Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen 2006

“Although Mr. Cohen is probably using this book to settle scores on some level, he has also managed to turn his family's rancorous history into a gripping memoir: a small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling — and often hilarious — parable about the pursuit and costs of the American Dream.” from a review by Michiko Kakutani published in the NY Times on 4/4/2006

This is a story about a Jewish American family whose roots are in Brooklyn, NY. It’s easy to see the memoir as an archetypal American tragedy brought about by warring family factions enmeshed in a very successful family business.

Rich Cohen takes us back to the early days in the life of his maternal grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, who was born in the first decade of the 20th century, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Trained as a lawyer, he had trouble establishing a law practice during the Depression and, instead, went to work in his father-in-law’s diner in Brooklyn. His invention of the first granular sugar substitute – Sweet‘N Low – was a commercial milestone in America and became part of the legacy he left his descendants. It is a family business to this day.

Cohen sets this achievement in a historical and commercial context. He spends some time talking about the history of sugar production and consumption, especially in America, and then he moves on to the obsession with dieting and the drive to find a sugar substitute. He further contextualizes his grandfather’s story by providing information on Jewish immigration to America and on the migration to Brooklyn, in particular.

Cohen makes the point that the business and the family were totally intertwined.The emotional core of this memoir centers around the fact that Cohen's grandmother Betty, who outlived his grandfather Ben, disinherited Cohen's mother, Ellen, one of her and Ben Eisenstadt's four children. The author's anger is evident, especially in his choice to investigate extensively the 1990’s business scandal at the company which at that point was being run by his mother's brother Marvin Eisenstadt and Marvin's son Jeffrey.

Benjamin Eisenstadt's life is an example of the spectacular rise of a Jewish American son of immigrants. Although the memoir is in large part a tribute to his ingenuity, hard work and philanthropic endeavors, it’s also an example of what happens in a family when money is equated with love and power. 

This memoir includes a family tree (all members listed below), the obituary for his grandfather published in the New York Times, and family photos. 

To watch a you tube video of Rich Cohen read selections from Sweet and Low, discuss the book and answer questions, click here.

Isadore and Sarah Gellman
    Abraham Gellman – son of Isadore and Sarah
    Betty (Pessie, Bessie) Gellman – daughter of Isadore and Sarah; married Benjamin Eisenstadt
        Marvin Eisenstadt – son of Betty and Benjamin; married Barbara Buchwald
            Jeffrey Eisenstadt – son of Marvin and Barbara
            Jill Eisenstadt – daughter of Marvin and Barbara
            Debra Eisenstadt – daughter of Marvin and Barbara
            Steven Eisenstadt – son of Marvin and Barbara
        Gladys Eisenstadt – daughter of Betty and Benjamin
        Ellen Eisenstadt – daughter of Betty and Benjamin; married Herbert Cohen
            Sharon Cohen-Levin – daughter of Ellen and Herbert
            Steven Cohen – son of Ellen and Herbert
            Richard Cohen – son of Ellen and Herbert; married Jessica; author
                Aaron Cohen – Richard’s son
        Ira Eisenstadt – son of Betty and Benjamin

Paternal grandfather’s family
Morris and Rose Eisenstadt
    Bertha Eisenstadt – daughter of Morris and Rose
    Benjamin Eisenstadt – son of Morris and Rose, married Betty Gellman (see above)
    Robert Eisenstadt – son of Morris and Rose

Rich Cohen’s father’s side
Noah Cohen
    Morris Cohen – Noah’s son; married Esther
        Herbert Cohen – son of Morris and Esther; married Ellen Eisenstadt (see above)
        Renee Cohen Blumenthal – daughter of Morris and Esther
            David Blumenthal – Renee’s son
    Nathan Cohen
Brooklyn, NY
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY
Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY
Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY
Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY
Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY
Midwood, Brooklyn, NY
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Lower East Side, NYC
Neponsit, Queens, NYC
Libertyville, Illinois
Glencoe, Illinois


  1. fyi -- rich cohen also wrote "the avengers" - a history of the group of Jews led by Abba Kovner who killed Nazis after the war.

    Hal Goldberg
    saeco coffee machines

    1. Yes, he did. I haven't included it on this blog because it's not a memoir.