“A beautiful and moving story…”
By Rabbi Rachel Esserman, July 24, 2018
The underlying lesson of “My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg (Fig Tree Press) is offered in the novel’s first sentence: “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.” As Joel, the novel’s narrator who is also a talk radio host, notes, adults have their reasons for lying: “They tell others they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.” Retiring after doing a radio show for 47 years, Joel now wants to write about his years growing up during the 1950s, including his relationship with his brother, the politics of Boston, the worries about polio and, of course, baseball. However, something else haunts the family: the experiences of his Uncle Jake, who escaped Germany after Kristallnacht, and the reason behind his Aunt Rose’s melancholy Novembers.
Joel and his older brother, Steven, are typical boys: they’re more interested in sports and making money to attend Boston Braves baseball games, than they are in understanding the adult world. They are very proud of Papa, their grandfather, who runs a furniture store and seems to have a hand in a wide variety of activities, including local politics. Their world is rocked when they learn the Braves management may be moving the team to a different city. Joel and Steven connect with a sportswriter, who starts a campaign to keep the team in town. During this time, their Uncle Jake develops polio and the boys hope to learn more about how he arrived in the U.S. However, contradictory stories leave them puzzled about exactly what happened. It’s only as Joel matures that he uncovers some deeply hidden family secrets concerning his uncle and aunt.
While “My Mother’s Son” is a beautiful and moving story about family, it also offers an absorbing look at the backroom politics of the time, how people maneuvered behind the scenes – sometimes using unpleasant methods – to get the results they wanted. The identity of an unnamed candidate will be obvious to those who lived during that time and will resonate with readers. The love and caring the members of Joel’s extended family show for each other shines throughout Joel’s tale. However, it’s the author’s ability to capture Joel’s youthful innocence and his growing ability to understand the world that makes this coming-of-age story stand out.
“A sure to be classic coming-of-age story”
By Svetlana Libenson, July 3, 2018
In 1952, Joel is a twelve-year-old boy surrounded by a colorful cast of characters that find themselves in shady business dealings, including loaning money, rigging and fixing teams or horse races, and so much more. Set in post-World War II, other timely events take place, and Joel acts as our eyes and ears to tell the stories of the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Korean War, the polio epidemic, as well as his own family’s secrets.
“When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.” With an opening line like that, it’s easy to see why MY MOTHER’S SON by David Hirshberg should become a classic like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, spanning the length of one year from 1952 to 1953. This is a story that deals with an immersive reality of living in 1952 when the Holocaust was a mere shadow, polio a threat to life, and when coming-of-age meant figuring out reality from fantasy, which the story presents in hefty doses. It’s impressive that the character of Joel is on target for his age, and isn’t asking me to suspend my belief that he knows everything there is to know. Joel is very inquisitive and isn’t afraid of asking tough questions as well as finding out the tough answers for them.
MY MOTHER’S SON is a pure joy to read, and a perfect antidote for today’s times. This is really a story that has something for everyone be it mysteries, suspense, sports, romance, even history. Entertaining, comedic and extremely nostalgic, MY MOTHER’S SON is a story of the heart that echoes from today to 1952 and it dares to ask whether things were as simple in the “good old days” as we’d like to think, when in fact life back then was just as complicated. I would recommend MY MOTHER’S SON by David Hirshberg for readers who love historical fiction, baseball, coming-of- age stories, family mysteries and Judaic elements.
A magical, distant world called the 1950s
JUNE 7, 2018 BY AARON LEIBEL
“My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg. Bedford, N.Y.: Fig Tree Books, 2018. 349 pages. $23.95.
Ah, the ’50s. It was Eisenhower and Nixon; McCarthy, the villain (Joseph from Wisconsin, not Eugene, the 1968 hero, from Minnesota); the literate and witty Adlai Stevenson, who reportedly suffered from just a slight case of social anti-Semitism; look-alike houses in look-alike suburbs to which Jews and other Americans living in crowded cities fled; my hometown of Baltimore going big league (Colts, Orioles) in two successive years; the brand spanking new interstate highway system beckoning you to “see the USA in your Chevrolet, America is waiting for you to call”; Elvis and Ed Sullivan. It was a great time to be an American — if you were a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Author David Hirshberg — a pseudonym for a businessman, who, we are told, wants to keep his literary and commercial lives separate — gives readers the opportunity to enter a literary time machine and return to this era in which Jews were finally beginning to feel at home in this country, at the same time that white America was experiencing unprecedented prosperity and optimism about its future.
Interspersed with the adventures of a Boston Jewish family in the 1950s, Hirshberg presents two conflicting — and equally compelling — stories of how a member of the family escaped from Nazi Germany and came to the United States.
The experiences of this family resonated with me almost from Page 1. But even if you’re not an old guy like me, “My Mother’s Son” will show how American Jewry coped with the challenges and prospered in an earlier — and vastly different — era.
The story is told by 13-year-old Joel and centers on his and his older brother Steven’s adventures. No moral beacon, no light unto the nations, this family. On the contrary, they seemed to fit in extremely well with Boston’s earthy political culture and society.
The boys’ grandfather bought votes for Boston politician John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Seeming to continue a family tradition, Joel and Steven stole postcards from a newspaper office to help elect Fitzgerald’s grandson, John F. Kennedy, to the U.S. Senate.
Joel and Steven participated in illegal gambling by delivering bets and winnings and helped a soldier go AWOL during the Korean War.
And, inadvertently, they contributed to the suicide of a beloved relative.
Among its other lessons, “My Mother’s Son” vividly demonstrates the cumulative effects of 65 years of steady inflation on the value of the dollar.
The boys are given 25 cents each a week — enough to completely satisfy their craving for sweets — to deliver bookie payments.
Then, they are asked if they would like to earn $5 each to help set up tables for a political meeting and clean up afterward. “‘Well, would I like to eat ice cream every meal, play baseball every day, get to kiss a girl once a week?’ I thought. Our faces lit up like Roman candles,” narrator Joel recalls.
But, in essence, this is a wonderful coming-of-age novel. Part of the book’s magic is the innocence of Joel and his brother.
When the Boston Braves decided to relocate to Milwaukee, people in Baltimore, who also thought their city would become home to the team, were disappointed. “There was a guy who’d made a scarecrow, dressed it in a suit, stuck a picture of Mr. Perini [the owner of the Braves] on its face, and hung the thing from a lamppost in effigy, which I guessed at the time was part of Baltimore like the North End was part of Boston.”
When a newspaper endorsed Congressman Kennedy in his run for the Senate, people were “saying that the fix was in,” writes Joel. “I Iooked at Steven, not knowing what was broken, but all he did was shrug his shoulders, letting me know that he hadn’t a clue, either, as to what this meant.”
The two boys were changing as they grew up. Joel noted that when they were younger, they believed everything they were told. But that was no longer the case.
“Cynicism is an acquired taste, no different from broccoli rabe or chenille or op art. … There does come a time, however, when it becomes too much for a kid to swallow everything whole … . It’s the moment you realize that you’re becoming an adult, for better or for worse.”
The teenagers were not only growing up but becoming sophisticated in their maturation —sometimes reaching a level of worldly wisdom that others never attain.
The boys’ Uncle Jake died under mysterious circumstances, and they asked their parents about it. During the conversation, Joel started to say something but for some reason held back.
“It was as if a future me were sending a warning to the kid me, signaling that it wasn’t always appropriate to say whatever was on my mind,” the narrator says.
“A subconscious flag was being waved in my direction, and the fact that it was perceived and properly translated was another indication that I was on my way to becoming an adult.”
Finally, Joel figured out that his uncle committed suicide. Joel’s father tried to explain to him how the boys’ uncle suffered in Germany during the 1930s, but said that his brother-in-law wouldn’t talk about it. “For the first time in my life, I could detect sadness in a voice, a tonal quality that we can both generate and decode only as our brains wire up for adulthood,” Joel notes.
This book feels to me like a fictionalized autobiography. But even if I’m wrong and its pure make-believe, it’s a book with fascinating, warm, credible characters.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.
My Mother’s Son – Jennifer — Tar Heel Reader
4.5 charming stars to My Mother’s Son! May 25, 2018
Thank you to my friends, Elyse and Angela, for this wonderful recommendation. I am ecstatic after reading this book.
Joel worked as a radio host for over 40 years, and he is our narrator with the present day being the 1950s (one of my favorite time periods of which to read because both my parents were children during that time). Joel tells us the story of his life in post WWII Boston.
Hot button issues of the time form the historical backdrop of this endearing story and include the Korean War, the polio epidemic, the years after the Holocaust, and all the various political scandals.
My Mother’s Son is a carefully woven tale of the same topics that know no time and place- betrayal and hate, and on the flip side, steadfastness and immense love. I took off half a star just because some of the baseball stuff was a little draggy to me (I’m just not a baseball fan). Otherwise, this is book gold!
Thank you to David Hirshberg for this lovely debut, as well as Fig Tree Books and Edelweiss for ARC. My Mother’s Son is available now!
In the spirit of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay comes My Mother’s Son, the meticulously-crafted debut novel from David Hirshberg. The story is told by a radio raconteur revisiting his past in post-World War II Boston, the playground and battleground for two brothers whose lives are transformed by discoveries they never could have imagined. From the opening line of the book, “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth,” the stage is set for this riveting coming-of-age story that plays out against the backdrop of the Korean War, the aftermath of the Holocaust, the polio epidemic, the relocation of a baseball team, and the shenanigans of politicians and businessmen. Hirshberg deftly weaves together events, characters, and clues and creates a rich tapestry of betrayal, persecution, death, loyalty, and unconditional love that resonates with today’s America.
The Jewish Book Council, May 7, 2018 by Renita Last
My Mother’s Son is a moving coming-of-age story spiced with dark family secrets, historical references, dirty politics, and poignant immigrants’ tales that beautifully evoke life in 1950s Boston.
Now a successful radio raconteur, Joel reminisces about his childhood and the years beyond. “When you’re a kid,” he laments, “they don’t always tell you the truth.” This is the account of how the thoughtful, clever, and open narrator finds and unfolds the truths that were woven into the lies, exaggerations, and family lore he’s been told.
Joel and his brother Steven grow up in a time of close-knit extended families, playing baseball, rabidly rooting for hometown teams, discovering girls, collecting stamps and an appreciation for history, and watching TV pioneers emerge. It’s also a time during which the Korean War raged and neighbors went to fight and die, the polio epidemic was a constant threat, and Holocaust survivors didn’t share their experiences—and yet the quirks and differences among relatives, neighbors, and friends were kindly accepted and readily acknowledged.
Joel’s family saga emanates from his beloved grandfather. Papa succeeds in his new America by using his wits and resourcefulness to carve out a niche for his family. He becomes involved in Boston politics at a time when Jewish and Italian immigrants worked within the pecking order of the Irish city bosses. Joel and Steven are entrusted with the weekly delivering and receiving of “envelopes” as they bicycle all over town. They’re exposed to political intrigue, a baseball scandal, and a colorful group of men of all ethnicities.
The deeply human relationships of the characters are explored in many flashbacks and reveal unexpected, humorous, and touching plot twists. Kristallnacht, the Kennedy machine, kidnappings, depression, and murders all add layers to the narrative.
This well-crafted, compassionate, and witty debut novel is an emotional and entertaining read. David Hirshberg artfully constructs Joel’s life and drops hints and clues as the story sweeps along. The complicated back stories of betrayals, loyalty, and love are engrossingly intertwined with the present.
My Mother’s Son explores today’s values along with the past as Joel’s struggles lead him to realize life is never simple. The many half-truths and clouded secrets he’s dealt with over the years finally become clear as Joel realizes he truly is his mother’s son. This journey from innocence to acceptance is satisfying, rich, and reflective.
Booklist (American Library Association), starred review March 15, 2018
“Hirshberg’s debut novel packs both emotional punch and a vivid portrait of Jewish American life in post- WWII Boston. A retiring radio comedian reminisces on his childhood, fitting himself into the larger picture of a Jewish immigrant family and focusing on one year, 1952, as a turning point in his coming-of- age. Family characteristics help define the shape Joel’s world takes, from his mother’s “ace of spades pronouncements” through his father’s nose for numbers and his Auntie Rose’s dream of becoming a circus performer. Away from home, Joel and brother Steven navigate the larger world with buddies Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, and Frankie, realizing that grown-ups don’t always tell the whole truth. Richly recounted incidents—a seemingly innocent scheme delivering envelopes of money, the death of a neighbor in Korea, Uncle Jake and Auntie Rose’s tale of a Kristallnacht escape—come together to form a sense of American life at a particular historical moment. Who you become, the author suggests, is an amalgam of who you know and the stories you assimilate. Readers will find connections here to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) and to Saul Bellow’s classic The Adventures of Augie March (1953).”— Jen Baker
Library Journal starred review – January 31, 2018
“Everyone lies when they’re telling family stories, particularly when they’re speaking to children. This is what Joel, the narrator of this fascinating debut by a pseudonymous author discovers as he matures. In the memories of his childhood in post–World War II Boston, Joel recalls friends and relatives who are not quite what they appeared to be. His Jewish, Italian, and Irish neighbors are all interested in making a living, much of it illegally by cooking the books, betting on sure winners at the track, or fixing elections. They use Joel and his brother to deliver messages to the appropriate individuals. Later, as Joel grows up and becomes a popular radio storyteller, he learns the truth about his family and friends, who they really were, and what they actually did to survive. VERDICT In recalling the polio epidemic of the 1950s, the Korean War, Holocaust memories, the relocation of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee, and the election of John F. Kennedy, Hirshberg offers us a glimpse of the past through the eyes of a young boy moving into his teens. This amazing mosaic of fact and fiction will hold readers in its grip from the first to last page.—Andrea Kempf, formerly with Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
Phil Jason Reviews Books May 1, 2018 (https://philjason.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/melting-pot-boston-in-mid-twentieth-century-explored-from-jewish-perspective/)
This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.
The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war. The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.
There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.
Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.
Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet richly satisfying novel.
Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.
And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.
Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.
It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.
The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.
I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.
This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).
Foreword Reviews – May/June 2018
“This colorful and complex portrait of a 1950s Jewish family is warm and nostalgic, yet grounded by deep history. David Hirshberg’s My Mother’s Son centers on a vibrant postwar Boston neighborhood that is a veritable melting pot. Its residents are primarily Jewish, Italian, and Irish. Though the novel’s focal year is 1952, the narrative shifts from the past to the present, creating a colorful and complex portrait of a family from their immigration to their assimilation and eventual successes. The main voice belongs to Joel, who grows up on that diverse block. As an adult, Joel becomes a “radio raconteur,” hosting a program that he uses as a forum for many of his childhood stories. Joel’s memories are filled with largerthan- life personalities and recollections of an era when childhood seemed less complicated and more enjoyably collective. Beyond the novel’s nostalgic humor, however, are deep reflections. The story captures the psychological aftereffects of the Holocaust, the polio epidemic, and the Korean War. The sometimes crafty politics of Boston’s wards are detailed, particularly the exuberant victory parties. As Joel’s grandfather notes, those elections brought about true change in America, shifting the balance of power from the elite to individuals, with immigrants who were once barely tolerated coming to form major voting blocs. Of the novel’s various characters, Joel’s Aunt Rose and Uncle Jake are especially memorable. Having survived the brutalities of Nazi Germany, Jake is haunted by his harrowing experiences. He is sustained greatly by his love for Rose, a beautiful and caring woman, who deals with her own issues of melancholy and depression. The details of their marriage are intimate and bittersweet, with a warmth like the “cinnamon, raisins and chocolate” of Rose’s homemade pastries and Jake’s fragrant pipe smoke, but also informed by dark secrets to be discovered with time.” MEG NOLA (May/June 2018) Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review.
David Hirsherg’s debut novel My Mother’s Son is a celebration of family in all its complex imperfections. The narrative centers around a retiring radio personality, Joel, telling his own story about growing up in post-war Boston. Local and international politics, the relationships between Joel’s Jewish and other large ethnic communities in the city, a public health crisis, and the drama surrounding the local baseball team all shape his childhood and understanding of his world.
Joel has a strong cast of supporting characters that bring humor, depth, and vibrancy to the young man’s story. The book is as much about how Joel gains maturity in understanding himself as it is about his becoming more aware of the people around him. Hirshberg succeeds in crafting characters with full personalities without allowing them to become caricatures of themselves.
Notwithstanding Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I the story of a 12 year old boy has engaged me so fully and emotionally as Hirshberg’s novel has done. While there were points in the novel where I wished the author would pick up the pace, I also appreciated that as the story develops, it maintains multiple levels of truths that readers can only tease out slowly. The story of the family develops over generations. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Joel to discover all its intricacies without taking some detours.
Anyone who grew up in a Jewish community in the shadow of the Holocaust will likely find a great deal to relate to in Joel’s story. Anyone with ties to the city of Boston or who has strong memories of major league baseball in the 50s won’t be able to read this book without strong feelings of nostalgia. Even as Joel’s story is very much his own, the family’s immigrant history and network of connections contribute to the universal nature of this book. My Mother’s Son isn’t just the story of Joel and his family, but the story of a generation.
BooksandBlintzes received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
Elyse Walters Goodreads Nov 10, 2017
A highly pleasurable novel…engrossing and irresistible!
We are transported back to the 1950’s through the voice of Joel, who for forty-seven years had worked as a radio raconteur. Upon retirement, Joel writes his memoir: “Reflected in it is a story both personal and universal that I skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls, and a dog”.
For most of Joel’s growing years in Boston, if you had asked what he wanted to be when he was growing up… he might have said a baseball player, veterinarian, an accountant, a furniture dealer, or a doctor…. but the reality was he had no idea of what he was going to do – for those 47 years – or what he wanted to be – until he did it. Yet as we follow along – side by side – as the 13 year old Joel tells us his story – it’s doesn’t seem surprising that Joel did in fact become “The Guy On The Radio”.
The first sentence of this novel is powerful and profound but grows even richer in meaning as we journey through the delightful storytelling by debut author David Hirshberg.
“WHEN YOU’RE A KID, THEY DON’T AWAYS TELL YOU THE TRUTH”.
This book is a family-saga fiction story — with fabulous characters: Joel’s older brother by 2 years, Steven, mom, dad, Auntie Rose, (with her wonderful inserted diary readings), Uncle Jake, Old Uncle A, Papa, Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, Frankie, Morone, Mr. Perini, Mr. Carlson, Susie, BlueDog,etc…….
This novel is also literary fiction- historical fiction – and Jewish fiction….. taking place in Boston 1952…during the polio epidemic- the world of baseball: ( The Boston Braves relocate to Milwaukee and all the drama it entailed)…post-WWII Boston, the aftermath of the Holocaust, The Korean War, Jewish experiences in America, and overall American Culture through our politicians, businessman and daily life.
The heart of this story – is a personal profound lie- which Joel discovers through the process of living itself. I found it deeply moving – and am still thinking about it.
“To be a kid, baseball is leather mitts, rubber balls, wooden bats, insignias, pennants, parks, and hotdogs. Polio is doctors, hospitals, shots, paralysis, wheelchairs, and lowered voices. War is salutes and metals, pretend battles, make-believe deaths, days off from school, guns, and parades. Politics is elections, Speeches, buttons, flags, handshakes, history, and rallies.”
“These were the things I knew, for sure, in Boston in 1952. They were truths. They were no less true than the knowledge that my parents wouldn’t lie to me, that the mystery of girls would never be revealed to me, that death came only to the old, and man’s best friend was a dog.By the end of that year, I can tell you that I still believed the thing about the dog”.
Emotionally satisfying!!!!! I cried quietly about 10 minutes ‘after’ I had finished reading this book. The richness is substantial! – enough to make this woman cry.
This book will be released in stores of May – 2018!
Amos Lassen November 13, 2018 (http://reviewsbyamoslassen.com/?p=61432)
“My Mother’s Son” is a novel that is written as the memoir of a radio raconteur. It uses inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in as a way to deal with major issues that affect Americans today including disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It is set in earlier times thus giving a sense of distance. This is the story of an extended Jewish family in Boston (a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands, an uncle and two boys, Joel (the narrator) and Steven, his older brother, who are the sons of the older daughter). The story is both universal and personal and has something for everyone— “betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog.” We read about a family and the word it lived in and what made it even more special for me is that I m in Boston as I write about it.
I believe that most of us have shared the same mysteries of childhood. We know that there are things that our parents do not always tell us when we are kids. I remember my parents reverting to Yiddish when they had something to say that they did not want us to hear. Beginning in Boston in 1952, young Joel knows that there were truths that he did not know about. It wasn’t that his parents lied to him, it was that not everything was discussed with the children. In my house, for example, the Holocaust was a forbidden topic and I did not learn about it until I was in college. (My folks did not want to upset “der kinder”). In Joel’s family the mystery of girls was not a topic for discussion; death was only for the old.
Through flashbacks to the early 1900s, we learn about Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his wife who had been murdered and his aunt’s running from Germany (with her husband) on the morning following Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Joel continues to learn about his family and as he does, he discovers that a souvenir baseball bat caused the death of a cousin and a murder. As he began to put things together, he uncovered a family secret.
We move forward to 1952 and the Korean War, polio, Kennedy and baseball. We see that Hirshberg sees that year as when “societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration” were changed. This all sounds very serious but do not worry—there is also great humor here, great dialogue and wonderful descriptions of a time that was. There are also no stereotypes— these are replaced by the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) cast of characters.
I have been writing about this family and this period as if it is all very real… but it is not. This is all fiction and it all comes from the mind of the author who has stated that it is not based on anything in his life.
In 1952 I was far from Boston, growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana yet the Boston we meet here is very alive and seems very real. We see it through 13-yer-old Joel and his thoughts. Even though I have been in Boston only six years, I have spent a lot of time visiting places and reading about the Boston that was, especially Jewish Boston. What I am trying to say is that even though I have been told that this is all fiction, it could very well have been. We might say that this is “a twenty-first century exploration of the formative American Jewish experiences of the twentieth century.” It speaks to the urgent concerns of today even when we are taken back to another time.
I believe that what David Hirshberg tells us here is that we remember the lies we heard and grew up with more than we remember the truths and while I can easily explain that here, I would rather have you discover what that means by reading this wonderful novel. This is a big book coming in at about 350 pages but during the first reading, it moves quickly. I found that after I read it that I wanted to immediately go back and read it again to see if I missed anything (but that is me; I do that a lot, especially if it is a book that I am reviewing).
I love this book and this is not something I say very often. I think that by reading it, I understand myself a bit more and I certainly think that I understand American Jewish culture a bit better.
“Sometimes it’s the lies we grow up with — more than the truths — that define who we are and where we come from. That’s the message of David Hirshberg’s coming-of-age novel, MY MOTHER’S SON. Through the eyes of young Joel, we witness essential elements of the mid-twentieth century: the scourge of polio, the magic of baseball, the repercussions of war, and the development of modern Jewish-American culture. But above all, we come to understand why Joel is his mother’s son — and how that phrase resonates for us all. A deceptively simple, profoundly memorable novel.”
“MY MOTHER’S SON starts out as a story of a family’s life in Jewish Boston and grows as big as a century. Fascism lurks. Polio carries off its prey. Only-in-Boston characters pop up. To wit: Murph Feldman, the Jew of Southie. Time rushes in only to roll back as the stories within stories reveal truths not only about one family and one city, but about America in the 1950s and, by extension, today. Hirshberg is a raconteur who feels no need to stop to get a sip of water.”
“Reading MY MOTHER’S SON is like opening up a time capsule and sifting among the treasures. 1952 Boston comes alive as David Hirshberg weaves the artifacts of that year into the fabric of his poignant narrative. This provocative novel is the colorful description of life as seen through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Joel, and at the same time, a telling and re-telling that allows adult Joel to process and decipher the truths and richness of all that transpires. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.”
“MY MOTHER’S SON is a richly sprawling and singular Jewish-American saga. It echoes with an unwashed Boston brogue and a heart that beats with a Holocaust past. And it entertains with wit, humor and secrets both dark and luminously incandescent.”
“Only occasionally does a novel like this come along—one that sculpts a vivid, irresistible portrait of a life and times. Evocative of the 1950’s, with cinematic flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is clever, poignant and funny. Hirshberg allows the reader to eavesdrop on complicated 1950s family intimacies that had been clouded by years of denial, secrecy and self-preservation. What he exposes are the riches left behind, those that reveal the truth of the human condition. This is a book worth reading, probably more than once.”
“David Hirshberg has written an engrossing novel that belongs in the canon of great American Jewish literature. Filled with stories of concealed truths, shattering discoveries, and unconditional love, My Mother’s Son is a twenty-first century exploration of the formative American Jewish experiences of the twentieth century. It transports the reader to that other time even as it speaks to the urgent concerns of today.”
My Mother’s Son
The yin and yang of my life
When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.
They tell others that they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.
That, as you devotees know, is how I opened each radio show five nights a week for forty-seven years. I write it down now on the anniversary of my last show as I glance at the walls of the studio, where they taped up a photo of me from each year, a mélange of shots that arrested a moment of time, but they appear to be a film strip if you sweep your head from beginning to end, taking in all the pictures, a short reel that exposes customs of dress, grooming habits, and attitudinal stances—the outsides, the two dimensions that others recognized when they saw the me that they thought they knew. I’m all too familiar with these men, some of whom I loved; others, well, let’s just say I’ve taken my leave without rancor but sometimes with embarrassment. No, I don’t deny the veracity of the glossies, the snippets that captured me with mustache, clean-shaven, long-haired, crew-cut, with wide lapels (thank God, no Nehru jackets), thin ties, aviator glasses, contacts, tie-dyed T-shirts and cashmere sweaters, often wearing the red-and-blue Braves cap, the Boston Braves that is, which meshes nicely now with my speckled beard that still has a wisp of reddish strands, a trick designed to fool me into thinking that I’m younger than I am.
I acknowledge the optimism behind the first one, the 1964 headshot where I’m still in my army uniform, having mustered out only a couple of weeks previously from active duty in West Germany. I’d gone to my first interview wearing it, perhaps to impress the station boss; he was, after all, a high muckety-muck in the reserves, having won ribbons in Korea, but the real reason I wore it is probably more mundane, given that this was still the era in which it was said that girls liked men in uniform.
He listened to tapes of some of my shows from Armed Forces Radio. Then, suppressing a smirk, I presented documents to him to bolster my case, including an article in the Berliner Morgenpost about my private meeting with the president after he gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the prior June. Prominently displayed on the page was a photo of him smiling broadly at me. I could tell that the station manager was impressed. He asked me if I had any other things that would support my candidacy for the position. I retrieved an article that came from my college newspaper my senior year, 1961, which featured a picture of me with a famous radio humorist sharing a beer at a local hangout, where I interviewed him about his stories that captivated young and old alike, regarding his time growing up in the Midwest during the Depression and afterward in the War years (when it’s capitalized and used as a standalone word, it always refers to World War II). And finally, I handed him an amusing piece from my high school paper that reported on a discussion I had in 1957 with my dog, a black Lab, who was lamenting the fact that the Russians sent dogs into space and all we sent were mice. It contained a shot of him with a caption underneath that said, “Depressed that he couldn’t be Muttnik.”
I got the job.
I can recall the opening of my first show without resorting to any notes: “On May 10, 1952, when our soldiers were bogged down in a war in Korea, our doctors were battling the polio epidemic, and our elected officials were assaulting each other in a political campaign, my brother Steven and I surreptitiously witnessed a shakedown that enmeshed us in the events of the day in a way that affected us for the rest of our lives. I was twelve and a half and my brother was fourteen.” I’ve spent the intervening time between then and now giving tidbits of what happened that year, intermingled with other observations about actions big and small, parochial and ubiquitous, that’ve occurred since those days.
Most studio visitors take in the pictures on the wall chronologically, examining closely, pointing, noting something in the background, muttering to themselves, stepping sideways a few feet, wash, rinse, repeat, engaging me in small talk about some particular thing that catches their attention, usually relating it to an event in their lives. Once a year my brother would take the occasion to bring a new photo; he’d step back, alternating peering between it and me and it and the other shots, and give the imperceptible head bob, which intimated that he could differentiate the glint from the prior year, the presentation as opposed to the pose, the body language that only he could interpret.
When the last photo was hung a year ago, Steven’s intense scrutiny of the sags, the creases, the squint, the distractedness that’s unambiguous to a sibling, was a signal as obvious to me as a Morse code SOS. It’s time, life was tapping out, dot dot dot, to say good-bye, something that he’d just done, having announced to his partners his intention to wind down his appointments with patients by the end of the year.
I wondered if what my brother noticed was caused or exacerbated by my recent finding of a trove of handwritten papers that’d been nestled within the inside pocket of a valise, stashed in my house for almost thirty years, the keepsake that reminded me of a trip my aunt had made more than seventy years earlier, now exposed as the chintzy vessel that housed the real treasure.
I initially misinterpreted my brother’s advice as a call to retire, when in fact he was simply urging me to walk away from a daily grind, a two-hour radio show five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday from eight to ten. From your letters and emails you marveled at my ability to riff for 120 minutes, seemingly off the cuff, a stream of consciousness about my life, starting with when I was a kid, right after the War, with my friends Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, Frankie, my brother, our respective love interests Zippo and Susie, The Guy on the Radio, and my dog—adults making guest appearances, certainly never getting star billing. I take pride in your encomiums, thank you, but it wasn’t as if I made it all up extemporaneously. I’d get up early, come into the studio before anyone else—solitude in moderation can be an ally if you get along famously with your conscience—and establish an endpoint from which I’d work backward, a deductively logical reverse process that served me well, a way in which to come up with an outline, the sinew that was all that was necessary to begin construction of the body scaffolding for my soliloquy.
A few months ago, Steven accepted a dollar-a-year position at the university hospital, coordinating efforts to better understand and treat post-polio syndrome, the legacy of the epidemic that we thought we’d conquered, only to be fooled years later in the same way the balloon of our unbridled optimism following the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 had been pierced by the Korean War in 1950. Witnessing him make the smooth transition into a new role eased the process for me to do the same, and that shouldn’t have surprised me. He’d led the way for me throughout my childhood, and while I was grateful, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my admiration for him was further enhanced as I recognized that no older sibling had been there for him, the curse of the firstborn.
Yes, the last picture on the wall was the trigger for Steven to offer that I, too, move on, which I did halfway through 2011. At first, my agent suggested that I go through the station’s archives and pull out my favorite shows from each year, have them transcribed and edited, a surefire way to deliver a product to members of my audience, a built-in group numbering about 250,000, the result of national syndication that brought my show far beyond the Boston metro area. While this might’ve made sense financially, it was something I could’ve done while still at the station showing up five nights a week and didn’t reflect the change that my brother and I both felt was necessary.
After my last broadcast, they were kind enough to allow me to come by the studio to write, at dawn, when it was uncannily quiet, a perfect setting, the only sound being the sporadic whoosh of the air-conditioning kicking in, generating an autonomous shudder, my body anticipating the cool blast that would remind me it was summer, a necessary cue to a person who’s in a space with no windows and no other stimuli other than what he conjures up on his own. With each shiver, I’d get up and pace, much as I did when the green light went on and the young woman in the control room provided the nod-smile that indicated the lavaliere mike pinned to my lapel or collar was live, a silent admonition to remind me not to clear my throat, crinkle paper, or talk back to her when she’d occasionally contact me through the earpiece.
Many times, in the middle of a program, I’d glance over to the wall opposite the photos, where I’d hung my Braves baseball cap and a souvenir bat, the former highlighting fond memories of going to the park with my friends, the latter being the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder, these two objects together bringing forth a sobering juxtaposition of the yin and yang of my life.
But there’ll be no more control room signals, no more hushed voices in my ear, no more green lights, no more writing the outline for a two-hour show. No, that’s all behind me. Now it’s about act 2, a bit of uncharted territory. I feel like Marco Polo, whose mission was clear but who couldn’t tell you much about the outcome until he finished his journey.
So I start by staring into a mirror that I’ve hung next to the most recent picture on the wall. Reflected in it is a story both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, marines, theft, girls, and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood.
I told my brother that unlike my radio shows, here the adults take stage, front and center, exiting only when they depart, leaving behind their legacies, forever in the penumbra of my imagination and displayed through my actions, behaviors, and wants.
“You are your mother’s son,” he said definitively and presciently, “so despite the fact that I’ve been there all along, I don’t know what you’ll reveal or withhold or how you’ll interpret your life.”
“My mother’s son,” I said in a way to hear the phrase in my own voice. “Is that a double entendre?”
He smiled as he cupped his hand around my neck, a wordless gesture that conveyed both affection and recognition that it was the perfect time to take his leave.