Half jew, p.1

Half-Jew, page 1



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  Susan Jacoby


  Susan Jacoby is the author of ten books, most recently Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion; Never Say Die; The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought; The Age of American Unreason; Alger Hiss and the Battle for History; and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Her articles have appeared frequently in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and in forums that include The American Prospect, Dissent, and The Daily Beast. She lives in New York City.



  Copyright © 2000, 2015 by Susan Jacoby

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York, in 2000.

  Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

  Dartmouth College: Excerpt from Dartmouth College administrative and alumni correspondence used in Chapter VI. Reprinted by permission of Dartmouth College.

  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.: Excerpt from “Letter of Recommendation” from Amen, copyright © 1977 by Yehuda Amichai. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

  The Sheep Meadow Press: “The Place Where I Have Not Been,” from The Early Books of Yehuda Amichai, copyright © 1988 by Yehuda Amichai. Reprinted by permission of The Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file at the Library of Congress.

  eBook ISBN 9781101971338




  For the next generation:

  Alexandra Sara Jacoby

  Anna Sofia Broderick Jacoby

  James Gorman Jacoby

  Katherine Louise Jacoby

  Jon Maximilian Jacoby Simpson

  Jacoby Family Tree

  Detail left

  Detail right

  Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

  —SAUL BELLOW, The Adventures of Augie March



  About the Author

  Title Page



  Jacoby Family Tree




  IAlways Say Jewish




  VBrothers: Second Generation

  VIThe Chosen and the Heathen

  VIIFamily Contrasts

  Photo Insert

  VIIIElementary Education

  IXOut of Somewhere

  XHolocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust




  Afterword to Vintage Books Edition (2016)


  THIS HISTORY OF THE Jacoby family would have been extremely difficult to reconstruct without the many photographs supplied by Judy Mudd Jacoby, Jon and Caroline Jacoby, and Maclear (Mac) Jacoby Jr. The photos, dating from the early 1860s, provided essential documentation of private life in a family that saved almost none of its personal correspondence. Jon, Mac, and another cousin, Eve Van de Water Thew, were generous in sharing memories of what they learned—and did not learn—about the family history from their parents.

  I am grateful to Walter Austerer, a true craftsman, for his meticulous restoration of the old, originally tattered, family snapshots.

  Anne Ostendarp, archivist of the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College, helped me locate correspondence from the 1920s and 1930s on the subject of “the Jewish problem” at Dartmouth and made me realize how much Dartmouth has changed for the better since my father was a student there nearly seventy years ago. All of the excerpts from administrative correspondence, quoted in Chapter VI, are reprinted by permission of Dartmouth College. They include letters from the President’s Office Records and the Ford Whelden Papers. I am particularly indebted to Alexandra J. Shepard, whose senior history honors thesis, “Seeking a Sense of Place: Jewish Students in the Dartmouth Community, 1920—1940,” first drew my attention to the existence of these revealing letters.

  The Columbiana Collection at Columbia University’s Butler Memorial Library; the New-York Historical Society; and the Polytechnical Preparatory Country Day School provided invaluable information about the lives of the Jacoby men in New York.

  Angeline Goreau, Alex Levin, and Jack Schwartz read the manuscript at various stages and made important editorial suggestions.

  As always, Georges and Anne Borchardt, my literary agents, gave me their full support. Denise Shannon, who worked at the Borchardt agency for many years, always seemed to come up with a new magazine commission for me when I needed it most during the long period of research on this book.

  Aaron Asher, my longtime editor before his retirement from publishing, scrutinized the penultimate draft with the invaluable combination of a friend’s empathy and a merciless professional’s critical eye.

  Jane Rosenman, my editor at Scribner, gave me and my book the meticulous attention that every writer wants and needs but doesn’t always get.

  Robert James Jacoby, my brother, confirmed the memories we share.

  Alexandra Sara Jacoby, my niece, was one of my first readers for portions of the manuscript. She gave me a special form of encouragement that I truly needed at that stage of the work.

  Irma Broderick Jacoby, my mother, gave me unstinting support—something not to be taken for granted by a daughter writing a book about her father—and scoured her memory to correct factual errors.


  THERE ARE MANY WAYS to measure large expanses of time—by light-years, geological eras, evolutionary stages, millennia, centuries, calendar years. All of these standards—even the fleeting year—tend to distance the past from the present. Devotees of the forgive-and-forget school of history (usually members of groups with little to forgive) frequently admonish minorities to stop bearing a grudge for what are, if viewed from a strictly chronological perspective, old and moldy grievances. Why should African-Americans expect an apology for slavery when, after all, there have been no slaves in America for more than 150 years? Why are American Jews still so touchy about anti-Semitism when, after all, it has been nearly fifty years since Jewish opportunities were significantly affected by quotas in academia and restrictive covenants in desirable neighborhoods?

  But when generations replace years as the standard of measurement, time is telescoped rather than expanded: events that have a “once upon a time” quality when consigned to a hundred-year-old dustbin acquire an immediacy when viewed through the eyes of “my grandparents” or even “my great-grandparents.” A black American born in 1920, for instance, might easily have heard searing firsthand accounts of slavery from a beloved grandparent born in 1850.

  I did not begin to appreciate the telescoping effect of a generational approach to time until 1969, when I was twenty-four, newly married, and enjoying a honeymoon in Florence. In one of those serendipitous encounters that occur more frequently in detective novels than in life, an old woman fainted in my arms in the courtyard of the Uffizi. After I helped the weary but still imperious lady to a chair in a café overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, we exchanged names and discovered a connection.

  She turned out to be Estelle Frankf
urter, the only sister of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (as she informed me without my asking). When I told her my name, her exhausted expression was replaced by a look of sharp interest. “Jacoby…you aren’t by any chance related to the famous bridge player Oswald Jacoby?” I informed her that I was the daughter of Robert Jacoby and that the bridge champion was his elder brother—Uncle Ozzie to me.

  “I didn’t know there was a younger son,” Miss Frankfurter said dismissively, “but I always hoped I’d meet your uncle one day. I was personally acquainted with your grandfather—a most charming man. Of course, you know that he was named Oswald too.” In fact, I did not know my grandfather’s first name—or much of anything else about his life—because his children, including my own father, almost never talked about him. When I told Miss Frankfurter I would be indebted to her for any information she might be able to give me about the Jacoby family, her eyes lit up with a glee that contained a hint of malice.

  “Why, my dear, there was a time when people thought your grandfather might become the first Jewish justice to sit on the Supreme Court. He went to school with Justice Cardozo—they were quite good friends at one time, I believe—and he was one of the more talented trial lawyers of his generation in New York. That was in your grandfather’s youth, of course. But there were certain—shall we call them weaknesses?—that prevented him from realizing his potential.” (In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew to serve on the Court. Benjamin Cardozo was appointed by Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Felix Frankfurter by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939.)

  In four sentences, the redoubtable Miss Frankfurter—whose store of gossip concerning the New York (especially the New York Jewish) legal community seemed inexhaustible—had told me more about my grandfather, who died in 1931, than my father, aunt, uncle, and grandmother had revealed since I was old enough to begin asking questions. Miss Frankfurter was an emissary from the not-so-distant past—a past in which the question of when, and whether, a Jew might be elevated to the Supreme Court was a matter of more than passing concern to the Frankfurter family and its most brilliant son. What really struck me, though, was the casual reference to the Jacoby family’s Jewish origins. Brought up as a Roman Catholic in a small Midwestern town, far from New York City, where my father was born and raised, I had only recently figured out, and elicited the admission from my dad, that the Jacobys were Jews. Or, as my father corrected me, that they had been “born Jewish.”

  At that moment, I was too entranced by my own future to focus on the past. My new husband and I, both reporters for The Washington Post, were on our way to the Soviet Union, where he would take up his duties as the paper’s Moscow bureau chief and I would gather material for a book on everyday Russian life. Nevertheless, that night I took careful notes on my conversation with Miss Frankfurter, whom I intended to write as soon as I arrived in Moscow. Predictably, Russia and my new marriage would absorb all of my energies for the next few years. Inquiring into “everyday” life, in an era when the secret police did everything they could to impede foreign journalists, proved to be an arduous round-the-clock effort that left no time or emotional space for anything else. My notes from Florence gathered dust in a yellowing file marked “FAMILY,” and nearly two decades would pass before I felt free—in large measure as a result of my father’s death in 1986—to fully explore a past that had caused him so much pain.

  Happy or unhappy, nearly all families have their secrets. The difference between a happy and an unhappy family lies not so much in the objective repugnance or the scandalous nature of whatever is being hidden but in the degree of energy and organization that a profoundly unhappy family invests in preserving the secret—regardless of how innocuous it might seem to others. My father grew up in such a family, dedicated not only to hiding its Jewish past but to maintaining many other small and large deceptions ranged around the primary fiction. These secrets defined and distorted the lives of my Jacoby grandparents, deeply wounded my father and his siblings, and left my generation with a legacy composed of a surface tabula rasa with layers of pain underneath.

  At the time I met Miss Frankfurter, I knew only that my father, his older brother, and his sister had all married Irish Catholics, converted to their spouses’ religion, and done everything possible to prevent their children from learning anything about the family’s real history. It would take me years to sift through the fictions created by the three generations before me, beginning at the midpoint of the nineteenth century with the arrival in New York of my great-grandfather, Maximilian Jacoby.

  An acculturated, German-speaking Jew from Breslau (ceded to Poland, and renamed Wroclaw, after World War II), Maximilian was one of many refugees who left their homelands in central and eastern Europe after the unsuccessful democratic movements of 1848. In the United States, he would shorten his Teutonic name to Max and build a successful art importing business.

  Max’s sons, including my grandfather with the mysterious “weaknesses,” had attained enough success by the turn of the century to be considered worthy subjects of personal profiles in various New York publications. In these articles, Max was always described as a political refugee “of German origin.” Of course, this locution could hardly have fooled anyone in New York. My conversation with Miss Frankfurter forcefully impressed one fact upon me: had my father remained where he was, he could not have escaped who and what he was. Only by leaving New York, and settling far from any centers of Jewish population, could he hope to transform himself into someone other than a New York Jew.

  Until I began to think in generations rather than years, I could not begin to comprehend why my father’s family felt that the transformation was necessary. I was born in 1945, my father in 1914, my grandfather in 1870, and my great-grandfather in 1831. Now it seems to me that nothing has been more important than these dates—the earliest separated from the latest by 114 years but only two generations—in my effort to understand why my father, and his father, made the choices they did. My grandfather came of age in New York at a time when his alma mater, Columbia University, held entrance exams on the High Holidays in order to discourage religious Jews from applying. And my father grew up in a country where only yesterday—not “once upon a time”—he was called kike on the school playground.

  In my father’s and grandfather’s generations, there were of course many ways for a Jew to respond to the tantalizing American combination of unprecedented opportunities for Jewish advancement with anti-Semitic barriers that could not always be anticipated. The Jacobys’ long, concerted effort to transform themselves into gentiles was one such response. This book is my attempt to understand what was gained and what was lost in that incomplete transformation.


  Always Say Jewish

  MY PATERNAL GRANDFATHER died in 1931, when my father was only seventeen, and Dad always claimed that every photograph of his dimly remembered parent had been lost in a fire. That, like much of what my father chose to say about his childhood family, was untrue. In 1986, after Dad’s funeral, my aunt Edith unexpectedly handed me an eighty-year-old snapshot of the elusive paterfamilias, Oswald Nathaniel Jacoby. At forty, I looked for the first time into the eyes of the man my father claimed not to remember but remembered all too well.

  The 1906 image, captured at a time when families were just beginning to chronicle their lives in candid photos, has retained a surprising clarity. A robust man, clearly in the prime of life, stretches out in a hammock with an equally robust, curly-haired boy—his four-year-old son, Ozzie—and a small terrier. This is my grandfather at thirty-six—a provocatively handsome and seductive figure, staring into the camera with a sensual, worldly smile that suggests a wide variety of possibilities…anything, really, except the contented Edwardian domesticity implicit in the trio of father, first son, and family dog. I recognize Oswald Jacoby as the sort of man I could fall in love with instantly—a more dangerous, less reliable version of my father. Beneath the superficial resemblances—the same lavish dark hair just beginning to gray
, the same coiled, barely concealed restlessness that makes the hammock, surrounded by greenery on the porch of a summer house, look more like a stage prop than a resting place—is a cynical expression I never saw on my father’s face.

  Looking at my grandfather for the first time, I can easily believe that this was a man who let his children down badly, so badly that they never displayed a picture of him in their homes. Perhaps I think this only because I am gazing with hindsight at the appealingly arranged domestic scene. I know that the sunny little boy will be forced to grow up too fast by the fecklessness of the man in the hammock. I know that his daughter, his favorite child, will be scarred forever by discovering him with another woman in the bed he usually shared with his wife. I know that by the time he dies, in mysterious circumstances, he will have gambled away the money that should have taken care of his widow and sent the neglected baby of the family—the young man who will become my father—to college. I know that this charmer in the picture is a man who cannot be trusted.


  MY FATHER, by contrast, was a man who made every effort not to let his children down—but he too was a man with secrets. Known for his unfailing optimism, gregariousness, and a childlike inability to conceal his emotions, he grew taciturn only when the subject of his family was raised. “What was your daddy like?” I would ask when I was seven or eight. “Why, I hardly knew Father,” he would answer. (For my dad and his siblings, their long-dead father was always, in the Victorian manner, Father with a capital F, and their living mother was Mother with a capital M.) For much of my childhood, I assumed that my dad had been a baby, rather than a young man about to enter college, at the time of the death of the distant Father he hardly seemed to remember.

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