tolerance for the few Jewish immigrants in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She walks around the class holding a long sharp ruler and ends the daily New Testament reading with, “In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
The writer’s voice is friendly and personal, yet his eye and ear take in everything—pretenses, prejudices and loneliness—but his is not a melancholy song. As he writes in the introduction, “I don’t like sad stories. I never did. I never will.”
Kaufman offers us a scene from over 80 years ago that recalls the discomfort of covert anti-Semitism that you feel but can’t touch. We see through his 8-year-old eyes his tiny mother towered over by the formidable Miss Brady yet refusing to be intimidated. When the teacher attempts to bait his mother—“You do write Jewish, don’t you, Mrs. Kaufman?”—she instructs her son in Yiddish, “Tell her to go to hell.”
Kaufman’s stories are much more than lessons. He knows how to tell a tale well, whether it is about the end of the war or his new life in a senior residence.
It is a great pleasure to discover a new and promising writer, though why it took Kaufman 92 years to pen his first book is a mystery. He’s a natural who knows how to give us the look, sound, smell and feel of a room, a person, or a moment that rings true, sometimes funny and always wise. Maybe it takes that many years to know which stories are worth keeping.
I met the author at the Lindner Residence on Long Island in New York. He is deceivingly elfin, a sharp observer. In the story “Miss Wheatley,” he describes a librarian from his childhood “Miss Wheatley,” he writes, “was anything but regal in appearance. Her figure was slight, almost skinny, and her clothes, which were long out of fashion but of good quality, were sizes too big for her. She had the look of someone who had lost a great deal of weight but continued to wear the same garments…from time to time, she wore a single strand of pearls that my sister Dorothy said were real.”
That the author of this collection is a nonagenarian is not insignificant. He is an example to us all that it is never too late to develop latent talents. And while not everyone is going to achieve what Kaufman has, he inspires us to tell our own stories. More than just giving us a look at a vanished world, he gives us a glimpse of our future. I’m going to give this book to all my friends who despair that they will never get a book written.
Kaufman’s voice lets us see the reward of a long, well-lived life. I hope he’s working on his next book. —Malka Drucker
Malka Drucker is founding rabbi of HaMakom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the author, most recently, of Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes (Dutton Children’s Books).
This review appeared in Hadassah magazine, June, 2009