Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past

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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 ...

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Overview

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 Jacoby men -- and the social shame that impelled an entire 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this poignant mix of family history and memoir, journalist Jacoby (Wild Justice) unravels the thick fabric of lies that her father, Robert, wove around his past. Raised in a happy Catholic home, Jacoby was in her early 20s when she learned that Robert had been born a Jew. Her surprise intensified when she found out that Robert's brother and sister had also married Catholics and converted. What, she wondered, had caused such a dramatic rupture in the family's history? What emerges from Jacoby's research is not only an account of family estrangement and denial but a social history of anti-Semitism and Jewish acculturation in the U.S. over the last century and a half, beginning with the arrival of the author's German-Jewish great-grandfather in the mid 19th century. Jacoby presents some finely crafted portraits: her grandfather Oswald, a brilliant young lawyer whose career dissolved under the pressure of a gambling addiction; Edith, Oswald's chilly, critical wife; Oswald's brother, Harold, a noted astronomer at Columbia University; Uncle Ozzie, Robert's brother, an admittedly self-centered world-class bridge champion; and Robert himself, a loving father who nevertheless almost ruined his family with his own gambling problem. Jacoby tells how Robert was taunted as a "baby Jew-boy" during his years in a Brooklyn public school and of the two years he spent at Dartmouth at a time when the admissions director believed the college had too many of "the chosen and the heathen." Jacoby's intelligent and compassionate probing extends to her own prolonged process of learning to accept herself as a "half-Jew." This is a moving tribute to her father and a vivid portrait of one family's attempt to find its place in America. Agents, Georges and Anne Borchardt. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
A noted journalist uncovers her Jewish roots. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Internet Book Watch
Half-Jew is Susan Jacoby's impressive, highly recommended family history in which she shares a meticulous historical research into the suppressed Judaic roots of her personal genealogy. In these pages, Susan writes with compassion, emotional insight, and candor about her father (who was a Roman Catholic convert) and her own search for ancestral roots that led her to the discovery of her German Jewish grand-grandfather who arrived in American in 1849, her tormented grandfather who built a brilliant legal career in the early 1900s only to gamble it away and die a cocaine addiction in 1941, of her great-uncle Harold, a distinguished astronomy whose map of the constellations still shines up on the ceiling of New York's Grand Central Terminal, and her beloved uncle Oswald Jacoby, a famous bridge champion. Susan also explores the damage inflicted by intimate parental lies, and the rich opportunities for redress when a parent and an adult child face long-buried truths about themselves and who they are.
—Internet Book Watch
James Shapiro
It is impossible not to admire her courage and her dedication to this task. The result is a book of considerable interest not only as a memoir, but also as a detective story and as a social history of assimilation.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684832500
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/5/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 13
Preface 15
I Always Say Jewish 21
II Conversions 37
III German-Americanization 59
IV Brothers 81
V Brothers: Second Generation 110
VI The Chosen and the Heathen 136
VII Family Contrasts 156
VIII Elementary Education 186
IX Out of Somewhere 204
X Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust 220
XI Principles 238
XII Loyalties 263
XIII Elegy 285
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First Chapter

Chapter One: 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 mygrandfather 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.

From an early age, then, I sensed the existence of painful secrets somehow connected to my grandfather. I knew that my father, Aunt Edith, and Uncle Ozzie had married Catholics and converted to the Faith; I did not know that they had also invented a Protestant preconversion past and lied, by omission or commission, whenever they were asked a question that might reveal their true origins. "What were you before you were a Catholic, Daddy?" "An Episcopalian." The baffling storehouse of inconsistencies that made up my father's version of his own and his family's past remained closed to me until, in 1965, I left the small Michigan town where I had spent most of my childhood for the more cosmopolitan environment of Washington, D.C. There, at age twenty-one, I managed to put some of the pieces together -- mainly the Jacoby name and my dad's "Jewish" appearance -- and to penetrate the outer layers of avoidance and omission in the family narrative. I finally understood that all of my father's evasions had been designed to conceal the fact that he was born a Jew.

"A Jewish parent is hardly a skeleton in the closet in this day and age," a friend of mine remarked when the Jewish lineage of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became a major news story in 1997. True. But Albright's evident distress at the revelation, and her initial resistance when reporters, as was quite natural in view of her prominence, began looking into her background, demonstrated that there are people -- only some of them Jews -- for whom Jewish origins remain a highly charged subject. Albright's parents, Czech Jews of considerable prominence who fled to safety in London on the eve of World War II, had determinedly attempted to conceal their Jewishness after the war. They never told their daughter that they were Jews or that most of the family had perished in concentration camps. While it is not surprising that Madeleine the girl believed what her parents told her, it is difficult to credit her assertion that as an adult -- and a diplomat with wide-ranging international contacts -- she never suspected what was well known to many of her contemporaries, including surviving Czech Jewish relatives of whose existence she was fully aware (and whom she stonewalled when they attempted to contact her after she was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations). Even in this day and age, there are still Jews -- some with positions in society that would seem to render them impregnable -- who fear that a clear-eyed glance backward can only consign them to the fate of Lot's wife.

For my own father, his Jewish lineage definitely was a skeleton in the closet, a source of shame that shadowed his entire life and required him to construct a false identity in an effort to shield his children. Long before I had any idea that my father was a Jew, I sensed a reservoir of self-doubt at the core of his nature. It expressed itself in many ways, but nowhere was it more evident than in his lifelong tendency to deprecate the personal and professional achievements that represented a real triumph over his own sense of unworthiness.

As an adult, I felt considerable guilt about asking my father questions that evoked his old sense of shame, but my need to know was stronger than my desire to protect him. "Why do you gnaw at this?" Dad would ask, over and over, until his death. "Didn't your mother and I give you a good foundation? Don't you have a wonderful job? Why can't you just let this Jewish business alone?" He was the reason -- he and the religion in which he and my mother had tried to raise me. I just never could accept it, even in the stage of childhood when it is natural to accept what everyone around you believes. Yet such was the power of the Roman Catholic Church of that era -- "it was the only The Church," a Catholic wit once said -- that I invested a great deal of my emotional energy, at a time when most teenagers' minds are filled with dreams of the opposite sex (not that there wasn't room for those too), in a struggle to escape the prediction of the nuns: "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." The discovery that my father was a Jew -- just as I embarked upon adult life -- seemed to offer one explanation for the smoldering no that had shaped my girlhood.

When I say I had no idea that my father was a Jew, I mean I had no idea on a conscious level. Until I began writing this book, I had forgotten one of the recurrent dreams of my adolescence -- a nightmare in which I was a prisoner in a concentration camp. My head was shaved, but I wasn't wearing a striped uniform; the yellow star was attached to my everyday clothes. "I haven't done anything, I don't belong here," I would say. Adolf Hitler himself would reply, "That's what every prisoner says. And we've even let you keep your clothes. But they won't last long. You're no better than anyone else here." Concentration camp dreams, I learned as an adult, were in no way unusual among my contemporaries -- children born shortly before, during, or soon after World War II. But while I have many friends who remember similar dreams, every one of them is Jewish, brought up in a Jewish home where the murder of the six million was treated (and this was sometimes literally the case) as a death in the family.

As teenagers, some of my Jewish friends were exasperated at their parents' "harping" on the Holocaust -- and they were angry that they could not escape the camps even in their dreams. It never occurred to me, as an adolescent, that either of my parents had any connection with the nightmares that left me in a cold sweat. Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews was discussed in my home -- and this was unusual in Okemos, Michigan, a small suburban community, with few Jewish residents, where we lived throughout my teenage years. My parents talked about the Holocaust (though they, like most Americans at the time, did not call it that) in the same informative tone that they talked about the Depression, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the Cold War. If we watched large portions of the trial of Adolf Eichmann on television in 1961, this merely reflected my parents' customary interest in history and current events. Neither my mother nor my father said anything to indicate that our family had any extra reason (indignation at injustice and suffering being a given) to worry about what had been done to the Jews of Europe. But my vivid nightmares suggest that I was receiving another, unarticulated message: You're no better than anyone else here.

I stopped having that dream in my early twenties, not long after I figured out, and my father acknowledged, that he was a Jew.


When certain subjects are routinely suppressed rather than explicitly and dramatically forbidden, they impinge upon the consciousness of a child intermittently, as minor discordances that cause a momentary sense of unease before being dismissed. One day, when I was in the sixth grade at St. Thomas Aquinas School -- one of the thousands of parochial schools built by upwardly mobile American Catholics who moved to the suburbs after the war -- I proudly read my composition about a girl trying to concentrate on her homework while a spider concentrated on spinning a web underneath her dress. Everyone in the class laughed out loud -- everyone, that is, except Sister Misericordia. She called me up to her desk after school and said sharply, "That composition was in very poor taste." Mortified, I blinked back tears as I made my way to the cloakroom to put on my boots. Sister was whispering to another nun, "Of course, there may be certain influences within the family. The father, you know, is a convert. I believe he was born in New York." Later that night, I repeated Sister's comments to my mother. "Just forget it," she advised, ignoring my question about the meaning of those "certain influences" and reminding me that no nun would have been pleased with a story alluding to undergarments or bare legs. After kissing me good night, Mom added with a studied casualness, "Don't bother your father about this."

I never forgot the incident and my teacher's tone, with its faint but unmistakably derogatory implications. I could summon up the sound of Sister's voice a decade later in Washington, where most of my colleagues at the Post assumed, because of my last name, that I was Jewish -- and where I finally realized that a man named Jacoby, with a mother whose maiden name was Sondheim, must have been born a Jew. Which made me a half-Jew -- whatever that might mean. As a reporter in the racially charged atmosphere of Washington in the mid-sixties, I was much more interested in how it felt to be black in white America than in what it meant to be a half-Jew raised as a Catholic.

At that point, I simply could not understand why my father had tried so hard, throughout my childhood and even after I was old enough to figure out the secret for myself, to conceal his true background. I was still measuring time by years, not by generations. I knew that he knew that I knew, but I never brought up the subject until I blurted out my knowledge of my father's Jewish origins in a manner calculated to establish his misguidedness and the superiority of my own "moral compass" (a term that turns up with embarrassing frequency in my writings from that era). In the kitchen of the house where I grew up on Greenwood Drive, Dad was making blueberry muffins -- cooking (but not cleaning up after himself) being one of the many pursuits that set him apart from my friends' more conventional Father-Knows-Best fathers. At fifty-two, a bundle of nervous energy who would never develop a paunch, my dad usually jumped out of bed around five o'clock and was deeply involved in something -- cooking, gardening, cleaning out the basement -- by the time the rest of the family woke up. On this particular morning, he had been looking forward to nothing more complicated than sharing a hot buttered muffin with his little girl. Home for a brief break from my dream job at the Post -- I was in that transitional stage when fledgling adults still refer to their parents' house as "home" -- I disrupted the morning peace and ended the silence between us by informing my father that it was no longer necessary for him to "go on pretending" that he hadn't been born into a Jewish family. I announced my absolute delight at the certainty that "at least one" of my parents was a Jew. The only thing that could make me happier, I added, would be to learn there was also a Negro in the family tree.

Choking on the flour that coated his nostrils and lips, Dad turned toward me, lit a cigarette, and cursed under his breath as an ash fell into the batter. His eyes filled with tears as he said, "I never wanted you and your brother to feel that if you didn't get something you wanted in life, it was because you were Jewish. I never wanted you to blame me for this...this burden, this cross. And by the way, always say Jewish. Jew is rude and disrespectful."

My father refused to explain himself any further, and though I experienced a belated sense of shame at my outburst, I was incapable of understanding the sources of his raw emotion. Not only had my father told me almost nothing about his past, but his suggestion that being a Jew, or a half-Jew, might prevent me from getting anything I wanted seemed preposterous in 1966. By then it had become chic to be Jewish -- in the journalistic world I already inhabited in Washington and in the broader cultural world to which I aspired. Because I had been raised as a Catholic and educated in parochial elementary schools, and spent most of my childhood in a relatively small town with few Jews (though I was born in Chicago), I did not really think about the meaning of my father's name and appearance until I started meeting a great many Jews as an adult. Only then did it become apparent to me -- with the obviousness of a lightbulb flashing over a cartoon character's head -- that my father, born and raised in New York City, must be a Jew. New York Jew. With his lavish, curly black hair and his moderately but unmistakably hooked nose, my father looked so very Jewish -- or so very much like what Jews are thought to look like.

In Washington, friends often asked about my background because they had trouble putting my last name together with the blond shiksa looks I had inherited from my mother's Irish-German side of the family. The truth was that my shiksa image would have been much less striking without the assistance of Lady Clairol. When I began sifting through childhood pictures for this book, I was quite surprised to see snapshots of a little girl with light-to-medium-brown hair. I have thought of myself as a blonde since my mom began applying peroxide to my tresses in ninth grade. Most of my friends' mothers, at a time when artificial hair coloring still conveyed a whiff of moral turpitude (hence the success of the advertising campaign with the sly question, "Does she or doesn't she?," and the immortal answer, "Only her hairdresser knows for sure..."), would have grounded their daughters for pursuing blondness in a bottle. "You mean it was your mom's idea?" an envious friend asked. I now wonder whether my mother's alteration of my hair color at such an early age was an attempt, on a conscious or unconscious level, to make me look more like her family and less like a Jacoby. I do know that when I recently tried on a brown-haired wig over my blond "highlights" -- just to see what sort of a brunette I would make -- the face in the mirror looked like no one in my mother's family but instead bore a startling resemblance to a nineteenth-century portrait of my Jacoby great-grandmother. How easily I discarded the memory of the brown-haired girl -- even though I am perfectly aware that my blondness as an adult is attributable not to nature but to the efforts of professional hair colorists who took up, at considerable e xpense to me, where my mother left off.

At any rate, I looked like an archetypal shiksa to people who met me in the mid-sixties in Washington. When my name prompted them to ask if I was Jewish, I always answered "half" -- and wished that I didn't have to qualify my reply. Interestingly, black acquaintances asked the question more readily than whites -- and I interpreted the inquiry as a compliment in an era when Jews and blacks, at least in my world, were linked by a commitment to the civil rights movement and were more than willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. For this and many other reasons, I longed to identify myself with Jews as deeply as my father had once longed to deny his origins. How could I understand a man who would not use the word Jew as a noun because he viewed it as an epithet? Until the end of his life in 1986, I never heard my father call himself, or anyone else, a Jew. Jewish was as Jewish as he got.


I was seven when Dad converted to Catholicism -- from the Episcopal Church, I was led to believe. There was no shame attached to being a convert in the American Catholic world of the fifties. Quite the contrary. The nuns and priests always emphasized that converts were far more deserving of praise than "born" Catholics, because a convert had voluntarily chosen to assume the obligations imposed by the Church. That was why I didn't know what to make of the unfamiliar edge in Sister Misericordia's voice when she linked conversion with "certain influences."

My mother and her parents knew the truth about my father's origins, and they acceded to his request that the facts be concealed from my brother Rob and me. My maternal grandmother, who was still vibrant and clearheaded before she died in 1999 at the age of ninety-nine, told me not long before her death that she vividly remembered the day my father revealed his "secret." "Bob told us he wanted us to know 'the whole truth' about him before we gave our blessing to the marriage," Granny recalled. "Of course, he also told us he and your mother were going to get married whether we gave our blessing or not....When it was all out in the open, your gramps said, 'Well, that's a relief. I thought we were going to find out you'd been in jail.' I felt bad for Bob that he felt so bad -- there were tears in his eyes -- but those were different times and I understand his not wanting you kids to know when you came along. Later, when the war was over, and we knew about the concentration camps...well, it's not something you'd want to pass on to your children, if you could avoid it. Of course, that was probably a wrong way of thinking, an old-fashioned way of thinking. But it was how your dad felt. And to be honest, it was how we felt too. I feel a little ashamed of that today."

Don't ask, don't tell. At the time of our kitchen confrontation in the summer of 1966, my father's closed-off attitude toward his own and his family's past had not changed appreciably since the 1940s. But he began to open up that same year when his mother, Edith Sondheim Jacoby, died in New York at the age of eighty-eight.

We buried her on a raw November day, surrounded by driving sleet that undermined the footing of the mourners at the grave site, in St. Peter's Roman Catholic Cemetery on Staten Island. My mother was recovering from an illness and could not make the trip from Michigan, so my father phoned me in Washington and asked me to fly up to New York to meet him for the funeral -- an extraordinary request in view of his usual impulse to keep his children far removed from the family into which he was born. His desire to have me near him, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the expected presence of his brother and sister at the funeral, spoke eloquently of his unwillingness to deal with the family of his childhood without support and comfort from the family he had created, and drawn solace from, as an adult.

When Dad was born in 1914 -- the youngest of three siblings -- his mother was thirty-six. A chilly woman of Victorian demeanor, Granny Jacoby frequently referred to my father as her "accident." When my brother and I wrote to thank her for a birthday present (usually something, like a bookmark, that no child wants for a gift), we would open with "Dear Granny Jacoby" -- never just "Granny" -- because, as far as we were concerned, our real granny was our mom's softhearted mother. Granny Jacoby once suggested that I call her Nana, but I never did. On our annual visits, I addressed her as nothing but "you" -- an omission she was too perceptive to miss. To my "Would you please pass the potatoes," she would reply, "Whom are you addressing? A ewe is a female sheep."

One of the least pleasant experiences of my girlhood was my family's annual thousand-mile drive from our home in Michigan to the quiet Staten Island street where my father's mother and sister lived. Equally oppressed by the discomfort of car travel before the age of air-conditioning and by the prospect of seeing Granny Jacoby again, I suffered from severe nausea during those days on the road. My usually cheerful father grew more snappish as we approached New York. Somewhere in the Bronx, he always managed to lose his way and miss the turnoff for Brooklyn and the Bay Ridge terminal of the Staten Island ferry.

As we passed through Brooklyn, Dad never stopped to show us his old school or the house where he spent most of his childhood. Nor did I ask to visit any of the scenes of my father's youth. Even though the declared purpose of these trips to New York was to enable my brother and me to become acquainted with our Jacoby relatives, I surely sensed that on some level, my father didn't want to be there at all.

After we found the ferry entrance and made our way to Granny Jacoby's apartment -- always several hours late -- she would say something like, "Robert, it's fortunate that we planned a cold supper so that supper couldn't get cold." "Mother," my dad would reply, "it's wonderful to see you too." I developed a real antipathy toward my aging grandmother during those brief visits. She belittled my father's job as an accountant and compared him negatively (as she had when he was a boy) to his elder brother and her favorite child, Ozzie. Ozzie -- the little boy in the 1906 snapshot -- was born in 1902 and named after his father. He would grow up to become the family star -- one of the two most famous tournament bridge players (the other was Charles Goren) of his generation; a syndicated newspaper columnist; and a prolific author of books on bridge, canasta, and backgammon. A calculating professional at the card games, requiring immense skill, that made his reputation, Ozzie was also a compulsive gambler who would come out on top in a lucrative bridge or backgammon tournament and promptly lose his winnings in after-hours games and gambling establishments. There the odds always favored the house (as Ozzie himself wrote in many newspaper articles intended to discourage novices who thought they had figured out a way to beat the system). But my uncle didn't take his own advice. In the absence of formalized gambling, he would bet on anything from the length of time it would take room service to arrive to the number of steps in the staircase of an apartment building. My father shared this "gambling gene" (as he called it many years later), but I didn't know that until I was in my teens and Dad's gambling was only a bad memory for my parents, who always conducted their arguments about money behind closed doors. The gambling of the Jacoby men, although it was a pattern formed over generations, was a subject the family rarely discussed openly; reckless and profligate were words the Jacoby wives applied to their husbands when they thought the children were asleep.

At those rare Jacoby family gatherings in New York, there was talk of a moneyed past, but no one explained how or why the money had disappeared. Nostalgic references were made to the early part of the century -- before my father came along -- when the Jacobys had owned a summer home near Saratoga in upstate New York and lived in a splendid apartment on Manhattan's Riverside Drive. Granny Jacoby almost never mentioned her long-deceased husband, and I was not even sure of his birth and death dates until I looked up his name in The New York Times Index in 1990. To my surprise (for I had never placed much credence in the occasional allusions to my grandfather's brilliance), he turned out to have merited a substantial collection of clippings in the Times morgue -- especially substantial in view of the fact that most of the articles appeared when he was still under thirty-five.

The man whose family tried to erase him from its collective memory was born on December 24, 1870, and entered Columbia University in the fall of 1886. Oswald Jacoby had passed the Columbia entrance examination at fourteen but could not begin his studies until the following year because fifteen was the mandatory minimum age for entering freshmen. He would graduate as the youngest member of the Class of 1890. Benjamin Cardozo, who graduated in 1889, was also the youngest in his class -- a social liability that may have brought the precocious teenagers together at Columbia. After graduation, the nineteen-year-old Oswald bowed to his father's wish that he join him in the family import business. Soon afterward, though, Max gave in to his son's desire to enter law school. By the early 1900s, Oswald was an up-and-coming Manhattan lawyer, often mentioned in the press as a brilliant trial attorney, and had started his own family with Edith Sondheim, the daughter of a Brooklyn classics teacher.

By the time my father was born, just before the outbreak of World War I, something had gone terribly wrong with Oswald's career. The family had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn -- a definite step down from Riverside Drive. While Uncle Ozzie and Aunt Edith had attended private schools, my father had to make do with a public elementary school. In the homes of my grandmother and aunt, there were pictures on display of Ozzie, Edith, and Bobbie as children -- always with their mother or aunts but not with their father. My father, aunt, and uncle were unable or unwilling (probably both) to provide a context for these snapshots. The one unfailing topic of conversation on our family visits to Staten Island -- always introduced by Edith -- was the remarkable coincidence, if that is what it was, of the Jacoby siblings all having met, fallen in love with, and married Catholics, thereby placing themselves directly in the beam of God's grace.

Edith, born in 1907, had married and divorced in her wild youth -- but by the time I met her, she had become a truly devout Catholic convert and a devoted wife to Uncle Ted. Ted -- Theodore S. Faller -- was a Macy's executive and a millionaire landowner on Staten Island, where real estate values had skyrocketed in anticipation of the opening of the Verrazano Bridge. Uncle Ted was also a Papal Knight, an honor conferred for extraordinary services (and contributions) to the Church. Edith's status as a divorcee, as divorced women of her generation were customarily called, had posed a grave problem when she and Ted fell in love in the late thirties. Then (as now), divorced Catholics were prohibited from remarrying within the Church unless their original marriages had been ecclesiastically annulled; the same prohibition applied to a marriage between a Catholic like Ted, who had never been married, and any divorced person -- Catholic or non-Catholic. Edith and Ted had originally applied for an arcane ecclesiastical exemption, called the Pauline Privilege, which might have allowed them to marry within the Church because Edith had not been baptized in any faith at the time of her first marriage. But it turned out that the Privilege applied only when both partners in the original marriage were unbaptized. Edith's first husband, whom she and her mother always called "that wretch, Feeney," had been a Catholic himself. Just when it seemed that Edith and Ted would have to give each other up or live in sin, the wretched Feeney died (a victim, it was said, of liver failure brought on by chronic alcoholism) -- a fortuitous event that Edith considered nothing less than miraculous. She had become a widow in th e eyes of the Church, and she and Ted were free to marry.

In view of Ted's piety, it is highly unlikely that he would have married Edith had he not been able to make her his wife within the Church. If they had been wed in a civil ceremony, he would have had to resign himself to living in what the Church declared to be a state of mortal sin. That hadn't bothered Feeney, but it would have proved an insupportable burden to Ted, who, in spite of a demanding executive schedule, made time to attend Mass and receive communion several times a week. Edith herself attended daily Mass and constantly prayed for the souls of her less pious brothers; she considered it a sign of God's special grace that Uncle Ozzie, who had avoided (or evaded) the embrace of the Church throughout many years of marriage, finally agreed to be baptized after he broke his back in an automobile accident and his survival seemed to be in doubt. Ozzie did recover, and his wife took great pleasure in reminding him that baptism wasn't something you could undo. Of all the Jacobys, only my obdurate grandmother continued to resist her daughter's pleas that she convert to Catholicism. From time to time, Aunt Edith would declare, "We must always remember that Our Lord was born a Jew" -- an admonition that struck me as an utterly mad non sequitur when I was a child. Why should I care that Our Lord was born a Jew?

In my father's family, two and two never made four -- whether the subject was something as complicated as religion or as straightforward as a cause and date of death. Dad believed his father had died of a stroke. When I was in my twenties, Aunt Edith told me her father had expired of a heart attack after being run over by a car -- the first of her many versions of the end of the paterfamilias. Still later, she told me he had died of syphilis as well as of a failing heart (something Ozzie agreed was a distinct possibility, if not a certainty).


My grandmother's funeral was one of the few occasions that brought my father, aunt, and uncle together -- at least for a half hour at the grave site. And Aunt Edith got her wish: my grandmother died a nominal Catholic, though she was already suffering from senile dementia when she agreed (or so it was said) to be baptized in the nursing home where she spent her last years. Her funeral Mass was held in St. Christopher's Church, where the Faller family had long been parishioners, and her eulogy was delivered by a priest who obviously never knew her. "Mrs. Jacoby was a woman of great charity and culture," he declared. "Culture, yes," whispered Ozzie, who had announced his arrival, en route from his home in Dallas to a bridge tournament in Paris, by propping his portable typewriter directly in front of the coffin in a manner suggestive of a pharaonic offering intended to accompany Mother into the afterworld. "Don't you think Mother would rather have a lock of your hair?" asked my father. Ozzie explained that he needed to turn out one of his newspaper columns before taking off for Paris, and he didn't want to forget the typewriter. "Take that thing out to the vestibule," Aunt Edith hissed. "You know how Mother hated lateness." Dies irae.

In the cemetery, Edith Sondheim Jacoby was laid to rest in Uncle Ted's family plot, where she became the lone Jacoby under a headstone inscribed with the names and dates of countless Fallers, Doughertys, and Keegans. As we drove away after the burial ceremony, my father turned to me and said in a bleak and unfamiliar voice, "She never really loved me, and now she never will." I asked him whether he would mind if I tried to discover more about his family's shuttered past. "Even if I did, I couldn't stop you," he replied, neatly sidestepping the question. As he put me on the plane for Washington, his last words were, "I hope you're not going to become too obsessed with this Jewish business."

Copyright © 2000 by Susan Jacoby

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  • Posted April 27, 2013

    Jacoby is insightful as always. This is a fascinating look at f

    Jacoby is insightful as always. This is a fascinating look at families, assimilation, religion and belonging from the perspective of a daughter and of a journalist. It is also an interesting glimpse into academic institutions and their policies of inclusion/exclusion in the early and middle years of the 20th century. Fascinating.

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