Off the Shelf: Family and a financial dynasty

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Once in a while, I receive a review copy and shake my head when I open it. “What was I thinking?” I ask myself when I open the book. In the latest case, not only was the novel almost 700 pages, but it was written in blank verse. But, since I did ask for a copy, I knew I had to at least try to read it and I’m so glad I did. Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy” (HarperVia) is wild, clever and brilliant, but clearly not for all readers. However, for those open to its storytelling style, it will serve as a crazy, fascinating roller coaster ride.

Who would have thought a story about a financial dynasty would so grab my attention? It’s clear when Henry Lehman emigrated to the United States in 1844, he had no idea what his family would accomplish. When New York City didn’t offer enough opportunity, Henry moved to Alabama and opened a store. Joined by his two brothers, Emanuel and Meyer, the business expanded in unexpected ways. War, illness, marriage, social lives: nothing seemed to get in the way of the older generation’s desire to increase their dealings, even if that meant moving into unknown territory – for example, becoming brokers dealing in commodities before forming a bank, while still looking to be part of the next big financial trend. 

The only thing as important as the business was siring sons who would serve as the next generation of owners and managers. Of course, not every son wanted to be part of the business, although none of them had a choice. Fortunately, some sons/grandsons had a real understanding of business and found ways to improve the family’s financial outlook. Others had to bend their nature to work in a financial world they found distasteful. A few escaped the confines of the bank, although not without paying a price, while others plotted how to expand their role in the company.

But there was one additional aspect of life that interested them, at least after the Civil War, when the Lehmans made New York City the home base of their business. The second generation wanted to be socially prominent, that is prominent according to which synagogue pews were assigned to them. To move forward a row or two took politics: making deals with some families, while offering a few quiet words to the rabbi when another family’s behavior doesn’t shine a good light on the Jewish community.

I’ve been deliberately vague about plot details because the joy of the novel is learning about the actions and reactions of the characters. The story does skip around a bit: a chapter will introduce a change – for example, a character has died – but it’s not until you read the whole chapter that you learn which one. Although the financial details were interesting, it was the interaction between the brothers/cousins/siblings that created the greatest tension; they often disagreed with each other, but it was their differences that helped expand the business because they each had something unique to offer.

The writing style – the blank verse with its short lines and use of repetition – builds tension and adds depth to the tale. For example, when noting that the Civil War had started, several verses open with the same line – “the first gunshot of the War of Secession” – a sound that created both similar and different reactions in the family and the country. While the patriotism shown in the South and the North are well described, the greatest insights are about what this means to the family business: “The South no longer sells cotton to the North. / The North no longer buys cotton from the South. / The Lehman office in Montgomery / closes its shutters: / draws its curtains, double locks. / The Lehman office at 119 Liberty Street / broken windows / sign set on fire / during the New York riots: / barricades / against the war / against the crisis / against the North / against the South / against the Union and Confederacy / against those who don’t pay / against those who don’t sell. / In the middle / between the two / squeezed / trapped / like a glass / the Lehman brothers.” There are also other marvelous uses of blank verse, including one chapter that features a surreal version of “King Kong,” another that portrays love as a sport learned from the movies and a third where a character relates his life to biblical stories. 
Although the novel uses characters who belonged to the real-life Lehman family, it’s clearly a work of fiction. However, the fact it uses the Lehman name has created problems. When doing a web search to discover if Massini was Jewish (he’s not; he’s a Roman Catholic with an affinity for Judaism), I saw articles about a play based on the novel that was performed in London and New York City. Some writers saw “classic antisemitic tropes” since this is a story about Jewish bankers who focus so exclusively on finance. I have not seen or read the play so I can’t compare the two. However, that was not my feeling while reading the novel. Yes, they were smart capitalists; yes, their financial dynasty was important to most of them. But what I saw were interesting characters, rather than caricatures. And their Judaism, at least in the novel, seemed essential to them, especially in the early generations.

For me, “The Lehman Trilogy” was a powerful, masterwork that uses an intriguing style to portray not only its characters, but the world as they understood it, even if readers will sometimes disagree with those interpretations. However, as for who would love this book as much as I did, that I can’t say. Maybe dip a toe into its blank verse and see what happens.