Father and Son

Lost in America    by Sherwin Nuland

212pp, Vintage books of Random House NY 2004  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern, Nov. 2011

    This is the story of Meyer Nudelman, who emigrated to America in search of a better life but ended with hard work, chronic sickness, poverty and trouble. Lost in America, indeed: to the end of his life, his main language remained Yiddish, supplemented by mangled English hidden behind a thick accent.

    It is also the growing-up story of the book's author, Meyer's son Sherwin Nuland, initially Shabtai ("Shepsl") Nudelman, named for the day of Sabbath. Sherwin's story tells of an American success --Yale medical school, successful career in surgery, acclaimed author ("Doctors: the Biography of Medicine", "How We Die" etc.), success that gave Meyer rare "naches" (comfort) in his waning years. Subtitled "A Journey with my Father," this is a son's candid tribute.

    Nuland grew up in New York, sharing a Bronx apartment with older brother Harvey, also his father, unmarried aunt Rosa, vigorous grandmother "Bubbeh," and until her death shortly after his 11th birthday, his mother. Family life was not easy during the depression and war; adult members worked at low-paying jobs in the garment industry, true to the Yiddish name "Nudelman" which meant "Needleman." Meyer's Illness made walking difficult, and he grew to be increasingly dependent on the escort of his young son, yet he also had an explosive temper, which young Sherwin ("Shoifin!!") dreaded. What kept the household functioning, especially after the mother died, was the stalwart persistence of Rosa and Bubbeh, and occasional help from Meyer's doctor cousin Willie, a constant background presence who helped the family weather medical emergencies.

    A tough upbringing, yet one softened by the glow of youth, by good schools in the Bronx, by the discovery of literature and writing, by circles of friends ("gangs" in those days) and by positive experiences. One such experience was initiated by a well-to-do relative with a son of the same age. He invited Sherwin to spend a week of his winter vacation with his family, and that was a great success. Shortly afterward the friend and his wife visited Meyer's household and offered to take Sherwin to their own home, to live with their son. Rosa and Bubbeh thought it was a great opportunity, but Meyer icily turned it down. "Who dey tink dey ah? Dey tink vot I dunt know ha to be ah fahderr?"

    Sherwin stayed with his dad, but help from family and part-time jobs added to his independence and guided him to medical school. The study of medicine opened his eyes to the unexpected source of Meyer's chronic affliction, but by then he had already broken free of his dad's domination, leaving only the duty and love of a son towards a hapless father.

    All this took place inside a community of Jewish immigrants, rooted in old-time religion and in Yiddish culture, a society of Jews too deep in drudgery to engage in any scholarship except to admire it from afar. That life is lucidly described, including the day in 1947 when Meyer picked up a newsstand copy of the "Jewish Daily Forward" and read with shock how the community of his European relatives was exterminated in a single day by Nazi soldiers.

    This book deserves to be read slowly, chapter by chapter. It traces the author's path out of his Bronx neighborhood and his efforts to remain true to his cultural roots and his father, and at the same time, expand his horizons in medicine, history and American culture. An exquisite book, meticulously written.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 9 November 2011