Melting Point: Family, Memory and the Search for a Promised Land by Rachel Cockerell - review by Anna Parker

Anna Parker

From Kyiv to Kilburn

Melting Point: Family, Memory and the Search for a Promised Land

By

Wildfire 416pp £25
 

Family histories tend to follow an established format. The story of the author’s ancestors gets interwoven with that of the author’s own journey as they explore the past, discovering something about themselves in the process. Melting Point, Rachel Cockerell’s account of her family’s involvement in the Zionist movement, is a bold and provocative book that dispenses with the genre’s familiar approach. 

Aside from in the prologue and afterword, Cockerell holds herself at arm’s length from the story she unfolds. She relies on first-hand accounts in the form of diaries, letters, memoirs, articles and interviews, which are broken into fragments and rearranged like a vast mosaic, with the aim of creating something ‘more like a novel than a history’. The speakers change from paragraph to paragraph, their identities recorded in italics in the margin of the page. The text shifts from past to present to future and back again, and the reader jumps between locations as reports from the Manchester Guardian, Aberdeen Press and Journal, Chicago Tribune, and New York Sunday Telegraph follow one another. We do not properly meet Cockerell’s great-grandfather David Jochelmann (born in 1869) until page 162. Each of his descendants is introduced with little fanfare, often appearing among a crowd. Other people – friends, acquaintances, colleagues, collaborators – press around the family tree, blurring the genealogical line. 

Melting Point begins, not in Jochelmann’s home city of Kyiv, but in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Theodor Herzl, a celebrated journalist and author of the pamphlet The Jewish State (1896), which argues that Europe’s Jews should settle in Palestine, attends the first Zionist Congress in 1897. He calls on delegates to support

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