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Paul Cowan, An Orphan in History, excerpt on Jewish experience

Paul Cowan grew up in an upper-middle-class American Jewish family where he absorbed the Jewish values of his mother, Polly Cowan, who believed that Jews had a special responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Like his mother, Paul Cowan lived these values when he became a civil rights activist. But his experience also taught him that acting on Jewish values of social justice was a privilege not available to all American Jews. Working as a journalist, Cowan encountered many different people and situations that at times led him to reconsider his world views. Here he recounts an encounter with Jewish refugees from Europe, who opposed the building of low-income housing projects for blacks and Puerto Ricans in their neighborhood.

I spent one afternoon walking on the picket line with an elderly Jewish couple, Romanians who had fled to Russia during World War II, then migrated to Newark, Greenwich Village, and Forest Hills, where they owned a grocery story. They had been chased and harassed all their lives – first by Hitler, then by the Communists, then by blacks in Newark and Italians in the Village. They were convinced that people were better off among their own kind – an idea that sounded reactionary to me. When I mentioned that I was Jewish, the old woman asked me, “Do you think we will all be chased from New York?” What gruesome experience lingered in her mind, producing that question? Surely her desire for security wasn’t merely a form of bigotry…The crowd’s chant brought me back to Mississippi. Those white kids at the swimming pool had been muttering similar invectives as they drank their beer and looked at Polly’s motel room. So I asked the couple from Romania if the crowd’s chant about black people awakened memories of the chants that were directed at them because they were Jews?

“No,” the man said.

“You see, we’re trying to protect ourselves here. I wish the Jews had done the same thing in Europe.”

How could I see them as any more – or any less – oppressed than the blacks and Hispanics who might move into the project they were protesting so vehemently? Talking with them, and with others in their position, I realized that my flashbacks to Mississippi were inappropriate. The issue in Forest Hills involved two competing claims, not right and wrong.

When I published my article, I was afraid that my mother would think I was too soft on the Romanians and their counterparts; that I was explaining their racism away. In fact, she agreed with my article. But the chain of thought that began during those days in Forest Hills produced new questions, new sympathies that I could never quite explain to her, though my father understood them completely. For, though she has remained my political conscience, I realized that there was a contradiction in the belief she and I had always shared, that all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people. It allowed the Cowans, with our wealth, to argue that Jews with less money, less mobility, less access to powerful people than we had were somehow immoral if they organized their lives around their own self-interest. If they were survivors, we romanticized them without understanding them – or, on the other hand, assumed that their years in the camps should have made them less bigoted. If they were American-born people, who wanted the same security for their families as we had on Park Avenue, we tended to dismiss them as selfish business people or as bigots.


Excerpts are from An Orphan in History: One Man's Triumphant Search for His Jewish Roots Copyright 2002 by Paul Cowan (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing,

Other license (see note)
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Cowan, Paul
Jewish Lights Publishing
An Orphan in History: One Man's Triumphant Search for His Jewish Roots
Date published

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Paul Cowan, An Orphan in History, excerpt on Jewish experience." (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <>.


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