Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67)
AN HOMAGE IS DEFINED AS “a show of respect to someone or something.” In the feudal age, it was a declaration of fealty. Julie Gilgoff has written an homage, or tribute, to her grandfather, Max Gilgoff, and her father, Henry Gilgoff. The title makes reference to Max but the dedication is to Henry, “who continues to bring inspiration to those who loved him.”
Research for the book occurred primarily after the death of Henry on July 30, 2006, of amyloidosis, which was just three days after Julie, a free-lance writer, returned from a research trip to Argentina.
The family had always been very secretive regarding her grandfather Max’s life and work. This book chronicles her effort to uncover the truth about Max’s teaching career, his work as an American Labor Party activist in New York City, his role as civil rights advocate, and his efforts to defend himself against McCarthy Era charges of being a Communist Party member whose goal was to recruit his students into the party and to bring about the downfall of “Capitalism.” Hounded by a school board and superintendent charged with eliminating “disloyalty” among its teachers, Max died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1952. His teaching colleague and good friend, Terry Rosenbaum, was fired in 1954. Neither was a member of the Communist Party.
Henry suffered, he confessed, from never knowing whether Max truly loved him and because he felt that he could never match the “public hero” status his father attained by calling for an investigation of a police officer who, unprovoked, shot and killed an unarmed African American resident. Yet Henry was an award-winning, path-breaking consumer affairs columnist for Newsday, a man with broad intellectual interests and a genuine personal regard for the welfare of everyone he met.
To understand the character of these two men as well as the women who populate her family tree, Julie Gilgoff attempts to understand them within the context of the Cold War, as complex psychological studies, as political activists, as fathers and husbands, and as Jews. She is alarmed that her own generation does not care about the unjust charges of disloyalty which were visited upon African American political activists and upon Jews, Japanese Americans, and Native Americans who challenged the status quo because of their demand for equal treatment and due process, or just because they were who they were. She fears that the Post 9/11 period ushered in a new tsunami called racial profiling and that her cohort group will be found wanting in its defense of hard-won civil rights and equality before the law.
To understand Max, Henry, her family’s history, and herself, Julie searches for information from “Red Diaper Babies” such as Susan Pearlstein, whose father was a Communist Party member; Robert Meeropol, whose parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of espionage and sharing atomic and military secrets with Russia and executed in 1953; and Tony Kahn, Public Radio International’s host of The World, and son of a blacklisted writer in Hollywood who moved to Mexico and wrote successfully under an alias. Each shares emotion-packed stories and advice. Robert Meeropol, for example, says that despite his being an attorney and one of the 10 most informed experts on “the Rosenbergs,” he is always asked about his “feelings” about his parents and never for his “opinion” of their case and guilt or innocence. Julie may suffer likewise: a loving granddaughter cannot be an expert on Cold War fears and the McCarthy Era. Meeropol, however, uses “constructive revenge” as president of the Rosenberg Fund for Children to assist the children of parents under interrogation or in prison for their political activism; he has dispensed $3 million in aid thus far.
In Chapter 7 of A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage, Julie examines “Cultural Judaism” and asks why the Jewish minority — some religious, some secular — was disproportionately persecuted during the McCarthy era. She does not answer the question in a direct way but instead turns to those she interviewed to examine their diverse experience of Jewishness. Lawrence Bush (editor of Jewish Currents, and author of Bessie, about his grandmother) states that about 95% of the Communists in the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties were Jewish. Many Europeanized Jews came to the US and became labor organizers. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was told in Russia in 1903 that “while the Jews formed only seven million out of a total population of 136 million, the majority of the revolutionary party members were Jewish.” Why? Herzl was told it was a Jewish reaction to being overly oppressed and discriminated against in Russia.
In Chapter 8, “Activism and Gender Roles,” Julie essentially turns from the history of Max and Henry to that of the women in her family: how they persevered during the difficult times when jobs were normally given to men, and women were expected to raise the children, keep the house clean, cook, and play a secondary social and political role in the community. Here, Julie again is very open in reporting family events and opinions that are sometimes brutal and shocking.
The final chapter paints a painful but loving picture of her dying father, kind and gentle still at the end of his life, wanting to know what Julie learned in Argentina. Henry and Julie’s mother, Alice, were Peace Corps Volunteers in Truk (Micronesia 1967–69), Julie was one in Nicaragua. As Henry once said, smiling through the steam rising from his soup, “I got my borscht, I got my daughter. What can be better?”
A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage opens with a quotation from Edward R. Murrow which reads in part,
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
This homage could be the starting point, notes, for a longer and more comprehensive look at the discredited late-20th century history of progressivism. The recently deceased European historian Tony Judt wrote in one of his final books, Ill Fares the Land, that
. . . social democracy is a hard sell in the United States. One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties — and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want.
If she is willing to increase the depth and breadth of her research, Julie Gilgoff could help her generation, as Judt suggests, to find the language with which to discuss social policy in a way that may not unite us but it will not polarize us in the search for solutions. Judt laments that we have forgotten how to talk collectively, nationally about domestic and international affairs.
If, instead, she chooses to publish a second edition of the present book, I suggest the following:
- add a genealogical chart so that we can better understand your family history;
- add an index to make it easy for readers to look for events and people;
- footnote properly: the surname of a source does not precede the first name except in a bibliography where author’s names are alphabetized;
- add a bibliography;
- provide the full title, not a partial one, when you first cite it within the written text.
To order A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage, click on the book cover or the bold book title.
Robert E. Hamilton, Ph.D. is a consultant to medical and educational projects in Africa. His career includes university lectureships and as an outreach director for the Program of African Studies, University of Florida-Gainesville. He has also worked as communications director of a coal mining company, strategic planner for a law firm, development manager of a communications company, sales manager of a regional trucking company, stockbrocker, and director of an NGO with projects in India and Tanzania.