September 20, 2019

Ghosts of exile, examined

Roger Cohen is an observer of Israel and the Middle East whose voice is especially commanding, and not only because he writes for The New York Times. As a former foreign correspondent, he is deeply experienced in the travails and troubles of the contemporary world. In “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” (Knopf), he brings his experience to bear in a rich and intimate chronicle that casts as much light on the world in which we live today as it does on the moving story of the Cohen family.

“My life has been spent crossing lines, gazing at the same picture from different angles in order to evoke it,” Cohen explains. “Memory is treacherous, as distinct from history as emotion from form. Every war is fought over memory.”

His family moved from the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia to South Africa in 1896, thus escaping the mass murder of Jews in their Lithuanian town of origin a half-century later. After World War II, Cohen’s father moved the family to Britain. Along the way, many of their ties to Jewish tradition were broken. “A cultural and spiritual vacuum resulted from this attempt to begin again with the mark and scar of each generational upheaval effected,” Cohen writes. “We came from South Africa and nowhere. Industrious and circumspect, we adopted habits of silence that cloaked the fortuitousness of our deliverance.”

The girl from Human Street, we soon discover, is Cohen’s mother, June. His father, as it happens, was born on Honey Street. “It was love at first sight,” Cohen reports. But the relationship between mother and son, which is the beating heart of this book, was not always so sweet, if only because it was overshadowed by her lifelong depression. “When a parent dies unhappy, there is something unresolved that keeps nagging,” he writes. “It took her death for me to realize the strength of her love and how, in the torment, I had loved her back.”  

But Cohen’s book is hardly a sentimental eulogy. Rather, he seeks to find the impact of history itself on his mother’s mental illness. “It was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the twentieth century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting.” Exactly here is the best measure of the author’s audacity and insight — he wants to place the private woes of one woman and one family into the context of the wider world in which they lived, and he succeeds brilliantly at the effort.

Cohen does not neglect the biographical details that his reader needs and expects. Indeed, he is able to extract huge meanings from seemingly mundane details. “In every old photograph, as Roland Barthes observed, lurks a catastrophe,” Cohen writes, and the same can be said of his fraught account of life in Lithuania, then South Africa and then London. For example, Cohen’s father, a physician, was prompted by his wife’s first suicide attempt to create a family tree with a black dot next to each ancestor who suffered from mania or depression. “Black dots abound.”

Cohen himself follows the same trail of clues. “June Cohen was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning,” he declares. “She had been blighted. I wanted to know why.” Acting on his own journalistic instincts, he finds his way to the admissions register for the mental hospital where she was confined for electroconvulsive therapy, and he reproduces the column where religious affiliation was noted; all but one is marked “C/E” for Church of England, but his mother’s entry is marked “Jew.” At this point, Cohen enters his own narrative: “I ran my fingers over the page and paused at ‘JEW.’ I wanted to take a soothing poultice to her face.”

It’s a clue to at least one of the afflictions that Cohen detects in his mother’s mental illness. “In mildewed England, there were no more Shabbat gatherings, no more beef on rye, none of that sunny ease where friends from the neighborhood popped in,” he writes. “One of her problems, although she never framed it that way, lay in how to be that whispered word — JEW, as she had been registered in the ledger of that British mental hospital — in the land of Lewis Namier’s ‘trembling Israelites,’ a nation whose message to Jews often seemed to be: Lose yourself to join us entirely, and even then fall just a little short.”

At one point in the saga, Cohen reflects on the tension between remembering and forgetting in Jewish history. “For centuries, in their wanderings, Jews remembered,” he muses. “Rather than disperse anonymously among the nations of the world, they clung with a singular stubbornness to a Messianic dream of return and to the rabbinical injunction: Zakhor! Remember!” And yet the price of sanctuary was the loss of memory: “With Jewish self-improvement had come forgetting, in Europe and in Johannesburg.”

Cohen’s self-appointed mission was to retrieve what had been forgotten in his own family, and in the pages of “The Girl from Human Street,” he has done so with real genius.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.