Paul Cowan discusses his book "An Orphan in History"
BROADCAST: Jan. 7, 1983 | DURATION: 00:53:30
Discussing the book "An orphan in history: retrieving a Jewish legacy" with the author Paul Cowan.
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Studs Terkel Paul Cowan is my guest, and he was a guest on this program about 12 years ago and told of his adventures and his, his discoveries, as a member of the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He was down there in the South in Mississippi and bordering states during Freedom Summer, participating and observing at the same time. He was covering fundamentalist people in West Virginia as well as miners in Kentucky. And he was trying to rediscover what happened in Lawrence, Massachusetts back in 1912 where there was a celebrated textile strike. He was looking for a certain woman who suffered greatly during those years, and he found a daughter. In short, he's always looking for the roots in other peoples. And now he's been discovering his own roots. It's sort of a multiracial, multinational Pilgrim's Progress, and his book is "An Orphan in History," that's the title. "Retrieving a Jewish legacy, his own, and Doubleday the publishers. And it's quite -- well, the word is self-revelatory to him and revealing to the reader. In a moment, Paul Cowan and his discoveries after this message.
Paul Cowan "I'm describing a journey, not the landscape of the destination. This is an account of my effort to recover my ancestral legacy. Through journalism and through politics, by uncovering the details of my family's past and becoming involved with the religion I inherited, and by accepting the emotionally difficult realization that life defies reason. Life unfolds unpredictably. It contains treasures and sorrows that none of us can foresee. I hope the story of my search will help other orphans in history find their way home."
Paul Cowan Yeah.
Paul Cowan Well, what I mean by that was I grew up in this very, very warm family who you knew, you knew my father Lou [Louis] Cowan, who was a -- invented the "Quiz Kids" and "$64,000 Question," was president of CBS TV, and my mother who also came from Chicago, Polly Spiegel Cowan. We had this incredibly warm household, but we were also very assimilated, as assimilated as an American Jewish family can be, with Christmas, with Easter, with no Hanukkah, no Passover. But with all these kind of hidden Jewish messages, like you talk about the civil rights movement. My mother was obsessed with the Holocaust, and the reason that she got involved in the civil rights movement, and the reason that I did was because so it would never happen again to anybody. There would never be more suffering in the world. My father had been the son of an Orthodox Jewish [used cement bag?] dealer in Chicago named Jacob Cohen. He would never talk about his father. They had a very, very difficult relationship, and yet everything on his face gave signals of a kind of Jewish past that nothing in his conduct really -- he was really a Jewish ambassador to the gentile world, but his face was so powerful that it left time bombs in my brain. My mother would serve pork. My father would just look at it with a kind of a wince. He could eat it, but it would be hard. He'd see Hebrew letters on a synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York where he took us on Sundays to buy bagels and lox and challah. And he'd tell me, this man who had made it up to the top of the corporate boardroom, he'd tell me, "You know, I can still read those letters." I wouldn't even know how he learned to read those letters. On Christmas Eve he'd read the "Christmas Carol" to us. We'd get bored. We'd walk out of the room. His face would just take on a very, very pained look. I could never understand why until I finally realized, Christmas wasn't his holiday, so it was just a chance to bestow presents on us.
Studs Terkel Perhaps should explain that there are two different strains in your family. Your father came from Eastern European people, your mother came from a very upper-class early American German-Jewish family. Now, they're two -- it's as though there were two different worlds really.
Studs Terkel Your grand-- that is, your maternal grandfather, your mother's father who was the great mail-order tycoon, Spiegel's. Moïse, your mother's father, spoke of your father's heritage as "kikey."
Paul Cowan Yeah. So, so there was this real rift that was taking -- it's healed now, but at that time it was taking place all over America, and that meant that that in my mother's kind of -- like, for example, when my wife, who wasn't -- Rachel, who was not Jewish when we got married, when we were first married she comes from an old Episcopalian New England family. Her parents were Mayflower-generation Yankees. She's now, she's now converted to Judaism, but when we first got married we had a Christmas tree. The Christmas tree decorations didn't come from her old Mayflower family, came from my mother's German-Jewish family. So that was that was that strain of Judaism. My father's was Orthodox, street-smart, grew up on Michigan Avenue right next to where the neighborhood Studs Lonigan wrote about in the -- that James Farrell wrote about in the Studs
Studs Terkel So this is the beginning. Now, we come to your own -- your own discoveries. So there you were in this very American family. Not too aware of certain legacies through your father, through hints, through codes.
Studs Terkel And your mother of course with her interest in civil rights generally, we come to that. Now, you went to Choate. A word about Choate. This is a very posh prep school, Episcopalian-oriented.
Paul Cowan Well, I think it might be a slightly second-class Groton. What I discovered was that Groton and St. Marks were the creme de la creme. But my fa-- but we didn't know that at the -- John Kennedy, for example went to Choate. My father sent us to Choate, I think so -- he was then president of CBS television. I think his idea was that me and my brother Jeff would be able to acquire the kind of polish that we would need in corporate boardrooms, a polish he didn't have himself because of this street background of his, but what he didn't realize and what I certainly didn't realize was that at this Christian school there was going to be a lot of anti-Semitism, so the -- literally the week I got there, the kid who convinced me to go to the school was living next door to me with a Southerner. They would come into my room and they would tell me how I was a spiritual descendant of Fagin or Shylock. When I was a junior, the kid who sat behind me in math class would put his feet on my jacket so that I couldn't lean forward. One day he took my math book, and I was scared to fight him to get it back. He handed it back to me, and I showed it to my math teacher that that night, and the math teacher looked at -- at some writing in the margins, and he said, "Did you write this yourself?" I looked at it and it said an obscene word, "Obscenity you, you kike." It was horrifying to me, I mean I didn't know how to protect myself
Paul Cowan These were upper-class kids, yeah. Some of them were very nice, but some of them weren't. There was a very committed Jew in our class, a kid named Joe [Cassel? Kassel? Castle?] who came from Waterbury, Connecticut. He had grown up in a household where they observed all the kosher dietary rules. He'd had a conservative bar mitzvah. But his father also wanted to polish him. So he went to Choate, but every -- we would pray to Jesus Christ our Lord Amen every night. I kind of liked it. I liked the whole chapel, but he would say under his breath, "God, I don't really mean this." Once he went home for Yom Kippur, and my family at that time, we didn't know what Yom Kippur -- we knew that there was a Yom Kippur, but we didn't do anything about it. He came back after fasting and after repentance; the school was located in Wallingford, Connecticut. He organized us into a group called the "Wallingford Jew Boys," and the main thing that he said that we shouldn't do was to bow our head in the Choate chapel. So for two days we refused to our heads, and then the headmaster said that when he goes into a synagogue he wears a skullcap as he called it, when he goes into a mosque he takes off his shoes, and he said to us, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Well, we didn't know that Anglicans, which is what he was, had not done what the Romans did in Rome, which was how they got to be Anglicans. He threatened to kick us out of Choate if we didn't bow our heads. So we had to. So the message to me was there was no way of hiding being -- the fact that I was a Jew, whatever I did, however I behaved.
Studs Terkel So this was, this was the beginnings of discovery of something a little different, something different. And now you became a journalist. Now we've got to come to your adventures. We'll come back to you because you didn't dig into your legacy at the very beginning. You made a discovery that you were what you were. But now we come to you the journalist. Now you became a pretty good -- you worked for "Village Voice" a lot and you plunged yourself into the troubles of the world. And where does this begin? In Mississippi?
Paul Cowan Well, it began with my mother. Began with my mother just insisting -- and then it began with me reading John Dos Passos and James Agee and John Steinbeck and wanting to write like they wrote. And I didn't, I had no vehicles. Then at Choate, I -- at Harvard, rather. I went to Harvard, and I felt some discomfort about myself. I went to Israel, but I didn't do what people conventionally do in Israel. I didn't study in Jerusalem or stay very long on a kibbutz. I taught poor North African immigrant kids in the town of [Vaishnava?], and I began to really learn about a whole different culture, and I began to realize that cultures are very, very different from each other, and I was fascinated in different people. So I wrote about that for a newspaper at Harvard, and then I got in-- and then I read in a newspaper in Israel, I -- somebody sent me a "Harvard Crimson," and it said there was a civil rights movement in America.
Paul Cowan Yeah. And it said there's a civil rights movement in America, and it said that there were white kids who were going down south to work with Black people. So I went to Chestertown, Maryland and I worked tutoring a kid who went to -- a Black kid who was going to integrate a school. I wrote some articles about that that won a prize for journalism at Harvard. Then I went to Cambridge, Maryland and you won't believe this, but I was supposed to write an article about Cambridge for "Commentary" magazine, which then was a liberal magazine, and then I went to Mississippi. And during Freedom Summer. But all the time, wasn't just as a political activist, it was really to kind of absorb the textures of things and find out how people conducted themselves
Paul Cowan Absolutely. And the things that always fascinated me didn't -- like, I'll give you, I'll give you a funny example from that Freedom Summer. In Mississippi a lot of the white kids who went south and a lot of the Black Northerners would be very derisive of Black people who lived in the town we lived in, Vicksburg, because they wanted to make more money or spend time repairing their house instead of coming to a political meeting. I used to think that was really crazy, because we came to Mississippi with a lot of money. They were trying to make a little bit of the money that we already possessed. So we were being insulting to them. They -- the best place to organize in a Black community is in church. A lot of the white kids and the Black Northerners wouldn't want to go to church because it was a bourgeois institution. I thought we had to do that, because that was the only place we were going to reach the people we wanted to reach. So again, I really felt like the culture in its own intact form was the important thing to learn about.
Studs Terkel Part of the great -- not, I shouldn't say it, it was that there, the patron. And so looked down upon the Black who wanted to make a buck or two, and that was his problem. You had the buck or two or three, you see. And so you looked -- hey, wait a minute, you see. Still the outsider. You were doing some excellent journalism on it by the way, but you still -- you had to know what is, what it is, you know, our roots really. And you found yourself with the Peace Corps, right? Suppose we hear your -- this is about 12 years ago, you wrote a book "The Making of an Un-American," it was your thoughts and everything, and a lot of it was about you working, and you were in
Paul Cowan Ecuador.
Paul Cowan I find myself in Ecuador, now, I guess maybe I should say a few things about Ecuador as a country, right? It's a very poor country, though I don't want, I don't want people to get the idea that it's atypical, because many -- Nicaragua is like this, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, parts of Peru, it's -- Paraguay. Some countries are worse. But the city we were living in, in Guayaquil, there are 700,000 people who live there; 400,000 of them live in these slums, the barrios suburbanos. The slums are built on swamp. There are hills, there are dirt hills nearby the city, and but the city government doesn't have -- can't -- doesn't have enough trucks so that it can bring the slums -- the dirt in from the hills to be landfill in these swamps. So, many people just either live over water in cane houses over water and have to walk on very narrow bamboo poles in order to get to the dirt to solid land, and or they're successful in their plea to the city government for garbage as landfill, and so tens of thousands of people walk on, on garbage every day with screens of flies in front of their face, and during their two-month-long rainy season, and it's happened that the water has bubbled up between the garbage and kids have drowned in it. And these same people, their average family -- we did some surveys and we found that their average family size is about 7, they earn 42 dollars a month for seven people. They spend 15 cents per person per day for food. And meanwhile, this is a city which is being controlled by maybe 3,000 people for the benefit of at the most 40 or 50 thousand more people. Fifty thousand kids in Guayaquil don't go to school, and those kids who do go to school are on the average 65 kids to one teacher. It hap-- one time Rachel and I visited a school where teacher'd had leukemia. And so day after day for three weeks, kids have gone to a classroom and nobody had instructed them, and they had just sat there isolated, stranded as if on an island. So that was the situation. And now the [whole?] -- the notion of community development, which is what we supposed to be practicing in Guayaquil is based on the idea -- on an American idea that people are either homeowners or have some way of own-- of owning their homes and therefore will form a stable community, wasn't true in Guayaquil. The slums where these barrios suburbanos were all owned by the by the oligarchs, as Ecuadorians call them, the two or three thousand people who control the city, and so everybody lived in terror that that the cane shack in which he or she was squatting would be torn down by these oligarchs who owned their land. They also lived in terror of a kind of bug that lodges in the cane, it's called the chinchorro bug, if it bites you, you can get a degenerative, degenerative heart disease, which kills you after
Studs Terkel I thought we'd use part of that to show how your thoughts and your discoveries are tumbling all over themselves, and you're discovering something you hadn't expected, and what was the work you were expected to do and that you did do, but also your reactions and those of some of your fellow Peace Corps people to the Ecuadorians.
Paul Cowan Yeah, it was very patron-- well, it was again a question of, of the fact that the Ecuadorians had their own culture, their own way of living, and we were just trying to impose our ideas on the Ecuadorians. It made me continue to see -- now, you're making me think about, about some part of myself. I realize that at Choate people didn't understand me as a Jew. Now, what did that do? that lodged an idea in my mind, that you had to understand people as they really are. So I would go to -- in the South, in the -- well, first of all in ___ Israel I realized that both European Jews didn't understand North African Jews, and Americans certainly didn't understand North African Jews. They had a particular kind of culture which was a very patriarchal, discipline, strict culture, which you could look down on or not look down on, but it was their culture. In the South there was a culture that Black people had, church-oriented, poor, upwardly mobile, very interested in in some kind of security for their families. Here we were, these rich kids who couldn't see that, just like the rich gentile kids couldn't see me as a Jew at Choate. In Ecuador there were these very poor people who were controlled by an oligarchy, invisible to Americans, living in these houses that I described. This teacher with leukemia, I'd forgotten that detail, but shocking things like that would happen. We couldn't penetrate through the veil of our preconceptions to see the reality of the way that they lived.
Paul Cowan Well, there we were, and they would they would make fun of the way that say Peace Corps people spoke English, they would just make gobbledygook remarks, and the Americans would think that these Ecuadorians shoeshine boys, they're very poor kids, were insulting them, so they would, so the Americans in turn would call the Ecuadorans "Eckies" or "spics," or get very bigoted against them in -- and so and again it carried a sort of overtone of not going to church in the South, of calling me a Kike at Choate, it was all the same thing.
Studs Terkel Yeah. You know it also, interesting, I just to make it clear that you young people who went south in Mississippi and thereabouts in Freedom Summer and afterwards and before, and those who joined the Peace Corps ]were] basically good-hearted kids.
Studs Terkel They were in some instances putting themselves on the line too, but the error, we come to the fact that they didn't really understand deep down what the yearnings of all these people were.
Paul Cowan And it's really true. Wonderful people, I mean I'm, my closest friends still are people I knew in the movement, wonderful people who are willing to risk their lives, but who got so caught up in their own, we got so caught up in our own idea of how things should be that we couldn't see how things were.
Studs Terkel So you came back from, you and your wife Rachel came back from Ecuador somewhat disillusioned. Not with Ecuadorians, but disillusioned the way things were going. But Peace Corps was working, for one thing.
Paul Cowan Disillusioned with the way the Peace Corps was working, disillusioned with the way that America worked in foreign countries. We really saw America as a imperialist force. Disillusioned with our own social cla-- disappointed in our own social class, with nowhere to turn really, and also by this time, Studs, we had accumulated so many experiences that it was often difficult to communicate other realities to our friends.
Studs Terkel And so continuing with the, this is the odyssey. Throughout of course you're connected to your family, that is your mother and your father, who by the way he's quite celebrated as the producer, CBS [guy?] of certain programs. And then of course there is the horrendous scandal at which your father was a scapegoat. You know, he was wholly unaware -- we should make this point clear, of the
Paul Cowan The scandal surrounded a show called "Twenty-One," which was on NBC, that my father nothing to do with that show. My father had also left his office at -- that produced "The $64,000 Question" years before the scandal began. CBS needed a scapegoat. He was president of CBS, and so they forced him to resign.
Studs Terkel And so that was of course a tremendous blow to him throughout, and then he was teaching journalism, and your mother of course became upper-upper-upper class, became very involved, always was socially conscious, I take it.
Paul Cowan She -- Studs, she was the most incredible person, long after me and my friends had lost interest in the civil or had felt that we were tossed out of the civil rights movement or lost interest in it, she remained the one white woman on the board of the National Council for Negro Women. She was the one person I'd ever known who combined a desire for elegance with a total commitment to social justice.
Studs Terkel So meantime, you have the double strain, a multiple strain, and then there's Rachel your WASP wife. By the way, just the other day I was bawled out by a listener for using the word "WASP." She is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, she say that's a derogatory word, just as redneck is, as nigger is, as kike is. And so I've batted -- I've hit for the cycle, you know, and
Studs Terkel So we have, in the meantime you are growing up. I mean growing up in the profound sense. You were doing some good pieces of writing, excellent journalism, for the "Voice" primarily and for "Harper's" and other mag -- and "Atlantic" and you find yourself somewhere in West Virginia among fundamentalists. And you made a discovery there, too,
Paul Cowan That was incredible, Studs. I read about -- you -- I mean I -- there was this controversy over whether certain textbooks should be banned in West Virginia. The fundamentalist Christians were saying that the textbooks were blasphemous. In the north, these fundamentalist Christians were being called rednecks. I realized in my own self that if my kids were being taught anti-Semitic texts from anti-Semitic textbooks in their school, I'd want those textbooks banned, so I thought maybe these fundamentalists had a point. I went down to West Virginia and I discovered that in their terms the textbooks really were blasphemous. For example, they asked students to compare Daniel in the lion's den with "Androcles and the Lion." Well, Daniel in the lion's den is revelation as far as they're concerned, and "Androcles and the Lion" is myth. So they were being asked to compare the Bible to mythology, which was really saying that the Bible was mythology, or they were asked to create their own God, which was to say to the students, "God is not real. He's created." From their point -- again, here's the ecology of their culture, a very strict religious culture. And here are some upper-class liberals who are deliberately setting out as they say and as these upper-class liberals said in a description of the textbooks, to take the kids out of the confines of the creeks of these West Virginia communities where they live and bring them into the modern ages. So I decided that even though the fundamentalist Christians would never accept me or my beliefs as a Jew, it was still important to accept them and their beliefs as religious Christians. So again it was the reality behind the facade.
Paul Cowan There's one other thing about West Virginia that was a discovery. It was a discovery I was making in coal mining camps. I made it when I covered Blacks who were fundamentalist Christians in Chicago. Remember that piece on Jesse Jackson that I wrote? I made it in West Virginia. That was that I felt, coming from this cosmopolitan upper-class journalist background, I felt an enormous yearning to be part of these very cohesive communities that I was covering. I wanted, I loved the way that people helped each other out. The part I didn't like was the exclusionary part, but the part I did like was the really solid sense of
Studs Terkel We come to the fundamentalist matter again. It isn't a question of mocking them or laughing at them, that's so patronizing, but rather to introduce the young to science as well, that is, to other aspects of life as well. And then they could judge.
Studs Terkel After that, but it's the exclusionary aspect of the, narrowing that you objecting to. At the same time you are finding, you went to the mining Harlan County of course, you were there too, in the middle of the battles.
Paul Cowan And one thing about Harlan County was a -- I wrote a long piece about, I lived with a coal miner for ten days, and I discovered something about journalism that you discover about journalism all the time. I wrote an article about this coal miner I lived with. He objected to it very strenuously, because it depicted him I one time said that he looked like a cowboy in "The Last Picture Show," and he wanted me to say that he looked like a coal miner. And I said some other things that I didn't think were offensive, but he thought were offensive. I know you've told me that in your journalism you're careful not to offend people unnecessarily. I realized there was no point in doing that kind of journalism, I should've read it back to him. I wasn't doing anything for their culture. I was just describing them from my culture, and I wanted to have some kind of roots in a culture that I could
Studs Terkel He was a coal miner, you see, and there's a wholly different experience there. But meantime, you're still way in the back of your mind you're thinking of your own roots and background, and I'm going to come to one more big experience, and then back to roots. Paul Cowan is my guest, and the book is "An Orphan in History." Orphan I suppose because if an orphan doesn't know who his mother and father are, or lost mother and father, orphan in that sense, don't know what your past is, was.
Studs Terkel We know, that's why so many of the phonies get away with what they get away with today. There's no sense of past. And so the book has a number of, a good number of dimensions and implications to it. And Paul Cowan, my -- Doubleday the publishers and we'll resume in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming with Paul Cowan, journalist, writer, and his book of, your book of revelations, "An Orphan in History," the subtitle is "Retrieving a Jewish Legacy," Doubleday the publishers. And so we continue with your adventures. The pilgrim, a little touch of "Candide" here and there, though not, there's an innocence
Paul Cowan Still.
Studs Terkel But not the "Candide" like, but coming to your adventure, so it's Peace Corps worker in Ecuador, civil rights participant in the South and in Maryland, with the fundamentalist people in West Virginia, with the miners in Harlan in Kentucky, now we come to something else. Digging in the past. Labor. You were interested in something up in New England. Lawrence, Massachusetts, there was a celebrated, a very important strike back in 1912 among textile workers. Well, you pick off.
Paul Cowan Well, again this is the reality behind a facade. In 1968 you and I, remember we were at the Democratic convention, well, shortly before that I had covered George Wallace when he was traveling through Massachusetts, and I had been really amazed by the fact that a lot of the people who would vote for Bobby Kennedy also would have voted for -- who would've voted for Bobby Kennedy planned to vote for George Wallace. And that was really true in the town of Lawrence. I had always been -- Lawrence had always been one of my dreams. They had this wonderful strike in 1912, which gave rise to the phrase "Bread and roses, too," and all the great radical leaders were there. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was there, Big Bill Haywood was there, Carlo Tresca was there
Paul Cowan Yeah. Lincoln Steffens covered it. Margaret Sanger was there. All these names that have enormous echoes for me and, because you know I was raised to -- and I'd made myself into a political radical who want to be part of that past. So, so why were these people turning out to vote for this reactionary candidate George Wallace? Well, in 1976 the question still haunted me, and I went back there. Wallace was now running for president in the Democratic primary. So I thought I'd do a piece about him. I began to interview people in Lawrence and I began to discover they knew nothing at all about the textile strike. The strike that had been so important to me and I think to you, they didn't even know the phrase "Bread and roses, too." In "Ragtime" Doctorow writes about an episode at a train station where the police beat up some kids who were going to leave Lawrence to go to New York and seek comfort there in people's houses and also talk about the strike. People didn't even know that episode had occurred, it was nationally celebrated. I went back to New York and I read up on the strike, and I found this testimony by -- I found that a 12-year-old girl had gone with Margaret Sanger and some other strikers to the House Committee on Rules in Washington, D.C., and she testified in front of William Howard Taft's wife, and she talked about the day that her hair was pulled out
Paul Cowan An Italian girl named Carmela Teoli. She talked, she talked about how her hair had been pulled out in a threshing machine and the wool -- in the in the mills in Lawrence, and she'd had to go to the hospital for seven months because she'd been scalped. She also had -- she talked about how she had to pay for water in -- just to drink when she was working in the mills. And this testimony was headline news all over America, it was like Fannie Lou Hamer's is testimony in the 1964 Democratic Convention. It succeeded in changing the child labor laws in America. It dramatized the strike to the point where the strikers won. Well, I thought maybe Carmela Teoli could tell me about the past, why people had forgotten. So I went to Lawrence and I looked up the name "Teoli" in the phone book, and I called up a guy named Dominic Teoli. I asked him what, was he related to Carmela Teoli. He said, "Well, Carmela Teoli is dead, but her daughter Josephine Catalano lives in the town of Methuen," which was right next to Lawrence. It was ten o'clock at night, and I called up Josie, and I said, "Was your mother the Carmela Teoli who testified in front of the House Rules Committee in 1912?" Now, this strange phone call to get at ten o'clock at night, and Josie said to me, "I don't know anything about that. No, you're crazy," and I said to her, "Well, we're talking the same Carmela Teoli whose hairs were pulled out by the threshing machine in the mills," and she said, "Yeah that was my mother. I combed her hair every day of her life until she died." So I said, "Well, then we're talking about the same person. Let's meet tomorrow." We met in a parking lot
Paul Cowan No. Her mother never told her how come she had this bald spot in her head. So we met in the parking, in a parking lot near a shopping mall in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This woman was working for [Grant's? grants?] at the time, and I showed her the book where her mother's testimony was. She read it with amazement. And then I drove her to the Lawrence library where they had two volumes of testimony, of the testimony in front of the House Committee on Rules. She read them, and she said, "Now I have a past. Now my son has a history that he could be proud of." And I just felt like here I was already beginning my own search for my Judaism and my past, and here Carmela was with her discovery of her past, and so we were linked in a way that that was absolutely unexpected, that linked us much more than say the Fourth of July links Americans.
Paul Cowan Yeah. Well, her, her -- the fact that she hadn't found her roots encouraged or that I had found her roots for her really, was one of the things that encouraged me to dig deeper into my own roots, and meanwhile my father was an enormously important figure in my life, because after he was fired from CBS because of the quiz show scandals, he had gotten somewhat more interested in Judaism and I in the course of all these articles, one of the articles I wrote was about poor Jews on the Lower East Side of New York, and I had gone down to the Lower East Side searching, I'd wanted to find the things that created my own identity as a radical, and I sort of had the idea that socialist Jews had done that. It was crazy, because my grandfather had spawned these mail-order houses and my other grandfather was a used cement bag dealer in Chicago, there are no socialists in my family. Well, I got out of the subway and I saw these two, these three Orthodox kids on a bicycle eating pizza. And I said, "Where are the socialists?" And the kids said, "They've all moved to Westchester County. It's only poor old Orthodox Jews who live here. You should write about them." And I did. I wrote an article called "Jews Without Money Revisited," about their loneliness and how if they still lived in Eastern Europe, they would be connected to their families, but now their children were embarrassed by them. I spent a lot of time in synagogues and I was very impressed with the way that that especially on the day of Tish A Bav, which is a commemoration of the first destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, I was very impressed with the fact that that these Jews remembered something that happened two or 3000 years ago. And if I'd asked my friends in New York on the New Left when were Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney killed, when was Cambodia invaded, when were students at Kent State killed, they couldn't have told me the date. We had no way of remembering. So I wanted to be part of this religion that remembered. I wrote about that in the "Voice," and my father, who had sent me to Choate, who had told me once he thought I might convert and become a priest, went to the woman who thought I wrote the article and said, "Thank you for making a Jew of my son." So now my father was also retrieving his identity.
Studs Terkel So now we come to something, a fascinating moment, a traumatic moment. There was a housing project, they were primarily Blacks to be put into a community where there were primarily Jews living, Forest Hills, Queens. But now we have to set that scene and take off from there.
Paul Cowan This was 1971, 1972, and the city had planned to build these 24-story buildings in Forest Hills, and there was a big protest from the Jews who lived in the community. And from the vantage point of Manhattan, from the vantage point of a liberal New Yorker, especially one had been in the civil rights movement, it seemed to me that the Jews in Forest Hills probably were racist because they didn't want to have the housing project built. There was a guy on the "Voice" who at that time was sort of notorious who was writing articles very much against the housing project, very much in favor of the people who I thought were bigots. I decided I was going to counter those articles with my own articles. I went out to Forest Hills and I began to interview these -- the Jews, and I felt this really unexpected sympathy for them, either they were Holocaust survivors or they were people who had been -- who had moved from say the South Bronx in New York or Bedford Stuyvesant in New York because those neighborhoods had been -- had become bad neighborhoods largely as a result of crime, and they associated crime with poor people and Black people. And so I saw that from their point of view, the housing project really was threatening. I thought they were wrong. I thought the housing project should be built. But I thought it was tremendously important to portray their point of view to other liberals like me through the pages of the "Voice." And then I went to the Forest Hills High School, and I began to interview Black kids who would move into the housing project, and I thought it was very important to portray them for the Jews in Forest Hills, because here are these upwardly mobile Black people who wanted a better place to live so they could get better educations. But the thing that I really felt was this enormous kinship with these Jews, and I felt that my criticisms of them, or you know these criticisms I had in my mind, were based on the fact that I came from a family, the Cowan family, which lived on Park Avenue, which had romantic ideas of Holocaust survivors, romantic ideas of poor Jews, and never knew the reality as we had of, of scrapping.
Studs Terkel And couldn't you carry that a step further and say the poor white in the South, the one called quote unquote "redneck," a rough time. Terrible time is told continuously about those others who would impede their way of making a living, [and I mean?] the Blacks in short, who wanted to vote, who wanted the same rights they did. And so therefore we come to the poor white in the South too. Being used. And so you can't compare their background with a Holocaust survivor background, but nonetheless there is an analogy here, you see.
Studs Terkel So at the same time, how do you prevent a people who have been put upon, the Blacks of the South, or the Blacks in a housing project, you see. How do you prevent them from a better life even though the housing project may be pretty rotten and be the basis of crime because of the geographic, topographic, a lack of jobs, certain educ-- and schooling circumstances?
Paul Cowan But my idea, Studs, was that because of this kinship that I felt with the Jews that I met there and because of all of my experiences in Black communities, it would be possible as a journalist really to heal these rifts just through the use of words that described as I say that described the reality behind the stereotype, so that that commitment even
Studs Terkel The reality behind the stereotype, and that is the work it seems to me of a responsible journalist, not the sensationalism, not the easy way out. A crime on the street which we know is so! But there's something too, you say heal a wound, but to rather make one person understand what it is to be in the skin of the other.
Paul Cowan These two things were developing in me, this increasing interest in being part of the family that I was finding on the Lower East Side, that I found among the Jews in Forest Hills, and this increasing desire as a human being, and this increasing desire as a journalist to use my talents to describe one group of people to another group of people.
Paul Cowan Well, and but also we come to my father again. After I wrote that article called "Jews Without Money Revisited," a friend of mine brought me a picture of a guy who made prayer shawls on the Lower East Side. He made his prayer shawls that were not diluted by rayon, he made them out of pure wool, as his father had before the Holocaust. I told my father about that man, and my father, who always wanted me to write about celebrities, now said, "Take a year off from the 'Voice' and write an article about Orthodox Jewish tradesmen." I said, "Dad, I can't do it." We were very, very close. We talked on the phone every day. He was -- he had had a couple of heart attacks and cancer and so, I said, "I can't do it because they're going to think that I don't know anything about the way that they live, and the fact that I'm in an intermarriage is going to make them uncomfortable with me and call me a heretic." Well, every week my father would ask me to write this article. In 1976, that was the first year that I fasted on Yom Kippur. My father told me that if he was a younger man, he would fast with me, and he had fasted every year of his life until, until he was 29. Now, we talked all the time and often about Judaism, but it was the first time that he had revealed that to me. So it was as if we were both getting closer on the subject. Then he told a friend a few days later that he had had an Orthodox bar mitzvah as a boy. I didn't know that. He -- after I fasted on Yom Kippur, he went into the American Jewish Committee where he's working, his face was wreathed in smiles, he said, "Guess what? Paul fasted." So there was this --this symbiotic relationship developing. Well, in 1976 in -- on November 18th, two policemen knocked on my door, and they told me that my parents had died in a fire, and it was just this, this -- I mean, you could imagine what the moment was like. But one of the things that happened after that was -- now, remember, I had known nothing about my grandfather Jacob Cohen. I had in fact thought that his name wasn't Cohen, that it was a different name. My father [said?] they changed that family, changed its name when they came to America in order to become part of the priestly caste, which the Cohens are. Well, a cousin called me right after the fire, a cousin on the Cohen side of the family. He came to the funeral home, and my brother Jeff got up and he said to this man, Burt Lazarus, "Burt, what is our real name?" Because we thought it wasn't Cohen. He said, "Why, you're Cohens, of course. Your great-great-grandfather Jacob Cohen was the rabbi of a small town which was called Litvinova in Lithuania, and the first holy -- the first Torah scrolls in Chicago came from his synagogue in Lithuania." It was staggering, Studs, it was like getting my past back, and I almost forgot about my parents' death at that moment. And then the funeral began and everything, the whole tragedy sort of reawakened. But one of the things I decided that I wanted to do was both investigate the Cohen family past and also write this article about Orthodox tradesmen. I had a friend, I had made a friend who was a Hasidic rabbi on the Lower East Side. His name is Joseph Singer, and he was a 10th generation of the founder of the Hasidic movement. I told him what I wanted to do, and he became my teacher. He decided he would not call me -- I mean, he never called me Paul, he only called me "Shaul," which is my Hebrew name, and one day in his synagogue the pipes -- the pipes had frozen, it was
Paul Cowan It's retrieving one's legacy. It's -- in the case of Josephine Catalano, her grandfather's name was probably Dante or something like that, it's Josefine -- it's Josie becoming Dante or learning Italian and enjoying Verdi. I mean, it's all these things. It's people really retrieving the riches that were left behind in the old country.
Studs Terkel You know, so much -- it fuses too toward the end, there's a fusion and the one common denominator is coming to America, the land of milk and honey, for the European immigrants. For the Blacks kidnapped off the coast of West Africa. But the land of milk of opportunity, and then something was lost and that is the burial of the past of the various peoples. For the Blacks it was a very specific definite suppression of their history. For the others, it was almost self-suppressed because a sense of shame.
Paul Cowan Sense of shame, a desire for progress. I mean, my father I don't think -- I think he partly changed his name because he didn't like the -- because of his relationship with his father, but partly a Cowan could make it in show business much better than a Cohen could. He was handling Easter Seal accounts here, Christmas campaign, so it was just, it was -- I don't -- they told him when he became president CBS TV that he couldn't have done that as a Cohen. Well, this, one day I was at Rabbi Singer's synagogue, I just want to -- because this was the phrase that got me started. And I felt -- we were cleaning up the floors. It's a place on a very abandoned street in the Lower East Side. Old, old men pray there. It's nothing like a synagogue that I would have imagined, it's not a temple, it's a little shule. And I felt very peaceful and happy. And I asked Rabbi Singer, why did he think that somebody as Americanized and assimilated as me should feel this way in his shule? And he said, "Well, sometimes there's a holy man or a scholar in the past whose piety creates a spark that smolders through the generations until it comes alive again in somebody in the present." And I love the thought that that somebody was me, and I think lurking in me was this feeling that if I if I were able to really let that spark develop, I wouldn't feel like so much of an outsider anymore.
Studs Terkel Coming back to that theme, not fear that much of an outsider anymore. Coming back to that theme of sense of history being lost. I think there is perhaps no one in this society who hasn't lost a sense of past. But today more so, even immediate history like Vietnam was buried, let alone the depression of the '30s though that's recurring now. But you see, it's recurring now I think in the way it is because a sense of history of the past of the '30s is buried. So we come back to that again. Perhaps you should read this from -- because this again, we come back to your unique way of finding your roots through your works with other people, you see. Peoples.
Paul Cowan "And this job had given me a chance to fulfill the fantasies I'd harbored ever since I was a child reading Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Agee, for I could spend weeks or even months in new cultures I'd always regarded as appealingly mythical: among Mexicans at the border town of Juarez, or coal mine miners in Harlan County, Kentucky or fundamentalist Christians in Campbell's Creek, West Virginia, and learn intimate details about the people who lived there without having to commit myself to them."
Paul Cowan Yeah.
Paul Cowan Always. Always. I had my credit card, I had -- I could write about -- I could write about this guy in Harlan County, I could call him a cowboy and there was no consequences for me, so I wanted to live in a world where there was real consequences.
Paul Cowan Yeah.
Paul Cowan Consequences and where there's community. I mean, another thing about being able to pack up and leave is that you feel isolated. Along with this -- this loss of memory in America I think has come an enormous sense of isolation. People especially now that -- especially with the Depression. Here families who are -- who always lived in Youngstown, Ohio, the steel mills close. They scatter around America. They have no central family to -- nuclear family to bind them, so they all feel lost and live in odd places.
Paul Cowan Well, I call it historic amnesia, and one of the -- and I think it's tremendously important for people to get over this historic amnesia, to fuse what was in the past with what was in the present. And I also think that that communities, when my parents -- I'll be real concrete about it. When my parents died, people had two different reactions. A lot of the [folks?] that I knew in the media, and I had a lot of -- I have a lot of friends in the media, would call up once or twice, but they didn't really know how to deal with somebody whose family had suffered a tragedy. So they made me feel a little bit like a leper, you know, like maybe they shouldn't be talking to me because I had -- I wanted to be alone with my grief. Well, I didn't want to be alone with my grief, and the people who knew that were religious people. A nun, who I had gotten to know when I was writing about the Catholic Left, a Black friend of mine who had grown up in a very cohesive Black community in the South, and a lot of religious Jews in my neighborhood who knew about the custom of sitting shiva. So they would bring food to my house for the seven -- for seven days of mourning. They would let me talk about -- they would sit while I talked about my parents. They just let me grieve, instead of making me feel like I was alone, and that made me see the tremendous importance of community, and later on even how you can enjoy things with a community. And again in the New Left, that hadn't really existed, in my father's world that hadn't really existed, at Choate that hadn't existed, as a journalist it that hadn't existed. So it was coming home.
Paul Cowan No.
Studs Terkel There's one other thing should be added as you discover yourself through the discovery of others. They're discovering themselves or trying to. Something's happened technologically, too. This is the world in which a new kind of discoveries technologically for better or worse, mostly worse. Three Mile Island, you covered that. What happens to a community, you mentioned community. So I thought of your investigative journalism when you visited Three Mile Island.
Paul Cowan Well, it's really true, what -- here was here was this device that was put in that was supposed to generate cheap power, and was put in the middle of this beautiful river in western Pennsylvania. And all of a sudden it almost explodes. And so, this secure people that lived there for several generations, the security that they always thought that they had, had suddenly vanished because now they might have been poisoned by radiation in the air, and they were living with terror every day of their lives. There was another thing about those people, too. They were also fundamentalist Christians. I covered that story at a time when I had become a much more observant Jew. And one of the things, one of the things that I was observing was the commandment not to eat leavening during the days of Passover. So, so that was a dietary law that I would follow. They had a lot of respect for that, because they knew about Lent, that you know they knew about their fast days, and so because I had a cohesive religion of my own, I keep using this word cohesive because I had a text, the Bible, and they had a text, a Bible. It gave us something in common that we might not have had otherwise. So I felt like they could share their themselves with me at some level that they might not have been able to share themselves with someone else.
Studs Terkel And so we come again. You're in the middle of history. I mean, all of us are in the middle of history, and one way or another it's history. We're living it, and how we come out is how we understand what is happening and why it's happening, and who is doing what to
Paul Cowan And one -- Studs, one of the things that has really -- you know, I thought at first -- I thought a lot about taking on each of these different commandments, and I decided that that I didn't want anything to separate me from other people, but I didn't want but I really think that that it all provides a kind of a cohesiveness and a sense of community. And I and I also believe that that revelation, that what was revealed at Sinai at least the fact that it still exists is almost miraculous, and it takes a lot of gall not to pay attention to it, but I was afraid that all of this would divide me from other people. The thing that's actually happened is that as I've become more openly proud of being Jewish, people have been able to tell me how proud they are of being whatever, whatever they are. If I order a kosher meal on a plane, that immediately begins a conversation with the Italian who's sitting next to me, or the French Canadian who's sitting next to me, about their boots and their own striving for, for stability and community.
Studs Terkel Revelation is, there's literal revelation, there's Biblical revelation, there's fundamentalist revelation and also revelation of discovering the world around you and what it is and what makes it tick and where you are in it.
Paul Cowan Yeah.
Studs Terkel That's revelatory too. So this is we're talking about, revelation and its many guises, aren't we? And we're talking to Paul Cowan, "An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy," but it could be any legacy. That's the point. It's almost a metaphor. And I think Three Mile Island, perhaps we could end with that, is almost the metaphor for that could follow through in a horrendous way, that could involve the loss of all memory, loss of our very being.
Paul Cowan It's really true. This this technology which is supposed to be -- to do good produces the terrible evil of radiation poisoning in the air. The same thing is really true with the Depression that's about to -- that could, we could be on the verge of. This economy which was supposed to keep going and going and going and never stop, all these experiments with the economy could leave people not only homeless, but familyless, without any of their older memories surrounding them. So it's not only bankrupt in their pocketbooks, but it's bankrupt in their souls. So we would live in a society with an increasing sense of aloneness, and, and then the question is going to be, not only the ones that you wrote about in "Working," but there's going to be a question for a lot of people, how can we reform a community? How can we re-establish our old ties? And that's going to be a tremendous search that takes place over the next five or 10 or 20 years.
Studs Terkel And so these are thoughts, all sorts of thoughts and challenges come forth in your work. It's as though it's about you and the retrieving of your legacy, it's -- or others are involved, all others.