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

Monday, April 18, 2011

Odd Men In by Harry Towb, 1983 (documentary)

"Towb's Jewish heritage was an important part of his career. In 1981 he starred in his own television play Cowboys, about a Jewish Irish-American returning to Belfast after many years. Two years later he fronted Odd Men In, a documentary about Belfast's Jews, a personal highlight coming when he interviewed the Israeli President Chaim Herzog, who was born in the city." from the obituary of Harry Towb in The Independent 8/3/2009

Harry Towb (1925-2009) was a very popular Irish Jewish actor born in Belfast, Northern Ireland who, in 1983, wrote and narrated a BBC2 documentary about the history of his Belfast Jewish community. He tells us about the early German Jewish settlers in Belfast, the Jaffe family, whose patriarch, Daniel Jaffe, founded the first synagogue in Northern Ireland. His son, Otto, was Lord Mayor of Belfast, but due to hostilities against Germans around the time of World War I, the family, despite being Jewish, was made to feel unwelcome and left.

The second wave of immigrants toward the end of the 19th century which included Towb’s grandfather came from Russia and areas of Eastern Europe, most particularly Lithuania and Latvia. Towb says that many assumed they were buying tickets to America but had been conned and landed in Hull. Those who settled in Limerick encountered entrenched anti-Semitism there, so moved up to Belfast where they felt welcome.

A Belfaster, Barney Hurwitz, along with other Belfast Jews, responding to the impending disasters in Europe in the late 1930’s, founded the Belfast Refugee Aid Committee to help Jews in Europe come to Belfast where Millisle Farm became the site of a Jewish refugee agricultural community. The goal was to train its residents to live a communal kibbutz-like life so that they could work in agriculture in Palestine. Most of the residents did immigrate, bringing their skills with them to the new-found state of Israel.

Belfast Jews were prominent citizens throughout the middle nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Towb discusses their contributions to the arts as well as commerce. His last interview is with Belfast-born Chaim Herzog, former president of Israel. They have an interesting discussion about the similarities (and differences) between Ireland’s troubles and modern day Israel’s and what it was like for Herzog to have lived through conflict in both places.

Throughout this 50-minute documentary, Towb draws from his own life and conducts interviews with Belfast Jews who are still part of a community, but whose numbers are diminishing as the younger generations move for opportunities elsewhere.

To watch the History of the Jews of Belfast, with Harry Towb as narrator, click on the following you tube videos. All four add up to less than an hour.
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

To read a detailed article about the history of the Belfast Jewish Community which was originally published in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, click here.

Harris Sergai
        Harry Towb – Harris’ grandson

Harold Goldblatt
Chaim Herzog
Barney Hurwitz
Sam Jaffa
Daniel Jaffe
    Otto Jaffe – Daniel’s son
        Mark Jaffe – Otto’s son
Solly Lipsitz
Harold Meek
Harry Miller
Max Miller – Harry Miller’s cousin
Eugene Rosenberg
Ray Rosenfeld
Harold and Regina Ross
Harold Smith
Sydney Smith
Bob Redner
Leslie Zukor

Belfast, Northern Ireland
Various locations in Israel

Monday, April 11, 2011

Letter to My Father (or Dearest Father) by Franz Kafka written in 1919, first published as Brief an den Vater in 1953

 "[Franz Kafka] feared [his father] principally because he felt annihilated by his very existence; it was as though he and Hermann Kafka were living contradictories, one of whom must be false if the other is true." from a review published in the New York Sun in June of 2008 by Eric Ormsby on the occasion of the publication of a new British translation by Howard Colyer.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the towering literary figures of the twentieth century, was a German speaking Jew who was born and lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1919, in what seems to be a response to his father’s negative reaction to the (latest) woman Kafka wanted to marry, he wrote his father a long letter of complaint that he actually never sent. This letter is one of the many works of Kafka’s published after his early death.

This long letter serves as a memoir-like window into Kafka’s state of mind at that moment, and at the same time it provides a window into the life of the Kafka family. It is important to note that Kafka’s harsh portrait of his father as well as comments about how his father similarly treated other family members are Kafka’s version of how his father treated them. He complains that his father is overbearing, has a hot temper, and is sure he’s always right. Franz Kafka thinks of himself of having more the temperament of his mother’s family and despairs that he and his father will ever be close. 

He uses many examples to make his point. One of the most interesting is his discussion of his father’s religious practice which he says amounted to an obligatory appearance at the synagogue where he seemed barely involved in the service. But his father insisted that Franz accompany him despite Franz’s objections. Kafka also calls his family seder a farce and ultimately faults his father for serving as a poor role model for religious observance. He goes on to state that when he (Franz) became more interested in Judaism his father was upset. He feels that like in all other areas of his life his father crushed any sense of independence.

This is essentially a version of a familiar generational struggle.  A young Jewish man grows up in a poor family in a small town, moves to the big city, marries, and works hard developing a business to support his family. He becomes “respectable.” His son acknowledges that his father has worked hard to give his family everything, but his son feels he has demanded too much in return. Since the father insists upon unquestioning obedience and loyalty, he is particularly irritated that his son has no interest in business, especially the family business. The artistic/creative son feels totally rejected, constantly humiliated, and is full of self-doubt.

Franz Kafka had been reading Freud and understood Freud’s theory of family dynamics. The conflict between Kafka’s desire to please his father and his need to go his own way fed his writing, and various permutations of the father/son conflict can be found in many of his works. Sadly, since most of Kafka’s works were published after his death, his family had no idea of the size of his talent and both they and their son were never to know the place he would eventually hold as a literary giant of the twentieth century.

To read an article that makes a case for Kafka's connections to his Jewish identity, click here.

Jacob Kafka – married Franziska Platowski
    Hermann Kafka – married Julie Lowy
        Franz Kafka – son of Hermann and Julie; author
        Georg Kafka – son of Hermann and Julie
        Gabrielle (Elli) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie; married Karl Hermann
            Felix Hermann – son of Gabrielle and Karl
        Valerie (Valli) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie; married Josef Pollack
            Marianne and Lotte Pollack – daughters of Valerie and Josef
        Ottilie (Ottla) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie

Minze Eisner Kafka (relationship unclear)

Jakob Lowy – married to Esther Porias
    Julie Lowy daughter of Jakob and Esther; married Hermann Kafka (see above)
Friends and Acquaintances
Carl Bauer – married to Anna Danziger
    Felice Bauer - daughter of Carl and Anna
Max Brod
Otto Brod – Max Brod’s brother
Dora Diamant
Albert Ehrenstein
Lise Kaznelson
Robert Klopstock
Isaac Lowy
Otto Pick
Ernst Polak
Julie Wohryzek

Wossek, southern Bohemia
Podiebrad, Bohemia
Prague, Czech Republic
Straschnitz Cemetery, Prague, former Czechoslovakia
Kierling, Austria

Monday, April 4, 2011

1185 Park Avenue by Anne Roiphe 1999

"[B]y focusing more on the other characters -- on what they do and say -- than on her own thoughts and feelings, Roiphe gives her memoir the dramatic vividness of a novel." from a review in the New York Times by Karen Lehrman, June 6, 1999

Anne Roiphe’s mother, Blanche, inherited wealth. Blanche’s grandfather, Moses Phillips, a Polish immigrant, and his son Isaac, her father, had started out peddling shirts. Before long they were making the shirts they sold. The Phillips-Van Heusen Company was established through their efforts and eventually provided both careers and income to family members.

Blanche Phillips married Eugene Frederick Roth in 1931 and they moved into an apartment at 1185 Park Avenue on the East Side of New York City when they returned from their honeymoon. It was one of the few Park Avenue buildings to accept Jews, and Blanche’s brother and his family lived in the same building. Her two sisters and their families lived in two other hospitable buildings elsewhere on Park Avenue. Blanche’s husband was a lawyer who was quickly absorbed into the family business. The author was born in 1935; her brother in 1939.

This memoir is an engrossing but sad story of a wealthy Jewish family grappling with their newly acquired wealth and status. When Roiphe became old enough to make sense of arguments and behavior, she realized that her father married her mother for her money. Her mother constantly talked about divorce but was emotionally paralyzed despite years of psychoanalysis. In addition, her mother’s sisters, concerned about scandal, suggested she grin and bear it. Her father, always close to exploding, paid little attention to his children; when he did, he was often cruel.

In their great need to be accepted, to be considered full-fledged “Americans,” family members in Roiphe’s parents’ generation had a typically ambivalent relationship to their Jewish roots which included what they perceived as their Jewish looks. For example, Roiphe’s mother took her to get her black curly hair straightened. Her mother said she was at least lucky that she had an acceptable nose.

And of course this ambivalence extended to religious observance or non-observance.  Roiphe’s family had a Christmas tree. They belonged to the Park Avenue Synagogue where Blanche, her children and her siblings and their families put in an appearance on the High Holy Days, but not Blanche’s husband who refused to attend. When Anne Roiphe’s brother was getting close to bar mitzvah age his mother hired a tutor who became a surrogate father to her brother;  her brother even started to dress like his tutor which included wearing a black hat. This was the final straw for his father who angrily remarked that his son looked like he had "just got off the boat."  This obviously reflected Roiphe's father’s own discomfort with his Jewish identity and how close he was to his family's immigrant past.

Anne Roiphe traveled in a rarified atmosphere far from her grandparents’ Polish and Hungarian Jewish roots and it connected her with others who traveled in those kinds of circles. Her cousin Howard Gilman was one. Vladimir Horowitz who played canasta with her mother was another. Roy Cohn was a relative of a relative whom she saw frequently at family gatherings. Through him she met David Schine. Judge Irving Kaufman lived in her building.

As Anne Roiphe entered her teens she was more able to evaluate critically what she observed and experienced. For example, she learned that Roy Cohn sent some legal cases her father’s way, and she had long arguments with her father, goading him about his fierce anti-communist stance. But it took her many years to carve out her own life. In this memoir Roiphe takes us on a journey through the first half of the twentieth century as her family established itself in America.

author's maternal side of the family
Moses Phillips
    Isaac Phillips - son of Moses; married Anne 
        Blanche Phillips – daughter of Isaac and Anne; married (Fritz) Eugene Frederick Roth
            Anne Roth – daughter of Blanche and Eugene; author
            Eugene Frederick Roth, Jr. – son of Blanche and Eugene
        Sy Phillips – son of Isaac and Anne
        Libby Phillips – daughter of Isaac  and Anne
        Sylvia Phillips – daughter of Isaac and Anne; married to Charles Gilman
            Howard and Christie Gilman– sons of Sylvia and Charles

author's paternal side of the family
    Isadore and Sophie Roth
        Bea Roth – daughter of Isadore and Sophie; married to Daniel Kreisberg
        Eugene Frederick Roth – son of Isadore and Sophie; wife of Blanche Phillips (see above)
        Edward Roth – son of Isadore and Sophie
    Minnie Roth – Isadore Roth’s sister
        Dora Cohn – sister of Libby Phillips’ husband; married to Al Cohn
            Roy Cohn – son of Dora and Al Cohn

            David Schine
        Vladimir Horowitz
            Sonia Horowitz

Sulvalki, Poland
Camp Songowood, Maine
Camp Wigwam, Maine
New York City, NY