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David Laskin’s ‘The Family’: a rich and tragic family tree
Seattle author David Laskin’s “The Family” is a masterfully told story of three branches of his family — successful Americans, pioneers to Palestine and Europeans swept up in the Holocaust. Laskin reads Oct. 29 at Seattle’s Jewish Family Service and Nov. 4 at Third Plac
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Family” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Jewish Family Service, 1601 16th Ave. (between East Pine Street and East Olive Way on Capitol Hill). Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com). He will appear at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; thirdplacebooks.com)
‘The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century’
by David Laskin
Viking, 400 pp., $32
Somewhere in the hallways of David Laskin’s publisher, there must be a sturdy soul whose editorial judgment helped ensure that this talented writer could tell his family’s story in plenteous detail. Many publishers would be more likely to winnow the manuscript, ending up with a shorter book that fit more neatly on one side or the other of the history/memoir divide.
Fortunately for us, that did not happen here. Laskin has a broad canvas on which to depict the interwoven stories of a far-flung Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States, from the turn of the 20th century forward. It takes some pages to get acclimated to the many players in this drama (a family tree and wonderful photos help), but once readers are fully grounded, they can happily disappear into the book.
Laskin, a Seattle writer and author of the award-winning 2004 book, “The Children’s Blizzard,” is a deft diviner of the little-guy-with-a-good-story stuff, and he sews history and anecdote together with stitches so tiny they would do any quilter proud.
It helps that he starts with a family tree Steven Spielberg would love: a bloodline descending from a venerated Torah scribe and containing entrepreneurial genius, pogrom survivors, Nazi victims, pacifists and warriors, defiant women, kind fathers, tireless settlers of Israel, right on down to himself.
Tracing branches of the family in parallel narratives provides suspense as well as a sense of the remarkable diversity of paths that similarly rooted lives can take when confronted by war, immigration, boom times and economic collapse.
Seen alongside more normal events, the family’s tragedies during the Holocaust are all the more heartbreaking; violent death and survival are so often separated by small turns of fate. Laskin conveys that remarkable need we humans have to cling to the small moments of ordinary life in the path of oncoming catastrophe.
Understanding the losses during the genocide makes the successes of other family members more poignant and undeniably sweet. Some of the most enjoyable passages trace the life of one Itel Rosenthal, a Polish dressmaker who turned the homeliest of garments — brassieres — into the Maidenform empire, transforming manufacturing, retailing and the female body image in the process.
Surely one of this country’s most resilient immigrant narratives is that of the ragged newcomer, hellbent on assimilating as fast as possible, creating a generational chasm between religiously observant, unworldly fathers and their Americanized offspring. Laskin articulates this evolution well, describing the energy and drive of those who moved above pushcarts to be rich wholesalers.
He is clear-eyed when telling of these forebears in early 20th century New York: “Lots of other Jews their age were joining Zionist youth groups ... A different ideal motivated the Cohen brothers — an ideal compounded of self-interest, tribal and family loyalty, ambition, business savvy, and a burning desire to fit in with the American mainstream ...”
The Zionist dreams of other kin are chronicled just as ably. The sunburned, Yiddish-eschewing, proud Hebrew-speaking settlers of the Jewish homeland, their idealism put to the test against the reality of the backbreaking labor needed to build Israel. Laskin’s pages on the early battles between resident Arabs and the new settlers form a primer for understanding the modern start to the epic and ongoing battle.
“The pulse of history beats in every family,” Laskin observes. As he sought answers to questions about his own family lore, he discovered — and delivered — much more. It is his history, and ours.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.