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Deborah Tannen’s ‘Finding My Father’ pays tribute to a man whose many jobs became his life story

“I adored my father.” In the first four words of her debut memoir, Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor at Georgetown University, makes the message of her book perfectly clear — as is only fitting for the author of the 1990 bestseller “You Just Don’t Understand” and seven follow-ups, all devoted to helping people communicate. Tannen is particularly known for clarifying the differences between the way men and women express themselves, having beat John Gray to Mars and Venus by two years.

With so many contemporary memoirs devoted to the sins and shortcomings of the author’s mother, a focus on a loving dad seems a welcome change, though an excess of kvelling, as we say in Yiddish — singing of praises — could make for a dull book. “Finding My Father” is indeed on the sentimental side, and Tannen’s many attempts to convey her father’s “wry humor” fall a bit flat (so much is in the delivery; he probably would have been a hit on Old Jews Telling Jokes). Fortunately, Eli Tannen’s century-spanning Jewish American life is well worth reading about.

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Eli was born Schmuel Eliyahu Tenenwórcel in Warsaw in 1908. He immigrated to the United States at 12 and dropped out of school two years later to help support his widowed mother and sister. Eli held 68 different jobs in his lifetime, listed here on two pages in his own handwriting; ultimately, he passed the bar and became a lawyer. The inclusion of this amazing list and other memorabilia and photos is one of the pleasures of the memoir. An amusingly precocious letter the author typed on her father’s typewriter at 7 begins,

“Dear Father,

I am being bad lately, most of my resens are because Iam

Unhappy. I am not saying that I feel sorry for myself, for I

know that there are mush les forshanet children than I am.

I am just saying that your wife, and my mother are treating me pretty

bad I think.”

She sounds less like a child than a little old Jewish lady, already a martyr, particularly in her closing: “I am prabably useing your very valuble time. I won’nt use any more of it.”

Also included is a typewritten 1924 evaluation of Eli’s intelligence performed as part of an application for a high school scholarship. Less than three years after he arrived in the country with no English at all, Eli’s language ability was rated at the college level. “He has very superior general intelligence,” writes the examiner, “being considerably above that of average adults . . . He will probably be benefitted by more association with boys and by membership at an athletic and literary club.” No doubt true, but he did not return to school, instead taking a job in the Gimbels toy department, which appears at No. 42 on the list, in between Thom McAn and Western Union. For Eli, this list of jobs is his life story, an idea restated frequently through the book: “Family and work are no more separate than mind and body . . . Obligation, more than anything else, encapsulates the meaning of family.”

Eli’s mother was one of 14 living siblings, and one the most intriguing chapters is about the girls of the family, the author’s grandmother and great-aunts, titled “Einstein’s Lover and Her Sisters.” Because “they didn’t matter,” Tannen explains, girls could get a secular education, while boys were limited to studying religious texts. We marvel with her at the trajectories of these women, born in a Polish shtetl in the 1880s, going on to become a school principal, a periodontist, a philologist, a high-ranking government official, and most remarkably, a mathematician-physicist who became lovers with Albert Einstein, and was probably briefly pregnant with his child.

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As Tannen’s early letter to her father indicates, “Finding My Father” is something of a “bad mother” memoir in sheep’s clothing. At the outset, the author is convinced her father married the wrong woman and devoted some effort to getting him to agree with her. Here she expands her case, using his journal and a secret trove of correspondence with the other woman. Some of the probing into the particulars of his emotional and physical relationships with the two women, and some of the commentary on her mother, seems in less than perfect taste. “Her youthful bust however was not at all repulsive to me and perhaps a trifle inviting” is one of the nicer things he says. Perhaps I am being a bit of a prude about this — Tannen’s detective work does illuminate the sexual mores of the period.

Ultimately, Tannen puts her grievances aside and finds a well of love for her mother, also recognizing the unique lifelong bond between her parents. As much as her father may have believed family is obligation, he taught his daughter something else: family is love.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”

Finding My Father

His Century-Long Journey from World War I Warsaw — and My Quest to Follow

By Deborah Tannen

Ballantine. 272 pp. $28

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