The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century
Although the family depicted in David Laskin’s impressively researched and absorbing narrative is his, it is compelling as both memoir and history. It recounts the results of the author’s midlife quest to locate descendents of the revered Torah scribe Shimon Dov HaKohen (1835-1917) and his wife, Beyle Shapiro (1841-1904), who lived in Volozhin in Belarus. It also reflects the author’s pride at finding how he fits into the genealogical complex of the 150 years he covers.
Though the line is patriarchal, it is the women who particularly engage—Jewish mothers who were “efficient managers, brilliant improvisers, shrewd negotiators, practiced shmoozers, nimble stretchers of every kopek.” Instead of fading into their husbands’ shadows, the wives had other ideas and inner resources.
In The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, Laskin follows three branches of the family—in America, Palestine and, tragically, Europe, this last branch ending “in a pyre of logs and corpses in the Estonian woods.” A two-page family tree shows the intricate connections the author uncovered, including remote relatives he pursued in writing and in person.
Especially fascinating is the story of the 4-foot-11 powerhouse and Russian revolutionary Itel Rosenthal (1886-1973), who immigrated to America in 1904. A talented seamstress, she landed in Hoboken, New Jersey, where she started a dressmaking business and, with her imaginative, compliant husband, William (Wolf), went on to found Maidenform bra company.
Laskin aptly quotes social reformer Jacob Riis: “The Jewish needle made America the best-dressed nation in the world.”
In choosing to follow three strands of the family, with the European strand dominating the last third of the book, Laskin brings the dispersed heirs together with their common history.
What is most memorable in this captivating story is what Laskin breaks into—a silence about the European branch, the story “our parents and grandparents could not bear to tell.”
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