Elizabeth Gertrude Stern (1889-1954)
Elizabeth Stern was two and a half years old, when her family emigrated from Poland to Pittsburgh. My Mother and I is the story of Stern’s Americanization and how it ultimately alienated her from her parents.
Stern’s father had been a small village rabbi. Strict and traditional in his views, he sends Elizabeth to learn Hebrew at age four, so she can fulfill her destiny “as the wife of a rabbi or scholar,” but he opposes letting her attend high school. Stern’s mother tries fitfully to pry open doors for her daughter. When Stern’s father finds Elizabeth reading a secular book, and, in a fit of rage, flings the offending novel onto the top of a tall bookcase, her mother climbs on a chair and retrieves it for her. But Stern’s mother never learns English even as it becomes her daughter’s primary language–and she is burdened by endless pregnancies (she ultimately bears 11 children, only the first 4 of whom survive). Stern’s relationship with her mother is loving, but when Elizabeth goes to college, they draw apart. Her mother becomes a “shadowy figure,” standing with “questioning, puzzled eyes”, eyes in which there is love, “but no understanding, and always an infinite loneliness.”
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