The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Mem­o­ry in a Jew­ish Family

  • Review
By – December 19, 2014

A dis­tin­guished for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and colum­nist for The New York Times, Roger Cohen is haunt­ed by his past. In this thought­ful and often painful mem­oir of his fam­i­ly, he pur­sues the ghosts that have shad­owed his life, begin­ning with Cohen’s mother’s attempt­ed sui­cide when he was three, the first evi­dence of her men­tal ill­ness, and his first feel­ing of loss. In part, Cohen sees his mother’s ill­ness as a result of her being uproot­ed from her sun­ny South African child­hood and, as a young bride, being trans­plant­ed to Eng­land, and his sense of lin­ger­ing exile” as an exten­sion of his family’s dis­place­ments. To more ful­ly under­stand her ill­ness and his per­vad­ing sense of loss, Cohen under­takes the jour­neys that his now-scat­tered fam­i­ly has made, jour­neys that take him to Lithua­nia, South Africa, Lon­don, and Israel.

Cohen’s fam­i­ly escaped from Europe to South Africa, lured by the gold rush of the 1890s, and set­tled into very com­fort­able lives. They nev­er had to boil an egg,” Cohen observes of his grand­par­ents, a pass­ing rip­ple of the apartheid South Africa they lived in. In his family’s suc­cess­ful lives as respect­ed mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty, much was for­got­ten, leav­ing a void that Cohen can’t fill. His total­ly assim­i­lat­ed life in Lon­don, where his par­ents moved before his birth, opened him to England’s sot­to voce anti-Semi­tism and exclu­sion, mak­ing him a Jew with­out choice and ulti­mate­ly launch­ing him on the jour­ney to unlock his past and in some way com­pre­hend the forces that drove the end­less Jew­ish wan­der­ings of the twen­ti­eth century.

Cohen is a per­cep­tive and com­plex man, and this is a com­plex book, leav­ing read­ers with much to think about and argue with. A scarce­ly prac­tic­ing Jew whose fam­i­ly strove for assim­i­la­tion, Cohen ulti­mate­ly finds his iden­ti­ty through the sheer fact of his Jew­ish­ness and believes his family’s odyssey, with its con­stant pres­sure to adjust and for­get, played a part in his mother’s ill­ness and in his own sense of loss. The Girl from Human Street is his record — beau­ti­ful­ly and feel­ing­ly writ­ten — of recov­er­ing that past and fac­ing the ghosts of his fam­i­ly. Fam­i­ly tree, index, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Roger Cohen’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

World Zion­ism and Paris’s Per­son­al and Polit­i­cal Patterns

The Inside Scoop on Writ­ing a Col­umn for The New York Times

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions