- A Jewish Life on Three Continents: The Memoir of Menachem Mendel Frieden by Menachem Mendel Frieden
The memoir of Menachem Frieden (1878–1963) makes a significant scholarly contribution to the study of a tumultuous era influenced by Haskalah, nation building, mass migration from Eastern Europe to America, and the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in Israel. He depicts life in the shtetl, and the scope covers several generations of family history, his early years in a Lithuanian village, schooling and the life of yeshiva students, courtship, marriage, tensions between Hasidic elements of his family and anti-Hasidic Mitnagdic members, travel and the readjustment that comes with migration, his business experience as a peddler in the south of the United States and entrepreneurship in Norfolk, Virginia, and settlement in Palestine in 1921 through the middle of the twentieth century.
While Frieden’s memoir seeks to transmit his own family memories, one of its strengths is that it also aims to place those events in historical context. Thus, for example, we learn through this deeply personal story aspects of the impact of the Arab riots of 1929, and of the functioning of early charity organizations in nineteenth-century Palestine. The memoir offers a window on the generation of Jews who lived through great transformations of Jewish life.
Frieden’s identity is grounded by his refusal to forget his roots in the old country, and the folkways of Ashkenazic Jewry. His identity is not that of a self-hating Jew, as identified by Sander Gilman in On the Origins of Jewish Self Hatred (2012), but Frieden is rather outspokenly proud of his Jewish heritage. He openly bemoans the choices he made that took him away from Jewish tradition, and chooses to record his memoirs so that others may learn from his mistakes and avoid making them too. His voice is jaded; with the sadness of [End Page 195] abandoning his yeshiva studies and his admiration, valorization, and respect for learned rabbis, which meant the most to him. He clearly was a devoted family man, dutiful son, loving husband, and concerned and caring father but in the end, being a part of something greater than the self, being a part of a living tradition, is what Frieden values. He confesses that he regrets not accepting an offer to lead one of Norfolk’s synagogues, which he speculates might have led to his children being educated differently. Yet he states that he has no “Nietzschean” regrets about marrying a second time or making aliyah.
His memoir also sheds light on the many Jews who came to Palestine but did not take up agricultural development. Frieden worked in banking, seeking to bring American “know-how” to help establish an urban entrepreneurial infrastructure in the Yishuv. He identified as a strong Zionist. Thus Frieden’s identity as family patriarch often gives him a pedagogic voice and role, to transmit to familial memories of religious rituals and customs that he wishes his heirs to remember. Some readers may be challenged in identifying individual personalities of his times, the geographic locations in eastern Europe, his allusions to rabbinic commentators such as the Maharsha, and his references to Yiddish novelists like Shomer that were a part of the common culture of the East European Jew. Frieden’s identity is informed by the concept of “yerida” (descent), which holds that each generation is of a lower stature than the previous one. Thus he takes on pedagogic goals: to transmit and keep alive the religious fervor, culture, and folkways of past generations for Jewish continuity.
Frieden’s frequent moments of introspection about turning points in his life sheds light on his identity and what he valued in life: to take the best of the new but not forget the good of the past. He at times bares his soul so that readers may learn from his life experience. The fact that Frieden chose...