In an effort to understand the modern Jewish experience, distinguished New York Times columnist Cohen (Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble, 2005, etc.) examines his family history of displacement, despair and resilience.
The author has always prided himself on confronting the truth in his writing, but he knew that his work allowed him to escape the more difficult task of articulating a deeper personal truth. In this honest and lucid book, the British-born Cohen tells how his Lithuanian Jewish ancestors came to South Africa. Tolerated by white South Africans because they were also white-skinned, the author’s relatives made prosperous lives as business people while avoiding the fate of millions of other Jews in Nazi Europe. Despite their successes, however, members of both sides of his family were plagued by mental illness. The genes that caused it “formed an unbroken chain with the past,” which many of them tried to ignore. Cohen focuses in particular on the tragic story of his mother, June. Gifted and beautiful, she was also bipolar. When she and her family relocated to London, her symptoms surfaced and remained with her for the rest of her life. Cohen links June’s unraveling with her sense of being a stranger in a strange land. Like one of his mother’s relatives who ended up in Israel and eventually committed suicide, “[June] was a transplant who did not take.” All too aware of how many South African Jews turned a blind eye to the problem of apartheid in South Africa, Cohen also examines Israel’s evolution into a colonial nation that oppresses Arab minorities. Millennia of persecution and eternal exile have made a Jewish homeland a necessity, yet Israel will never fully succeed as a state until peaceful coexistence—of the kind white and black South Africans have slowly worked toward—becomes a reality.
With limpid prose, Cohen delivers a searching and profoundly moving memoir.