Book Title: The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
Author: James McBride
Date Published: February 7, 2006
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Genre: 1. Parent & Adult Child
2. Discrimination & Racism
3. Race Relations
ISBN: 978-1594481925
Reviewer: Susan Perlman

One afternoon, on the way home from church, I asked her if God was black or white.

A deep sigh, ‘Oh boy, God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.’

‘Does he like black or white people better?’

‘He loves all people. He’s a spirit.’

‘What’s a spirit?’

‘A spirit’s a spirit.’

‘What color is God’s spirit?’

‘It doesn’t have a color,’ she said. ‘God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.'” (pp. 50-51)

The above story is told by James McBride, son of a black Baptist minister. He’s writing about his mother, the former Ruchel Dwara Zylska, Polish born daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi. An interesting mix? Most definitely, and you won’t want to put this book down until you read through this remarkable saga.

Their story is one of identity, family and faith woven into the tapestry of life in the South, in Brooklyn and in the somewhat complex mix of cultures that make up the McBride clan. James McBride is one of twelve siblings raised by Dennis and Ruchel (now Ruthie) McBride. It wasn’t until he reached the age of thirty that the author learned of his mother’s Jewish upbringing and her concealed pain. As an adult he set out to discover those Jewish roots. His mother’s recollections, recorded in her own words, are interspersed with his own reflections. The Color of Water is their story.

James said of his mother, “She never spoke about Jewish people as white. She spoke about them as Jews, which made them somehow different. It was a feeling every single one of us took into adulthood, that Jews were different from white people somehow.” (p. 87)

Ruth McBride’s family fled the pogroms of Europe and eventually settled in Suffolk, Virginia. The thirties South was filled with racial tensions and overt anti-Semitism. She knew the intolerance of a white community who did not like Jews or blacks as well as a somewhat dysfunctional Orthodox Jewish family that never taught her the beauty of her own heritage. Rabbi Shilsky (her father) was a cruel and ungodly man who abused his wife and mistreated his daughter. Ruth fled her situation as soon as she graduated high school at age seventeen. She moved to New York City where she met Andrew Dennis McBride, a violinist from North Carolina who was pursuing a music career. He was a deeply religious man who served as a deacon at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem as well as a choir member.

Ruth and Dennis fell in love. Her family wanted nothing more do with her when it became apparent that she was going to marry him, let alone be involved in the church. They sat shiva for their daughter, pronouncing that she was now dead to them. She turned toward the black community as her own from that time on.

Ruthie attended services at Metropolitan and was impressed with the preacher, the late Rev. Abner Brown:

“That man was the finest preacher I’ve ever heard to this day. He could make a frog stand up straight and get happy with Jesus. You never heard anything like him. He was not fire and brimstone. He brought God into your everyday life in a way that made you think heaven was right next door.” (pp. 233-234)

Yet, Ruth knew that just attending services was not enough for her. She needed more. “In 1942, Ruth said to Andrew Dennis McBride, ‘I want to accept Jesus Christ into my life and join the church.’ Dennis said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, Ruth? You know what this means?’ I told him, ‘I’m sure.’ I was totally sure.” (p. 235)

Later on Ruth tells how she, a Jewish woman, walked down the aisle in this Harlem church to make Jesus her Lord and Savior. “I accepted Jesus that day and He has never let me down from that day to this.” (p. 235)

When Dennis McBride died of cancer, she made an attempt to get help from her estranged family but they continued to count her as dead. She married again to Hunter Jordan and was again widowed. Yet in the midst of adversity and distress, her faith remained strong.

Throughout the book, her son James lovingly remarks about the importance of God in Ruth’s life and in the faith that she wanted to instill in her “shvartze” children.

“Mommy loved God. She went to church each and every Sunday, the only white person in sight, butchering the lovely hymns with a singing voice that sounded like a cross between a cold engine trying to crank on an October morning and a whining Maytag washer” (p. 45)

In her later years, Ruth had a cancerous mole, and her son points out that she became somewhat preoccupied with her own mortality: “‘Death is strange, isn’t it?’ she wonders. ‘It’s so final. You know time is not promised.’ she says, wagging a finger. ‘That’s why you better get to know Jesus.'”

James then wryly observed, “If it takes as long to know Jesus as it took to know you, I think I’m in trouble.” (p. 261)

Ruth’s twelve children have all done well, from the medical doctors, to the university professors, to the journalists and musicians. She herself received a degree in social work at age 65. And if this remarkable woman could write an “afterword” to her son’s book, I would speculate that she would have said that her childrens’ greatest achievements were not in their degrees (though she must rightfully take great pride in their accomplishments) but in their relationship with the God of Israel.

Ruth Shilsky McBride Jordan became a Jew for Jesus in the forties. That was a time when there wasn’t a “Jews for Jesus” organization. That was a time when being a white Jewish wife of a black Baptist pastor would not have gone over very well in either community. I encourage you to read Ruth’s story and to decide for yourself, whether she took the right path.