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Review of "Melting Point" by Rachel Cockerell: The Search for a Place to Call Home.
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Review of “Melting Point” by Rachel Cockerell: The Search for a Place to Call Home.

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When Rachel Cockerell began writing a book about her family, she was particularly interested in her grandmother Fanny and great aunt Sonia. These two women raised seven children together in a large, Edwardian house in north London during the 1940s. Rachel initially planned to only mention their father, David Jochelmann, briefly in a few sentences. He had brought the family from Kyiv to London at the beginning of World War I and lived with them until his death in 1941. However, further research revealed an intriguing backstory about David Jochelmann – a forgotten project that involved around 10,000 Russian Jews immigrating to Texas between 1907 and 1914. Despite being remembered by his family as a “businessman,” David Jochelmann had a much more complex and interesting history.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl, a journalist from Vienna, introduced the concept of political Zionism through the publication of his book, The Jewish State. Following a series of violent attacks on Jews in the Russian empire, many began to question their future there and the Zionist movement gained momentum. However, there was disagreement within the movement over where a Jewish homeland should be established. While some advocated for Palestine as the only viable option, others searched for potential territories around the world, including Angola and Australia, to create temporary settlements. This group, known as “territorialists,” was led by Israel Zangwill, a renowned British writer and playwright.

In 1906, he became convinced that there was no place that could accommodate the anticipated 200,000 Jewish emigrants from Russia. Although many desired to go to the United States, he expressed to an audience that continuously sending immigrants to New York would eventually lead to overcrowding. Instead, he proposed redirecting them to the port of Galveston in Texas, where they could establish new homes in the expansive American West. Jochelmann was responsible for managing the Russian side of the operation.

Regrettably, there are limited mentions of him in historical records and he did not leave any written accounts. In the initial version of her book, Cockerell provided a typical explanation, incorporating her personal perspective through primary sources. However, upon reviewing it, she became annoyed with her own interruptions, which often disrupted the flow of the story. As a result, she made the daring choice to allow the individuals from that era to speak for themselves, using only excerpts from articles, speeches, memoirs, and letters.

The book “Melting Point” begins by showcasing modern responses to the influential Herzl and Zangwill, who were both prominent figures in their time. It contains moving personal accounts of the devastating Kishinev pogrom in 1903, as well as conflicting viewpoints at various tense Zionist conferences. It also explores the initial interactions between Texans and Russian Jewish immigrants, and how the immigrants viewed their new home in Texas. One individual was initially excited about San Antonio, which they had always heard described as a “golden land”, but soon became disappointed by the unkempt streets and run-down shacks made of boards and rusted tin.

Rachel Cockerell.View image in fullscreen

Cockerell has an unerring eye for selecting, editing and juxtaposing the most revealing quotations. So the result feels deeply immersive and dramatic. One gets a thrilling sense of history unfolding in real time, of people confused and flailing about in response to immediate events without any sense of what we know now.

Zangwill was the first to introduce the concept of the United States as a “melting pot” in his play with the same title. The history of Zionism also delves into matters of identity, assimilation, and the definition of “home,” which are sadly still relevant today. The latter portion of this book focuses on Jochelmann’s offspring and revisits these themes, albeit to a lesser degree.

The eldest child from his initial marriage pursued a career as a progressive playwright in America, while his two daughters resided together in a London home. From their offspring, Cockerell gathered vivid and nostalgic memories.

Fanny and Sonia had different abilities and personalities, but worked so well together that they signed their letters as “FanSon”. They established a cozy, disorganized, and artistic household for their families at the end of my street in Willesden Green. Fanny stands out as a charming character, always misplacing her children, getting into car accidents, substituting potatoes for flour in a chocolate pudding, or saving a Christmas pudding that had exploded from a neglected pressure cooker.

However, even in this charmingly disorganized world, there were political divisions present. Sonia, who was married to a fellow Russian Jew, was strongly devoted to Zionist causes. On the other hand, Fanny’s husband was a typical Englishman who wore a bowler hat to Passover meals. It was inevitable that Sonia and her family would eventually move to Israel in the 1950s, causing the once close-knit family to split along two very different paths. According to Cockerell, these paths have continued to drift apart over time. Despite being in his 80s now, Michael (Fanny’s son and Cockerell’s father) still deeply mourns the loss of a united family. His words serve as a poignant conclusion to an incredibly vivid and captivating family history.

Source: theguardian.com