A young Isaac Kramnick in Millis, Mass.

In a Posthumous Memoir, Famed Prof Recalls a Turbulent Childhood   

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By Joe Wilensky

“I never felt burdened by the hell that was my early life, or if I did, I repressed it,” Isaac Kramnick writes in his memoir. “Repression and denial, when they work, can be effective coping mechanisms, the backbone of resiliency.”

A renowned scholar of political thought and history, Kramnick, who passed away in December 2019, served on the Cornell faculty for more than 45 years.

At the time of his death at age 81, a memoir he’d written—tracing his early life, from his birth into an unstable family through several foster placements and his undergraduate days—remained unpublished. Now, a longtime colleague and friend has helped bring the book—Foster Child: A Midcentury Jewish American Boyhood—to print.

cover of “Foster Child: A Midcentury Jewish American Boyhood” by Isaac Kramnick

With the blessing of Kramnick’s family, Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies, pitched the book as part of his department’s “occasional publications” series, served as its editor, and contracted with Penn State Press to print it.

Foster Child is framed by Kramnick’s investigations, beginning at age 40, into his past—including his biological parents’ lives and travails, siblings he’d never known, and his several placements within the foster-care system.

After his parents were unable to care for him, he was ultimately raised in rural Massachusetts by an Orthodox Jewish farming family and attended Harvard on a scholarship.

Brann calls publishing the memoir “a labor of love”—a way of keeping Kramnick’s memory alive. “Isaac was a mentor,” Brann says, “and, even more, he became my ideal of the kind of Cornell professor I wanted to try to be.”

In addition to being a widely admired teacher and scholar, Kramnick (the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, Emeritus), helped create the West Campus house system and its faculty-in-residence programming.

He later became a de facto Cornell historian, co-authoring Cornell: A History, 1940–2015 with colleague Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, and helping plan the University’s Sesquicentennial celebration. In 2022, a scholarship for first-generation students was established in his name.

Kramnick chats with students in 2008
Chatting with students in 2008. (Cornell University)

In Foster Child, Kramnick chronicles his family’s difficult history: his biological mother, Sarah, struggled with mental health issues, and at the time he was born in 1938, she was in a psychiatric hospital. His father, Max, could not afford to raise him.

At one month old, Kramnick became a ward of the state. He writes that he has no memory of his first three foster mothers and therefore “no memories of being with them or taken from them, which means I did not consciously brood over any hurt from serial abandonments.”

At one month old, Kramnick became a ward of the state.

But at five, he was placed with the Spiro family in Millis, a small town southwest of Boston.

“I hit the foster care jackpot, a permanent placement that would take me to young adulthood,” he writes. “My fourth foster home was the ‘good Jewish home’ that succeeded far more than the well-intentioned but weary social workers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could ever have imagined.”

As he writes, while the Spiros showed little affection and demanded strict adherence to household rules and religious norms, they offered stability and set him up for success; his foster mother, Helen, was fiercely devoted to his welfare.

But Kramnick gives equal credit to Massachusetts’s Division of Child Guardianship, then a national leader for its progressive care.

Its social workers and policies, he writes, played “a crucially supportive role in my childhood, responsible in part for my making it.”

Kramnick also describes his story as a particularly Jewish one; the memoir includes many Yiddish terms and particular details and traditions of 1940s and ’50s Jewish life.

While he wasn’t observant as an adult, Kramnick remained culturally Jewish.

Kramnick’s foster parents, Helen and Saul Spiro
Foster parents Helen and Saul Spiro.

His childhood, he writes, “is a story about one of the millions of families who made the monumental move from the old country to an America whose streets would not be paved with gold.”

After earning his undergrad degree summa cum laude, Kramnick studied at Cambridge in the U.K., then returned to Harvard for his PhD. He taught at several elite universities before coming to Cornell in 1972.

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“It’s such a story of resilience,” Brann notes of Foster Child. “This young boy, who really had a hard life, nevertheless managed to escape those burdens and succeed—remarkably so.”

‘Fraught with Tension and Fear’

In an excerpt from his memoir, Kramnick reflects on his biological father’s visits to his foster family

I grew comfortable in the Spiro house. I knew full well that I was not technically their son, the difference in names made that obvious. But I answered readily to Sonny Kramnick at school and to Sonny Spiro at home, on Village Street, and around the [extended family].

As I played with friends and “cousins” or spent my time at school I pushed these familial issues out of mind. Except, of course, when Max came to Millis.

Kramnick, at left, pictured with cousins and an uncle in Millis, Mass.
At far left, with relatives of his foster parents.

The Spiros never referred to Max as “your father.” He was always “Mr. Kramnick” or “old man Kramnick.” In his mid-60s in these years, Max visited about every six months.

The occasions were fraught with tension and fear. In the days before he arrived Helen belittled him: he was unreliable; he had the effrontery to make the journey on Saturday, when good Jews didn’t travel.

I didn’t need her to tear him down; I dreaded the visits, since they made manifest the anomalies of my life, which I preferred to submerge.

I dreaded the visits, since they made manifest the anomalies of my life, which I preferred to submerge.

My father usually arrived early in the afternoon, after a long journey by bus or train from Peabody to Boston, a subway across the city, and a bus ride to Millis. Helen and Saul hovered around the house as the time drew near for his arrival. I was noticeably nervous.

When he entered the house there were a few awkward moments that seemed to last forever as the four of us sat together, then the Spiros left us alone for a while. No food or tea was served.

My memories of Max come from these visits since I recall nothing of him in the first five years of my life. He was a short man with a tiny face, eyes that could twinkle, a small chin, and tight facial muscles around a small mouth.

Kramnick at the Sharon Sanitorium in 1943, where he was treated after developing rheumatic fever
At a sanatorium where he was treated for rheumatic fever.

I recall vividly his day-old stubble, since he always kissed me when he left, a gesture I found particularly unsettling. The Spiros were not physically demonstrative people, and I was not used to being kissed or hugged.

His voice was soft and gentle, though this did not endear him to me. Our stilted conversations were usually about school or sports.

He never spoke with me about my brothers or my mother, nor, for that matter, did the Spiros or the social workers. And I certainly never asked about a mother; two fathers and Helen seemed more than enough.

Nor, for that matter, did I know I had living “real” brothers. It would be years, then, before I could appreciate how difficult these visits to me must have been for Max, sandwiched as they were between more frequent visits to his wife and oldest son, both then inmates at the more nearby Danvers State Hospital.

I cannot imagine now how painful it must have been for Max to see Sarah and Leon in the neo-Gothic pile of Hathorne Hill that locals still called the “State Lunatic Hospital.” And he did it for years.

From Foster Child: A Midcentury Jewish American Boyhood, by Isaac Kramnick and edited by Ross Brann, a publication of the Department of Near Eastern Studies & the Program of Jewish Studies, Cornell University. Copyright © 2023 by the estate of Isaac Kramnick. Included by permission of the publisher.The book is available at the Cornell Store.

All photos provided (unless otherwise indicated).

Published February 3, 2023


  1. Carol Laura Bender, Class of 1965

    What a wonderful story of resilience and success. I look forward
    to reading the book. Thanks to Ross Brann and the family for bringing this to us.

  2. David de Medeiros, Class of 2020

    This excerpt sheds light on the stories hidden behind the eyes of those around us, even within our Cornell community. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Amie Dutta Robinson, Class of 1991

    I loved Prof K — we were Gen X we graduated during a recession– many history majors had no job prospects yet he gave us eternal hope — now we know why.

    • Carolyn Rogers, Class of 1959

      Professor Brann is also awesome. Would like to read this book.

  4. Niels Nielsen, Class of 1983

    Professor Kramnick was one of my favorite teachers. I remember his seminar on political theory vividly.

    • Gligor "G" Tashkovich, Class of 1987

      As do I! And that was back in the Fall of 1984 — the November when Ronald Reagan was re-elected President. Professor Kramnick was so upset by the outcome that he suspended the normal class for the day and we had a discussion on the Presidency instead.

  5. Kathleen Burger, Class of 1990

    An uplifting story and I’m happy that Prof. Brann saw it through to publication.

  6. Virleen Carlson, PhD

    Isaac was so generous with his time in behalf of the TA Development program I directed. He would sit at the luncheon with grad students from around the world, just visiting, all leaving seconds before attendance at their afternoon workshops. I had no idea of his life’s story.

  7. Nancy

    What a remarkable life, I cannot wait to read the complete memoir.

  8. Jonathan Ferrini, Class of 1981

    A beautiful and inspiring story demonstrating the importance of family, faith, and resiliency.

    I regret not having met him as an undergraduate.

  9. Brian Miller, Class of 1981

    I absolutely loved his class when I took it back in the late 1970s, and it remains one of my very favorite experiences from my time at Cornell. Listening to his lectures, I realized how much influence on our understanding of the subject comes from the lecturer’s perspectives and speaking style. He was a master!

  10. theresa nolan, Class of 1985

    What a remarkable man he must have been! Are his lectures available now for those of us who did not have the privilege of taking his class while at Cornell? Thank you for writing this book; I looked forward to reading it!

  11. Cynthia McKeown, Class of 1979

    I switched schools and majors at Cornell – and landed in the Government Department in 1977 with Isaac Kramnick as my advisor. How lucky I was! He was the kindest, smartest, and most encouraging advisor and professor. And now knowing about his life story and early struggles, I see what an amazing individual he truly was. I’m very much looking forward to reading this book – thank you for bringing it to fruition!

  12. Douglas Scott Treado, Class of 1964

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention…

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