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Elisa New, author of Jacob's Cane, at the Pratt

Elisa New, author of Jacob's Cane, at the Pratt

The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Landaw was at the Enoch Pratt Free Library Thursday night to hear Elisa New talk about her book, "Jacob's Cane." Here's his report about the well-attended reading, which required extra chairs in the Poe Room:

In her book and her lecture, New, a professor of poetry at Harvard, traces her family's history from the Hanseatic city of Riga, in Latvia, to Baltimore, where her great-grandfather Jacob Levy built a major textile shrinking company, and to London. There, Levy's sons were recruited by his friend, later his enemy, Bernhard Baron, who invented, in Baltimore, safer cigar-making machinery, and built, in England, a "magnificent tobacco concern" that broke James Buchanan Duke's attempt to monopolize the industry.

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The Baron-Levy relationship was a strange one as New describes it. Baron and Levy were advocates of enlightenment and progress for Jews as well as gentiles, socialist inventors or leftist entrepreneurs, "a category I had not been aware existed." But Levy took Baron's recruitment of his sons, who took Baron's name, as a betrayal and cursed them in 1928, "May you never have sons." And, New says, none of them did.

While in Baltimore, New said in response to a question, one of her ancestors worshiped at Chizuk Amuno, then an Orthodox congregation, another at Temple Israel, but their "religion was really socialism." One of Jacob's sons said his father "ran a heck of a Passover seder," with excellent Hebrew, and stressing the "political" story of Exodus.

Talking about Baltimore's "protean" as opposed to "purist" Germanness in Jacob Levy and Bernhard Baron's day, she drew applause by quoting H.L. Mencken's memory of his time in a German-language school where Jews and Gentiles mixed without enmity, and where the Prussian professor occasionally called a disorderly class a "Judenschule," but used Yiddish slang without self-consciousness.

With "Jacob's Cane" finished, New says she's started a novel, delighted to find she "can make everything up." She says she "learned to think my way into the characters in a way that, as a professor of poetry, I was never able to do." If she tries to make the novel as fascinating as "Jacob's Cane" has been so far (my wife and I have only begun it ourselves), she'll have a lot of work to do.

New is the wife of Lawrence Summers, Harvard's former president, President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary and director of President Barack Obama's National Economic Council. And, as she only recently discovered, she related to Baltimore's Manekin family (one of whom, Robert Manekin, senior vice president of the Manekin Corp., introduced her).

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