Something Old, Something New
Literary scholar Elisa New focuses on the world of her forebears
Elisa New, a literature professor at Harvard, never set out to become a Jewish memoirist. Best known, in academic circles at least, as the author of two highly regarded volumes on American poetry, she began her latest book, Jacob’s Cane, a decade ago expecting to write a scholarly history of prosperous, emancipated Jewish merchants who emigrated not from the shtetls of Eastern Europe but from the cosmopolitan ports of the Baltic coast, and who replicated their success in America—a story that would only incidentally include the journey her own forebears made from Lithuania to Baltimore.
As she worked, though, New found herself playing a part in an entirely different chapter of the American Jewish story—as the girlfriend and then wife of Larry Summers, Harvard’s first Jewish president, who is now Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser. “Wedging a wedding canopy into this bastion of WASP gentility might turn out to be my greatest contribution to Jewish civilization,” New wrote of their wedding ceremony at Elmwood, Harvard’s official presidents’ residence, held just 65 years after Summers’ uncle, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, was denied tenure at the university because he was Jewish.
The result of what people who know New describe as the dramatic “scene changes” in her personal life—from her quiet academic’s existence in Brookline to being a political wife, of a sort—is a book that, despite glancing past the details of Summers’ sometimes controversial and highly public career, and of her own adult life, is billed as “a memoir in five generations.” It is the intricately detailed tale of how her Lithuanian great-grandfather Jacob Levy became a successful textile manufacturer in Maryland, and how his own sons wound up running the storied Carreras tobacco company in London. “For a long time I wanted to tell the story of these three places, and for a long time I didn’t understand that the only thing that connected them was my family,” New explained over coffee one recent morning in New York as she passed through on her way to join Summers in Washington for the weekend. “So I feel like I’ve done something meaningful for my family, and as a Jew.”
Jacob’s Cane is named for a walking stick embossed with the cities inhabited by the Levy brothers on their way out of Lithuania, which an elderly cousin casually offered to unearth from a closet for New’s inspection in 1998, inspiring her to start looking into the family’s history and to make a “roots trip” to Eastern Europe the next year. But the project has its origins in a paper New wrote as a freshman at Brandeis for a class on the history of the family. Armed with a tape recorder, New asked her three great-aunts to tell her the story of how the family had worked its way up from New York’s tenements into genteel, white-glove Maryland society. “They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no, honey! New York was where we went to have dinnah—we weren’t just anyone! We were from Bal-tee-mewer,’” New, now 51, said, imitating the high-pitched singsong cadences of an earlier generation. “It was confusing, because I had this idea that everyone came from the shtetl and went to New York. I thought we were aberrant Jews.”
It turned out that, in fact, they weren’t. Jacob Levy was born in 1867 in the commercial town of Shavli, outside Riga, part of the first generation of completely emancipated European Jews. As a young man, he followed his older brother, Paul, to Riga, and then accepted an invitation from Paul’s girlfriend’s brother, Bernhard Baron, to join his fledgling tobacco company in Baltimore, which Baron had started after starting as a cigar-roller on New York’s Lower East Side. Like many Jews from the trading towns of the Baltics, all three men grew up familiar with the world of international commerce and were part of the emigration of entrepreneurial Jews to as far afield as Shanghai and the Amazon. And, as it happened, there was a good backstory, too: New’s great-uncles betrayed her great-grandfather by following the family patron, Baron, to London and adopting his name to become heirs to his sizeable fortune, which they then squandered. And, of course, there was a branch of the family that stayed behind in Lithuania, who were liquidated by the Nazis—except for one cousin, Riva, whom New tracked down in Israel through the Yad Vashem archive.
New, ever the scholar, spent years poring over turn-of-the-century credit ratings reports and city directories from Baltimore to New Haven amassing a trove of loose clippings and items, all correlated with footnotes and citations intended to underpin a detached documentation of those German-speaking Jews who established themselves in bourgeois, turn-of-the-century East Coast society. “For my whole career I’ve had a double life—I started out as a poetry scholar who had an interest in things Jewish,” New explained. “I’m attracted to the austerity and coolness of Protestantism but I love the hotness and rowdiness and anxiety and urbanism of Jewish writing.” As a graduate student, she published papers on the Jewish poet Delmore Schwartz and the links between classic Midrash and deconstructionist literary theory, and while her professional reputation was made on her work linking the work of poets like Emerson to their Protestant backgrounds, she also teaches undergraduate classes on American Jewish literature, from Emma Lazarus to Philip Roth, whom she describes as “the greatest living American writer.”
As it happens, it was Roth’s close friend—and New’s book editor—Charlotte Maurer who suggested refashioning the chronicle of Jewish traders into a family memoir. Growing up in Washington, where her father was a physicist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and her mother worked as a party planner, New hated the pedantry of her Reform Hebrew school, but she was always fascinated by Jewish texts and traditions, and spent stints living in Israel after high school and as a doctoral student. She embarked on her research into the history of Jews in Shavli, Baltimore, and London as a family effort, taking her oldest daughter, Yael, along, first as a bat mitzvah present and later because Yael, having learned to speak Russian fluently, could act as an interpreter. (She now works for a Russian television channel in New York.) “For a long time I wanted to tell the story of these three places, and for a long time I didn’t understand that the only thing that connected them was my family,” New said. “It took a bunch of years before I realized that it was the story of my family, that Yael was in it, and not to think it was narcissistic.”
The book, as New’s Harvard colleague Louis Menand put it, “is a memoir only an academic could have written,” full of detailed archival references and organized around the idea of the fancy walking stick as a metaphor for the journey the Levy family made. “It’s really what an English professor would produce if you told her to write a memoir,” Menand said.
It’s also a book that, New says, she could not have written without finding “general happiness and serenity” in her marriage with Summers, with whom she rarely appears in public, despite her regular commutes down to Washington. “His thing is not my thing, and my thing is not his thing,” explained New, who contrasted her penchant for unfolding complicated ideas through language with his economist’s “bottom-line, what-is-the-point” focus. “There is a joy in having a spouse who regards what you do with bemusement.”