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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Remembering Our Parents

The San Francisco Chronicle launched a culture blog this week, featuring writing from reporters at the paper and its companion website, SFGate. Its tone is definitely not journalistic. Opinions flow freely, on everything from the Runaway Bride’s recent book sale to the burning question of the number of fake breasts at the symphony’s Black and White Ball.

There are a number of great writers at the Chronicle, like business writer Dan Fost, and I am looking forward to reading them when they put down their journalistic shackles.

Speaking of making the transition from traditional reporting to other types of writing.

On Monday night, fresh from my daughter’s bat mitzvah and a city full of relatives, I heard Samuel Freedman and Ari L. Goldman talk about their recent books, both of which deal with the death of a parent. The pair, out here on a mini-book tour timed to coincide with the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Oakland, spoke in the sanctuary of the newly completed Temple Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Light streamed in the windows onto the pale and glowing maple floors, creating a respectful mood for the difficult topic.

Both Freedman and Goldman are long time reporters for the New York Times and both teach at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Goldman was at the Times for 20 years, the last 10 as a religion writer. He is currently the Dean of Students and a professor of religion. Freedman teaches a popular course on writing books at the journalism school, and still writes a column on education for the paper.

They took completely different approaches to the topic. Goldman’s father died the day after his 50th birthday and his book, Living a Year of Kaddish, is a memoir that describes the following year, when Goldman observed the traditional Jewish custom of saying a prayer for his father every day in temple. “What happens when we lose a parent?” Goldman said to the group gathered at the temple. “Where do they go? Where are they? What stays with us? How do we resurrect them, how do we bring them back into our lives and make them part of our everyday existence?”

“My book is what Kaddish does for the living.”

Freedman was only 19 when his mother, Eleanor, died from breast cancer, and he spent the next 26 years maintaining a safe emotional distance from the loss. Eventually, he resolved to learn who his mother was, what drove her, and what inspired her. Since he knew very little about her early life, he approached the topic like any aggressive journalist. He sent out 1,000 letters to students who attended New York’s City College night school. Three people who had known Eleanor replied. Freedman tracked her prom date on the Internet, finally locating him in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He poured through records at the Social Security Administration to document the various jobs Eleanor and her father held. The result is Who She Was, My Search for My Mother’s Life. It’s just been released and has been getting good reviews.

I asked the question of how the publishing regards books that primarily have a Jewish focus. Freedman was at the podium at the time. He laughed at the question, and then turned to a woman in the audience. It turned out to be Carolyn Starman Hessel, the executive director of the Jewish Book Council, a New York group that sets up Jewish book fairs around the country and which had sponsored the lecture. Freedman explained that although Jews only make up 2% of the population, they account for 20% of the hardcover book sales.

Freedman and Goldman will speak tonight at 7:30 at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center at 3200 California Street and at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon.

Don’t’ miss San Francisco novelist Michelle Richmond Wednesday night when she reads from the paperback edition of her book, Dream of the Blue Room. She’ll be at Diesel Books on College Avenue in Oakland at 7: 30. More details here.

1 comment:

the Happy Booker said...

Mazel Tov on your Bat Mitzvah girl! wowee. we've got several more years on that front. I would love to read your take on the process some time.