Paths to the Past

An Orphan in History, Retrieving a Jewish Legacy By Paul Cowan Doubleday, $15.95

ONE HEARS A LOT these days--may be one always has--about the mild psychological disorder, the discomfort with atavistic overtones, referred to as Jewish guilt Saddled with the stereotypes of the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess. Jews in America are almost expected to feel ambivalent about their heritage. On the one hand, there is the insecurity of knowing what happened to one's roots in Poland or Russia or Germany. On the other is the desire to take full advantage of a wondrous new world--thus breaking the last link in an ancestral chain--to produce the strange, hidden moral tumult of the assimilated Jew. Add the political movements associated with Judaism and anti-Semitism in today's Mideast obsessed world, and it becomes clear why American Jews are rarely heard joyously reaffirming their faith.

Paul Cowan's An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy does not shrink from these deep-seated questions as it chronicles the author's voyage of self-discovery, which took him searching through the late 60s civil rights movements, the Catholic left, and a Peace Corps mission to Ecuador before landing him in a neighborhood synagogue on New York City's West Side. Cowan, for many years a reporter for the Village Voice, makes no bones about the anxiety and ambivalence he faced after starting to flirt in earnest with his Jewish roofs, and with the possibility of resuming some sort of observant lifestyle. But at the same time he makes clear--with no apologies-the almost mystical drag of his search

The son of game-show magnate and CBS-TV president Louis G Cowan Paul grew up in a totally assimilated New York home. His father read Dickens' A Christmas Carol aloud each Christmas eve and never spoke of his impoverished father Jacob Cohen, the descendant of respected Lithuanian rabbis At Choate, though, Paul encountered vicious anti-Semitism, from his peers. The experience made him piece together the memories of unexplained moments in his childhood--his father evading a question, or his mother insisting that the Holocaust gave Jews a special responsibility to fight social injustice--into a curiosity about his ancestral religion.

The rest of the book meticulously follows Cowan's years of leftist activism and roving journalism, which were punctuated rather than shaped by his new insights into the past. On an impulsive trip to Israel for kibbutz work, he learned Hebrew, took the name Saul Cohen for convenience's sake, and gradually shed his Choate-instilled self-image as a wimpish Jew-boy. Researching a long Voice feature called "Jews Without Money, Revisited," he spent months in a Lower East Side housing project in New York City, satisfying a growing obsession under the guise of reporting; the same exploration brought him into contact with the Chasidic rabbi Joseph Singer, who became his mentor.

THE FIRST HALTING STEPS in Cowan's return to religious observance--such as his first attempt to fast on Yom Kippur, when it turned out he had chosen the wrong day--culminated in a level of faith and commitment previously undreamed of His wife, a New England Protestant, converted to Judaism in 1980 and became their synagogue's program director, and the book ends with his oldest daughter's Bat Mitzvah.

Though Cowan expresses wonder at each step of these changes, the great strength of An Orphan in History is his refusal to sound defensive or self-conscious about regaining his faith. The joy and conviction with which he writes are evident:

As I thought about that creed, which had shaped me too, I became convinced that my own need to understand my past, to cease feeling like an orphan in history, to overcome my recurrent feeling that I was an outsider wherever I went, was so deep that I had to find some version of the cohesive, communal Judaism that my father was beginning to rediscover [at his death]

That fear of seeming an outsider which propelled Cowan on his way is, oddly enough, the same force which sends so many Jews in the opposite direction, towards complete assimilation. Having left an ancestral but fear-ridden past for security in America, vast numbers of Jews now know that they can become indistinguishable from the rest of their adopted culture, and, seeing the rewards, most choose to do so rather than retain their distinguishing marks.

Only in the face of an unexpected anti-Semitism--such as Cowan's Choate years--does the Jewish heritage begin to beckon as a safer and more honest haven. Cowan's mother often told him to learn a trade as well as a profession so that, if he were forced to flee in a foreign land, he could always support himself without knowing the language. Though Cowan never needed the safeguard, the warning stuck in his mind, controlling the odyssey that followed.

Such an outlook on American life often angers the American Jew who feels fully and securely American; more frequently, he labels it paranoia. But the warning also resonates undeniably for those whose ancestors have fled homelands, and not only in the distant past. Having set up such resonances in all their disturbing intensity. Cowan's book calms and inspires by reminding the Jew of his other, always retrievable world--where, once he has entered, he is no longer an outsider but an active, essential link in an endless chain.