01/30/2006 08:00:00

Revealing Book from Caltech Professor Chronicles Jewish Past

PASADENA, Calif.-"[Cousin] Bobby's arrests . . . angered rather than surprised my relatives. In half a century of racketeering, he was the first member of the family to be arrested, let alone convicted. The first, that is, if you excluded Tilly's husband, sweet-talking Uncle Charlie, who did two years for setting fire to his failing upholstery business in order to collect the insurance . . ."

The preceding excerpt is from award-winning author and historian Robert A. Rosenstone's book The Man Who Swam into History: The (Mostly) True Story of My Jewish Family (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2005).

On February 13 at 7 p.m., at Vroman's Bookstore, Rosenstone, a professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, will do a reading from his book, which chronicles a Jewish family's passage from Romania to America.

Although the book describes the Jewish Diaspora in the 20th century, it is much more than the typical "poor immigrant, coming to America, rags to riches" saga. From Communists to racketeers and con men, mistresses to mysterious murders, The Man Who Swam into History weaves an intriguing--sometimes humorous--tale of one Jewish family's migration to America, spun from a fascinating collection of memoirs, and as the subtitle says, "mostly true" stories.

Rosenstone's unique literary style ingeniously blends biographical fact and fiction, revealing the true characters of his loving--sometimes eccentric--family and their gossip, quarrels, shared dreams, and fears. Rather than a linear chronology, Rosenstone combines the memoirs, anecdotes, and embellished tales resurrected from the lives of three familial generations. And he takes the "fictional liberty" to sometimes reconstruct the past, when the facts are vague or sketchy. The book sometimes even questions the truth of its own assertions.

For example, Rosenstone says, "Since I was a small child, I always heard the heroic tales of my brave and noble grandfather, Chaim Baer, who escaped from Russia by swimming the Pruth River to Romania . . . It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that almost every Romanian Jew has a brave and heroic grandfather who swam the Pruth River to escape Russia . . . "

Rosenstone goes on to say, "I grew up believing that my father was a successful businessman. I did not find out until I was 19 or 20 years old, (from older cousins--and my mother confirmed it) that my father's real occupation was numbers running and racketeering." Rosenstone continues, "Families are a 'field of stories.' They share stories, recollections, and family folklore--not just the factual truth. These shared memories are what bind and hold a family together."

Alan Cheuse, a writer and a commentator for National Public Radio, says of Rosenstone and his latest book, "One of our most imaginative living historians takes us into the midst of his own past and makes us part of his family, even as he becomes part of our own. This book stands as a triumph of new scholarship and narrative."

Rosenstone's works have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, and Hungarian. He has won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and three Fulbright fellowships. His previous works include Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed, which was used as the basis of the film Reds, a winner of several Oscars; Crusade of the Left; Mirror in the Shrine; Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History; and King of Odessa, a historical novel based on the life of Russian writer Isaac Babel.

Vroman's Bookstore is located at 695 East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 449-5320. ###

Media Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges (626) 395-3227 debwms@caltech.edu

Visit the Caltech Media Relations Website at: http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Deborah Williams-Hedges