This Day in Jewish History, 1940

A Journalist Who Reclaimed a Scorned Jewish Legacy Is Born

Paul Cowan was raised with every privilege, but felt something was missing. In “An Orphan in History,” he described his search to find it.

Bob Edelman

September 21, 1940, is the birthdate of journalist Paul Cowan, who, in his 1982 memoir “An Orphan in History,” shared the moving story of his reconstruction of his family’s Jewish heritage and of his own transition from a completely secular way of life to one rich in Jewish tradition and observance, after discovering the legacy his parents had both conspired to leave behind.

It’s not that Cowan only discovered his Jewish roots on reaching adulthood. He had known growing up that his father, Louis G. Cowan -- the creator of several radio and TV quiz shows, including “The $64,000 Question,” and a president of CBS Television in the late 1950s -- had changed his name from “Cohen” as a young man. And he was aware that his mother, the former Pauline Spiegel, a civil-rights organizer, was the daughter of German Jews who embraced Christian Science, and that her father had founded the Spiegel mail-order merchandiser.

But his parents had worked hard to shed all identifying characteristics of Jewishness from their lives. The major religious holidays for them, when Paul and his siblings were growing up, were Christmas and Easter, the latter celebrated with a festive meal crowned with a ham.

JFK's boarding school

Born in Chicago, Paul had grown up in New York. He attended the private Dalton School before his parents sent him off to Choate, the Episcopal boarding school in Connecticut that had been the alma mater of John F. Kennedy. There he experienced anti-Semitic bullying that served as a regular reminder that he was a Jew.

Immersed from childhood in the liberal values sometimes thought of as Jewish, Cowan had traveled to the American South to volunteer in the civil rights movement while a college student at Harvard, and spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador afterward. He had also taken off a semester in 1962 to live in Israel, working on Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and teaching immigrant children in Be’er Sheva. But it wasn’t until after he began working on an article for the Village Voice, the weekly alternative newspaper in New York where he began as a reporter in 1965, that Cowan’s exploration of Jewish religion and culture began.

In 1972, he proposed a piece about old-time Jewish radicals still living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But when Cowan ventured downtown, what he discovered were impoverished Jews, many of them elderly, many of them Orthodox or Hasidic.

Rabbinical roots

He found himself inexplicably drawn to these Eastern European Jews, and so, vicariously, did his father, who encouraged Paul to keep returning to the Lower East Side, so that he wrote a number of articles reported from there. Paul became close with a Hasidic rabbi, and began learning about traditional Judaism.

In the meantime, on the Upper West Side, where he lived, Cowan and his wife, the former Rachel Brown, and a group of likeminded friends, founded an informal Jewish educational program for their children that they called the Havurah. Later, they revived an old synagogue in their neighborhood, Ansche Chesed, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair.

Then, in late 1976, Lou and Polly Cowan were killed, when their apartment, in New York’s Westbury Hotel, was destroyed by fire. In the wake of that event, Paul began investigating his father’s family.

Lou had always been reluctant to reveal details about his background, but at his funeral Paul met a cousin who was able to put him in touch with other relatives. He learned that his grandfather had been Orthodox and that his great-great grandfather, back in Lithuania, had been a rabbi.

Rachel Cowan, too, drew closer to Judaism. She came from old, Protestant, New England stock, but in 1980, after 15 years of marriage, she decided to undergo conversion to Judaism. Nine years later, she underwent ordination as a Reform rabbi. Together, she and Paul wrote a 1987 book, “Mixed Blessings,” about intermarriage.

“An Orphan in History” was published to great acclaim in 1982, and its story is representative of a process that thousands of other American Jews underwent in the late 20th century. In it, Cowan, with admirable candor, recounts his journey, at the end of which he could say, ''Now I am an American and a Jew. I live at once in the years 1982 and 5743. ... I am Paul Cowan and I am Saul Cohen, the descendant of rabbis in Germany and Lithuania.''

Paul Cowan died of leukemia on September 26, 1988, shortly after his 48th birthday.

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