Biographer rediscovers new life in her familys Old World habits

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It's easy to see how Jewish immigrants from the turn of the century could drive their children a little crazy.

Baffled as they were by the new world, immigrants sometimes tried to recreate the tight-knit life of the shtetl — smothering their families, holding onto old ways.

When their children tried to live their own lives, it often seemed like a personal betrayal.

But former Palo Alto resident Jo-Ann Middleman has written a book that attempts to reconcile with her past. "Till a Hundred and Twenty Years," which won the 1994 San Diego Book Award for best biography, reclaims a much- maligned set of relatives.

There was Zady, her mother's father, a tyrant, schemer and relentless workhorse. There was Bubby — gentle and self-effacing, but also a critical perfectionist in a manner we would now call passive-aggressive. There was Middleman's iron-willed Aunt Sophie and there was Uncle Irvin, who married into this clan and suffered it gladly.

They all loved Middleman without qualification.

The scenes in the book "seem to be universal for anyone from immigrant experience," Jewish or not, said Middleman, who recently read from her book at bob & bob in Palo Alto.

"People said, `It doesn't matter, Jewish or non-Jewish, these people are like my family,'" said Middleman, who has heard such sentiments from the children of Italian immigrants, and from the Irish.

Middleman's Zady first came to Baltimore from the Ukraine in 1905 to escape conscription into the czar's army during the Russian-Japanese war. He sent for his new wife and their young daughter Sophie a year later.

The family brought with them all the superstitions of Europe — the fear of attracting the evil eye by saying something too nice about someone, the practice of licking a baby's forehead to "spit the devil out of it," as Middleman recounts in the book.

But they also brought a sense of devotion to each other, and a sense of community that was difficult for native-born Americans to comprehend. Sophie continued living with her parents even after she married Irvin.

Middleman's mother, Sophie's younger sister, tried to get away from them all — moving out of the family home and setting up house at the staggering distance of a block and a half away. But the family treated her house as an annex of their own, and became an everyday part of Middleman's life as she grew up.

To Middleman's mother, those relatives were a trial. But to Middleman, they were devoted loved ones who were a part of her history. The death of Aunt Sophie was the pivotal event that set Middleman to writing about her family, retrieving her past.

A sense of emptiness, Middleman believes, plagues most Americans who don't look at where they've come from.

"People are looking for their roots," she said. "We've lost something very precious" because the break from the old shtetl life of our immigrant ancestors was so abrupt, and absolute.

Immigrants lost their past and the sense of community they would have passed down to their children.

"We haven't really dealt with how dislocating it was for them, and us. We're still paying a price for that. We all bear the scars," she said.

Now 58, with two children of her own and four grandchildren, Middleman said that as she gets older, the images of her family are returning — as are their superstitions.

She finds herself saying kayne horeh when she gives a good report on the state of someone's health. If a bed has two pillows, she finds she has to place them so the closed seams of the pillowcases face each other.

"I fight the superstitions," she said. "But it's in my blood."