BIOGRAPHY APRIL 2, 2010
by Elisa New
Basic Books, 336 pp., $27.95
We live in an age of family, or at least an age of deep hunger for family. Let no one tell you tall tales about the eclipse of family values. Read enough memoirs, those alleged distillations of selfish narcissism, and you will see that the narrators almost always start off by painting family portraits, then placing themselves inside them. Not even memoirs depict autochthonous souls. Enter a research library, and half the people there will be working on their family trees. These, supplemented by genetic tests and visits to the old country, are destined to be presented at family conventions in hotel conference rooms, as if in a universe parallel to that of the historical associations—or, as happens more and more these days, they will be presented at the conventions of the historical associations. Genealogy has gone from private hobby to public history, and from there (in America this is inevitable) to entertainment. Turn on the TV, and chances are that Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Faces of America, or Lisa Kudrow’s Who Do You Think You Are?, will be on, or another of the rapidly increasing number of “reality-based” shows in which the intrinsically fascinating intersection of history, ethnicity, and genealogy is slickly repackaged as celebrity genetics.
To be fair, this hypertrophying of the genealogical imagination has also engendered a memorable body of writing. Consider Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, in which a hunt for relatives killed in the Holocaust is elevated by careful, obsessive questioning into a genealogy of truth—a decoding of lies and half-truths, official and familial. Or Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s tender spoof of roots tourism. Or Gates’s own sepia-toned but vivid Colored People. Elisa New’s diligent family history, while not quite at the same level as Mendelsohn’s and Foer’s contributions, belongs in this proliferating and culturally revealing genre.
New, a professor of English at Harvard, comes from a family whose story is interestingly at odds with the usual clichés about Eastern European shtetl Jews—the platitudes that she herself believed before she set out to learn about her family’s past. The Levys and the Barons were not poor, colorful tradesmen out of a Singer story, but well-educated industrialists and inventors and socialists in a place and a time—Lithuania toward the end of the nineteenth century—where the Jewish enlightenment (the Haskalah) and the state’s fitful steps toward emancipating its most hamstrung citizens were allowing Jews to emerge as technocrats and civic improvers. When New’s great-grandparents and their siblings emigrated to Baltimore, they found a new world hungry for the skills they had acquired in the old one, and they flourished.
Bernhard Baron, a forebear of New’s, invented a cigarette-rolling machine that catapulted him to wealth and fame as the head of a large English tobacco company. (Its brands were Black Cat and Craven A, the latter named after Lord Queensbury, the Earl of Craven, a great lover of tobacco.) Jacob Levy, Baron’s brother-in-law and her great-grandfather, patented new techniques for “shrinking,” or pre-treating, cloth, so that less than twenty years after arriving in Baltimore, he was running his own three-story “shrinking” factory, the first in a business that still operates today. Both men believed in civilization and progress and the intrinsic dignity of the worker. Baron funded settlement houses and prided himself on his generosity to his employees. Levy ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket, even though he opposed unions.
All families are interesting once you take an interest in them. Our ancestors always turn out to have been both more and less admirable than we realize, and we have to analyze their choices and recreate the universe in which they were made before we can attain a fine-grained understanding of what kind of people these men and women were. New recreates and analyzes, perhaps to a fault. There are many pages here about the history of the regions and cities her family emigrated from and to (Lithuania, Riga, Baltimore, London) and the technical challenges posed by the industries in which they worked (leather, textiles, tobacco), and she has given a great deal of thought to her ancestors’ struggles and flaws. Levy seems to have been constitutionally unable to enjoy his success. His wife was mentally ill and had to be institutionalized; his youngest son (New’s grandfather) was the same. Levy spent the second half of his life in bitter competition with his former friend and brother-in-law, the phenomenally rich and successful Baron. Levy’s other sons moved to England to work for Baron and eventually took his last name. Levy never got over the betrayal. And so on.
One question to be asked of any genealogical narrative—New’s phrase is “a memoir in five generations”—is, is it history or a glorified family Bible? Why should we who are not Levys and Barons and News care about Levys and Barons and News? Not all who read this book will agree that New gives them good reasons to do so. The historical passages feel a little potted, and the psychological insights are astute but not singular. She seems reluctant to dwell on the most interesting subject of all—the effect of her grandfather’s mental illness on her mother and her. We are told a great deal about the feelings aroused in the author by her research, but we get no sense of what it must have felt like to grow up as the granddaughter of the disappointed Jacob Levy’s most disappointing son.
Another question provoked by the genre is, when did the extremely particular become a universal obsession? There was a time when scholarship involved a quest for universal truths and norms, not for the most local forms of knowledge, and a Harvard professor would probably not have published a book about her immigrant family that, though amply researched, advanced no scholarly agenda. Now the family memoir is as common in academia as anywhere else. Family history became intellectually respectable during the 1960s, when “history from below”—that is, social history, and then gender and material and working-class history, with their focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people—inspired historians such as Philippe Ariès, Lawrence Stone, and John Demos to undertake the study of the family. Over time, the study of individual families usurped the study of the family as an institution, and the writing of these books moved out of the history departments and into the non-fiction writing programs that were just starting up the next building over.
Meanwhile, post-colonial theory and other critiques of power were making big group identities—peoplehood, nationhood, international brotherhood—seem coercive and suspect. Genealogy, by contrast, offers a way to slice up the past in refreshingly non-ideological chunks. Family histories are both democratic—all families qualify—and humanizing: they are universal in their particularism. We are all alike in that we each come from a tribe that is not like any other tribe. We are all the products of the random events and people that have left their mark on our own idiosyncratic mentalité, have all struggled to make meaning out of the odd assortment of stories and ancestors that we have been indifferently bequeathed.
Sometimes it is hard to work up much interest in reading the products of these admirable acts of meaning-making, because—with notable exceptions—their purpose is not really literary. Here I have to admit to a strong extra-literary reaction to New’s book. As I read it, I felt guiltier and guiltier. I suddenly remembered that when I was in boarding school, I spent occasional weekends with my grandfather, the only Shulevitz left in a nearby city, the son of a teacher from what is now Belarus, an owner of industrial laundries, a self-made man. One day some of the many relatives who had moved away asked me to tape his oral history. I was to do it before he died. And I meant to do it, I meant to do it, but I never did. And that is why my grandfather, a fierce man who scared his granddaughter a little, died with his story unrecorded, and the Shulevitz family history to this day has gone largely uninvestigated.
To write the history of your family is to assuage a sense of obligation buried so deep that I, at least, spent years not admitting it was there. This may be particularly true for Jews. In Zakhor (“Remember!”), his wise book on Jewish memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi located the ancient source of the feeling that Jews are duty-bound to remember: the many verses in the Hebrew Bible that command the Jews to remember creation, the rescue from Egypt, the manna in the desert. Traditional Jewish memory, he added, had little to do with “curiosity about the past.” It was embedded in rituals—holidays, prayers, customs—that commemorated a collective and mythologized past, in contrast to modern memory, which is discursive and individual and subject to investigation. But though the ritual and recitative forms of remembrance have less currency than they once did, we still feel the weight of the Biblical injunctions, not so much because they come to us as the word of God as because they express a fundamental intuition about our duties as human beings. Yerushalmi thought we would respond to the pressure to remember by writing history. Instead we write genealogy.
Perhaps this explains why under the surface of so many family histories there can be felt a quiver of righteousness, the hint that the making of the book represents a discharge of spiritual debt. New implies that she felt driven to complete her ambitious project (which took many years) by an otherworldly sense of duty. She calls her foresight in recording her aunts before their death, long before she thought to write a book, an act of “due diligence.” She speaks of Jacob’s cane in language usually reserved for a sacred object—with its elegant design, “[c]lose up it looked like a mezuzah”—and grants it magical powers you might expect from a Hogwarts wand: “Up the cane’s length I seemed to feel the tremors of my great-grandfather’s footfall and the thrum of machines. I sensed the din and buzz of parade grounds, the blue plume of smoke, and the seaside smell of wharves. Speeches rang out. Guns. Sounds of stately music. Photographer’s shutters opening, umbrellas opening, doors to a jitney opening.”
A common device in both detective fiction and genealogical narrative is to make us aware of the near non-discovery of the some key piece of evidence. In fiction, this heightens suspense; in non-fiction, it has an eerier effect, suggesting that knowledge is gained only at the whim of Fate or by the will of God. Thus Jacob’s cane came to New’s attention by happenstance, at the end of a long rambling conversation over brunch while she is visiting some distant cousins. The device of the near-miss is exploited to the fullest in Mendelsohn’s The Lost. Again and again in his travels, Mendelsohn decides to end a conversation or leave a village, thinking he has found everything that he can find, whereupon by chance encounter or unforeseen delay he will stumble upon the one person in the village who actually knew his cousin and her father, or the schoolteachers who hid them, or the cellar they hid them in. Though I have no doubt that these accidents actually happened, their remarkable frequency, and the importance of each one in ultimately solving the mystery of his cousins’ fate, casts a magical aura over the entire enterprise. It is as if Mendelsohn half-meant to suggest that God himself had micromanaged his inquiries, or that fate rules also over inquiries into fate. If God does indeed supervise these exercises of memory, it would not be entirely out of character. Keeping the generations connected to one another is another of His prime imperatives, and genealogical narrative is one of the ways He does it. In the Bible, genealogy comes to show that God kept his promise to Abraham and made him a father of nations. You might even say that genealogy is the literary form taken by the longing for generational continuity—God’s longing as well as ours. But genealogies, like generations, can and do fail to continue. The disruptions and displacements of history—exile, genocide, immigration—cannot always be overcome by recollection and research. Evidence is sure to be overlooked, ancestors will be lost, stories will not be told. The not-telling is a far more likely outcome than the telling. Each completed genealogy is a miracle unto itself, a coming-in from the wilderness, an entry into Israel.
Like all ritual activities, the making of genealogies has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. In the vertical dimension, the research links the present with the past and us with our ancestors, as well as, by implication, with God. In the horizontal dimension, the quest stops being an individual effort and becomes a group one, and the compilation of the family history becomes the thing that pulls the family together. Again and again in these stories, and New’s interesting book is no exception, you hear tales of sisters and brothers, mothers and daughters, or long-lost cousins strengthening their bond by traveling together in search of the past; of family members being discovered and brought back into the tribe; of old breaches between estranged kin being healed in the joy or sorrow of learning what happened to the lost. Amassing the details and telling the story of who you come from turns out to be one of the primal means of reconstituting your tribe. The genealogy comes to heal a broken world, a feat it is usually able to accomplish whether or not it is turned into genealogical narrative.
What it can’t do, sadly, is the thing researchers probably most want it to do. No matter how well investigated or told, no genealogical narrative will ever solve the mystery of identity or explain us to ourselves, at least not with the certainty we crave. There’s a fallacy fueling the genealogy craze; in a nice irony, philosophers call it the genetic fallacy. It is the belief that if we know where we come from, we know who we are. This delusion has particular power in our deracinated new world, where the old buoyant faith in self-invention has given way to the dogmatic conviction that genes dictate destinies. As determinisms go, the genealogical kind is preferable to the genetic kind. Individual family members are always refusing to exhibit transmissible traits; we admire the picaresque characters who flout family precedent, our amusingly wayward or surprisingly competent grandmothers and uncles and cousins. But we make a mistake when we think that we’re made of the same stuff as them, as if we could inherit a penchant for defying our inheritance. Families are necessary but not sufficient causes. Family trees are good for dreaming with, but not much more. They won’t tell us our place in the world or how to behave in it. If we feel rootless, anxious, and insubstantial, if we long to be better grounded in the great chain of being, the sources of those feelings lie more in our present way of life than in an imaginary relationship to the past, important though that can be. Genealogy alone will not banish them.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order in Time.