An exploration of erasure, immigrants, and exiles that examines the ways departures — from places, families and memory — have far-reaching effects.
“Although this is not necessarily a beauty contest, this writer can say without fear of contradiction that the red-haired Arlene would rate highly if it were. The Bugle congratulates Sam on his selection of a queen for a wife and wishes Arlene success in the finals.”—From The Bugle, the Hennepin County Highway Department newsletter, byline Editor M. L. Kruschke
This is a poignant and provocative excavation of familial, state, and national history that remains disturbingly relevant. A deft interweaving of reporting, archival material, memoir, jokes (Jewish and Nordic), scrapbook fragments, personal commentary, and one very special Waikiki Meatballs recipe, Departure Stories: Betty Crocker Made Matzoh Balls (and other lies) peers through the broader lens of Minnesota’s recent history to explore a journey that unraveled the Bernick family and many others. A creative cultural odyssey of otherness, it ponders the ways marginalized individuals find themselves defined, and who and what we hold accountable for the worst and best parts of ourselves. It’s a meditation on memory, meaning, and the stories we tell in order to claim our identities.
Written with wit and dynamism, the book explores the long-term effects of intergenerational trauma using the two definitions of departure — leaving and deviating from the norm — to explore Bernick’s experience of growing up “different” (i.e. Jewish) in the white, Christian suburb of New Hope, Minnesota during the 1960s and early 1970s. The question at the heart of this book is how the invisible baggage of place and memory, Minnesota’s uniquely antisemitic history, and the cultural shifts sweeping the country during this tumultuous period contributed to this family’s eventual implosion.
The author’s mother takes a star turn in this story, and she is an undeniably colorful character: Arlene Bernick was a foul-mouthed, red-headed, suburban Samson who ultimately shook the walls of her family until it collapsed. Yet, she was also beautiful, funny, creative and smart; initially filled with optimism that suburban life would deliver on her ambitious assimilation dreams.
In 1964, she was the first Jewish woman to compete in the Mrs. Minnesota contest, confident she would reach the pinnacle of Betty Crocker goddesshood as the next Mrs. America. Unfortunately, when gefilte fish met lutefisk, the dark side of “Minnesota Nice” undermined her ambitions and spun her away from her children, her marriage, and ultimately, Minnesota.
“We weren’t religious per se. The most frequent mention of God in our house was my mother yelling ‘Goddammit!'”—From Departure Stories by Elisa Bernick
This book is a tale of Jews living as insider/outsiders; tolerated but not quite welcome. But it’s not only about the Jews or the experiences of the Bernick family. While being Jewish is a singular kind of “otherness,” and some of this family’s trauma can be traced to that specific historical collective memory, the trauma of marginalization is far more universal. This book explores the idea of overcoming personal and collective trauma by intentionally reconstructing the stories and memories we tell ourselves about the past. It’s an investigation into memory, truth, history, intergenerational trauma, assimilation, feminism, changing marital expectations, abandonment, antisemitism and how we can use stories to move beyond the prisons of anger that enslave so many of us.