Melting Point by Rachel Cockerell review – witnesses to history

<span>Rachel Cockerell’s grandmother Fanny, centre, with husband Hugh, and children Lolly, Victor and Michael </span><span>Photograph: Rachel Cockerell</span>
Rachel Cockerell’s grandmother Fanny, centre, with husband Hugh, and children Lolly, Victor and Michael Photograph: Rachel Cockerell

Theodor Herzl, an editor and journalist from Vienna, was beautiful, with the handsome beard and majestic bearing of “one of the ancient Assyrian kings”. Israel Zangwill, from Kilburn, was variously described by contemporaries as “the homeliest man I ever saw” and “one of the worst-dressed men in London”. His novels were bestsellers, but he was so clumsy that when his arrival at a meeting was heralded by a clatter out in the hallway, one of those waiting for him exclaimed: “Israel must be coming. Something’s falling downstairs.”

When Herzl first presented himself at Zangwill’s home in 1895, saying: “Help me to rebuild the Jewish state,” the two of them had no fluent language in common. “I don’t even know whether he understands me,” wrote Herzl. No matter. Their rapport was immediate and lasting, and together they established the Zionist movement. Later, after Herzl died in 1904, Zangwill became leader of ITO – the “territorial” branch of the movement that sought to find an interim Jewish homeland while Palestine remained unattainable.

In this formally ingenious book, Rachel Cockerell has chosen to tell their story, not from an Olympian viewpoint but by making a patchwork of up-close and personal observations. She explains that at an early stage of the writing, when she was doing the conventional nonfiction author’s thing of offering a synthesis of the available sources, she grew impatient with her own words: “All of them felt useless.” She boldly cut them out. Her finished narrative is entirely made up of quotations – some pages-long, some only a line or two – from diaries, speeches, letters, newspaper reports, the reminiscences of participants and the testimony of eyewitnesses. World leaders – Weizmann, Roosevelt, Churchill – are among the speakers, so are numerous hacks and ordinary bystanders. Multi-voiced, and with a legion of different perspectives, the resulting book is wonderfully vital and idiosyncratic, a model of how history writing can be made fresh.

Its first, longest and most compelling part covers the first Zionist congresses and early attempts to find a Jewish homeland. Joseph Chamberlain, reports Herzl, offered Uganda, rather as the manager of a junk shop might fish something out of an ill-organised stockroom. “I thought to myself: that would be just the country for Dr Herzl.”

It wouldn’t do (insufficient infrastructure and too many people already in residence), and nor would Cyrenaica in Libya or Western Australia or Mexico or Mesopotamia. As Zangwill explores all these failed options, Cockerell’s great-grandfather, David Jochelmann, makes his first appearance: this book is, among other things, a family memoir. Still living in Russia up to 1914, Jochelmann travelled from shtetl to shtetl on behalf of ITO, offering Jewish people the chance to travel out to Texas, Zangwill having established a short‑lived concession from the US allowing them to enter the country through the port of Galveston and then disperse and settle inland.

Jochelmann and his second wife moved to England. Of their two daughters, Fanny (the author’s grandmother) married an English gentile and set her offspring on the path to assimilation, while Sonia married a Russian Zionist. They and their children all lived in harum–scarum fashion (neither Fanny nor Sonia was interested in housekeeping) in north London, just a few streets away from where Herzl met Zangwill a century or so before Rachel Cockerell was born. In 1948, Sonia and her family moved to Israel, and the story comes full circle.

Cockerell relies on Jochelmann to hold her book together, which doesn’t quite work. An ITO colleague called him “a mysterious and (deliberately) unpublicised personage”. To his great-granddaughter he remains just a dark face looking out of a sombre portrait. Had his words been preserved and his career documented, her narrative might have felt more shapely. But if this book is not a perfectly structured whole, the sum of its parts adds up to an innovative and immediate account of a story that has world-historical significance.

Melting Point: Family, Memory and the Search for a Promised Land by Rachel Cockerell is published by Wildfire (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.