Cover image for The soup has many eyes : from shtetl to Chicago : a memoir of one family's journey through history
The soup has many eyes : from shtetl to Chicago : a memoir of one family's journey through history
Leonard, Joann Rose.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Bantam Books, 2000.
Physical Description:
184 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 20 cm
Format :


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Item Holds
F548.9.J5 L46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
F548.9.J5 L46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Our lives are made rich by those who came before us. Like ingredients in a long-simmering soup, they flavor who we are and what we do. In this beautiful, haunting, and larger-than-life memoir, one woman shares with us the humor, heartbreak, and triumph of her Jewish ancestry, to comfort and strengthen us all, whatever our faith. At home in her Pennsylvania kitchen, Joann Leonard makes soup. In her grandfather's pot, she improvises, using her great-grandmother's unwritten recipe. As she does, amid the fragrant steam rising from the pot comes a stream of memories, half-told tales, and departed ancestors asking that their stories be told. And what stories they are: of the six strong Axelrood brothers and their families terrorized by Cossacks in their Eastern European village; of a man hiding twenty-eight days under a barn floor to avoid being murdered; of a tiny girl left with others for safety in the flight from savagery and lost for twelve long years; and of new lives made from old in America, "the Golden Land." As Joann Leonard adds each story to her pot, she creates a rich and universal soup to nourish us all: the story of a woman putting together the fragmented pieces of her own life and recognizing the power of her own Jewish heritage. What she discovers within her cookpot are the extraordinary endurance, remarkable bravery, and lusty humor of her forebears and the joy of an undying legacy of faith that is the greatest gift she has been given--a gift she has been entrusted to pass along to her two adult sons. These pages invite us all to share in this life-giving food. In a nation where most people's roots lie in faraway lands,The Soup Has Many Eyesis a rich, poetic, deeply satisfying testament to the importance of family bonds, spiritual insight, and--most of all--the miracle that happens when we invite the past into our lives.

Author Notes

Joann Rose Leonard writes & directs plays for children & teens in an outreach program of the Penn State School of Theatre. She & her husband, Bob, a professor & theater director, live in State College, Pennsylvania.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In this remarkable memoir, Leonard traces her family history to the early 1800s, when her great-great grandfather, Yosef Axelrood, lived in the Ukraine. He made copper kettles for a feudal lord who distilled vodka. Leonard writes of the pogroms that followed in Russia, bringing death and destruction to the Jews. She tells of the painful and dangerous procedures the Jewish males went through to avoid the horrors of military service and how roving bands of Cossacks raped and killed the Jews and stole their meager possessions. But there are happy times, too. In 1920 some family members fled Russia and came to the U.S., where they found work and freedom. Leonard describes the joy of a Passover dinner, bar mitzvahs, and relatives being reunited in the "Golden Land." The vivid reminiscences of her family show Leonard to be a truly gifted writer; this is a warm and moving work. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Framing her memoir as a letter to her two sons, Leonard, who writes and directs plays for children and adolescents, blends the details of her daily life with the story of her Jewish family's escape from persecution in Eastern Europe. As she stirs borscht, made according to her great-grandmother's recipe in an iron pot inherited from her great-grandfather, she converses with the spirits of her ancestors. Principal among them is Leonard's great-uncle Berney, one of six Axelrood brothers living with their families in Tetiev, a western Russian shtetl, when the pogroms of the early 1900s erupted. Leonard poignantly describes how the family scattered in order to escape violent death at the hands of the Cossacks and eventually regrouped in Kiev before immigrating to the U.S. Yet while many of her family stories--such as one of the 12-year disappearance of one child--are stirring, Leonard's loosely constructed narrative undercuts the Axelroods' tragedies and triumphs. In addition, while her ornate prose style can be effective in dramatizing some of the historical vignettes, it's excessive applied to Leonard's mundane activities ("I begin the day just as if I had never before tasted the elixir of that first swallow of coffee, never felt the exquisite lick of morning light warming my chilled skin... "). Although readers may find the Axelrood family history compelling, Leonard's unwieldy style diminishes its power. B&w photos. Agent, Frances Goldin. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Slowly, by degrees, I wake. From under the comforter, I slip out of Dad's embrace, leaving those inscrutable coordinates of sleep that splay from the point where all space begins, where all time meets.  Where dreams unite people, out of sequence, out of place. My feet burn as they touch the floor, unable to cipher for a moment whether it is heat or cold that shocks them. Some mornings I'm so perforated with fear, so gape-mouthed with awe at the undertaking of another day, that in order to reach the window, I pass over live coals, over ice undercut with chasm. Outside, the colorless scrim between sleep and waking begins to lift, and from the haze, apparitions of the familiar seep into shape: a density in the distance that will darken into Mount Nittany, the spreading red maple by the road, the shed; the forty-foot blue spruce that, when you were three, Josh, you climbed bough by bough to the top as I gardened. "Joshy," I called. "Come down, you are too high." "No, I'm not," you replied. "I'm more than that. I'm three high, four high, five high." In the widening, granular light, forms are so blurry, a moth wouldn't be able to find a leaf or twig substantial enough to grasp. Cries of a cardinal pickax their bright metal into the morning, the crimson flight across the yard as startling as blood outside the body. I tiptoe downstairs in an erratic pattern to avoid the maze of creaks that plague old wood. Not that there is anybody to wake now. Both of you are gone and Dad sleeps heavily. But just as new habits are hard to form because we forget to use them, old habits perpetuate because we forget to stop. I discovered that along with the true meaning of "body of knowledge" when our beloved dog, Chita, died. My head knew she was gone, but it was well over a month before I could get out of bed without wide-stepping over her place on the floor. The body holds on to what it knows far longer than the brain. In the kitchen, I pour some coffee and sip in the silence. Sweet and milky, it rolls down my throat opening round as an O. Astonished, I begin the day just as if I had never before tasted the elixir of that first swallow of coffee, never felt the exquisite lick of morning light warming my chilled skin, never experienced the sweet pressure of chair rungs holding up my body like outside bones. All this newness despite the fact that I am surrounded by visible history. Over in the corner, holding the spider plant, is the junior chair that held each of you long before you learned that the world turns on its own without your spinning. You learned quickly, though. When you were six, Josh, you came into the kitchen while I was scrambling eggs and said, "Mommy, did you know that if you woke up in the middle of the night, the kitchen would be where the living room is?" "How does that happen?" I asked. "Because," you replied, "every day the world turns the whole way round." Perhaps that's the reason I can never find my way to where I'm supposed to be--the green center that eludes the chomp of chaos. Sometimes when I'm driving along the highway, the road hums under the tires as they revolve over traffic strips grooved like a phonograph record. Was it National Geographic that postulated the theory?--recreating the voices and sounds of ancient artisans by placing a phonograph needle on a round clay pot and following the ridges made by the potter's tool. And what sound might have been captured? Would humming be heard, some heart, unleashed from time and flesh, spinning out from an ancient potter's wheel? Or instead, hoarse hawkings, a rusty guffaw? Some stories from the past may be as speculative as sound twisted from the carapace of a vanished potter. But not yours, Jonny and Josh. Not this story. Not when you can look at a photograph of your Aunt Lisa taken in 1937 and see a bandage on her left ankle. I remember the stories told to me about Aunt Lisa and her sore that never healed. The ulcer appeared in 1919 (eighteen years before the photo) as she walked from village to village searching for her two-year-old daughter who was lost as they fled the pogroms. Everywhere I look, Josh and Jon, your history is chaptered; the lopsided basket that holds pencils, the clay pinch pot that holds paper clips, woodshop projects of towel rods, napkin holders and spice racks. And especially the pine trestle table that bears your early hieroglyphs incised right through paper into its soft wood--alphabets and numbers, stick figures, rainbows, suns as big as teacups, plus marks and equal signs proving that the world adds up. This is not remembered history that the mind can cobble into its own versions, it is as real and present as the dust that accumulates on it. It belongs to the everyday--a past you can pull up to the table or use to flavor today's soup. A past that echoes in the particulars of daily life. Life may be created in the bedroom, but it is the kitchen where it is sustained. Still barefoot, I head to the basement, taking from the sink as I go the metal bowl heaped with kitchen scraps. Rinds, shells, piths, seeds. Lacking sturdier digestive systems, we feed mostly on the fleshy middle of things, just as we receive the heart of each day from the cracked bones of our ancestors. I tug the cord to the basement light. The bulb flickers, then goes black. I feel my way down the uneven cellar steps, sponging in the dank air. It's not a smell I relish, but an animal quickening compels me to scent it deeply. A cold sweat of groundwater exudes from the pores of the cellar stones; water that has filtered through centuries of the living and dead, now bound in this subterranean space. I shove my feet into a pair of mud-encrusted clogs and clop out to the garden. The morning is mistress and defined now. No fog to muffle clarity of thought. Rising beyond the woods on the opposite side of the creek, the green hills are pricked with the first red of the season, and slow rust gnaws at the leafy edges of the garden. I unlatch the gate to the chicken yard and fling the scraps in a wide arc into a flurry of squawks, then go to gather eggs. In the dusty, slatted light of the chicken house, I reach into a nesting box, sliding my hand under the spread breast feathers of a golden brown banty-like the one that, when you were five, Josh, you dubbed Judy Morning Daylight. Groping gently, my hand curves around a warm oval, and I grasp the age-old paradox in my palm. Chicken or egg, I wonder? The answer, I suppose, lies in the egg that lies within the chicken that is in the egg. Like this story. Where does it begin? Which birth? Which mother? How can I speak your story, Josh and Jonny, without a long history of mothers nudging these words into a laundry list of things that must not be forgotten? After collecting the eggs, I stride to the garden. Cold circles of damp seep through my sweatpants as I kneel on the ground to grip the sinewed stems of a beet. This, I imagine, is the way it would feel to throttle someone's scrawny neck. Shivers tunnel down my spine at the thought. In the maelstrom of daily fears--illness, accidents, random violence--it's odd to feel my own body turn predator. I tug. The stem resists. Again I yank, and from deep inside, from that place where energy turbines into action; where chromosomes and coffee swirl together with daily need and lunatic dreams, memory churns into motion, fueled by a list of helping verbs (like the one you, Jonny, brought home from fourth grade)-- am is was have had do did might must would should can will be being been Surging from that place that compels us to scratch our nose or journey to the moon, I hear a voice. " Shalom, Joann," Great-grandmother Chana says. "Such a nice garden you've planted. Your first beets?" Startled, I feel my blood jet through my veins and pound against my eardrums. "Yes," I whisper. "Detroit reds. Fifty-nine days." "You hoed," Chana says. "Got blisters." Blisters, I remember. Watery, aching pillows for the seeds to dream and grow lush upon. "The first green," says Chana. "So hard to tell leaf from weed. And now time for pulling easy for a strong woman like you. Pull, Joann. Pull." "The root's long," I say. "Long? Of course it's long. It reaches all the way to my gratchkeh in Tetiev. It begins here, here in Die Goldeneh Medina, your golden country, where people drink sun from a cup. And then, you know what happens? Along the way it sips from your buried relatives: Cousin Roochel, Uncle Berney, Uncle Itzzy, Lisa and her baby..." Finally, I wrestle the beet from the earth. It lies, dark red, in my throbbing palm. "Eat, child, eat," Chana urges. "So you shouldn't be hungry." I pull more beets and carry them to the house, the long roots trailing. Overhead, a flock of geese honk. I stand looking upward, head flung back, to watch them inscribe the frail blue. The sky, vast as a whale's belly, swallows me whole. What can I say that makes any sense? "Dear God, what did I do to deserve this?" Joy or sorrow, the answer is always the same. Nothing. Everything. The geese surge on, receding in the distance, pulled through ancient starlight to the place where they belong. What gold, I think: to know unquestioningly where you belong, what it is you are supposed to be doing. And then, when the time comes, to be called from some deep knowing to the next place. Slowly, I mount the cellar steps and begin to scrub the beets in the sink. Chana, compact, sprightly, her keen blue eyes sparking like flint, follows with the surety of seasons. It is hard to imagine so small a woman, a woman who has borne and raised seven children, still so energized, still so vibrant, each cheek a rose. "Gramma Chana, tell me," I ask, "how do you know?" "Know what, child?" "What mothers are supposed to know?" "Know? Achhh! What is there to know? You hoe your gratchkeh, the bread you knead until it feels just so, when comes the baby, you push. For this you need to know? Your heart, do you tell it to beat? Your breath, do you say 'now in, now out'? So what's all this 'know'?" What other mothers know, Gramma. That certainty, secret as monthly blood. My mother-in-law, for instance. In 1934, when she and her husband and their five sons lived in upstate New York, she strained maggots from the kitchen pump with a flour sack, kept a ready umbrella for the leaking outhouse and managed the scant family finances from a cigar box. Her hands, so impregnated with soap they cleansed by their very touch, were always patting globed cheeks, chubbed arms, round bottoms, as if she were pressing pie crust from a lump, stretched enough to fit the pie tin, sturdy enough to hold ample filling. She smoothed their rumpled hair like fresh bedsheets, and each of her sons grew up knowing he was loved best. I flick the last residue of dirt from the bristles of the vegetable brush, rinse the beets and swish the muddy water down the drain. "I keep thinking there is this special key, Gramma, similar to the ones for a house or a car that children are given as they come of age--and that this special key opens a secret place, a sanctuary or a stash of treasure. The trouble is, I can't even find the door." Chana picks up a small paring knife and begins to cut the stems and roots off the cleaned beets, chopping with precision. "Keys, doors... huchhh! This door you look for, can it keep out a bullet? Will it say to the flames of a fire, go back, not here? "Questions, questions. What means this, what means that? Look at the men with their watery eyes, Joann. They squint at their books for so many years, they squint out all the color from their eyes. They clutch their foreheads with their hands ready to snatch the live thing inside that gnaws to get out. But always, there are more questions." "So what am I supposed to do, Gramma?" "Do? Make the soup. That's what you do." Excerpted from The Soup Has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago - A Memoir of One Family's Journey Through History by Joann Rose Leonard All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.