David Laskin is the author of The Children’s Blizzard, which won the Washington State Book Award and Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award for nonfiction. The author of several other works of nonfiction, Laskin writes for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He and his wife, the parents of three grown daughters, live in Seattle.
Excerpt from book:
**This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.**
He sat at the Torah and at God’s service in holiness and purity, wielding the scribe’s pen and fashioning crowns for his Creator.
—S. Y. AGNON, “THE TALE OF THE SCRIBE” (1919)
Shimon Dov HaKohen was one of God’s secretaries, a scribe who laid down the law stroke by black stroke on the scraped, sanded hides of animals. The son of a scribe, the father and grandfather of scribes, Shimon Dov was a member of the Jewish priestly caste that traces its ancestry (through the male line) back to Moses’ brother Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites. The biblical Ezra also stood in this line—“Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven.” Ezra HaKohen, HaSofer—Ezra the priest, the scribe—was therefore Shimon Dov’s spiritual father and very possibly his blood ancestor as well, since science and scripture eerily concur that the Kohain DNA has remained intact all the way back to Aaron. It sounds as fantastic as a letterless shepherd discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls in a desert cave while the ash and radiation of the Second World War still circled the globe, but there is an unbroken strand of genes and tradition that connects Aaron, shoulder to shoulder with Moses, asking Pharaoh to “let my people go,” to Ezra weeping and tearing his garments before the fallen Jews of Jerusalem to gentle-eyed, white-bearded Shimon Dov inking his parchment by the window of a small wooden house in a market town at the fringe of the Russian Empire.
Shimon Dov, for all his august lineage, was a humble, ordinary man— learned, devout, meticulous, good to his diminutive wife, openhanded with their six children, slow to kindle with either anger or joy. But when he sat down at his table in the town of Volozhin, closed his eyes to pray for perfection, and took up his quill pen, Shimon Dov glowed with God’s radiance. His forked beard was so long that it brushed the soft surface of the parchment when he bent his head to write. Ever at hand were a turkey quill and a pot of special ink, always black. And a book, The Book, open to the page where he had left off. “All day he sat in his house communing with his soul in solitude, completely within the frame of the Torah,” novelist S. Y. Agnon wrote of a scribe at work. “He sat secluded and isolated and no one was with him except His Name, may He be blessed. . . . From morning to evening the quill wrote on the parchment and beautiful black letters glistened and alighted on the parchment as birds upon the snow on the Sabbath when the Song of Moses is read.” “You must never, ever touch anything,” Shimon Dov’s children and grandchildren whispered to one another as quill scratched parchment and the beautiful sacred Hebrew calligraphy spread across the scroll from right to left in dense, orderly lines. Precisely 304,805 letters composed the 79,847 Hebrew words of the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, and Shimon Dov knew every stroke as intimately as a tailor knows his thread or a soldier his gun.
Praise for The Family:
“The Family is as rich and poignant as any novel, only all true and impeccably researched.”—Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of In the Garden of the Beasts
“A true triumph of historical storytelling…. David Laskin is a magical searcher into the past….His generations of Cohens could be your Johansens, Smiths, Lopezes, Schmidts, O’Houlihans, even my Scottish peasant forebears….. The Family will touch you, heart and soul.”—Ivan Doig, National Book Award finalist for This House of Sky
“I read The Family without stopping, except sometimes to weep (and occasionally to chuckle). Through the stories of members of David Laskin’s large, dispersing family, history sharpens into individual lives and deaths and losses and becomes personal and vivid and tragic.”—Edith Pearlman, National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Book Award finalist for Binocular Vision
“David Laskin’s The Family is a vivid, utterly compelling exploration of the forces that have shaped modern history. We often view these forces— capitalism, fascism, mass migration, assimilation, and the like—only from a distance, as vast, impersonal abstractions. But in Laskin's magnificent book we see them in the intimate details of actual lives, deftly followed through a tangle of triumph, accommodation, and often unbearable suffering. An extraordinary achievement.”—Stephen Greenblatt, New York Times bestselling author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“I was utterly entranced by David Laskin’s The Family. Tracing three strands of his fascinating ancestry, Laskin takes us on an epic journey deep into the heart and soul of the twentieth century. The story is haunting, heartfelt, and deeply moving. And in the end—as Laskin eloquently points out in a beautiful, almost mystical, epilogue—his telling of it weaves another bright silver thread into the fabric that binds all of us together.”—Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat
“‘Fate and chance and character make and break every generation,’” David Laskin tells us in this
personal, highly moving history of his family. At once heartbreaking and gloriously triumphant, it’s finally a story of love. Yes, a big unyielding, often rollicking and humorous history of one generation’s prevailing love for the next. A wonderful achievement. “—Philip Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Failure
"David Laskin's The Family is an elegantly evocative meditation on the Jewish diaspora of the twentieth century. Deeply emotional at times, The Family is both harrowing and uplifting. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite.
“What a story! Scholars and scribes, Zionists and revolutionaries, Holocaust martyrs and the inventors of the Maidenform bra all march through these pages. The Family is the twentieth-century history of the Jews writ small.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University
“A banquet of Jewish history, as lived by one exceptional American family, across four generations and on three continents, the worst things endured and the best things relished.”—Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
“An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album….Were this fiction, it would read much like the novels of Leon U