The Color of Water

The Color of Water Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-8

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." When she met her first husband, however, everything changed.

James remembers his mother in church, singing off-key. She was a devout Christian, and particularly enthusiastic about ministers, since her first husband had been an excellent reverend. James states: "as a boy I knew God was all-powerful because of Mommy's utter deference to Him." The only time he ever saw her cry was in church. Her tears worried him, but she said that she was crying because God made her happy. When he asked her point-blank if God was black or white, she answered that he had no color - he's a spirit: "God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a color." Reverend Owen was the minister of the church Ruth and her husband had founded while James was growing up, and he recalls Richie, his older brother, challenging the minister about the color of Jesus. When Reverend Owen failed to give him an adequate response, Richie insisted Jesus was gray, and stopped attending Sunday School after that. James also offers a humorous retelling of an Easter Sunday where his older brother Billy needed to recite a Bible story. He blanked in front of the congregation. When the Deacon said it was alright and to just recite any Bible verse, Billy paused and then said, "Jesus wept." Their mother was furious.

By contrast, Ruth's childhood was not so humorous. She 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.

Ruth's household was, according to James, "orchestrated chaos." He and his siblings forever frolicked with food, books, music, and pets, and the environment was much like a circus. The eldest brother, Dennis, held sway over all of the children, since he had been admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where he was also a civil rights activist. The second eldest of the sisters, Helen, a pretty, gentle, and talkative girl, who according to James, was the most artistic of the siblings, suddenly stopped going to church and quit school. She became a full-fledged hippie, and announced that "the white man's education is not for me." One night, as "the big kids" debated about revolution, Helen got in a fight with Rosetta, the eldest of the sisters, and the smartest of all of them. In the end, Helen left the house, saying she was sick of it. When their mother came home in the night, she worried intensely about her 15-year-old daughter. She soon learned that Helen had gone to Jacqueline's house, and sent Richie to go and talk to her. When he came back, he said Helen wasn't coming home, and, after a time, she disappeared from Jack's. Eventually, they traced her to a crazy woman's apartment, and their mother went to go talk to her directly, to no avail.


In this section, James explores the theme of "community" in conjunction with the theme of "household governance", contrasting his mother's upbringing with his own. Ruth grew up under the thumb of a tyrant who not only disrespected his wife, but abused his daughter. He also abused his son by treating him like a slave. The only member of the family who seemed not to suffer any direct abuse was the youngest sibling, Dee-Dee, though as a first-hand observer, it is unlikely that she escaped her childhood unscathed. At the same time, because she was not directly subject to her father's tyranny, Dee-Dee was unable to understand why Ruth - as well as Sam - needed to go away. Tateh dominated his family by the force of his own decisions, and decided that they would live in Suffolk, despite his wife's displeasure with the idea. He isolated his wife from her family, and the family was isolated in general because the Jewish community was small, and because the South discriminated against Jews, as well as blacks.

It is logical that Ruth would internalize her upbringing while outwardly - albeit most likely unconsciously - expressing the values she learned in her youth in her child-rearing techniques. She ruled over her own household as a kind of tyrant, but because her rule was tempered with love and she truly had in mind the best interests of each of her children, her strictness became a standard that the family sought to live up to. Even though she punished her son Billy for blanking during the Easter Sunday service, the lesson prompted Billy to learn to deploy his memory, something which would eventually lead him into medical school. The house was a dynamic mixture of activity, learning, religion, and mutual support, and the eldest brother's success inspired admiration from the rest of the children.

Communities in general require some form of leadership, but an effective leader must help to create a synergy between all of the members of the community. While force alone can lead a community, and the members can survive and still flourish under a dictatorship, the ideal "beloved community" is one in which harmony exists and tensions are overcome. The group collectively aims for a common set of ideals, thus contributing to the happiness of each of its members. Ruth succeeded in creating such a community in her home, and observed that the black people she knew in Suffolk all placed great store in this kind of community.

The book then unravels the parallel strands of Ruth's older brother, Sam, and James's older sister, Helen. Sam, a "shadow" who suffered under Tateh, ran away from home at the young age of 15, and Helen ran away from home at the same age. Sam ran away to escape and breathe more freely, and Helen exhibited a similar need to get away from the chaos of the house. She rebelled against "the white man's education" as well as her sister Rosetta, and sought a space where she could grow into the person she wanted to become. The implication is that Ruth reacted to Helen's actions with grief, remembering the pain of her brother's absence. The parallel further shows that history often repeats itself, and that across generations, races, and religions, families often face the same kinds of crises. The difference, ultimately, becomes evident in the fates of both Sam and Helen. While Sam never returned home, and was later killed during World War II, Helen eventually returned home, reconciled with her mother, and brought new life to the family in the shape of a child and a degree in nursing. The break, in Helen's case, was eventually healed.

The memoir acquires momentum by alternating the story of Ruth's life with the story of James's childhood and later career. By highlighting the similarities and differences between the two stories, the memoir achieves complexity and nuance. The parallels and symmetries which occur (Sam and Helen are just one example) contribute to the power of the story's message. While the events that occur over the course of life often appear to be mere happenstance, the memoir achieves a forward momentum that mimics the developments, hardships, and revelations that characterize life itself; seemingly arbitrary events become the platforms for later developments.

In this section, Ruth's character achieves real depth, not only because of the resonance of her own voice, but because of how she is seen through the eyes of her son James. She is a figure who inspires love; when she told her children that God was "the color of water," she created an indelible image that lingered in all of their minds for years to come. Helen's decision to run away also prompted Ruth to go to her directly, and to tell her that all would be forgiven. That openness and show of concern no doubt helped pave the way for Helen's eventual return.