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The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century Hardcover – October 15, 2013

4.5 out of 5 stars 177 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2013: Every writer, established or aspiring, has at one time or another looked around and decided, “My life would make a great book.” Some of them are sadly mistaken. But journalist David Laskin’s life--or rather that of his forbears, three generations of a Russian Jewish family originally named HaKoen--has made a fantastic book. Despite its name, The Family is not about the Mafia, or the Mansons, but really about one particular, ordinary/extraordinary twentieth century shtetl clan. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be fascinated by the six children of a Torah scribe on the western fringe of the Russian empire; they, like people everywhere, were buffeted by political and social and economic upheavals of their times. One branch of the family ended up in America as the prosperous founders of Maidenform lingerie; another repatriated to Israel; the third suffered the Holocaust. While I tended to favor the stories about the American branch (how can you not love a 4’ 11” Russian revolutionary, who, with her husband Wolf, invented the brassiere in 1924 and got filthy rich in ladies underwear in the depression?), the other HaKoens-turned-Cohens provided plenty of educational entertainment as well. You think you know about the Russian revolution? Try seeing it through Laskin’s ancestors’ eyes. Likewise, WWII and Zionism. This is a great, big-hearted book about how time and place modifies family, whatever or wherever its roots. --Sara Nelson

From Publishers Weekly

Frequent newspaper contributor Laskin's relatives provide ample material for a gripping epic narrative, beginning in 1875 and spanning over a century. This readable and absorbing book looks at the experiences of Jews—in this case all members of Laskin's family—finding a fresh start in the United States, of those working to form a new country in Palestine, and of those trapped in Nazi-controlled Europe. His American ancestors' experiences were highlighted by his great-aunt, Itel, who founded the Maidenform Bra Company in 1922. And that quintessential American success story of a hard-working immigrant who makes good contrasts well with the account of her cousin Chaim's life in Palestine around the same time—he found disillusionment there, rather than a land of milk and honey. The sections dealing with the grim toll that the Holocaust took on the family don't provide new insights into the Nazis' inhumanity; the horrors of the time gain more impact when conveyed through the stories of individual lives. Laskin (The Children's Blizzard) makes the most of the rich array of stories his research unearthed. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim, Williams, and Bloom Literary Agency. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st Printing edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067002547X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025473
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (177 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,617 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How does a family survive and grow in the midst of bad times? If members are struck down by cudgels, fire, poison gas, and guns can the family tree continue to blossom? Author David Laskin, in his new book, "The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century", takes a family - his own extended one - from the shtetels of what is today's Belarus to the United States and Israel. But "three" journeys? That third "journey" ended in the killing pits at Ponar and the ghetto at Vilna and a fire pit at Klooga in Estonia.

David Laskin's family on his mother's side began in the shtetel of Rakov and the yeshiva center of Volozhin, both in current-day Belarus. Their family name was Kagan or Kaganovich, which is a derivative of the priestly name of "Cohen". Many of the men were scholars and torah scribes and the women either kept the house or made the coin. Hard times in then-Russia - pogroms and government suppression and economic failures - made the idea of emigrating to "der Goldene Medina" - the United States - a very attractive one. Several members of the family went to New York City in the early 1900's. Hard work and luck turned their lives into increasingly prosperous ones. By the 1920's one branch of the US family had found success in the wholesale metals business, which the other branch became "Maidenform", an early creator of bras and girdles. Remember the old ads, "I dreamed I rode a merry-go-round in my Maidenform bra" or some-such? Well, they were the creation of Itel Kagan Rosenthal who was a fiery socialist back in Rakov til she became a sterling capitalist here in the US.
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Format: Hardcover
The family's story begins in 1835 on the western edge of Russia in the village of Volozhin, where Shimon Dov HaKohen, author David Laskin’s great-great grandfather, was born. Shimon Dov, a Torah scribe, and his wife Beyle raised six children, living a quiet life in their pious community. Like parents everywhere, Shimon Dov and Beyle hoped their offspring would stay nearby and lead the same quiet lives they had chosen.

THE FAMILY follows several generations of that Russian Jewish family through decades of births, marriages and deaths. Each person born in each generation has his own ideas, hopes and dreams. And each must work and search to find the life to which he believes he wants. Rather than trace each generation, this review will trace the three main paths.

One popular path some descendants took was entrepreneurship. Those folks settled in America and, through much hard work and sacrifice, succeeded in business beyond their wildest dreams. The author’s aunt Itel ran a very successful dressmaking business. When the flapper look became popular, she branched out into the bra business and enjoyed great success as the founder of Maidenform Bra Company. Three of Itel's brothers --- Harry, Sam and Hyman --- settled in the Lower East Side of New York, where they operated a wholesale business that also thrived.

A second path led to the Holy Land for family members who became Zionist pioneers. The first to settle in the Holy Land was Chaim in 1924. He joined a moshav, a cooperative farming village that gave him more autonomy than he would have living on a kibbutz. Life was hard, working the arid land and dealing with complicated problems of who owned the Land. Sonia, a cousin of Chaim's, left home in 1932 with four friends.
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Format: Hardcover
As Mr. Laskin has done in his previous books, he has crafted a moving and thoughtful story, which reveals his deep passion for his subject, his brilliant research, and his beautiful writing. The Family is impossible to put down, though at times incredibly painful to read because of the horrors he describes. But despite those horrors, Laskin leaves the reader with hope, from the resilience of his family. We are fortunate that such a gifted writer shared his story of his family. I suspect that each person who reads The Family will learn a bit more not only about the world of Mr. Laskin's family but gain insights about one's own family.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This meticulously researched and beautifully written book chronicles an amazing family whose experience spans the history of the 20th century. It reads like a novel and I got so drawn into it that I had to keep reminding myself that this was all true. It is an epic story of triumph and tragedy that anyone could relate to and enjoy.

The story is of a Russian Jewish family but, as another reviewer said, you don't have to be Jewish to love this book. It makes me want to read other family histories from other religious backgrounds and from other countries. I just hope they will be as well written as this one.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What an interesting book! To follow generations of a Jewish family and learn of their customs, traditions and heartbreaks was quite a learning experience. I never got bored reading this book and hope others enjoy it as much as I did.
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Well researched and well told. I felt as though I was reading about the missing details of my own family that had gone through many similar experiences - including a grandmother who picked up and left Poland for Palestine as a teen in the 1930s, relatives who did not make it out of europe bef WWII as well as ancestors who arrived in the US from Russia as children in the first decade of the twentieth century.

the writer did an excellent job researching the historical details of Volozhin, Rakov and Vilna and incorporated those details into the story.
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