The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir
The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir by Betsy Lerner. (Harper Wave, 320 pp. $25.99)
In writing The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner undertook the daunting project of chronicling the lives of five octogenarian Jewish women who have met every Monday for over 50 years to eat scrupulously prepared lunches and play bridge. Courage was required for this challenge because one of the “ladies” was Lerner’s mother, and their relationship had unresolved tensions. Still, Lerner has known all the women from her earliest childhood and she relied on that knowledge to help her examine the divide between their generation and her own.
On the surface, the bridge ladies are a homogeneous group. They all married young and their husbands were successful Jewish men. All but one of them was widowed. Their homes were kosher or kosher-style. They had driven their children to Hebrew school at their suburban synagogue, but they wore their Judaism lightly. Only one of them, Rhoda, the executive director of her temple, was actively involved in Jewish life.
Their true religion was bridge. They were a congregation of five and their Mondays were as ritually observed as their Orthodox counterparts might observe the Sabbath. The conversations Lerner listened to rarely focused on Jewish topics. An exception was a discussion of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin of the notorious “Jew in a Box,” but when Lerner asked the women “what they knew about the Holocaust growing up, they claim very little.”
It is puzzling but not surprising then that in listing the events that informed her own life, Lerner includes Vietnam, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and Woodstock. But she does not mention the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War. Can it be that Israel is so peripheral to both her mother’s generation and her own?
Thumbnail sketches of each of the women are deftly offered and fleshed out as the author interviews them individually over the course of three years, gathering insights and answers to questions hesitantly asked. Did Bette, who had trained as an actress, regret giving up her dramatic ambitions? Does outgoing Bea, the doctor’s wife who volunteers in a soup kitchen, recall encountering anti-Semitism in the Indiana town where her immigrant parents settled? (She does not.)
Jackie also wanted to be an actress, but when she won a contest and the prize was an appearance on a radio show with Zero Mostel, the not-yet Tevye advised her, “You find some guy and get married. Don’t go into this business.” So she did, as did most Jewish girls of her generation. Hungry for more intimacy, intrigued by the game itself, Lerner takes bridge lessons and becomes a bridge lady, playing with her mother’s club and with other novices at the Manhattan Bridge Club and a suburban Jewish community center. It is through these games that she and her mother, Roz, achieve the closeness that Lerner had long sought.
When Lerner interviews her mother, family secrets emerge. She learns for the first time that her mother observes the yortzeit of a much-mourned daughter, Barbara, who died at the age of 2. Lerner has been unaware of the depression that overwhelmed Roz because silence and privacy were considered a virtue by that generation.
Mother and daughter become bridge partners, and the game that they now play together is eponymous to the new relationship they are building. How generous of Betsy Lerner to allow readers to accompany her on her long and meaningful journey and how good of the bridge ladies to share their stories.