February 14, 2011
FAMILY TRADITION AND FAMILY DISCONNECTIONS
De Waal, Edmund, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) ("I've been reading the seventeen novels of Joseph Roth, the Austrian Jewish novelist, some set in Vienna during the last years of the Hapsburg Empire. . . ." The lives of my family in Vienna were refracted into books, just like Charles in Proust's Paris. The dislike of the Ephrussi keeps turning up in novels." "I stumble. I realize that I do not understand what it means to be part of an assimilated, acculturated Jewish family. I simply don't understand. I know what they didn't do: they never went to synagogue, but their births and marriages are recorded here by the Rabbinate. I know that they paid their dues to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the IKA, gave money to Jewish charities. I've been to see Joachim and Ignace's mausoleum in the Jewish section of the cemetery, and worried about its broken cast-iron gate and whether I should pay to get it fixed. Zionism didn't seem to hold many attractions for them. I remember those rude comments from Herzl when he wrote to them for donations and got brushed off. The Ephrussi, speculators. I wonder whether it was plain embarrassment at the fervent Jewishness of the enterprise and not wanting to attract attention to themselves. Or whether it was a symptom of their confidence in their new homeland here on Zionstrausse, or on the rue de Monceau. They simply didn't see why others needed another Zion." "Does assimilation mean that they never came up against naked prejudice? Does it mean that you understood where the limits of your social world were and you stuck to them? There is a Jockey Club in Vienna, as in Paris, and Viktor was a member, but Jews weren't allowed to hold office. Did this matter to him in the slightest? It was understood that married Gentile women never visited Jewish households never came to leave a card, never visited on one of the interminable afternoons. Vienna meant that only Gentile bachelors, Count Mensdorff, Count Lubienskki, the young Prince of Montenuovo, left cards and were then invited. Once married they never came, no matter how good the dinner were, or how pretty the hostess. Did this matter at all? These seem such gossamer threads of rudeness." Id. at 151-152. From the bookjacket: "The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who 'burned like a comet' in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbook."  "The netsuke--drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers--were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. . . ."  "In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original mediation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.").