Even in cosmopolitan New York, being an Italian Jew was a real showstopper. I relished the double take and look of bafflement that inevitably followed. Neither Jews nor Italians nor Americans knew what to make of us.“
So begins the fascinating and poignant new memoir, MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile by veteran author, photojournalist and award-winning corporate writer, Eleanor Foa. Born in Italy before World War II, raised in America, the daughter of a brilliant father whose Italian-Jewish roots trace back to famous 16th-century printers, Eleanor was proud of her exotic roots, yet knew little about her lineage.
Eleanor was confused and frustrated by the mixed messages she received from her parents: her mother, a refugee from Nazi Germany, turned her back on everything from her homeland; to her, it was okay to be Jewish as long as you didn’t look, sound or act Jewish; her parents believed “family is everything” but distanced Eleanor and her sister from the extended family; her father insisted money wasn’t important but eventually wound up with a seven-figure portfolio; her parents’ marriage, admired by many, seemed so unhappy inside their home; and her father – an economist and intellectual, though proud of his family history – shared so little of it.
After her parents died, Eleanor felt compelled to learn more about her past and sort out these mixed messages. It was time to do her own investigating and, in 2006 she asked her sister to join her on a journey to Italy in search of their family history. What initially begins as a trip to understand who her parents were and how their legacy shaped who she is, eventually becomes a way to reconstruct her parents’ journey and, by doing so, empathizing with their struggles and contradictions. Eleanor uses her photographer’s eye and dry sense of humor to bring her journey to life. Readers will feel like they’re traveling along with the Foa sisters, sharing delicious meals and family secrets.
Travel as a way of uncovering a family’s past, is like an archeological dig with multiple layers, discoveries and interpretations. It is about family myths that forged our parents’ lives and, in turn, our lives.“
A beautifully written, multilayered and moving story, with surprises and discoveries at every turn, MIXED MESSAGES is a wonderful adventure that shows the power of personal history to transform lives. While it is the history of one remarkable family, it is also a universal immigrant tale of exile, family, and generational conflict.
MIXED MESSAGES is part of Centro Primo Levi’s CPL Editions, which publishes classics and new research in Italian Jewish studies. For more information visit Centro Primo Levi. (CPL Editions; Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1941046951; E-book ISBN: 978-1941046968; November 12, 2019)
PRAISE FOR MIXED MESSAGES
In this well-written and moving memoir about her Italian Jewish family, Eleanor Foa combines archival research with a personal quest and creates amemorable portrait of a distinguished clan coping with 20th Century history, especially Fascism. It touches on the divisions between those able to flee the Holocaust for the U.S., andthose who lived through it. It’s a fascinating glimpse of one family’s history that inspired me to ask more detailed questions about my family’s history and their lives.”
Meryl Gordon is an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of three biographies: the most recent is Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend.
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The Fortunate Foàs of Sabbioneta
An essay written by Eleanor Foa for the Jewish Book Council’s Paper Brigade Daily
My father, an Italian Jew, used to say that “family is everything,” yet I knew very little about the history of the Foà family. That changed when, in his retirement, my father wrote a forty-page family memoir and began to fill in some of the missing pieces. He devoted only one line to our most famous ancestors, I Fratelli Foà, printers of Bibles and Hebrew prayer books in sixteenth century northern Italy. They flourished between 1551 and 1590 in the tiny, walled city of Sabbioneta. I’d become aware of them when, a decade earlier, an Israeli cousin had sent me copies of their handsome printer’s mark, or colophon. Their books are still considered exceptionally beautiful.