The Color of Water


James McBride

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The Color of Water: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Ruth, narrating again, describes Tateh and Mameh’s loveless arranged marriage. Mameh’s family was upper class and wealthy, and was able to sponsor Tateh, Mameh, Ruth, and her brother Sam to come to the United States. Ruth lived in constant fear of deportation, both generally by the US government, and specifically by her father, who threatens to send her back to Europe. Ruth’s father also threatens her mother with deportation, which is especially cruel as Mameh has spent much of her life running from Russian soldiers who were killing Jewish people, and would likely die if she were sent back.
Ruth’s parents have never been happy in their arranged marriage, and from before she was even born Ruth’s family life has been tumultuous. Ruth, who does not remember her life in Europe, wants to feel like she is accepted and belongs in America, and so is especially susceptible to her father’s threats of deportation, which would prove once and for all that she is not American, and doesn’t belong.
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When they first arrive in America, Ruth and her family live with her grandparents, Bubeh and Zaydeh, in Manhattan. This time with her family provides Ruth with her first memories of Judaism. Her whole family keeps kosher, which requires different table settings for every meal and strict separation of milk and meat, and observes the Sabbath every Friday and Saturday, which means they can’t use any electricity or do any work.
Although later in her life Judaism becomes a burden for Ruth, as a young child Judaism brings Ruth’s family together. It was the first kind of cultural ritual she ever knew, and an integral part of Mameh and Tateh’s identities. When she later sheds her identity as Rachel, Ruth is also shedding her deeply ingrained culture of Judaism.
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When Ruth is still a small child, Zaydeh dies in the apartment. She has trouble understanding he is dead because to her, it just looks like he’s sleeping, and because her family has rarely discussed death. After he has been buried, Ruth worries that he’ll wake up and find out he’s been buried alive. Later in life, looking back, Ruth is still disturbed by the thought of an accidental living burial, and suspects that this is why she’s claustrophobic.
Zaydeh’s death early in Ruth’s childhood affects her for the rest of her life. Unprepared for her first major loss, Ruth never truly learns how to mourn and move on in healthy, productive ways. She also continues to deal with grief and tragedy by trying to keep moving and avoid potential entrapment, instincts that likely stem from her fear of a live burial.
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