The Color of Water


• Describe Ruth’s family life when she was a child. How did she react to this lifestyle? 

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Ruth explains that Tateh, her father, was a traveling rabbi who moved from contract to contract. He wasn't a very good rabbi, so the contracts were never renewed. When he accepted one in Suffolk, Virginia, Mameh didn't want to move South, because her mother and sisters were all in New York, but Tateh forced the family to settle in the small Southern town. The area was beset with serious racial problems in those days, and bodies were always being dragged out of the river. Tateh, knowing that his contract as a rabbi probably wouldn't be renewed, opened a grocery store and made himself rich off of his black customers. He showed no love towards the members of his family, often making fun of Mameh's disability. Even Ruth admits that she was ashamed of her mother: "see, love didn't come natural to me until I became a Christian." Ruth describes the emotional desert of her childhood, and reveals that her father sexually abused her. As a result, "I had very low self-esteem as a child."

During her childhood, Ruth saw the Ku Klux Klan riding in their white hoods through the middle of town: "It seemed to me death was always around Suffolk." The Protestant whites discriminated against the small community of Jews, and the Depression of the 1930s made life difficult for everyone. Mameh kept a close watch on Ruth and her younger sister Gladys, or Dee-Dee. Sailors landed in the wharf and came into the store, offering to show them the boats, but Mameh always held a tight rein over both of them. What struck Ruth during those years was how the black community every Sunday "dressed up so clean for church I wouldn't recognize them. I liked that. They seemed to have such a purpose come Sunday morning. Their families were together and although they were poor, they seemed happy." In Ruth's family, however, Tateh was unbearable, and Sam, a quiet, submissive shadow, worked like a slave in the store. He ran away in 1934 at the age of 15 to Chicago, and wrote a letter home saying he had a job working in a store there. He never came back. Ruth only later learned that he had joined the army and had been killed during World War II.