My Eccentric Family Review

Review by Ryan

Legal scholar Norman L. Cantor recounts his family background and formative influences in the slim but rewarding memoir My Eccentric Family: Memories from a Communist, Mafioso, Zionist Past. Norman’s father, Manny Cantor, studied law before becoming dissatisfied and deciding that lawyers are “parasites on society” – even though he ended up marrying one. Instead, he dedicated himself to Marxism as an important full-time functionary of the Communist Party in New Jersey, attracting the scrutiny of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the process. Unfortunately, his “dedication to organizing and proselytizing left little time for family life,” but Norman, in retrospect is “both appalled and grateful at my father’s failure to tend to his children’s political and social education.” Norman’s mother, Ruth Rabstein, was a pioneering woman attorney who built a lucrative law practice with her partner (and, later, second husband) George Pellettieri, “a paranoid figure with a volatile temper.” Starting out with a worker’s compensation specialization, Rabstein developed remarkably varied professional and political interests. Notwithstanding her “insensitivity toward human emotion” in Norman’s estimation, she played a part in the burgeoning civil rights movement, was a lifetime member and held a leadership position with the NAACP, served on the board of the American Jewish Committee, and represented Philadelphia mobster Angelo Bruno from 1967 to 1978. The cost of her careerism and civic commitments is “a form of benign parental neglect no less pronounced than my father’s,” with Norman and his sister largely left in the hands of hired help; but it is through his mother’s strivings that the family experiences upward mobility, finding their way from the Trenton slum where his grandfather operated a liquor store to the upscale environs and educational opportunities of Princeton.  

Rejecting the “peacenik” politics of his Stalinist father, Norman becomes an ardent Zionist, gradually groping his way toward an Israeli nationalist consciousness in spite of his father’s atheist internationalism and more-or-less secular mother’s half-hearted investment in Norman’s Jewish upbringing. “My father’s communism included a strong antipathy to organized religion in general and that certainly included Judaism,” Norman relates: “If Manny Cantor had any tolerance toward Israel, it was because its founders embraced a socialist philosophy, not because of any connection to Judaism.” The services attended by his grandfather, meanwhile, were “utterly baffling and boring” to the young Norman. Reading about the exploits of the Irgun, however, and taking an interest in the Six-Day War in 1967, Norman nurtures a growing identification with the Zionist cause, his “magical transformation” occurring “in January 1976 when at age 32 I first set foot in Israel.” A “budding pioneer spirit” finally drives him to emigrate and attempt to integrate himself into Israeli society, even if his ambition of parlaying success on the law faculty of Rutgers University into a new career in Hebrew-language academia at Tel Aviv University ends up being a greater challenge than Norman initially envisions. Now dividing his time between the US and Israel, he is open about what he likes and dislikes in the life of his adopted country: “Racism has an undeniable impact in contemporary Israeli society,” he acknowledges, nevertheless asserting that “the accomplishments and prospects of the Arab citizens are considerable.”  

Differing markedly from the rest of the book, Chapter Four (“Professional Focus: Exploring the Path to a Reasonably Dignified Death”) explores the author’s “descent into the gloomy world of end-of-life jurisprudence” and features a sober discussion of the ethical justification for implementing a patient’s advance instructions for interruption of life-preserving medical intervention in the case of severely debilitating conditions like advanced dementia as well as his own “unwillingness to soil the lifetime image to be left with my survivors” in the event of his own mental deterioration. Cantor also looks at the legal and ethical dimensions of cadaver disposal, considering such stimulating questions as “whether a decedent’s wish to become fodder for wild animals really represents a debasement violative of post-mortem human dignity. Is this route any more degrading,” he muses, “than a burial at sea to become food for the fishes?” His “persistent professional fixation with death and dying jurisprudence is not as morbid and depressing as it sounds,” he insists. The author’s conversational approach makes the book an easy read, but I could never shake the feeling that My Eccentric Family ought to have been a much longer and more expansive affair. I always wanted to know more about the various people in Norman’s life – curiously, he has next to nothing to say about his marriages, for example – but there was typically something that would make me smile on every third page or so. He has a knack for selection of humorous details, such as his discovery when he first visited Israel in the days of its still-developing tourist industry that restaurant cashiers “could often be either careless or ethically challenged.” This book deserves the attention of those with an interest in the political movements with which Norman and his parents were connected and will also appeal to readers of memoirs of dysfunctional family dynamics. 

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