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American Born

An Immigrant’s Story, a Daughter’s Memoir

An incisive memoir of Rachel M. Brownstein’s seemingly quintessential Jewish mother, a resilient and courageous immigrant in New York.

When she arrived alone in New York in 1924, eighteen-year-old Reisel Thaler resembled the other Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who accompanied her. Yet she already had an American passport tucked in her scant luggage. Reisel had drawn her first breath on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1905, then was taken back to Galicia (in what is now Poland) by her father before she turned two. She was, as she would boast to the end of her days, “American born.” 

The distinguished biographer and critic Rachel M. Brownstein began writing about her mother Reisel during the Trump years, dwelling on the tales she told about her life and the questions they raised about nationalism, immigration, and storytelling. For most of the twentieth century, Brownstein’s mother gracefully balanced her identities as an American and a Jew. Her values, her language, and her sense of timing inform the imagination of the daughter who recalls her in her own old age. The memorializing daughter interrupts, interprets, and glosses, sifting through alternate versions of the same stories using scenes, songs, and books from their time together.
 
But the central character of this book is Reisel, who eventually becomes Grandma Rose—always watching and judging, singing, baking, and bustling. Living life as the heroine of her own story, she reminds us how to laugh despite tragedy, find our courage, and be our most unapologetically authentic selves.

240 pages | 4 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2023

Biography and Letters

Reviews

“This memoir is a delightful evocation of a richly expressive world with an altogether worthy protagonist at its center.”

Vivian Gornick

“From the moment I started American Born, I was captivated by the voices calling out to me from every page. Voices that made me laugh, broke my heart, and reminded me that every family’s story is fragile. Brownstein has written an enchantingly engaging and profoundly honest book about memories, exile, legacies, aging, grief, and our collective and endless need for joy. You must read American Born—especially if your family wasn’t.”

Gina Barreca, author of They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . But I Drifted

American Born is a wonderfully warm and deeply engaging memoir. I loved reading about Grandma Rose, old New York, and a familiar Jewish experience.”

Julie Klam, author of The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction

“Sociable, energetic, and resilient—a young woman whose inclination was to ‘go where all the cars were going’—Brownstein’s mother was American born. But she was also an immigrant proud to be exactly who she was. Out of this paradox, Brownstein weaves a warm and perceptive account of personal courage in the making of an American family. I loved this book. And everyone with an immigrant in the family will love it too.”

Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

“In this beautiful mother-daughter memoir, Brownstein’s keen intelligence about character is richly evident, as is her sense of how Yiddish worked in families, in songs, on the street—what people carried from the old country in their linguistic baggage. Each individual chapter blends in elements from the others, creating a full immersion in Grandma Rose’s world that is truly Proustian in its social intelligence.”

Alice Kaplan, author of French Lessons: A Memoir

“More than a memoir, American Born is also an extended personal essay, a search through archive and memory, pondering the historical reality of this life. Above all, it is a treasure—a valuable addition not only to American immigration history but to the history of twentieth-century European identity.”

Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day

Table of Contents

Preface
One: Columbusns Medina
Two: Characters and Character
Three: Mielec
Four: Shaping Narratives
Five: Love Story
Six: Piecework
Afterword: 2021
Acknowledgments
Notes

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