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Escape from the oldest hatred

In Rachel Cockerell’s Melting Point, the forgotten story of America’s Jewish homeland sheds light on the tragedies of the present.

By Erica Wagner

Your Great-Uncle Harry built Fort Worth: that’s the story I was raised on. We were New York Jews, unobservant, but gathering at my grandmother’s every Friday nonetheless, my grandfather with a glass of Manischewitz in his hand. Family stories came in fragments. My great-uncle was Harry Friedman, my grandfather’s older brother; my grandfather had changed his last name to Franklin, because he knew he’d do better on Wall Street if he didn’t have a Jewish name. Another brother took the last name Donald, which can make family history tricky to track down. Anyway, who wants to think about the past? Time to move on, move forward. Change your name and don’t look back.

Yet I always wondered: why Texas? Harry and his brothers had been born in Chattanooga, Tennessee: Harry in 1887 and my grandfather in 1893. The name “Tennessee” had less glamour than Texas, so my curiosity, in those days, didn’t stretch back beyond the Lone Star State. As to Harry being entirely responsible for the construction of Fort Worth – he was a successful general contractor, and his work (such as the lovely art deco Sinclair Building, now a fine hotel) still stands. His son, Bayard, was eventually mayor of the city; he and his wife would host JFK’s final breakfast before the president drove off to Dallas on that November morning in 1963. All this I know thanks to Google, not to anything any family member told me on those Friday nights.

The history of Rachel Cockerell’s family was hidden too when she began to consider it. Melting Point describes, in part, her family’s role in the search for a Jewish homeland following the pogroms in the Russian empire and beyond from the 1820s onward. East Africa, modern-day Libya, Texas – all were considered; Palestine itself seemed an unattainable dream. Yet Cockerell thought at first simply to tell the story of her grandmother and her great-aunt, who raised their children together in a big old Edwardian house in north London. Their father, David Jochelmann, had bought the house when the family arrived from Kyiv at the beginning of the First World War. “My dad, his siblings and his cousins had always maintained that David Jochelmann was a businessman, involved somehow in stocks and shares.” They knew he’d removed the extra “n” from his name, to sound less German. That was it.

So she googled him: and to her surprise, a name she’d never heard before kept coming up in connection with his: Galveston. Her great-grandfather, as it turned out, was instrumental in a movement to bring Jews from Russia to Texas in the early 20th century – 10,000 Jews settled there in the end. For me, just reading the blurb of Cockerell’s book gave a clue as to why Harry Friedman might have left Tennessee for Texas: there was already a community there to welcome him. “None of my family knew about this: at some point the story of the Galveston Plan, and my great-grandfather’s role in it, was lost down the generations.” She quotes WG Sebald: “I think how little we can hold in mind,” he wrote in his novel Austerlitz, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself.”

At the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th, the Zionist movement began in earnest, spearheaded by men such as Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist who convened the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897; the British writer Israel Zangwill – author of the play Children of the Ghetto (1892) – was Herzl’s comrade in the effort. To return to Palestine seemed impossible: and to read this book, which its author of course has been working on for years, in this moment of sorrow and destruction makes that sense of impossibility all the more striking. “Let us hear no more… of Palestine as a field for our emigration,” Zangwill wrote in 1907. “Unless you mean Palestine, USA. For Texas possesses a place called Palestine, quite near to Galveston, with two Jewish families and one synagogue between them, and to this Palestine we shall cheerfully conduct the emigration.” 

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Cockrell’s book is unusual. In the first place, her grandfather wrote nothing about his own life; a drawback. She discovered that he had been married before he met her great-grandmother: he and his first wife had lived in Vilnius, Lithuania; their youngest son, Emmanuel, emigrated to America in 1912 and became a playwright, founding an important experimental theatre in New York in the 1920s.

She uses a technique inspired by George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Booker Prize in 2017: like Saunders, she lays out historical text (contemporary newspaper articles, for instance) unframed and uninterpreted, allowing the times to speak for themselves. As her tale moves from the Zionists’ quest for a place where the Jewish people might find a permanent home, to the raucous artistic life of 1920s New York, to the recollections of members of her own family about what life was like in that north London house, the voices gather and build.

It is an eclectic, fascinating, yet not always satisfactory technique. The lack of authorial interpretation allows the reader, particularly in the first and second sections of the book, to become fully immersed in the times. Yet sometimes one wishes for more context, however challenging it would be to give it. It’s an interesting question as to whether authors can now assume that since we all have smartphones in our pockets we can simply look up “Shmarya Levin” and go from there. The book is vivid when accounts from all over the world show different perspectives on what became known as the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, when Jews in what is now Moldova were murdered and their houses destroyed after reports that a Christian boy’s blood was to be used in preparing Passover matzah – the blood libel, the “old, old hatred” as Herzl called it. This pogrom is widely seen as the most defining act of violence against the Jews before the Holocaust.

And when in 1902 Herzl visits the colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, “the famous master of England”, as he calls him, the British attitude to the situation of the Jews, and the British position in the world, is shockingly revealed. “The most striking thing about the interview was that he didn’t have a very detailed knowledge of British possessions which undoubtedly are at his command now. It was like a big junk shop whose manager isn’t quite sure where some unusual artefact is in the stockroom. I need a place for the Jewish people to assemble. He’s going to take a look and see if England happens to have something like that in stock.”

As Israel pounds Gaza to rubble, we live with the legacy of this attitude to this day. Cockerell shows, doesn’t tell, and the reader is left to consider how no family’s story can be disentangled from history’s complex web.

Erica Wagner’s books include “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Melting Point: Family, Memory and the Search for a Promised Land
Rachel Cockerell
Wildfire, 416pp, £25

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[See also: The return of the “longest hatred”]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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