Ruth McBride Jordan Obituary – A Remarkable Jewish Woman

The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement discusses more than just the dynamics that have equated to achievement in all walks of life from that of the Jewish people, but talks about intriguing examples of famous and not-so-famous Jews that through adversities and doubts, rose beyond their expectations and made an impact on society. Dennis Hevesi of The New York Times in January wrote a moving obituary, a tribute to a remarkable story of Jewish achievement which we would like to document here.

There were the quizzical looks, the dirty looks, the snide remarks and far worse when Ruth McBride Jordan walked down the street with a gaggle of her children in tow.

Her son James, one of a dozen children from her two marriages, was often embarrassed, sometimes scared. Sometimes they had to endure the worse racial epithet. His mother, who was white, kept walking.

Whenever she stepped out of the house with us she went into a sort of mental zone where her attention span went no farther than the five kids trailing her,” James McBride later wrote.

She had absolutely no interest in a world that seemed incredibly agitated by our presence. The stares and remarks, the glances and cackles that we heard as we walked about the world went right over her head.”

That resolute woman, and James McBride’s recollections of her, became the basis of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Riverhead Books, 1996). The book struck a chord, selling more than 2 million copies and appearing on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for more than 100 weeks.

On Jan. 9, her son said, she died at her home in Ewing, N.J., at the age of 88.

In seemingly serial incarnations, she was Ruchel Zylska, Rachel Zylska, Rachel Shilsky, Ruth Shilsky, Ruth McBride and, for the last 51 years, Ruth McBride Jordan.

She was an Orthodox Jewish girl from a shtetl in Eastern Europe who came to America, fled from her tyrannical father, married an African-American man, was widowed, married another African-American, was widowed again, and was left in poverty. Yet somehow she managed to raise 12 children, all of whom have been successful.

“The triumph of the book” and of their lives is that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother’s will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church,” H. Jack Geiger wrote in a 1996 Times review.

Ruchel Zylska was born on April 1, 1921, in a small town near what is now Gdansk, Poland. She was 2 when the family arrived in the United States, changed its name to Shilsky and settled in Suffolk, Va.

Ruchel became Rachel, then Ruth. Name changes did not open doors. She could not be in her high school musical because the other girls would not dance next to a Jew. She could not go to her graduation because it was held in a church.

Her father, a rabbi and storekeeper, was cold and abusive. After graduating from high school, Ruth took a train to New York and, by 1941, had discovered Harlem. There she met and married Andrew McBride. He became a minister; she converted to Christianity.

The McBrides moved into a housing project in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. With other couples, they started the Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Mr. McBride died in 1957, leaving his wife with seven children and one, James, on the way.

A year later Mrs. McBride met Hunter Jordan, a furnace stoker for the New York City Housing Authority. They married, moved to Queens and had four children. Mr. Jordan died in 1972.

Mrs. McBride Jordan held many jobs while supporting her children alone, among them secretary at a church, test-tube maker in a glass factory and night typist for a bank. She arranged for her children to be bused to neighborhoods with better schools.

Every morning we hit the door at 6:30, fanning out across the city like soldiers armed with books, T-squares, musical instruments,” James McBride wrote.

Besides James, Mrs. McBride Jordan is survived by five other sons, Andrew, David, Richard, Hunter and Henry; five daughters, Rosetta McBride, Helen McBride-Richter, Dorothy McBride-Wesley, Kathy Jordan-McElroy and Judy Jordan; 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her son William.

All her children graduated from college and did well: two doctors, a social worker, a professor of African-American history, a nurse-midwife, a carpenter who used to be a chemistry professor, a financial director, two teachers, a computer engineer and a sound engineer. James McBride, a former reporter at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, is a musician and composer. In addition to The Color of Water, his other books include Miracle at St. Anna and Song Yet Sung.

Not to be outdone, Mrs. McBride Jordan earned a degree in social work from Temple University when she was 65.

Within the family, questions about racial identity were answered with loving circumspection. When James asked his mother about why she was different from her children, she would say only, “I’m light-skinned.”

When he asked if he was black or white, she said, “You’re a human being.”

And what about God?

God is the color of water.”


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