A review of The Fortune Teller’s Kiss, by Brenda Serotte. University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
by Philip K. Jason
[First published in the September 2006 issue of the Federation Star, the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida.]
For most people living in American Jewish communities, the customs of Ashkenazi Judaism (which flourished in the medieval Rhineland area and later migrated through Eastern Europe) dominate their sense of Jewish identity. The trace elements of Jewish cooking, holiday observance, and family folklore – those that have survived the Americanization process – are immediately sharable with most other Jews with whom they come in contact. Indeed, those memories readily relate to those of other Ashkenazi Jews, to the extent that their owners may be led to define cultural Jewish identity in ways that are unwittingly exclusionary.
Brenda Serotte’s engaging memoir opens doors to rooms that we rarely have a chance to enter, and we may be thankful for the opportunity. Her upbringing, vividly recalled, was within a limited pocket of the Bronx where a sizeable Sephardic community flourished, a community that had its own subdivisions. Young Brenda’s experiences, in the 1950s, take place in the neighborhoods of transplanted Turkish Jews centuries earlier exiled from Spain. Her parents and their siblings spoke Ladino and Turkish, as well as the English of their adopted country. Their neighborhood markets provided the goods for a cuisine unfamiliar to Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, with whom they had little interaction and by whom they were distrusted. Their prayers and curses had (and have) altogether a different flavor. Their synagogue liturgy followed the Spanish rather than the German rites. Their songs and family stories told of women abducted into Sultans’ harems. Each family had at least one famous fortune-teller, a grandmother or aunt whose mastery of old-world secrets gave her a special, mysterious status. Young girls were taught to belly dance.
While a distinctive culture can be embracing, it can also be isolating. Serotte brilliantly etches episodes revealing both possibilities. The theme of isolation becomes amplified through the memoir’s second center of interest: young Brenda is struck down with polio at the age of seven. Her hospitalization, later institutionalization (in a special rehabilitation center with schooling facilities), and gradual improvement received careful attention. Fear of the disease kept both relatives and friends at a distance, and the young girl was handicapped not only by the damage done to her legs and therefore her mobility, but the emotional consequences of being looked at as different and somehow less worthy.
The target of other children’s cruelty and the physical toll of the disease, young Brenda had to develop a range of coping mechanisms – and she seems to have been more successful at this than her parents were.
Brenda Serotte tells the fascinating story of a bookish yet outgoing young girl struggling with a crippling disease that would be virtually eradicated in the U. S. just a few years later – and also struggling to find her place within a multi-layered heritage that includes her immediate world of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse and the Rockaway beaches, the Turkey that her immediate family had known for generations, and the far-distant Jewish community in Spain from which they were cast out during the Inquisition. A colorful and moving series of expertly drawn narratives, The Fortune Teller’s Kiss is also a work of abundant, tonic good humor.