Book Review: The Girl From Human Street

In November, 2009, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen titled his column “A Jew in England.” It describes his time as a student during the late 1960’s at Westminster, a leading British private school. Cohen related being “occasionally taunted as a ‘Yid’—not a bad way to forge a proud Jewish identity as a nonreligious Jew.” Five years later, he devoted an essay to his mother’s treatment for depression in an English sanatorium: “My mother was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning. I wanted to know why.” Halfway through the column, a passage made me pause: “My re-encounter with my mother involved painstaking negotiation with an archivist. At last I was presented with the weighty register for female patients. Entries are written with fountain pen in cursive script. In columns across the page my mother is identified. “Name: June Bernice COHEN. Ref Number: 9413. Age: 29. Marital Status: Married. Religion: JEW.”

"I stared at her age—so young—and at the capitalized entry under religion: “JEW.” The noun form has a weight the adjective, Jewish, lacks. It seems loaded with a monosyllabic distaste, which was redoubled by the strange use of the uppercase. June was not religious. She is the youngest on the page. She is also the only non-Christian."

This struck me as so intimate, so poignant for a journalist from whom I had long expected and received eloquence, insight, and compassion. Cohen ended the column with his characteristic flair for a parting punch, his words weighted with emotion. “The hidden hurts most. Mental illness is still too clouded in taboo. It took me a long time to find where my mother disappeared to. Knowledge in itself resolves nothing, but it helps. Acceptance—it comes down to that. This is how I came to this point, and to this place, by this looping road, from such anguish, and I am still alive and full of hope.”

During those five years, Cohen undertook a deeply personal journey. What else, I wondered, did he encounter on that road from anguish to hope, and what would emerge from his journey. The answer has arrived in The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family (Knopf, January 2015). This brave, at times heartbreaking memoir eloquently tells of Cohen’s mother’s suicidal depression and traces his family’s roots in Lithuania and its displacement to South Africa, England, Israel, Italy, and the United States. But Cohen’s canvas is far larger. Through his own family’s story, this insightful and thought-provoking journalist confronts broader questions of Jewish history and identity, challenging himself and the reader to confront them head on. What is the lasting force of the Holocaust in sustaining or creating Jewish identity? At what cost do we forget our past? What has been the cost of postwar Jewish silences? What are the repercussions of Jews’ longstanding history of displacement? Could mental illness be among them? Does assimilation necessarily result in a disembodied Jewish identity? Where do we find sanctuary amidst displacement? What happens when Jews are given the opportunity to exclude and subjugate (as in, Cohen argues, the occupied territories of Israel). By examining his own “puzzle of belonging,” Cohen strives to end that silence, giving voice to his ancestors and to questions that engage him.

The book is a captivating read, both informative and beautiful, close in spirit and style to the late writer W.G. Sebald, whose ghost seems to preside. Early on, Cohen ruminates on the history of mental instability in his family, citing a passage from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn about “the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.” Cohen shapes his family history within the context of repeated breaks from the past, reinvention, and loss and their destabilizing effect. The unsettled mix of Jewish identity and the post-Holocaust desire for assimilation thread through the family stories, culminating in his parents’ assimilation: “Jewishness was the minor key of their identity. They were not about to change their name . . . Nor, however, were they about to rock the boat.”

This is a journey of truth-seeking, and its emotional core is Cohen’s childhood in the shadow of his mother’s illness: “Children experience things they cannot express. I could never identify the nature of the loss, but I knew elements were missing from the domestic picture, so unblemished on the surface.” First we revisit Cohen’s family roots in Lithuania and South Africa, encountering vivid portraits of family members and their environs, and we end in Israel—a counter to assimilation, but no escape from instability. Many readers will be drawn to the chapters on the fascinating and lesser-known history of South Africa’s Jewish community, in which both sides of the Cohen family settled during the large wave of immigration by primarily Lithuanians between 1880 and 1940. Cohen describes Jews’ attitudes toward apartheid, offering perspectives on their rare sense of belonging to the white privileged class: “A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: ‘Thank God for the blacks. If not for them, it would be us.’”

Cohen’s parents were born and raised in South Africa, but his father’s ambitions as a medical researcher led the couple to England, where Cohen was born. After a brief return to South Africa with young Roger, the family settled in England, whose climate and social isolation contrasted with the warmth and embrace of South African family and sunshine. June’s post-partum depression after the birth of Roger’s younger sister marked the start of a decades-long illness, determined to be endogenous or biological, which included hospitalization, electroconvulsive therapy, and suicide attempts. A decade after her second suicide attempt, she was diagnosed with cancer, a final deliverance from her anguish.

Human Street: could a name be more serendipitous? “Human” conveys the empathy Cohen has poured into telling his mother’s story, a recounting that has rescued her from the pages of the sanatorium’s register and humanized her, making her whole again, and healing himself in the process. “Because she was born in June, she was called June. The name suited her. She was bright and full of laughter. She liked to dance and sing.”

One can hope that Cohen’s deeply personal and revealing memoir has provided the peace—the shleimut (Hebrew for wholeness, root for the word Shalom) that he sought. His labors, however, extend beyond the personal. For Cohen’s established readers, The Girl from Human Street offers a deepened perspective on his writing. In particular, it adds nuance to his Zionism and Jewish identity, amplifies the humanity and empathy of his Bosnia coverage, outlines his attitudes toward Europe and the post-1990 balance of power there, and goes far toward offering insight into his reasons for taking American citizenship.

Penetrating and moving, this memoir is an act of exemplary remembrance. For Cohen’s Jewish readers, the book models the hope of so many: the ability to invoke the ghosts of memory in their own family—family lost in the Holocaust, the details of forgotten family history, the loss that comes with assimilation, our own family’s history of mental illness, the now-forgotten practice of Judaism. For Cohen’s (and my own) boomer generation, the time is now. We are not obliged to complete the task, but neither are we free to abstain from it.

Topics: Memoirs
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How to cite this page

Rothstein, Pamela. "Book Review: The Girl From Human Street." 21 January 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 14, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/book-review-girl-from-human-street>.

The Girl From Human Street by Roger Cohen, published in 2015.

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