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Book Review

Memoir of a Family Bullied by Secrets, Anti-Semitism

HALF-JEW: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past; by Susan Jacoby; Scribner

$25, 304 pages

May 29, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you lived in a time and place in which your race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic origin prevented you from getting into a college, staying at a hotel, moving into a neighborhood or pursuing a profession, might it not be tempting, if you could manage it, to "pass"? Before rushing to condemn people who dissemble their origins or claim to have no interest in their roots, we might do well to remember they might have had good reasons for doing so.

As Susan Jacoby reminds us in her family memoir "Half-Jew," the path to acceptance was not only a bumpy road, but one that often led backward rather than forward. "[My] father," she reflects, "grew up in an America that, in certain respects, was 'worse for the Jews' than the society in which my grandfather was raised." Yet as Jacoby, a well-known journalist and author of "Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge," also makes clear, concealment is not without its emotional costs.

Born in 1945, Jacoby was raised as a Roman Catholic. Throughout her childhood, she had no idea that her father, Robert Jacoby, was or had ever been Jewish. Her mother was a Catholic of Irish German descent. When her father formally converted to his wife and children's religion, the children were told he had previously been Episcopalian. Jacoby provides an interesting account of her own strong response to books like "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Elie Wiesel's "Night," in contrast to her father's more guarded reactions to matters involving Jews.

Even after his by-now-grown-up daughter had learned the secret of his origins, Robert Jacoby was reluctant to discuss the subject with her. He did not understand why she was so interested in an identity he considered an irrelevance and a disadvantage. But with the help of other family members and her own reportorial research skills, Jacoby has managed to piece together a fascinating portrait of her father's side of the family, starting with her great-grandfather Max Jacoby, who left Germany for America in 1849 and became a successful art importer. Max's older son, Levi Harold, dropped the Levi, married a non-Jew, and became a famous astronomer with a distinguished career at Columbia University. Oswald, the younger son, was Susan Jacoby's grandfather. He died 14 years before she was born, and his family seldom spoke of him.

A man of considerable charm and intelligence, Oswald seemed to have a promising future as a lawyer but was ultimately undone by his addictions to gambling, cocaine and loose women. How did two brothers, both ambitious, bright and personable, end up so different? While not discounting the differences of individual character and temperament, Susan Jacoby also notes that one had the good fortune to be embarked on his career at a time--and in a field--less troubled by anti-Semitism.

Up until the last quarter of the 19th century, Jacoby notes, Jews in America faced relatively little discrimination. Some achieved quite prominent social positions. One of the first signs that times were about to change came in 1877, when Joseph Seligman, the respected German Jewish banker who'd helped finance the Union Army in the Civil War, went to check in at his favorite summer resort hotel, only to be told that "Israelites" were no longer permitted to stay there. The wave of Eastern European immigrants in the 1880s increased xenophobia and anti-Semitism. By 1910, there were restrictive housing covenants. By the 1920s, many colleges and universities had quotas limiting the number of Jews they would accept. Many companies would not hire Jews. In addition, there was baiting and bullying of the sort that Jacoby's father, born in 1914, experienced as a boy at school. Not only he, but his older brother and sister all married into the Catholic faith.

Filling in the historical background, Jacoby not only finds explanations for the behavior of various members of her family, but also shows us how very abruptly and disconcertingly social values can change. At the same time, she goes beyond social history to give us distinctive and memorable portraits of real people, each reacting in his or her own way, to changing circumstances.

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