Remembering my mother with a book, not as a cook

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The Jerusalem Post  05/03/2020


Remembering my mother with a book, not as a cook


One day in Champlain Colony, that ramshackle collection of bungalows by the polluted Lake Champlain we considered our summer paradise, my mother was doing what she usually did while using the communal washer-dryer.

A neighbor asked, “Why are you reading?” It was 1969, and the perfectly-coiffed women on TV concentrated on their chores single-mindedly. My mother replied, “I want my children to remember me for reading books not washing their clothes.”Read More Related Articles

My mother, Elaine Troy, was born in 1933 and died this past Monday at the age of 86. When wasn’t just a bookworm, she was a book junkie and book pack rat. Our house in Queens, New York , overflowed with books like Mr. Whoopee’s closet on Tennessee Tuxedo – on shelves, off shelves, on desks, in closets. To her, books were airline tickets to adventure, passports to other worlds, secret decoders for understanding this world, instruction manuals for building a better world, barbells for the mind, kosher chocolate fudge cake for the soul.

My father also loves books, but mostly thick historical monographs. My mother’s tastes were eclectic. She read about Jews and about women, about psychology and society. She read Elie Wiesel and Betty Friedan, Yitz Greenberg and Blu Greenberg, and yes, she loved junk novels as much as she loved junk food. But she wasn’t a distracted mother escaping the family via literature, she squeezed her reading time into her crazy-busy days by indulging late into the night.

Elaine Troy was a natural-born feminist, living the equal rights revolution before it began. A star volleyballer at the Workman’s Circle Camp Kinder Ring, she had the moxie to defy her Bundist camp director by spending a year in Israel with the left-wing Habonim youth movement in 1951. He never spoke to her again for allying with “those Zionists .”She had the grit to endure jaundice and that legendary night when a kind Israeli policeman threw her and a friend in jail “so they would have a safe place to sleep.” She had the intellectual ambition to fight her father when he blocked her from reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the only book he banned. She had the drive to become a Hebrew School teacher, during which she met her life-partner for 65 years in a wonderful “mixed marriage” with a right-wing Betari: Bernard Dov Troy.

After earning her master’s degree, she became a New York City schoolteacher, then a guidance counselor and reading teacher. Eventually, she went independent as a therapist. She had the courage to work in the worst neighborhoods in the 1970s, from the South Bronx to Bushwick, with no cellphone, always seeing the aspiring learner behind every dysfunctional family, every disability, every social pathology haunting her students.

The work was often Sisyphean and underappreciated. As schoolteachers and Jewish educators, my parents were usually dismissed at cocktail parties and in the Jewish organizational world. Their paychecks and donations didn’t have enough commas and zeros, although IRS agents once audited them for claiming too many charitable deductions on a teacher’s salary, then toasted their generosity. It’s not coincidental that Elaine’s three sons chose professions like law, White-House advising, writing and professing, which outsiders often fawn over excessively.

My mother’s retirement party was depressing. While many praised her magic touch with students, parents and colleagues, she described the fall of that once-revered symbol of intelligence and integrity, the New York schoolteacher. The Board of Ed bounced her around to 50 schools. “We lived through a revolution,” my father explained, from the ‘50s through the ‘80s, and it wasn’t pretty.

Although my parents led conventional 1950s Leave it to Beaver lives, that didn’t stop them from being idiosyncratic. He taught her how to cook. She took us to baseball games. She was fast, running up the stairs in hyper-speed, tik-tik-tik; he was slow, plodding his way up the stairs, thump-thump-thump.

So while what they would have called a 33-1/3 record being married to a 78-rpm record triggered its frustrations, my parents remained in synch on the essentials: values and ideals.

THEY AGREED about where we should go to school, what causes to champion and what stands to take. If in Washington, it’s dangerous to stand between a preening politician and a camera, in Queens, it was scarier to stand between my parents and a principle, or a good deed.

For us, the three Troy boys, Elaine was SuperMom. She ran the house. Dad worked two, then three jobs, and came home for a late second dinner after we had gone to bed. She ran the errands. None of us now fathom how she accomplished as much as she did in a day. And she ran our lives, but not in that stereotypical, heavy-handed, guilt-tripping way of the Jewish mother who cuts you down. Elaine built you up.

She preached, “Guilt is a wasted emotion.” Essentially, her approach was stealthier: guilt by remote control. She and my father embedded within us expectations, standards, ethics and aspirations that kept us in line.

Her philosophy boiled down to three words “Be a mensch!” – a good person, always translated in gender-neutral terms, instinctively, not ostentatiously. She wanted us to be good, to do good, to feel good and to have good relationships. She took pride in our accomplishments and drove us hard with her subtle touch, looking for that missing point when we came home with 99s.

But she was proudest of our life choices, the friends we made, the women we married, the kids we raised, the values we inherited, the Jewish lives we led and the good deeds we did.

We joked, in Troyland “nothing exceeds like excess.” That wasn’t about material possessions; we grew up on hand-me-downs. It was about welcoming people, connecting to people and collecting people. Just as they always had more room at our Shabbat table, my parents never rationed love or attention. Their hearts were muscles that grew ever-bigger from constant exercising. My mother had three sons and a string of friends and relatives we welcomed as “the fourth son” and “the daughter mom never had.” My parents had 11 biological grandchildren and multiple honorary grandkids too, because “more is more.”

Her Torah cross-bred her mother Charlotte Steinhaus’s down-to-earth goodness with her father Leon Gerson’s more intellectual quest for mussar, morality. Being good, doing good, was a communal act, reflecting her love of Jewish tradition, her Zionism, and in later years, Adlerian psychology, which she said emphasized fixing relationships, not navel-gazing.

As my mother’s system shut down after months of struggle, she summed up her worldview: “I tried to be a good person,” she said, a mensch! “I tried to be helpful. I tried to be joyful. I wasn’t religious, but tradition and Yiddishkeit were always important to me.” She died two days later.

Born into the Great Depression, my parents were too young to be the Greatest Generation winning World War II and too old to be Baby Boomers revolutionizing the world. Theirs was the Responsible Generation, recovering from Depression and War to build good lives, guided by their inheritance: their parents’ expectations and the great books they valued.

My parents also belonged to American Jewry’s “making it” transition generation, immigrants’ kids who remained Jewishly traditional, loyal and just a bit foreign. My mother peppered her speech with colorful Yiddishisms and Americanisms. You didn’t get upset, you plotzed. You didn’t have enemies, they were choleyahs, choleras. You never had “diversity,” just “a regulah United Nations.” If you felt ignored you snapped, “What am I, Oscar’s pet horse?”

As she lay dying, I discovered Mom’s 1955 wedding album. As Zionists, my parents knew what a profound statement of optimism and Jewish continuity building a Jewish home was 10 years after the Holocaust, and seven years into Israel’s existence.

Although both families were modest, the photos made it look like a storybook wedding. Admittedly, my parents’ life together wasn’t a fairytale. But rather than being trendy creatures of Facebook, they were shaped by the enduring values of the Good Book, the Bible, and the many other books they cherished.

I’m sure heaven is more crowded now, because Elaine Troy has entered with a vast library’s worth of good works, inspiring memories and favorite books. We remember her reading them and magically transforming them into torches, illuminating our lives, generating values, blazing the path from an old unstable, immigrant world to a new more secure one, teaching so many of us how to do good deeds, live good lives and be good people, mensches.


Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .   



Copyright © 2020 Prof Gil Troy, All rights reserved.

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