Digital technology and a demographic boom for the over-sixty set has meant a deluge of memoirs written by retirees with literary aspirations, like David Reich, author of You Could Lose an Eye. I had high hopes for You Could Lose an Eye. According to the press release, the book provides “… an insider’s view of Montreal’s vibrant and historic Jewish community… by a man whose tongue is always in his cheek.” Here, I thought, was a writer who had lived long enough to describe with humor and insight the dreams and daily lives of my long-dead parents and grandparents. I was also encouraged because unlike the self-published variety of memoir, David Reich’s book had the benefit of a publishing company and, I assumed, at least one editor.
I was wrong. There were sections out of chronological order, the pledge that details that had already been offered would be given later, and annoying typos. Furthermore, the book’s promise to describe the vibrant immigrant Jewish community that flourished between the Main and Park Avenue and that nurtured the talents of so many political, academic, and artistic leaders never materializes. This is because Reich’s story is really about two other things.
The first subject, which occupies the first 82 pages of his book, is his insular family life. We learn a lot about the ins and outs of the Reich family business and his mother’s parenting skills, and very little about the immigrant experience in general. The Reichs simply didn’t want to associate with the teeming masses of Jewish schmata salesmen and sweatshop workers that made up the majority of the Jewish community. As soon as they could they moved from the noise and lower- class living conditions of their Park Avenue apartment to a real house in Outremont. Reich’s lack of connection to his immigrant roots is never more apparent than when he jokes about the Jews who had the misfortune to attend Baron Byng High School, boys who — unlike him — made Yiddish-tinged grammatical mistakes in English, revealing their Old World limitations.
The second subject of the book is an exhaustive list of Reich’s architectural accomplishments. Endless details of the author’s academic career, his skills, his business acumen, and his resilience fill almost a hundred pages. Despite unscrupulous business associates, bull-headed bureaucrats, unimaginative CEGEP administrators, and aggressive competitors, Reich always comes out on top. The only evidence of the promised tongue-in-cheek humor is the oft-repeated reference to his lack of physical ability and his impressive girth. Ha ha.
Despite the disappointments, there is value in this book. Hidden in the second-last chapter, Reich moves away from his personal perspective and treats the reader to excerpts from his Uncle Nathan’s written and recorded memoir. Here at last the reader looks into a world that has disappeared, a world enriched by spirituality, love, and community life. Uncle Nathan takes the personal and makes it universal, and through his words we are privileged to gain some small understanding of the immigrant experience. Too bad David Reich was so busy writing his own story that he forgot to listen to his elders.
B. A. Markus is a writer, teacher and performer who always listens to her elders, but doesn’t always believe them.