“This book is a gripping quest for origins and identity. Ms. Jacoby splendidly weaves the story of her own family with the wider history of three generations of German Jews who sought total assimilation into American society. In her family, the path to assimilation meant conversion to Catholicism. This memoir is an unusual testimony to Jewish success and Jewish misery in its encounters with the New World.”
–Saul Friedlander, author of When Memory Comes and Nazi Germany and the Jews
Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search For Her Family's Buried Past (Scribner, 2000)
What is a child's emotional legacy when one parent's origins are treated as a shameful secret? This is the provocative question addressed by Susan Jacoby in a probing work of personal memory and social history that excavates four generations of lies and secrets in her father's accomplished but deeply insecure New York German Jewish family. Blending meticulous historical research with compassionate emotional insight, this writer of "fierce intelligence and a nimble, unfettered imagination" (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) not only reclaims the family's past but also offers a beautifully nuanced close-up of a bond between a father and daughter.
The author knew from early childhood that her father was a Roman Catholic convert but never knew he had been born a Jew. Yet she sensed, growing up Catholic in the 1950s in Michigan, that there were missing pieces in her father's -- and her own -- story.
In search of her family's real history, Jacoby mined New York newspaper and university archives, which yielded a rich cast of characters, beginning in 1849 with the arrival of her great-grandfather from Germany. We meet her tormented grandfather, who built a brilliant legal career in the early 1900s but gambled away a fortune and died a cocaine addict in 1931; her great-uncle Harold, a distinguished astronomer whose map of the constellations still shines brightly on the ceiling of New York's Grand Central Terminal; and her beloved uncle Ozzie, the famous bridge champion Oswald Jacoby.
Half-Jew breaks new ground by exploring the link between personal shame -- the gambling compulsion that haunted four generations of Jacobymen -- and the social shame that impelled anentire family to deny its Jewishness. With unflinching honesty, and in tender but unsentimental prose, Susan Jacoby explores the damage inflicted by intimate lies and the rich opportunities for repair when a parent and an adult child face long-buried truths.