Rifke an Improbable Life

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9780143171485: Rifke an Improbable Life

Rifke (Rosalie Wise Sharp) grew up in North Toronto, which felt to her like a foreign place because there were no other Jewish families there in the late 1930s. Yiddish was spoken in her household, and the food, dress, and customs of Ozarow the Polish shtetl (small Jewish town) from which her parents emigrated were all maintained. Rifke’s peers took lessons in tap-dancing, ice-skating, the piano, and the flute; activities that didn’t translate into the Yiddish vocabulary at the Wises, where only hard work, no nonsense, and book-learning were permitted. Rifke secretly decided to pass as a Gentile, joining a bible class and the Christmas choir. She did not bring home friends, in case they were witness to a Jewish ritual like the koshering of meat. Rifke was guilty about her pursuit of Gentile activities during the war time, when her mother was frantic with fear that their family in Poland was being slaughtered by the Nazis. In high school, Rifke’s life changed when being a freak” translated to being eccentric” and respectable.” It was there that she met and married her soul mate Isadore, who worked in the construction business, much to her parents’ disappointment. Prosperity, took time; however, Isadore’s audacious dream to build a world class hotel chain, The Four Seasons, came to pass. In this memoir, Rosalie Sharp casts a wry and self-deprecating look back on her childhood, with anecdotes about the chance events and comic ironies that make up a life.

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Readers expecting a whirl through the life of the extremely wealthy-in Sharp's case, the wife of the founder of the Four Seasons Hotel empire-will be surprised and humbled by this honest, arresting memoir. Looking back from age 70, Sharp recalls growing up poor, awkward and lonely in her immigrant parents' North Toronto home, a lone island of Jewish life-a simulacrum of their native Poland-amidst a working-class Christian community. Smart, hard-working and imaginative, "Rifke" was stifled by no-nonsense parents, whose remaining family would vanish in the Holocaust, and the anti-Semitism of her insular neighborhood. Sharp recalls attempts to pass as a Gentile, her discovery of books and her introduction, at age 16, to future husband Isadore Sharp, then a young athletic man in the building business. From there comes marriage, travel, work and children-four handsome, intelligent boys-a full life that Sharp recalls in lucid, breezy prose. The heart of Sharp's tale is the loss f her son Christopher, at age 18, to cancer. The powerful sense of perseverance that pulls Sharp through that tragedy is further illuminated in carefully wrought chapters on the last communications from her European relatives and the story of Ozarow, Poland, her family's ravished hometown.
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