Reviewed by Vicki Mayk
In an early selection in her essay collection When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, March 2018), Mimi Schwartz writes, “We all have different versions of ourselves, depending on the story.” That line could well serve as the descriptor for Schwartz’s voice in this collection, which deftly juxtaposes recollections of her own life against the backdrop of a half century of political and social events. We meet Schwartz in her many roles: daughter of German-Jewish immigrants who escaped the Holocaust, young wife and mother, college professor, breast cancer survivor, grandmother, and widow. While writing from those multiple perspectives, she blends personal stories with events of the day. Issues of race, anti-Semitism, end-of-life medical care, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are examined as Schwartz writes about her life.
This rich collection of 25 essays takes us with Schwartz when she traveled to the German village that her father and mother fled escaping the Nazis in the late Thirties. She first recounts a visit with her father when she was 13—a trip taken, in the words of her father, where she would understand that “Forest Hills, Queens, is not the world.” In weaving this tale, she also writes of returning to the village in 1993 as an adult to find out Moslem families are being spoken of as “our new Jews.” She then returns to her earlier memory of visiting the site as a teen with her father. In capturing such telling details, Schwartz’s writing is more than memoir. It also is commentary laced with an awareness of a changing political and social climate. In another essay, Schwartz writes memorably about Sophie, one of the last German Jews from that same village still alive decades later and living in New York City. Again, changing times that bring with them new ethnic minorities is a theme, as Schwartz recounts Sophie’s warm words about the Mexican and Puerto Rican neighbors who surround her in her apartment building.
Schwartz’s essay, “A Trunk of Surprise,” provides a personal examination of racism and Civil Rights issues as she recalls the years from 1966 to 1970 when she lived in Glen Acres, a planned interracial community near Princeton, N.J. She writes about the fiftieth anniversary of the neighborhood celebrated in 2007, long after she and her husband, Stu, had moved to downtown Princeton. At the event, stories told by her former neighbors illustrate being able to live in an integrated neighborhood was a rare privilege for African Americans in that time—and in some ways remained a rare privilege years later. Schwartz writes, “Some of the gang of kids we’d known, now adults, came to the podium to talk about their amazing childhood and the disillusionment, afterwards, of living in less accepting places: Nowhere else came close!”
Among Schwartz’s most thought-provoking pieces is “In The Land of Double Narrative.” The essay focuses on her participation in a trip to Israel hosted by J Street, an American organization committed to a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli crisis. The trip has personal meaning for Schwartz, whose father and mother are buried in Israel. Although Schwartz is Jewish, the perspective she brings to the piece is clearly that of a writer. Through her interactions with both Israelis and Palestinians, she deftly draws a picture of differing narratives, noting that the choice of words and the content of stories are important factors that determine whether each side views the other as ally or foe. She writes, “I’m drawn to the gray narratives, the contradictory truths….” It is these narratives that Schwartz highlights in the essay: Arabs who saved Jews from a 1929 massacre, and Arab and Israeli children reaching through a fence to play.
Not all of Schwartz’s essays have political themes. She writes with both emotion and humor about many life events. Readers will identify with her tongue-in-cheek account of dealing with the voice on the other end of the phone as she tries to resolve a computer issue. Essays about preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner as a newlywed and about being an aging tennis player effectively capture two very different moments in an interesting life. Her account of her husband’s sudden death after being admitted to the hospital for what seemed a minor problem that is mishandled by a physician, will evoke pathos, and perhaps indignation, among readers.
The collection is augmented by photos showing the people and places referenced in the essays. Although fun to see, the pictures are not necessary. Schwartz quite skillfully creates pictures with her words. In writing about issues large or small, her prose is a pleasure to read. She captures scenes and recounts dialogue in a way that makes each of these essays a jewel. Her ability to choose the telling detail—a phrase from a song lyric, the description of a tattoo used to hide a breast cancer scar, the words said by a nurse as her husband is dying—is the mark of an effective storyteller.
Vicki is the editor of the magazine at Wilkes University, where she also teaches adult creative nonfiction workshops and a class about the power of story for freshmen.