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.
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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.