Roger Cohen’s mother died 16 years ago at age 69, but it was only in recent years that the New York Times columnist went up to the attic of his parents’ country house in Wales and found a box containing her notes from two suicide attempts in her forties, and knew that he had to excavate her story. June Adler Cohen was hospitalized for the first time in 1958, at 29, missing her son’s third birthday. She suffered from serious depressive episodes throughout his childhood. Many cures of that era were tried on her: electro shock, lithium, and something called insulin coma therapy.
The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family is Cohen’s brave reconstruction of his mother’s ordeal and its impact on her family. Cohen ascribes his mother’s first breakdown to her emigration to London in 1957 from the tightknit Jewish community in Johannesburg in which she was born and raised (she grew up on Human Street in the suburb of Krugersdorp). She missed the sun, she “fell apart in the English chill.”
The author follows the suffering inward and outward. “I could not count on love. So I sought it where I could,” he confesses. He believes he was traumatized by his mother’s absence when he turned 3; as an adult, he tells us, he disappeared from loved ones and pursued “an insatiable quest for consoling vitality.”
Cohen is worldly and accomplished; I thought he was a golden boy. No. When his mother says the same of him in an imagined dialogue, he responds: “The hectic achievement was a distraction from my empty core. Ambition and imagination were the best sanctuaries I could find; and passion, physical pleasure, the surest distraction.”
A cosmopolitan Jew if ever there was one, Roger Cohen says he was comfortable everywhere in the world, and comfortable nowhere. He wanted most of all to belong, and never did.
But Cohen’s subject here is not really his own psyche but modern Jewish identity, which he says has been formed by “the strain of upheaval, displacement and fear.” June Cohen was displaced; and Jews have been displaced again and again. Two of his grandparents were born in Lithuania and did not feel safe there; they moved to South Africa. Cohen felt displaced by his mother’s absences as a boy, and did not feel all that safe growing up in England, even at the snooty Westminster School. The English are given to polite anti-semitism.
This idea of Jewish displacement impelled Cohen to learn about members of his family who were extinguished in the Holocaust. He finds a Jewish neighbor of his ancestors who survived the Nazis by hiding in a barrel in a barn for days. George Gordimer lives in New Jersey and never overcame the boyhood experience: “We went from country to country and every place we went…. including the U.S. there was some next door neighbor who was going to call you a dirty Jew.”
So Israel is necessary. Of course, other people also feel displaced and unsafe—Cohen told Charlie Rose that his title means that his mother’s story is a universal one– but the author is concerned with the recent Jewish past.
The family stories in this book are spiritually scouring; they should be read by anyone who cares about mental illness. Cohen makes a half dozen of his relatives come alive, in particular his sophisticated, stylish and sensitive mother, a magistrate, a sometime shoplifter. “Depression buried her gaze,” he says of a snapshot from the 70s. She wears an “expressionless smile” that, like so many of her feelings, was “straining to reach the surface.” Cohen’s friend Diane Von Furstenburg has described him as an incurable romantic, and the author’s desire to hold and comfort the mother who escaped him is poignant.
Telling about her secrets seems to have healed him; near the end of his book, Cohen says he feels home at last in the United States.
Yet the book ends in Jerusalem.
Cohen is such an elegant writer he can relate a pony to a pomegranate—almost. I don’t quite understand what his family’s story of displacement and his desire for home have to do with Israel’s raison d’etre. But here is how Cohen expresses his liberal Zionist credo:
The Jewish experience over millennia demonstrates that no amount of scholarly questing, of religious devotion, of determined emancipation, or of proud patriotism and service could provide security. People and entire nations might turn on you…
Considering my family story—the pits in the Lithuanian forests, the repetitive school taunting, the displaced persons camps [in Europe] where my uncle Bert saw the bedraggled Jews in 1945, the frustrated attempts to fit in whether in South Africa or England, the Jewish precariousness, the annihilation angst, the inner exile—I can only concur with the necessity of Zionism.
My family story, like that of millions of other Jews, leads inexorably to Zionism. By the early twentieth century, no alternative offered a plausible chance of Jewish survival and belonging… Zionism was a necessary break with past, pogrom, and persecution…
Well, OK. But I wonder how much of Cohen’s psychic wound has been communicated to his politics. At times, Cohen seems to be rebelling against a family culture of assimilation. He was not bar mitzvahed, his father was “uninterested in if not hostile to Jewish identity” and knows only one Hebrew word, for broom. Cohen is an atheist but is nostalgic for “the ceremonies that gave cohesion and purpose.”
At other times he indicates that Israel is needed to make Jews who don’t want to live there feel more secure:
Israel, for all its failings, helped assuage at least some of my uncle’s fear…
The new Jew of Zionist pedigree was through with the diaspora pliability that had proved a death trap.
All of Europe had turned on us:
This continent [Europe] had decided its Jews must die.
But many human beings have feelings of displacement: in fact, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced to build the necessary Israel. Cohen doesn’t tell any of their stories, even as he narrates wrenching tales of the Holocaust. That omission is ethnocentric. If his mother’s (chosen) displacement in 1957 disturbed him for decades, well, what about those Palestinian families forced to make way for “the Jewish national home”. They have feelings too.
Cohen has distinguished himself journalistically as a tough liberal; and the South Africa sections of the book benefit from his ability to detach. His mother and father wanted to escape the “poison of apartheid” when they left in 1957. They understood: ‘This was not a normal country.”
He cannot really believe that Israel is a normal country either. He vacillates about comparisons of South African apartheid to Palestinian conditions, but he is good about the horrors of the Israeli occupation, where there is no “consent of the governed.” And aren’t some of the Jews in the Palestinian solidarity movement like the brave South African Jews he admires, who supported Mandela and the African National Congress in the 50s and 60s?
Cohen repeats the usual liberal Zionist mantras, that the messianic rot set in after ’67; but he seems to know the story. “Religious Zionism is the malignant offspring of secular Zionism,” he concedes.
And he quotes his cousin, who lives in an east Jerusalem settlement, correcting his wife when she says that another people live there:
“If we’d thought like that, there would never have been an Israel.”
Having often dared liberal Zionists who don’t live there to say why a Jewish state is so necessary to them, I am grateful to Cohen for being so forthright about his beliefs. But this book is not a memoir; it is an inspired meditation on his mother’s suffering and the modern Jewish condition. I await the autobiography, in which Cohen tells us how he made his life as a cosmopolitan. How he got ahead, how he got over, who he married, where he lived. Till I read that story I will find the Zionism unconvincing, and after he writes it, I imagine Cohen will feel the same way.