Ruth’s father is a traveling rabbi, but he isn’t particularly good at his job so Ruth and her family frequently move. Her family values money because they have so little of it, and they value contracts because they guarantee that people will keep their word, whether it’s a marriage contract or a synagogue promising that Tateh can preach for a year. The Shilskys move from town to town as Tateh has difficulty getting his contracts renewed, and even though Mameh hopes she can stay near her family in New York City, in 1929 they ultimately move to Suffolk, Virginia.
Ruth’s family just wants a place where they can feel like they fit in and earn a steady income. This is a huge motivating factor in their eventual move to Suffolk — they hope that as permanent, as opposed to itinerant residents, they’ll have a better community and therefore more opportunities to make money. This is likely part of the reason why, later in life, Ruth is so eager to find an accepting lover and an accepting group of people, as she lived her early childhood without true love and support, relying on contracts as opposed to true emotional connection.
Suffolk is a small, insular, anti-Semitic town. Ruth endures years of insults from other children in school. Despite this, Tateh decides he’s sick of traveling, and opens a grocery store. The Jewish families at the synagogue are unhappy that their rabbi is becoming a businessman, and are especially unhappy that he sets up shop in the black part of town with the intent to sell to black people, but in the end they have no control over Tateh.
Although the Shilskys hope to be a part of the community in Suffolk, many levels of bigotry prevent them from ever fully integrating. Anti-Semitism forces the family to find solace in other Jewish people, while anti-black sentiments in the Jewish community isolate Ruth’s family even further. Tateh, however, does not choose anti-racist principles over a bigoted community; instead he chooses profits over a sense of belonging.
Their general store makes Ruth’s family richer, but not happier. Her parents don’t get along. Although Mameh is a devoted wife, a talented cook, and an observant Jew, Tateh does not love her, and even insults her and mocks her disability. Ruth has no personal or family life, instead, all of her family’s energy is put back into the store. Before school, after school, and every day of the week except for the Sabbath Ruth and her siblings work in the shop.
Ruth and her family sacrifice love, affection, and community for their family store. Although there is the potential for the Shilskys to grow closer through labor, instead they spend their energy physically and have no time to form emotional bonds with each other. In her early life, family provides Ruth with very little aside from a place to sleep and food to eat.
Ruth is a claustrophobic child (and grows into a claustrophobic adult). She hates going into the icebox because she worries it will shut behind her, and although she doesn’t have much free time she likes to go running when she can. Looking back later in life, Ruth sees that she was running from her father. She fears and resents Tateh because he sexually abused her as a child, and she felt she couldn’t tell anyone about it.
Not only does Ruth’s family fail to provide her with love and a sense of belonging, her father makes her life actively worse. Family, in her early years, is more a source of anguish than it is a source of comfort. This affects Ruth for the rest of her life — after feeling trapped in Suffolk, she developed the instinct to get outside and move around to escape bad situations and bad memories.
As a child, Ruth has low self-esteem, partially due to Tateh’s mistreatment of her. She credits her first husband, Andrew Dennis McBride, with teaching her about God, “who lifted me up and forgave me and made me new.” There were some aspects of Judaism Ruth enjoyed, like Passover, but the big Passover Seder just made her think about how much she wanted to be somewhere else, where she didn’t have to withstand her father’s abuse.
Religion, specifically Christianity, provides Ruth with the sense of belonging and the sense of purpose she had always expected from family. Because her birth family was so dysfunctional, later in life Ruth will attempt to construct her own family with her own set of rules that will bring people closer together, instead of continually driving them apart.