5 of the best Jewish memoirs out right now!

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BY ELLEN HARRIS , SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Is there anything better on chilly, dark winter days than cozying up with a mug of steaming hot chocolate and a good book?

The Jewish authors of these five memoirs are introspective and candid. Two tell of guilt and shame. Two take us along their journeys to foreign countries. And two are late-life love stories. One author is an international icon, a private man who ruminates on his entire life in a posthumous book.

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir

Over a five-year period, the late Paul Newman spoke on tapes that were transcribed and edited into The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir [320 pages, Knopf]. Being Paul Newman was not easy, his charm and grace just made it look that way.

“My feet are firmly planted in Shaker Heights,” he says, where his Jewish father, owner a successful sporting goods store, demonstrated a strong work ethic. His son starred in and directed movies until he was nearly 80 years old.

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Newman is in awe of his great good luck: A face and form as handsome as anything Michelangelo could carve, entrepreneurial talent that led the co-founder of Newman’s Own food products to earn so much money he could give half a billion dollars to a children’s camp he created, a passionate 50-year marriage, six physically healthy children whom he loved, even a mid-life race car career in which he won four national championships. He became involved in the sixties in civil rights and stayed an activist.

His children’s camp, the Hole in the Wall Gang for seriously ill kids, may have been his greatest cause. He dedicated himself to raising money from rich donors. Within minutes, he secured nearly $900,00 from August Busch. In his thank you note to the beer baron, he noted the 200,000 cans of Budweiser he’d drunk since the age of 18.  Yes, he admits on tape he’s a high-functioning alcoholic, one who, at one point, consumed up to a case of beer a night. It’s a wonder he lived to the age of 83 when he died of lung cancer in 2008.

Yet an underground river of sadness runs through Newman’s extraordinary life. “I’m always anxious,” he says. “I worry I’m not good enough.”

He feared his success was derived from his looks, not his acting. He lived with unyielding guilt and grief over the death of his son from an accidental drug overdose. Yet his five daughters and his wife Joanne Woodward adored him the way he was.

Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy

Guilt is private, shame is public. In Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy [432 pages, Post Hill Press], her 12th book, Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes that while all people feel shame, shanda and secrecy are coded within Jewish immigrant DNA. The specter of public humiliation haunts daily life. Appearances matter, hence, the cover-ups.

The feminist activist who co-founded Ms. magazine, Pogrebin excavates her family’s shame. Her grandmother escaped an arranged marriage by jumping out the window on her wedding day and running off with another man. Shame extends to illness; Pogrebin admits she told no one when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Later tests showed it was benign.

In a very moving chapter excerpted in the Forward, Pogrebin reveals her main shanda: her mother-in-law Esther humiliated and maltreated Pogrebin for three decades and she kept it a secret. Having lost her own mother eight years before her marriage, Pogrebin twisted herself into a pretzel to win Esther’s love. Nothing she did could win her over. She couldn’t confide in her friends. They’d ask what she’d done to trigger such rejection.

Her mother-in-law’s boundary-crossing would shock a therapist. Pogrebin leaves her mother-in-law in charge of her household when she goes to the hospital to deliver her son. She also leaves the just-completed 350-page manuscript of her first book on her desk. Her mother-in-law takes it upon herself to “edit” every page, taking out sentences or adding them. This being before computers, Pogrebin must redo and retype the project.

Pogrebin begins to feel empathy for the bitter, unhappy woman who has suffered illness and money worries. She forgives her mother-in-law. As Esther lies dying, she says to Pogrebin, “I treated you badly. I’m sorry. You deserved better.”

Shmuel’s Bridge: Following the Tracks to Auschwitz with My Survivor Father

If you’re going to read about the Holocaust, pick up Shmuel’s Bridge: Following the Tracks to Auschwitz with My Survivor Father by Jason Sommer [207 pages, Imagine]. The powerful Publishers Weekly writes in a starred review: “This stunning tribute isn’t to be missed.”

An award-winning St. Louis poet, Sommer grew up hearing about his father’s younger brother, Shmuel. His father tells him how he looks like Shmuel, and how his mannerisms are his. How he brought home small animals to nurture despite the family’s extreme poverty in their Czech village. How big and strong and tough he was. Sommer idolized the uncle he never met. The teenager who resisted the Nazis.

In a cattle car to Auschwitz, wedged next to his sweetheart, Shmuel pried apart the barbed wire in the window. As the train crossed a bridge over a river, he pushed himself through and jumped into the water. The guards fired and murdered the 17-year-old.

The family could not honor Shmuel with a yahrzeit because no one knew what day in 1944 he made that leap. Nor where it happened.

Sommer and his then 78-year-old father, Jay, go on a quest in 2001 to find out. They travel across the land that was at times Ukraine, Hungary, and Soviet, where Jay Sommer lived through the Holocaust and where his little brother perished. Sommer, an English professor at Fontbonne College, researches maps and railway lines and interviewed other survivors to deduce the date of Shmuel’s death.

Their quest becomes larger than Shmuel. Sommer writes how his father, who became the Teacher of the Year honored by President Ronald Reagan, had no idea of Sommer’s “interior life.” Their connection is often frayed between the Holocaust survivor who suffered near-death beatings and near starvation before he fled a slave labor camp near Budapest, and his American-born son safely living in the Bronx. Traveling together, the bridge metaphorically connects Sommer and his father. They reconcile.

In Love: A Memoir of Love & Loss

One memoir should be mandatory reading with an AARP card. “In Love: A Memoir of Love & Loss” by Amy Bloom [224 pages, Random House].  Late-life love carries a special sweetness because the couple knows their time together is finite. When best-selling literary novelist Amy Bloom meets architect Brian Ameche, they both were in their fifties and stuck in miserable relationships.

“You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind that you’re smarter than he is, who doesn’t mind that most of the time you’ll be the main event … I don’t know if I can be that guy … but I’d like a shot,” he says.

They marry under a chuppah. For nearly a decade, they travel between the coasts. Ameche reads every word Bloom writes. Until he doesn’t. He gets lost trying to find his studio. He can’t recall important conversations, and Bloom, a psychotherapist who really connects with people [I’ve met her], weeps. An MRI confirms Ameche has Alzheimer’s.

A former Yale football player with a Heisman trophy, Ameche says he’ll die on his feet rather than on his knees. He wants a quick death. Within a week, Bloom finds Dignitas, a Zurich nonprofit for medically assisted death. She plans their last trip. He insists she write about it. She tells how her husband squeezes the last drop of joie de vivre by dining together at five-star restaurants in Zurich and visiting ultra-expensive shops.

Bloom’s braids short chapters of their last journey with vignettes from their earlier life. She quotes British psychiatrist Dr. Colin Murray Parkes who wrote 50 years ago, “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.”

“Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life” 

Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life” by Delia Ephron [304 pages, Little Brown.] What happens when a rom-com writer’s life is struck by triple tragedy? Delia Ephron is grieving the death of her older sister, Nora Ephron, and co-screenwriter of “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” when Delia’s husband of 30 years is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Three years later, he is gone.

Ephron tries to disconnect the landline in his home office and hits the wall with the phone company. She writes a witty op-ed about it for the New York Times. Dr. Peter Rutter, a widower in San Francisco, reads it and writes her of his similar experience. They begin an old-fashioned epistolary friendship via email. Finally, he flies to Manhattan, and they fall in love.

The hammer drops: Ephron is diagnosed with the same form of leukemia that killed her sister. Cute romance turns to real love as Rutter, a retired Jungian psychiatrist, is by her side when Ephron begins chemo.

They marry in the hospital dining room. Their life becomes a medical thriller as she undergoes the grueling stem cell treatment. It’s especially horrendous for Ephron because of her age, 72.

That was six years ago. Google Ephron and Rutter and see them looking well and happy as they walk their dog along Tenth Street in Greenwich Village.