by Jerry Waxler
Karen Levy grew up alternating between the United States and Israel, never sure of which one she belonged to. The story of her Coming of Age, as told in the memoir, My Father’s Gardens, shows how her split identity created challenges on many fronts. Wherever she went, she felt like an outsider. Friendship was made more difficult because she kept leaving them behind. Her first job involved her in military intrigue, as a result of mandatory conscription in Israel. And relationships were made almost impossible by her overly protective mother, who demanded her daughter’s undivided loyalty.
In the end, she resolved her own challenge to grow up by choosing a country, settling down with a man and writing for a living. The resolution with her parents was more problematic, lending a sad note to her difficult choices.
Even before I read the first page I was hooked on the story of a woman who had to constantly find herself. Search for identity is one of my favorite themes in a memoir. On the surface, such an introspective search might not seem important enough to motivate me to read and enjoy a whole book. And yet, when I think back on the problems of growing up, my own search for identity drove me almost mad.
My grandparents left Ukraine to escape religious persecution. When they settled in the U.S. they stuck together with their own kind, as immigrants tended to do. My enclave of Jews in an ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia kept me feeling safe and whole as long as I stayed home. But once I moved to the Midwest, I struggled to find a balance between my heritage and the desire to be accepted as an American. To find this new, blended identity, I attempted the peculiar, and as it turned out, maddening exercise of reshaping my self-image. This psychologically-demanding task I imposed on myself at the age of 18 sent me careening through a series of experiments that complicated the already challenging process of growing up.
As a young man, trying to mix into the “Melting Pot” of United States culture, I was trapped in a long journey of assimilation. As I grew older, I discovered that the entire country consists of people who surrender some of their ancestral identity in order to enter a shared one.
As the great mixing of modernity extends across the globe with massive migrations and blending cultures, people all over the world are attempting to let go of parts of their traditional culture in order to find psychological wholeness among the modern mix.
The Memoir Revolution is a wonderful tool to help us achieve our new identities as citizens of the modern world. Memoirs let writers and readers apply the power of story to the important task of being healthy, whole human beings.
Karen Levy’s attempt to connect with her own country became more difficult than most because she was torn between two, never sure of which one reflected her true identity. As a result of her unusual situation, and her deep, sophisticated story about her experience, the memoir offers a rich, complex look at the whole process of steering between cultures in order to find Self.
Other memoirs that explore self-identity torn between cultures
For another look at this tearing between two cultural identities, read the powerful page-turner Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. In it, the young man returned to his birth country, Vietnam, only to find that he was angrily rejected by his former countrymen because he grew up in the U.S. Ultimately he had to face the fact that he needed to find his identity within himself.
In Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White, and Jewish, the author lives half her life with her white lawyer father in his upper class neighborhood, and the other half with her famous black author mother, Alice, in a lower middle class neighborhood. For a deeper look at people who straddled the fence between two races read the oral history by Lise Funderberg called Black, White, and Other about kids with mixed-race parents. By straddling the fence between races, they had special challenges that highlighted the universal journey of finding the story of self.
Here is a link to My Father’s Garden by Karen Levy.
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