Roots and Branches1

22/07/2010 17:10



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.