The best memoirs

Pamela S. Nadell Author Of America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today
By Pamela S. Nadell

The Books I Picked & Why

The Promised Land

By Mary Antin

The Promised Land

Why this book?

When we think of the memoirs, especially immigrant memoirs, contemporary literature pops out —Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.  But long before their families came to America, more than a hundred years ago, another immigrant family, this one Jewish, landed in Boston. In 1912, at the age of thirty, Mary Antin told their story. Her tale of flight from the land of oppression to the land of freedom has remained in print for over a century, the quintessential memoir of the world opened to a young child who thirsted to learn and to live.


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Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood

By Kate Simon

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood

Why this book?

In this evocative memoir, the first in a series of three and a New York Times 1982 best book of the year, Simon, a travel writer, captures the world of an immigrant child growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s. Their fathers were harsh disciplinarians; mothers knew abortion to be the most effective birth control; and daughters saw poor scores in math crush their dreams. A story of triumph over the odds, of female rebellion, and of the many ways of learning, this memoir evokes a bygone world that also feels very contemporary.


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All-Of-A-Kind Family

By Sydney Taylor

All-Of-A-Kind Family

Why this book?

In 1951, Sydney Taylor invented the memorable Brenners—papa, mama, five sisters, and baby brother—a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in turn-of-the-century New York. Taylor’s words and Helen John’s illustrations in this book, the first in a series, set the scene. A calendar in the parlor announced that it was 1912. Tenements lined city streets. When I read these novels as a child, I did not yet know that they were closely based on Taylor’s own life. When the entire series was republished in 2014, I quipped: I became a Jewish historian because of these books. 


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Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

By Justin Kaplan, Anne Bernays

Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

Why this book?

Written in separate voices in alternating chapters, this unusual double memoir by the long-married couple, the novelist Anne Bernays and biographer Justin Kaplan, tells the stories of two privileged New Yorkers.  Growing up on opposite sides of Central Park, they came of age in the 1950s. Dreaming dreams of literary lives, they came to see them realized as their lives converged.


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The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed

By Wendy Lower

The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed

Why this book?

This book, just published in February 2021, makes my list. Readers may think – not again, another Holocaust history.  But this is far more than that. In Wendy Lower’s gifted hands, we learn of how she spent nearly a decade “reading” one single, horrific image—the murder of a woman and her family. Lower not only uncovers the murderers and the photographer, but this slim, riveting tale morphs into memoir as she narrates how, in archives, cities, and villages, across three continents, she discovered what she needed to know to reconstruct the events of that single terrible moment.


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