My Innocent Absence, Tales from a Nomadic Life

Author: Miriam Frank

Although nobody told her she was Jewish until age eight, Miriam Frank’s life has been the epitome of twentieth century displacement. Frank is the quintessential Wandering Jew, and her memoir My Innocent Absence, Tales from a Nomadic Life traces the outer and inner trajectory of a journey both adventurous and introspective.

By the time she was eleven Frank had lived on three continents, and her path carried her to live in more countries than many manage even to visit. Birth in 1936 in Spain to a bohemian union between a German Jewish mother and a Lithuanian Jewish father; early childhood in Vichy, France; wartime in Mexico as a Jewish refugee; adolescence in New Zealand; an interlude in Israel, long stretches in Italy, Greece and Argentina; finally England, which became her most permanent home base. 

The nomadic imprint of Frank’s early childhood continued as the psychological leitmotif of her life. But just as Frank’s external life was tumultuous, so did her personal relations take dramatic turns. She became deeply estranged from her mother from whom she had once been inseparable. Her parents’ rocky union was an off-again on-again affair, and Miriam grew up largely without her father.

Her mother removed her to New Zealand, “the other end of the world”. In the city Christchurch, “half the size of a Boston cemetery and twice as dead”, the orderly banality of New Zealand hardly replaced exotic and colorful Mexico. Frank, forbidden to speak her native Spanish, acutely felt the outsider. After completing high school and medical studies in New Zealand she decamped for good, next spending fifteen months in Jerusalem, where she characteristically packed overflowing experience into each moment, and became deeply tied to the country she considered raucous but endearing: “The one common denominator through all the changes in my life might be my Jewishness…In Israel I finally felt like a grain of sand on a beach.” 

In England Frank practiced medicine, specialized in anesthesiology, and seemingly settled down. But her marriage to a hard-drinking womanizing German painter quickly deteriorated into an emotional roller coaster. After two children and much anguish, the marriage broke apart.

Frank’s strong questioning voice dominates the well-written narrative. She presents as extremely articulate, self aware, introspective, and unabashedly self-referential. She has internalized to the nth degree Socrates’ warning that the unexamined life is not worth living. Frank is courageous in presenting some criticism of herself by others, and more details about how others view her would have been welcome. Once her mother, “her expression wooden and her voice bitter”, accused, “You have betrayed me.” Yet despite their mutual animosity Frank dutifully cared for her dying mother until the end of her life.  

With maturity, Frank finally perceived that a lifetime of trekking will not bring emotional tranquility and peace: “I came to understand that my roots, in the end, were not located in some geographical site outside myself.” Her searing personal story will resonate with others whose quests for meaning have buffeted them about the far corners of the globe.

           

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About the author

Helen Schary Motro

Helen Schary Motro is author of Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada (Other Press, New York 2005). An American lawyer living in Israel for 20 years with her fam...
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