You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

An Orphan in History excerpt, pp. 50-53

Paul Cowan was a young civil rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. His mother Polly Cowan was also a civil rights activist, helping to found Wednesdays in Mississippi, an organization composed of middle-class, middle-aged Northern and Southern women who met in Mississippi to support civil rights work, to learn more about the situation in the south, and to keep an eye on younger activists like her son. In An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy, Paul Cowan shares some of the Jewish values he inherited from his mother and some of his own experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.

She was too much of an egalitarian to admit she subscribed to the religious idea that the Jews were a chosen people. Yet the subtext of her words carried that message. We were chosen to suffer; chosen to achieve brilliance; chosen to wage a ceaseless war for social justice. Indeed, to her, the struggle for justice was nothing less than a commandment, even though she had no interest at all in the concept of halacha – the intricate system of laws that have bound the Jewish nation together for five thousand years. I don’t think she could imagine living without fighting for the oppressed.…

As I recall her now – with her dazzling smile, her well-cared for, slender body – I think of three separate episodes which suggest the power and the limitation of the kind of Jewishness she tried so hard to instill in me.

In 1964, I was at Oxford, Ohio, training to do civil-rights work in Mississippi. Early one evening we heard that three integrationists, two whites named Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and a black named James Chaney, were missing in a rural Mississippi town, probably killed by the Ku Klux Klan. It was headline news all over America. We were all terrified – and so were our parents. Late that evening I walked by a phone booth and heard a girl yell at her mother, “Of course I’m still going to go there. If someone in Nazi Germany had done what we’re doing, your brother would still be alive today.” I realized I would never have to say anything like that to my mother. For the earnest, eager cry I had overheard summed up everything I had learned about Judaism since childhood.

A month later Polly and Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, were on a mission to Mississippi, as part of Wednesdays in Mississippi, an effort my mother had conceived to bring black and white women together. Quite casually, they had decided to integrate a motel near Jackson. At about 8 p.m., Rachel and I went over to visit them. We noticed some white teenagers drinking beer by the motel pool, muttering racist comments. Polly and Miss Height seemed completely unworried.

After my parents died, Dorothy Height told me that a cross had been burned in front of their window late that night. She and Polly doubted they would survive until the next morning. Polly, who talked about her past, her feelings, her work, even her sexual attitudes with complete freedom, had never bothered to mention that part of the episode. Why should she dwell on something that might make her seem heroic? She knew that the people in whose name she was acting—Jews in Hitler’s Europe, blacks in the South—had faced far greater dangers than she ever would. Many millions had died. In her mind, where good manners and good taste were inextricably interwoven with progressive politics, it seemed unseemly to dwell on the few minutes of fear she had faced.


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

Other license (see note)
Date / time
Cowan, Paul
Doubleday & Company
An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish LEgacy
Date published

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "An Orphan in History excerpt, pp. 50-53." (Viewed on January 21, 2018) <>.


Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Sign Up for JWA eNews


Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs