Roots and Branches2

22/07/2010 17:11



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.