Writers sense of Jewish otherness extends to his own family

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen says he always wanted to tell stories. He has spent 30 years in journalism and written for the Times since 1990, covering European politics, the war in the Balkans, Israel and the Middle East.

Now he is telling his own story.


Roger Cohen

In his new family memoir, “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family,” Cohen weaves together the story of his parents, Jewish South Africans whose forebears emigrated from Lithuania, and their strained adjustment to postwar Britain.


This experience of “otherness” indelibly marked his vivacious and emotionally fragile mother, whose history of shock treatments, two suicide attempts and 1999 death from cancer form the emotional core of the book.

Cohen will appear at the JCC of San Francisco at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 in conversation with former New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier. The event will include a book signing.

Cohen’s mother, June, the girl who grew up on Johannesburg’s Human Street, married his father, Sydney, “the boy from Honey Street,” a doctor who achieved professional success after moving his family to England. Of his mother, Cohen wrote, “The void, ever renewed, that her absence has left can be explained only by her refusal to stop believing in love, however compromised by frailty her expression of it was.”

The story of his parents’ complex relationship twines through the book, as does the double-edged love and loss Cohen experienced growing up in the shadow of his mother’s unexplained absences as she underwent electroshock therapy.

Cohen branches out from his nuclear family to tell richly detailed stories about other outcasts, outsiders and displaced souls: his ancestors who left Lithuania for South Africa; an introspective soldier uncle whose World War II diary introduces the book; a young Israeli cousin whose manic depression mirrored June Cohen’s, but who succeeded at her own suicide; and a Lithuanian Jew who survived the Nazis as a child because his family hid him in a barrel, and who struggled as an adult to climb out of the emotional barrel he’d built around himself.

In San Francisco, Cohen and Wieseltier will discuss the idea of otherness in Jewish life, as well as European anti-Semitism in the wake of the killings of four Jewish hostages at a Paris kosher supermarket on Jan. 9 and the murders of 12 people two days prior at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“I am shaking with rage at the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The free world should respond, ruthlessly,” Cohen tweeted on Jan. 7. The killings, he told J. the following week, were “an attack on freedom of expression in general.”

“I’ve been convinced for a while that there’s a very ominous tide of fascism coming over from the Middle East into Europe,” Cohen, 59, said by phone from New York. “When I lived in Germany 15 years ago, if you’d told me vile anti-Semitic slogans would be chanted in Berlin [today], I would have told you you were crazy.”

But now, after “studying the many stories I’ve covered in Europe over the years, I’m convinced Jews will never be fully accepted” in non-Jewish societies. He noted that Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, also a journalist, came to a similar conclusion after covering the 1894 trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, charged with treason.

Cohen has received brickbats from some pro-Israel readers for certain columns, such as one last year in which he called the Palestinians “a community of expulsion.”

Describing himself as a “liberal Zionist,” Cohen qualifies his Zionism: “That Jews, with their experience of millennia as being outsiders and strangers, built a state that led millions of Palestinians to live without a state, is an outcome that I think many of the original Zionists, and certainly myself, would find unacceptable.”

In the richly evocative prose in “The Girl from Human Street,” Cohen writes of the comfortable lives of his South African family, and their ambivalent relationships with black African servants who cared for them during apartheid, a storyline he associates with his own experiences, personal and professional, in the Middle East.

In South Africa, “my family was quite privileged, as many whites were. Spending a lot of my childhood there, I always heard cousins saying, ‘Enjoy the swimming pools in summer, later they’ll be red with blood.’ … That’s the way I began to think about ‘otherness.’ … When you see how a group of people is oppressed and pushed away … it makes you particularly sensitive.”

While he emphasizes that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is in no way comparable to South African apartheid, he sees “echoes of the echoes” in the strictures placed on Palestinian lives.

His understanding of “stories of the tides of history, sweeping people away” comes directly from his family. “I didn’t know where I came from. The past was there to be put behind us. I had no notion that my grandparents came from a Lithuanian shtetl … I was a child of displacement.

“Repeated displacement creates the need to belong, and this need to belong can be quite destabilizing. … I know my mother had a project to make a new life in Britain, and she collapsed. She moved from the sun to the grayness, from prosperity to, initially, where there was rationing and retreat from empire, postwar Britain and all its problems. She made an immense effort, but it was too much.”

Summing up his new book, Cohen calls it “one family’s story — over 120 years, in my case.” But it’s not “uniquely Jewish. I think more of humanity is on the move than ever before.” Because of that, he said, more people worldwide face issues of “displacement, belonging, identity, where one fits in.”

“The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” by Roger Cohen (322 pages, Knopf)

JCCSF Arts and Ideas. Roger Cohen in conversation with Leon Wieseltier. Includes book  signing. 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $25-$35. www.jccsf.org