“To a child growing up in WASP America, with parents who had funny accents, feeling good about being an Italian Jew was a great gift. But like many gifts of childhood, I took it for granted.” Eleanor Foà, Mixed Messages – Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile
Eleanor Foà’s memoir goes beyond telling the story of her own Italian Jewish family. Mixed Messages will resonate with anyone whose family faced difficult even dangerous times in their countries of origin and made the decision to come to the U.S. for a better life. Often these recent arrivals were in the minority in their homelands, their tenuous positions made even more so with the outbreak of violence or war. Those who gambled and stayed may not have made it out. Those that did would perhaps revisit their birthplaces later on with conflicted feelings, remembering the good times, but unable to forget what forced them to leave.
With DNA testing kits, we are seeing a rise in the number of people who want to learn more about their ancestors. Because so many family histories have been lost, these services are helping to fill in the blanks. Eleanor and her sister, Pamela, were fortunate not only because they had access to letters and documents, but also because their family had roots that traced back to I Fratelli Foà, 16th-century printers of Bibles and Hebrew prayer books in northern Italy. “Their books are still considered exceptionally beautiful,” Eleanor writes. Wherever they traveled in Italy, they connected with people who knew all about the Foàs and were eager to add to the story.
Mixed Messages takes the reader along on Eleanor’s fascinating journey to reconnect with her family’s heritage, beginning in Sabbioneta in northern Italy, through Parma and Rome and Naples. Along the way, Eleanor, who frequently writes about travel and has a keen eye for detail, describes the sights, including synagogues, many hidden away but treasures not to be missed, the small hotels, with elegant furnishings and breathtaking views, and, of course, the food and wine enjoyed in restaurants. (You may find yourself making notes for your next trip to Italy.) Whenever Eleanor and Pamela visited extended families in their homes, they were celebrated with home-cooked meals that rivaled anything prepared by a star chef.
Eleanor was born in Italy and in 1940, her parents – her father, Bruno, and her mother, Lisa, a German Jew born in Munich – made the decision to leave Europe for America. Italy was engulfed in Fascism and while some Italian Jews thought they would not be in danger, many who stayed behind were either killed or sent to the camps. There are some chilling tales about what happened to some of the Foàs who were unwilling or unable to leave. “Growing up, I never thought of my parents as Holocaust survivors, but I have come to believe that, in subtle ways, especially their silence about the emotional losses in their lives, they were,” she writes.
Bruno Foà, the youngest full professor in Italy, was well regarded in academic communities and in economic circles was credited with bringing to Italy the theories and ideas of John Maynard Keynes. He was denied a professorship because he was Jewish, which was when he decided to leave Italy. He gradually succeeded after settling in America. Although throughout his life, he wrote letters to Eleanor, after his death she felt she knew little about her father. “Paradoxically, my parents were much more on my mind after they died than before,” Eleanor writes. Going through their belongings in their Florida condo, she found herself “increasingly curious about who these two people really were.”
Even though her father extolled the value of family, Eleanor recalls that in America they actually spent little time with relatives. At 15, Eleanor was sent to spend part of her summer vacation living with relatives in Naples. “It was hard to admit to friends that the trip – which appeared to be an exciting opportunity – felt like a nightmare,” she writes. Later she learned that her mother dreaded going to Italy, particularly Naples. “It was not my parents but my father who was behind this plan,” she says. “At some level it was profoundly important to him that I bond with la famiglia and they with me. It didn’t quite turn out that way.”
Eleanor’s recounting of the many unhappy times she spent in Naples might have soured her, like her mother, about returning. But when she travels there with Pamela, the circumstances are different and she can recall the past without having it affect the visit.
The Foà sisters were not close growing up. “We are sisters, but not best-friend sisters,” Eleanor writes. Six and a half years separate them, and while frugality was the norm during Eleanor’s early childhood, by the time Pamela was born, Bruno was doing well financially and the family enjoyed a more prosperous lifestyle, even moving into a Park Avenue co-op apartment. Eleanor was always closer to their father; Pamela to their mother, feelings that often forced them to take sides.
Although Eleanor was nervous about asking Pamela to make the trip, she also hoped that three weeks together would help heal some of the wounds inflicted when Bruno and Lisa began to decline. These sections of the book, the two sisters navigating this emotional trip together, are heartfelt and will certainly feel familiar to anyone who has struggled to manage a sibling situation. Eleanor dedicates the book to Pamela, as well as to her grandchildren who, she hopes, one day will also take this journey.
Mixed Messages – Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile
There will be a book signing for Mixed Messages, at Rizzoli Book Store, 1133 Broadway, between 25th and 26th Streets and Broadway, at 6 p.m. on Monday, December 9th.