December 27, 2009

Sweet and Low, A Family Story

A Jewish family from Brooklyn; a charismatic grandfather who started from nothing on the Lower East Side and lifted himself out of poverty; a daughter disinherited for no reason; an author who writes bluntly about his family, at the risk of infuriating some.

All this reminded me remarkably of something: my own family.

In the case of Rich Cohen's family there was also a successful company, fraud and a criminal investigation, unlike in mine - as far as I know - but for the rest, the parallels are striking.

It's really easy for me to identify, the names almost match: "[Benjamin Eisenstadt]'s mother's name was Rose", Cohen writes - and two of my great-aunts were named Rose; "Ben's father was named Morris" - Morris was a great-uncle of mine.

So I had high expectations: reading Rich Cohen's book would enlighten my roots in Flatbush, make me understand how people could be so skilled at lifting themselves out of poverty and so prone to mismanaging the emotional ties in their families.

The result was uneven. Cohen's style was not my cup of tea but I still gathered a few valuable hints in my quest.

Cohen bored me with his constant digressions from the subject which interested me, especially when he undertook a history of sugar and sweeteners or described in painstaking detail the criminal investigation against his Uncle and the company. As Kate Zernike wrote in her review for The New York Times:
The problem, of course, is that he can't avoid reaching for the Big Sweep. Into family history he weaves the history of sugar since 8000 B.C., and of slavery, packaging, dieting, Jews in New York, dangerous drugs and artificial sweeteners (with a cameo by Donald Rumsfeld, hired in 1977 by G. D. Searle & Company in part to get aspartame approved by the Food and Drug Administration). In some places, this flows naturally. In others, you get the sense that he's done his homework and wants you to know it. When he starts into the history of insurrection in Haiti, you wonder how you got there from Brooklyn.

By the way, Cohen tried to convince us that "The Age of Exploration [...] was actually a quest for a way around the Muslims, who clogged the trade routes and blocked the way to the sugar of the East." Well... Stefan Zweig made a much more convincing point that it was the quest for spices which drove the explorers - with style and in a much more relevant context (Conqueror of the Seas - The Story of Magellan, it does makes sense.)

But let's get to the good aspects of Cohen's work: how was my quest rewarded?

Well, for one, I realized how the trauma of immigration and deep poverty marked the first and second generation immigrants:
[Benjamin Eisenstadt's] parents had emigrated to America from a god-awful Polish town. [...] When Ben was eight years old, his father, just thirty-two, was rushed to the hospital with chest pains [and died].

So begins the actual childhood of Ben, the city as a maze of charity wards and relief agencies. His mother did not have the resources to raise three children. Because Ben was the oldest, he was sent to live with his uncles.
At the end of his life, Ben told one story again and again -- his mind kept returning to it. "We had Christmas dinner at Christian Relief. We had to stand for hours with the bums and drunks, listening to the prayers. Then, at the end of all that, we were finally given Christmas dinner. It was a single piece of desiccated chicken."
Cohen remarks that "This word, desiccated, and the way Ben said it, seemed to sum up his entire childhood." A desiccated childhood is indeed a good recipe for later lacking empathy and for the incapacity of instilling love in family relationships.

It was at the time I was reading this book (but, to be precise, while watching The Fiddler on the Roof) that I grasped suddenly the meaning of the word "pogrom": two million Jews didn't immigrate from Eastern Europe to the U.S. between 1880 and 1925 just in search of a better livelihood! They fled something much more traumatic than mere poverty. While it may not apply directly to my grandfather and may be only a speculation regarding my grandmother's family, it does shed a different light on their story: the weight of the past they or their family carried with them from Europe and the hardships they endured until the end of the Great Depression, are something I cannot ignore.

(In The Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and Lazar Wolf, with their bags on their back, part company:
Tevye: Where are you going?
Lazar Wolf: Chicago. In America.
Tevye: Chicago, America? We are going to New York, America. We'll be neighbors.
Sorry, couldn't resist the temptation. I think it's hilarious.)

The second aspect which struck me in Rich Cohen's account came toward the end, and I was waiting for it avidly. With the death of the patriarch, his elder daughter finds a culprit: her sister, the younger daughter. Obviously she's responsible for his death: she recommended the doctor who recommended the doctor who performed the operation which killed him... The fact that he was ninety years old had obviously nothing to do with his death.

Cohen annoyingly keeps alluding to and postponing the revelation of this episode which led to his mother being disinherited by her own mother. I found in the story, when it was eventually revealed, all the ingredients I've discovered recently in my family's story: people unable to grieve without looking for a culprit, old people being manipulated, vital family ties (between parents and children, brothers and sisters!) sacrificed for the sake of unimportant considerations, rancor settling in for decades.

Past suffering cannot be undone but we can avoid repeating these mistakes in the future and savor, in the meantime, the opposite image, Cohen's description of his paternal grandmother:
[...] when I was getting ready to graduate from college, my sister called me and told me that Grandma Esther was going to give me a check for a thousand dollars. My sister called this "the big check." I said to myself, "Maybe I will travel to South America with this big check, or maybe I will start a magazine." But the big check was more than money. It was a legacy. It was Esther blessing me. It was Esther telling me that I counted as much as my brother and sister and cousins. I was her sixth-born grandchild, but Esther did not judge by birth order. She arranged it that, when I hit certain life markers, big checks would be issued even after she died. (A family joke had me getting five hundred bucks when I got married, a thousand if the girl was Jewish.) A few hours before the ceremony, Esther said, "Come, I want to give you something." I followed her into a hallway. She smiled. I could see loved me. As she reached into her purse she said, "At a time like this, you can forget to eat," and handed me a bad of American Airlines peanuts. (The check came a few weeks later by mail.)

'Sweet and Low: A Family Story,' by Rich Cohen

No comments: