Life & Culture

How I told my family’s history through the words of early Zionists

Rachel Cockerell’s genre-bending debut book ‘Melting Point’ about the search for a Jewish homeland blends the history of Zionism with her own family story


When Rachel Cockerell, 29, first Googled the name of her great-grandfather as part of her research for her family memoir, she was surprised to find that his name was synonymous with the word Galveston. Who or what was Galveston, she wondered? She discovered that David Jochelmann, the man who had brought her paternal family to England from Russia had, in fact, played a central role in the Galveston Movement; the search for a temporary Jewish homeland in the early 1900s. For a short time, Galveston Texas was the destination for thousands of persecuted Russian Jews, sent there by David Jochelmann.

This largely forgotten episode of Jewish history, its connection to the early Zionist movement and the impact it had on her own family are explored in Cockerell’s engrossing debut book, Melting Point, which follows the scattered lives of Jochelmann’s descendants through both world wars: to New York, London and Jerusalem. Vividly told, rigorously researched and using only primary source material: diaries, letters, memoirs, international newspapers and interviews — no authorial narration — Cockerell’s experimental style weaves together an account of this remarkable period in the words of those who were there.

But, as Cockerell explains when we meet in a north London brasserie, she had initially planned to write a different story about her grandmother and great-aunt, Jochelmann’s daughters, who had lived and raised their children together including Cockerell’s father, Michael, in a huge, dilapidated house in north London. She thought she should mention how and why the women came to England from Kyiv and, although Cockerell vaguely knew the name David Jochelmann, all she had been told was that he was involved in stocks or shares, maybe insurance. It was only when she started reading about him and learning about the Galveston Movement, that the focus of her memoir changed.

“There’s this slim, little corner of academia in which he’s a bit of a celebrity,” Cockerell tells me, over a cup of mint tea. “It’s funny, almost like no-one [in the family] was curious. Or maybe people just move on from the past and are so obsessed with the present that the past sort of recedes.”

Yet, despite being the catalyst for Melting Point, Jochelmann is almost a footnote in the text. He is not referred to until page 83, and then only in reference to his attendance at Theodor Herzl’s funeral in 1904. Instead, it is his close friend, Israel Zangwill, the British novelist and leader of the Galveston Movement who drives the first third of the story. “Yeah, my great-grandfather felt like this silent presence,” agrees Cockerell. “My family maintained he was at many of the early Zionist congresses, definitely when Uganda was debated [as a possible Jewish homeland in 1903 and 1905]. So, in the descriptions of what was happening, I knew he was somewhere in the background, witnessing [events].”

Although Herzl’s proposed Uganda scheme was presented as an interim solution to the Jewish problem and not an abandonment of his ultimate aim to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the plan was rejected and resulted in a split in the Zionist movement. In response, Zangwill established the Jewish Territorialist Organisation (ITO) in 1905. Its objective was to find an alternative homeland and Zangwill embarked on a worldwide search, including Australia, Angola and Antarctica before finally settling on Galveston.

“I was completely charmed by Zangwill,” Cockerell says, admitting that she sees similarities between herself and the writer. “[Like me], he had pieces of paper always falling out of his pockets and he too was very tall, or he just seemed tall because he was quite gangly.” The volume of material also meant she felt like she really got to know him. “And anyone you get to know that well, you form an attachment to. His whole way of being just captivated me.”

She likes people confusing the title of her book with The Melting Pot, a play written by Zangwill. “Zangwill has been forgotten by the world, a fact he would be horrified by because he was such a huge celebrity in his time and yet this legacy of The Melting Pot has lived on, so much so that it’s used all the time. People who don’t know who he was are using a phrase popularised by him. Every time I hear someone say it, it gives me this little jolt of happiness.”

Cockerell set out to write Melting Point as a conventional book, using her own narrative analysis “and failed.” Instead, she decided to structure it using only primary sources. “I have always found when reading narrative in non-fiction that certain interjections just feel clunky or somehow false,” she explains. “It feels like this 21st century narrator wasn’t actually there at the time, and they’re sort of pretending they were or they’re trying to make the reader feel a certain emotion.” Reading the novel Lincoln in the Bardo by the American experimental writer, George Saunders and listening to interviews with him, “showed me what could be done.”

The overall effect of Cockerell’s exclusive use of primary sources is one of surprising immediacy, regardless of the fact that dates and names of witnesses or commentators are not always noted. “I feel like it’s a book written by the bystanders of the 20th century,” Cockerell says. “I think it’s quite nice to have a fairly anonymous Eastern European sounding name followed by Martin Buber or Stefan Zweig. Having them all mixed together is how life is, they’re all part of telling the story. I loved the idea of something like the Uganda plan being talked about throughout England, and even these small regional newspapers obsessing over it. It reflected this national discussion, which was [also] going on in America at the time.”

According to Zangwill, the success of the movement was primarily due to David Jochelmann, who was head of the ITO’s immigration desk, tasked with finding Russian Jews wanting to go to New York and persuading them to move to Galveston instead. The message was clear: America was more than just New York, which was bursting with immigrant Jews, it was a vast, largely empty territory and, wrote Zangwill, “It is in the great Hinterland of the West that the Jewish emigrants’ best opportunities lie.” Once they had docked at Galveston, Jews were then dispersed to St Joseph, Missouri or Omaha, Nebraska, on to places that required their skill set, explains Cockerell. Some 10,000 Russian Jews arrived between 1907-14.

Although the Galveston Jews did not have the benefit of the support and communal structures as those living in the Lower East Side, Cockerell learnt that they created “an incredible mix of Texas, Russia and Jewishness; thriving communities in Austin, Dallas and all across the Midwest, which would not have existed otherwise.” Her research included an American road trip where she met descendants of Galveston immigrants and visited archives. “It was amazing to see traces of my family in places and [evidence] of these characters who had existed only on the computer screen for so long. Seeing handwritten letters felt like eavesdropping on old conversations.”

As well as Zangwill, another important figure in Melting Point is Jo Atkinson, Jochelmann’s granddaughter, now aged 94, living in Canada and to whom the book is dedicated. “I’d never heard of her until I started researching this and a cousin of mine suggested I try and find her,” explains Cockerell. Jo’s father, Emjo, had been a playwright in New York and from their first Skype call about 1930s New York, “I just knew that she was going to become a central character.” Almost two years of weekly recorded conversations followed. “She was a total gold mine.”

The sixth of seven siblings, Cockerell was born and raised in West London. “But we never all lived together in the same house. My dad has been married three times; my mum is his current wife.” Has the process of writing Melting Point affected her own Jewish identity? “That’s something I still haven’t decided,” she replies. “I do feel that I have assimilated, or at least there were things that could have been passed down to me that weren’t. I don’t know when Judaism started to fade away from my family, but I can see that I’m not as Jewish as my grandmother when she arrived in England.” The title of the book is about that moment when you assimilate, she explains. “And whether it can be pinned down to one moment or not because it’s this long and slow [process].”

“I definitely feel more Jewish than when I started writing the book, discovering this path that could have so easily been forgotten,” she says. “That was really powerful for me, but it has made me more aware of how much has been lost. It’s sad. And even visiting family in Israel, hearing them talk in Hebrew and seeing how different they are. So much of what has formed them has not formed me.”

Journalism runs in her family; her father is a broadcaster and journalist, as are three of her siblings. She completed an MA in journalism, after which she immersed herself in her book for three years. “It’s strange how this piece of US history has vanished,” she muses. Her hope is that her book will change that, “Yeah,” she says, laughing. “It’s going to popularise Galveston.”

‘Melting Point: Family, Memory and the Search for a Promised Land’ (Wildfire) is published this week. Rachel Cockerell will be speaking at BookWeek24 on March 10

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