Diaspora and Depression: The Story of Roger Cohen's Wandering Jewish Family

The globe-trotting New York Times journalist's memoir reflect on anti-Semitism and immigration, and doubles as a love letter to his haunted mother.

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“The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family,” by Roger Cohen. Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

In one of his later novels, Philip Roth describes the role Jews played, along with the other waves of early-20th-century immigration to the United States, in forging the American identity. I read this with a jangle of discomfort. I am a British Jew. We played no part in forming anything. The English character was already shaped centuries earlier. It has its iconography, its music, its literature and, above all, its language. Immigrants, even after a hundred years of citizenship, are “minorities.” We can choose to take on a new coloration or a form, like a species adapting to its environment in the course of evolution, but our adopted countries don’t really adapt to us. France may still be France without its Jews, though something enlivening will be missing.

An Israeli ambassador once told me he did not understand anti-Semitism, that he had what we British call a cloth ear for detecting its nuances. For Israeli and American Jews, their countries are the place where, for most, wandering comes to a stop; they have arrived. But for the family of Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist and journalist, the globe is a series of temporary way stations, choices that worked out and choices that didn’t. The family moves like ocean currents across the surface of the world. When they meet up again, the recognition is often painful.

In August 1945, his uncle, Capt. Bert Cohen, part of the South African Dental Unit of the Armoured Division, came across a refugee camp near Padua, Italy. Staring at the 950 Jews, starving, importuning, he sees “ugliness. Sorrow elicits sympathy but ... I saw cunning and slyness and hatred too, for was I not well-dressed and fed? I did not feel drawn to these unfortunate people. Instead I was repelled.” Capt. Cohen had relatives in Italy. His nephew would later track them down.

The Cohens started out at the end of the 19th century as Litvaks and escaped their fate in various directions, the author’s branch first to South Africa, where his parents grew up under blue African skies. “South Africa was good to them,” he writes. “They never had to boil an egg.” Suddenly they are honorary whites. In the mid-1950s, the young family settled in London, a move that in the case of Cohen’s mother did not take.

Roger Cohen's mother, June, upon graduation from Witwatersrand University, June 1950. Photo courtesy of the author

Like Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” this book is a love letter to the author’s mother, a tale of anguish and a tale of trying to understand why June Cohen failed and failed again to adapt to life in what felt to her a foreign land.

In apartheid South Africa they were white interlopers, yet the sounds and smells of Africa were part of June’s true self. Three years after her son was born, she underwent various cranky, quack remedies for what was then called manic depression. The impact on her son was devastating; she had lost the ability “to sustain the gift of loving ... she could be impossible; when she was not impossible she was heartbreaking.”

The clever son was sent to Westminster, a school for the brainy rich where he passed the exam to take a scholarship for which he did not meet the entrance requirement – being a Christian, a hurdle placed there to prevent it from being won by too many Jews.

Cohen’s experience of anti-Semitism in London in the 1960s and ’70s was institutional: It ran through clubs and politics and amateur sports, and it derived from the English distaste for the vulgarity of the pushy, flashy, rich Jew. The very Jewishness of the Jew was anathema to an upper-class culture of lowered voices, nuances, meaningful silences and distaste for the commonness of the type who has to buy its own furniture instead of inheriting it.

Jews were the epitome of nouveau riche. Britain was not a country of immigration, of remaking and reinventing yourself. It is only now, and very painfully, becoming one, but to the arriving immigration from the Indian subcontinent, Jews are not allies but geopolitical enemies.

In June Cohen’s failure to adapt to London, her “disappearance in 1958 into a redbrick Victorian sanatorium and the electricity through her brain three days before my third birthday and again the day before it and again, I know not how many times, in the weeks after it,” lie the roots of Roger Cohen’s failure to adapt to intimacy in adult life. “Punishing her,” he writes, “...has involved my own disappearance from loved ones, an insatiable quest for consoling vitality (seen as insurance against the death, depression and abandonment).”

The life of a foreign correspondent is a series of hectic sudden journeys followed by detached observation and the shallow camaraderie of the hotel bar. Like Amos Oz, his mother’s abandonment at a young age drove Cohen to storytelling – but in his case, other people’s stories, other people’s pain.

The admissions register for female patients at the Holloway mental hospital recorded details of Roger Cohen's mother when she entered it on July 25, 1958. Photo courtesy of the author

Now, he travels here and there, to Lithuania, the United States, Italy and Israel, to uncover the stories of his families and their varied attempts to find somewhere to settle, to feel at home. In the final chapters, he uncovers a cousin born in Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Like June, she was bipolar and suicidal. Sometimes it seems that home is simply a mother’s love, not a place at all.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” carries the hallmarks of a great writer’s ways of constricting a narrative. Oz tells a story as well as telling about stories. Cohen circles and circles around the many diasporas his family sought and found, he chases after singular if secondary characters because they are simply really interesting. At times, then, his mother seems to get lost, forgotten in the author’s own restlessness. But like Oz, we are in the hands of a master stylist. Decades of journalism blunt the sensations and sympathies, turn observation into posturing, feeling into analysis. Sentences get the life hammered out of them, often by the subeditor’s rewritings and deletions. Cohen has preserved everything intact. As a writer he is peerless among his journalist colleagues.

So where is home for Cohen, in the end? It is America. That’s where the mind relaxes, you don’t even have to remember you’re a Jew all the time. Yet he ends the book in Jerusalem, the journalist taking over almost impulsively, to say where he stands on Zionism (he’s for). Trees have roots but Jews have legs, to quote the Polish Jewish writer and historian Isaac Deutscher. And off he walks, toward the market, “alive with the chatter of human exchange.”

Linda Grant is the author of six novels, including “When I Lived in Modern Times,” set in Mandate Tel Aviv. Her latest is “Upstairs at the Party.”