At what price the American dream?
By Martina Jackson, Fig City News
The Foxtail Legacy is a tale of the legacies we all are heir to — family history, family dynamics, family culture, and genetics. And it is that last category that at the beginning and end of the novel is pivotal in defining who should be and is “family.” All heirs to the immigrant experience — whether descended from the founding Europeans or more recent transplants, experience this. Many later immigrants came here to an established social and economic order, requiring accommodation to an existing order. That is the story attorney David Abromowitz tells in his first novel.
Jacob Itzkowitz, the novel’s moving force and focus, was born in Shavlan, Russia, in what was known as the Pale of Settlement, the portion of the czarist Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live — and where they endured frequent persecution. As a teenager, Jacob leaves his home and large family to join an uncle in South Africa in 1894 — at a time of significant migration of Russian and Lithuanian Jews.
Abromowitz estimates that approximately 40,000 Jews went to South Africa in search of fortune, and ultimately many came to the United States as well. In fact, many Jews of Russian descent claim South African family history.
By chance, young Jacob’s ability with horses and his sharp intelligence brings him to the attention of the Boer president, Paul Kruger, for whom he performs a critical service and is rewarded with enough money to return to Shavlan to marry his cousin. Aboard the ship carrying him on the journey home, he is asked to assist a wealthy, but shady Jewish diamond merchant, which further increases his fortunes.
With money to finance his immigration to New Jersey, Jacob plans to join his much older sister and brother-in-law, who have written to assure him he would have a better life working with them in their store.
In the first of many twists of fate, Jacob does not marry the bride he came for, but rather his stepmother’s niece, Shira. She proves a great asset in establishing his new life. Arriving in America, Jacob discovers that his sister and brother-in-law misled him about their business. Instead of joining them, Jacob becomes a peddler, driving his horse and wagon through the back roads of rural New Jersey.
This is the first of many betrayals by others — even family members, but Jacob also finds himself putting business deals above family and setting a pattern of personal compromises that extend to the next generation of his family.
The novel moves back and forth in time — from 1894 to 2013 — from Jacob and Shira to Jacob’s son Lew and his sisters, to Lew’s son Jake. Through multiple deals and manipulation, Jacob succeeds in establishing himself and his department store — Itzkowitz’s — in Point Pleasant, a developing New Jersey coastal town. Jacob is consumed by his ambitions, and they consume his son Lew, a brilliant scholar, who wants to be a physics professor but instead joins his father’s business.
While Point Pleasant offers Jacob and his family approval and security, it is not without its prejudices. In the early 1920s, in the novel and in reality, there was a large Ku Klux Klan march through the small seaside town, with Jews and Catholics among its targets.
Jacob becomes hardened and expects his family to embrace his values. Although he is a shrewd judge of people related to his business goals, he is insensitive and indifferent to his wife, children, and grandchildren. His drive to be successful and respected has absorbed his identity.
What motivated attorney David Abromowitz to branch out in search of a literary career? Point Pleasant was his birthplace too. His grandfather — the model for Jacob — died before he was born.
“My family history was the scaffolding on which I built the story,” he said. Lew is loosely based on David’s father, Jake. But Abromowitz is quick to point out that much of The Foxtail Legacy sprang from his imagination.
The JCC Cultural Arts & Book Series and Washington-Centerville Public Library present a livestream with David Abromowitz, 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 11 at the Woodbourne Library, 6060 Far Hills Ave., Centerville. The program is free. Register here.