Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jacob's Cane: A Jewish Family's Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore by Elisa New 2009

“Elisa New provides a model for grasping the way in which the great historical forces of modernity – mass migration, technological innovation, war, genocide, capitalism, democracy – realize themselves not in heady abstractions but in the grainy details and the half-hidden trajectories of families.” Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University

This memoir by Harvard University literature professor Elisa New tells the story of the Levy and Baron families, their origins, and how they became intertwined through marriage and through business. Jacob Levy (1850-1929), who was Elisa New's great-grandfather, married the niece of Bernhard Baron (1850-1929). Then three of Jacob Levy's sons left Baltimore having been lured to London to make their fortunes with their uncle by marriage, Bernhard Baron. Once in London and achieving success in Baron’s business, Carreras Cigarettes, each changed his last name from Levy to Baron.

Both Jacob Levy and Bernhard Baron first emigrated in the nineteenth century from Eastern Europe. Although Jacob died before Elisa New was born, the author knew and admired her great-grandfather's daughters, her great aunts - the proper, comfortable Phildelphia widows, Jean, Myrtle and Fanny. These women, who had worked with their father Jacob in his successful fabric shrinking businesses in Baltimore and Philadelphia, were a font of family lore, but also promulgators of a family mythology that New eventually realized obscured the family’s impoverished origins in Eastern Europe. New had seen Jacob’s hand-carved cane in the possession of a relative and wondered about its provenance and the significance of its carvings- the initials of her grandfather and his three brothers, Max, Isaac, and Paul and three cities: Riga, Siauliai, and Raseinai. The mythology conflicting with the mysterious information on the cane spurs the author to investigate her family’s origins.

This is a very ambitious memoir that covers a lot of territory. In telling an interesting family story about Jewish immigrants who succeed economically, the author contextualizes the family story by providing extensive historical background material woven into the family story. New traces the Levy and Baron families by making visits to relatives in the U.S., England and Israel, and she does extensive research in libraries and archives everywhere. In this memoir you will learn about the family origins, but you will also learn much social and cultural history about the rise and importance of tobacco and tobacco processing as an American and a European Jewish industry. You will also learn about the history of Baltimore, its significance as a port in commerce, trade, and immigration and its politics. New also discusses entrepreneurship, inventions, and manufacturing. Besides her travels to London and to the Eastern Europe hometowns of her ancestors, we travel with New and her daughter to the unmarked graves of her great grandfather’s  brother, Max  and his descendants and the descendants of Jacob's brother Isaac who never left Europe, and who(all but a few) were killed by the Nazis.

 The memoir includes a family tree in the front of the book and a multi-page “Selected Further Readings” list in the back that divides the research into nine categories such as “Jews in Eastern Europe” and “Tobacco, Baltimore, and the Chesapeake.”  There are a few photos, including a picture of Jacob’s cane which is reprinted on the cover of the hardback edition of the memoir.

To read an excerpt from the memoir dealing with Jacob Levy's run for Congress as a member of the Socialist party, click here.

To read an interview with Elisa New where she talks about the writing of this memoir, click here.

There is an extensive family tree at the beginning of the memoir. The names below are excerpted from that tree. 
Levy family
Jacob Levy - author's great-grandfather; married Amelia Elfont, Bernard Baron's sister's daughter.
     Their children
     Edward (took the name Baron); married Bernhard Baron's granddaughter, Bertha.
     Robert (took the name Baron)
     Jean (married name Adler, then Jaffe)
     Myrtle (married name Rosenstein)
     Fanny (married name Goldman)
     Paul Levy
     Theodore (took the name Baron)
     Emil Levy (author's grandfather)

Jacob Levy had three brothers: Max, Isaac, and Paul.
His brother Paul married Bernhard Baron's sister Sarah.

Baron family
Bernhard Baron - author's great-uncle (married 1st Sarah, then Rachel)
Bernhard and Sarah had four children
       Amelia (married Jacob Levy)
       Sadie (married name Wakefield)
       Louis (married Elsie)
       Fanny (married name 1st Caplan, then Guggenheim)
       Chaim Frankel
        Leibe Lifshitz

Associated with Bernhard Baron
Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Brest-Litovsk, Belarus
London, England

Associated with the Levy's
Siauliai, Lithuania(Shavli)
Raseinai, Lithuania
Riga, Latvia
Rumbula Forest, Lithuania
Kuzhai, Lithuania
Zagare, Lithuania
Baltimore, Maryland
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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