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November 29, 1985 - Image 50

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-11-29

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.



50 Friday, November 29, 1985 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

PROFILE

PLAIN GRANDMA

Observer Of The Family Tree

We Love You

Continued from Page 48

SAUL, HARVEY, MARTI, JERRY, ROCHELLE
AIMEE, WENDY, RONNA, LISA, AARON, LUCKY

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us," says Birmingham, himself
the father of three and now di-
vorced.
Their appeal notwithstanding,
Birmingham resisted for a long
time his publisher's urgings that
he should write a book about
these families, partly because
many thought a book about
wealthy Jews would be "in-
flammatory" and would "fan the
flame of anti-Semitism."
Eventually, however,
encouraged by Dorothy Lehman
Bernhard and increasingly im-
pressed by what his research re-
vealed about "how these young
men made it out of the cocoon of
poverty into the mainstream,"
and by their "enormous and un-
sung" philanthropic contribu-
tions, he decided "It was time
for someone like myself to do a
little boasting for Jacob Schiff
and men like him."
Our Crowd's success surprised
everyone, but it was not its
popularity but a mistake in the
text, says Birmingham, which
led to the writing of The
Grandees, the story of the
Sephardic- immigrants from
Spain and Portugal.
"I referred to Shearith Isarel,
which is the oldest Jewish house
of worship in the United States,
as- a temple," he explains. "I got
several polite letters from the
members ... informing me that
my terminology was incorrect,
that an Orthodox synagogue
should not be referred to as a
temple. The correspondence led
m _ e to a whole new story."
"I really hadn't set out to
write a Jewish trilogy," says
Birmingham, "But after the first
two books, people began to ask
me, 'when are you going to
write about the rest of us?' "
The hard-cover edition of his
latest book, written in answer to
that question, was published
last September and stayed three
months on the best-seller list. It
was, Birmingham says, the most
difficult, but in many ways the
most interesting book to write.
The sheer number of Eastern
European immigrants — "We're
talking about three million
people who arrived on these
shores in a short number of
years and poured into the Lower
East Side" — presented prob-
lems for research, but the
colorful, voluble characters and
their rapid rise in the interest-

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ing fields of entertainment,
fashion, gambling and bootleg-
ging, fakinated Birmingham.
Sam Goldwyn — who swam
from Poland to Germany and
begged in England to raise the
$5 passabe money to America,
Helena Rubinstein, David Sar-
noff and Sam Bronfman of Sea-
gram's are among the "gamblers
in low-investment, high-risk en-
terprises" whose fortunes Bir-
mingham chronicles. So is
Meyer Lansky, Birmingham's
bootlegging, disreputable favo-
rite, because "he was accused by
the federal government of all
sorts of awful things, but they
were never able to make any of
it stick."
Birmingham was intrigued by
the effect of money on char-
acters like Sam Goldwyn, who
were, he says "almost embarras-
sed by the fact that they were
rich," believing that "to be a
poor and learned scholar was a
much higher calling than to be
a mogul." He was also glad to be
able to explore more fully in
this book the social, not neces-
sarily financial, success of a
"mass migration of millions of
people who have managed to be-
come, within the lifespan of a
single generation, an essential
part of our social fabric."
Family records, books and
back issues of Jewish newspap-
ers like the Tageblatt are prime
sources for Birmingham's re-
search. But most of what makes
his books so popular, comes from

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Stephen Birmingham:
Alternating novels and
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Pontiac

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