Review: Looking for Me…in This Great Big Family

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Looking for Me in This Great Big Family by Betsy R. Rosenthal is a powerful free-verse lament about the burdens of growing up in a large family. Laments are an important part of mobilizing oneself toward healing. This novel offers numerous worthwhile teachable moments for parents and educators who gift or assign it. The rising rates of  unemployment and economic hardship worldwide allow these colorful and instructive Depression-era laments to take on new and helpful resonance. This novel is empowering, not depressing, because a lament is a form of reaching out, a burden being recognized and shared when we lighten it through  
the mitzvah of Shema– our non-judgmental listening. As a rabbi who trains others in pastoral counseling and spiritual mentoring of youth, I am thrilled to see a volume that lends itself so readily to teaching this vital expressive skill, as well as the quality of listening that is essential to honoring someone’s lament.

Betsy R. Rosenthal, the author of Looking for Me, is the daughter of the novel’s main character, Edith Paul. The setting is Depression-era Baltimore. Looking for Me…in this Great Big Family reveals the many manifestations of the lament of the main character, Edith Paul, who feels “lost in a sea of siblings.” For example, an early piece titled “Still Searching”: Looking for Me

After school
Mom’s looking right at me,
fumbling for my name,
“Marian, Sylvia, Mildren, Annette…
I mean Edith,
can you empty the ice pan?

If my mother
doesn’t even know who I am,
how am I supposed to?

The full range of emotions expressed in this novel, glad, sad and mad, might trigger in you, as happened for me, both delightful and challenging parallel reflections. Let’s begin with an aspect of glad, delight, with a middle verse from “Why Can’t Summer Last Forever?”  

Summer means
trips to the shore with Dad,
where we all play tag
with the waves
and build castles in the sand
and then, on the way home,
stop for kosher dogs
lathered with mustard,
like shaving cream on a man’s face.

A Book Useful for Mentoring Youth

For those who recognize the importance of good literature for mentoring youth on the journey called life, Looking for Me Looking for Me provides a treasure chest of opportunities. It is easy to imagine a class being assigned to write their own laments, such as the wistful lament “If Only,” that begins:

If Only…

I were an only child
like my cousin Sonny,
I’d have the bathtub all to myself,
Dipping my toes into water
as piping hot as a cup of tea
and so clean and clear you could drink in it.

Why might one want to evoke the laments of today’s youth? For solid educational, emotional and spiritual reasons – we all have wounds from growing up; too few have teachers, parents and others in our lives that can help us raise these to awareness and discovery of pathways to healing. It’s well established that when we don’t heal, we will revisit toxic family and societal patterns across the generations.

In Communication Skills That Heal: A Practical Approach to a New Professionalism in Medicine, Dr. Barry Bub explains that a “lament is a vocal expression of suffering…..The lament contains some elements of hopelessness, helplessness, disempowerment, absence of choice; lack of meaning, isolation from others, from God, from self, perhaps anger, fear, shame, anguish, self-blame, guilt and cynicism.” He goes on to explain that lamenting is important because it is a reaching out for human contact, a sharing of the inner burden aloud. The lament is an essential spiritual practice, or one becomes overwhelmed by life’s burdens. Judaism has sacred texts that are helpful to teach in comparison, a goodly number of psalms of David are his laments at feeling isolated, pursued, bereft, endangered. Looking for Me is the perfect opportunity to create understanding of how a people laments, our people, through excerpts from the Book of Lamentations.

Edith Paul left a powerful mark on her daughter’s memory with her laments. It’s not surprising she and her eleven siblings each went on to have children but no more than three each. Parenting back then wasn’t that of the solicitous helicopter parent. Consider “It Could Be Worse”:

I wonder if our peanut butter battle
will bring
the sting of the belt today.
Dad uses his belt for more than just holding up
his pants.

Dad uses his belt
when he’s so bursting with anger
that shouting isn’t enough.

Dad uses his belt
most often
on Ray.
Dad’s never used his belt
on me.
And I
want to keep it that way.

The Healing Cycle

The healing cycle of the human spirit often begins when a lament, is fully expressed, listened to and reflected back accurately. It can be no accident that the author was a lawyer for a national civil rights agency before writing her first novel for youth. It is all-too-common that students in our public, private and religious schools have no one with whom to share their inner lives; no one to validate their feelings, nor to reveal how healing happens. A talented teacher in any venue can make all the difference. Blessedly, the story includes just such a teacher for Edith.

Looking for Me…in this great big family gives over life’s deeper lessons in poetic grace, within the context of the parenting wisdom of the times. “The Day Our Family Got Too Small” is a piece in a sequence about the death of one of the siblings. Edith’s parents send her to school “even though I wanted to be at Melvin’s funeral”. When a teacher notices her crying and asks why, she explains in a lovely reverie that ends:

And I tell her
that the day before yesterday
I thought my family
was way too big,

But now
my family
is one
too small.

Existential Jewish issues come up throughout the volume, there are discussions begging to be had by the reader with a teacher, parent, friend or mentor on most every page. For example, a selection from “I Needed to Know”:

“Remember when you told me
that on Rosh Hashanah
we need to think about the bad things
we’ve done
and to say we’re sorry?

“And remember how you told me that God decides what will happen
to each of us
in the coming year?”

“Yes, yes,” she says. “I remember.”

“Since Melvin was too little
to have done anything very bad,
Why did God decide to let him die?”
I ask her.

For Edith, it is this teacher in whose image she can begin to herself that makes all the difference. She begins to imagine a unique and meaningful future for herself, that is until “Even Bubbles Have to Work”. Here is a segment:

Dad grunts.
“We don’t have money for college,
and girls don’t need to go anyways,”
he says.
“You’ll work at the diner until you get married.”

His words pierce me,
and I burst.

Edith’s life works out. In “After My Last Day at School” the kind of teacher hopefully all readers will have more than once in your lives will call out:

Edith, when you’re off at college someday,
I expect to hear from you.”

And I go,
knowing I’m on my way
to being so much more
than just plain Edith
who’s number four.

Houghton Mifflin rates this book in a far too limited way. It is meaningful reading for all ages, valuable for youth and parents, parenting classes, seminars on spirituality and healing, and Jewish educator training, etc. What laments are core to your life and family? A copy of Looking for Me…in This Great Big Family may help you commence reflection and writing. Let the healing begin.