When Lily Kaplan Feldshuh was in her late eighties, she auditioned for a role in the 1999 movie A Walk on the Moon. As her daughter, Tovah Feldshuh, recounts in her memoir, Lilyville, Lily was not physically present. Instead, using Lily’s diaries as inspiration, Tovah channeled her mother’s persona for the audition. It worked. Tovah got the part and arranged for her mother to be an extra. Together they travelled to film — Tovah and Lily, plus Lily’s aid, walker, and Saks Fifth Avenue wardrobe.
But this bond between mother and daughter took years to form. Tovah Feldshuh grew up with a stalwart maternal presence but deafening maternal silence. In Lilyville—which spans nearly five generations of the Kaplan – Feldshuh family — she recounts her relationship with her mother, and the emotional distance that existed between them for most of her life.
Lily, who was born to immigrant parents in 1911 on her family’s dining room table in the Bronx, was the third of four sisters and the shyest. At seventeen, she met Sidney Feldshuh, whom she ultimately married; he remained her sweetheart until he died at eighty-six. In Tovah’s earliest years, the raucous presence of extended family living steps away ingrained in her the value and unbreakable connections of family. When she was in kindergarten, Sidney and Lily built a house in Scarsdale, New York.
Sidney’s optimism, support, and exuberance formed the sails at Tovah’s back, propelling her forward as a consummate actor, singer, and playwright. It took years for Tovah to realize that Lily’s silence belied her pride and respect for Tovah’s work and for the person she had become. It was not until the first anniversary of her father’s death that Tovah experienced her mother’s latent spirit. Rather than wear a black suit to his unveiling, Lily wore navy blue, explaining to Tovah that with the public unveiling of the memorial stone, she felt that she had permission to publicly become her own person.
From that point forward, Lily understood that living wholly and joyfully would be the greatest tribute to her beloved Sidney. At ninety-five, she became the oldest person in the world to undergo an experimental heart procedure; at one hundred, she traveled to Washington, DC to receive the Courageous Patient Award. When she was 103, Lily met Tovah for lunch in New York every Wednesday after the matinee for Pippin. Ultimately, Lily succumbed to a massive brain hemorrhage and died at her Scarsdale home surrounded by family from the United States and England.
Lily’s silent, unwavering and perfect presence during Tovah’s childhood was her demonstration of love. What she was unable to express, she felt deeply. Decades passed before Tovah understood that her mother’s emotional distance was a reflection of her reserved nature; when Lily blossomed, she became radiant and expressive. Lilyville is a three-act play celebrating the enduring bond of mother and daughter. Like in any great script, the characters are resplendent, flawed, and ultimately redeemed in a drama that is still being written by generations of the Kaplan – Feldshuh family.
Rabbi Reba Carmel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jewish Currents and The Jewish Literary Journal and other publications. Rabbi Carmel is a trained Interfaith Facilitator and has participated in multiple Interfaith panels across the Delaware Region. She is currently in the Leadership Training Program at the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.