AN ORPHAN IN HISTORY: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy by Paul Cowan

AN ORPHAN IN HISTORY: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy

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Like Dorothea Straus, Ann Roiphe, and many others, Village Voice reporter Cowan (The Making of an Un-American) here chronicles his quest for Jewish roots after a posh N.Y.C. upbringing as an assimilated ""Jewish WASP."" His father was a TV exec ($64,000 Question); his mother was a Spiegel heiress haunted by the Holocaust. And when they died in a hotel fire in 1976, Cowan, already drawn (as a journalist) to the Lower East Side's Orthodox Jews, began a full-scale soul-journey. He explored his parents' backgrounds: the Cohen/Cowan past of Orthodox Lithuanian Jews, against which his father rebelled, with painful, guilty results; the Spiegel past of German Reform Jews who drifted into Christian Science (but mother Polly retained a ""secular Messianism""). He recaps his own history--from anti-Semitism at Choate to civil-rights activism (""an entirely satisfying secular creed"") to disenchantment with the New Left. And Cowan tells of his ""feeling that I was an outsider wherever I went,"" his growing conviction that the answer was to be found in ""Jewish roots"" and in ""cohesive, communal Judaism."" So he began spending time in N.Y.'s Orthodox world with Rabbi Joseph Singer. He discovered Jewish sources for his political ideas. He retrieved his grandfather's tefillin. He began observing the Sabbath. (""One day every week I would relate to other Jews as Jews. . . ."") His non-Jewish wife decided to convert, even taking charge of a revived Hebrew school in the neighborhood. And the book ends with the Bat Mitzvah of Cowan's daughter. Readers venturing on similar rediscoveries of traditional Judaism, then, may find this an earnest, detailed source of inspiration. Others, however, are likely to find it humorless and banal, limited by Cowan's equation of roots with religion--and engaging only in the sometimes-colorful family histories.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1982
Publisher: Doubleday