Memoir brings to life relatives long-gone

"The Soup Has Many Eyes" is charming, perhaps because Joann Rose Leonard's story of her parents and grandparents, and their experiences in Eastern Europe and Chicago so closely parallel the stories I have heard about my family.

Leonard's book is in the form of a long letter to her two sons, products of her marriage to a loving non-Jewish man. Husband Bob Leonard is a Lutheran, the boys call themselves "Jewtherans " and the writer's motivation is to pass on some part of a culture she believes would otherwise be lost to them.

Joshua and Jonathan Leonard live with their parents in Pennsylvania, thousands of miles and more than a hundred years from the events that their mother has heard about from her family and read about in the memoir written by her uncle Jack Axelrood. Yet the writer believes the stories are important to her sons, and she tells them in a way that makes the characters (some she knew, some were gone before she was born) come alive.

She brings her great-uncle Berney, long dead, into her kitchen in her mind's eye to show him to her children:

"I expect him to remove his black Russian cap and hang it on a coat peg near the door, but he doesn't. Of course. It is the working man's yarmulke, covering the head as a sign of respect in the presence of God.

"He limps in, the result of a hip dislocation. In 1916, just before his eighteenth birthday (your age, Johnny), Uncle Berney, like all Russian males of age, was required by law to report to the local draft board at a specified time and place. World War I had started in 1914.

"Remember, children, for a Jew, life in the Russian army was either sure death or a living hell."

She also tells how Berney's brothers damaged their eardrums in order to stay out of the army.

Leonard has tried to replace a thousand years of tradition with a beautifully written family history in the form of a memoir. Traditionally, Jewish parents have married within the religion or insisted on the conversion of their partners. They have also provided their children with a more or less formal education in Jewish religion and culture, providing a more or less Jewish home life to keep their children within the Jewish community. Leonard gives her grown children a beautiful book. It is a necessary, but probably not sufficient gift to make Jews out of Jewtherans. It might help, and it can't hurt.