You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Paul Cowan's An Orphan in History

updated 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

I began to dwell on the fact that I was the grandson of someone named Cohen: an Orthodox Jew, an impoverished, used-cement-bag dealer from Chicago. Of course, I had no idea of what an Orthodox Jew was, of what a used-cement-bag dealer did. But I wanted very much to know. So, gradually, imperceptibly...I began to feel impelled to search for a link between Jake Cohen's world and mine."

When Paul Cowan, now 42, began to examine this fragile thread to the past, he was a prep school student at Choate, a proper Connecticut boarding school and alma mater of John F. Kennedy. His everyday life at that time was hardly Jewish. "I was often stirred by the hymns we sang in chapel," he recalls. On such Christian holidays as Easter, Paul, whose father, Lou, was president of CBS-TV, would return to the family home on Park Avenue in Manhattan; there the dinner fare was likely to be a decidedly unkosher repast of ham and sweet potatoes.

Now, a quarter of a century after he first began pondering the disquieting ambiguity of his Jewish heritage and WASP-like existence, Cowan has written a book about his quest. An Orphan in History is a moving account of his search for his Jewish roots and his eventual embracing of Judaism. Neither Cowan nor his publisher, Double-day, had any illusions that the book would be a blockbuster. Yet An Orphan in History is now in its third printing, and many readers, judging from Cowan's mail, appear to be non-Jews. "It's an American, not just a Jewish, story," he says. "It's the story of millions of immigrant families...of Jews, Italians, Irish, Greeks and Hispanics who sacrificed an enormously important treasure, their history, to become part of a melting pot."

Cowan's story might never have been told were it not for the efforts of Ken McCormick, a former editor in chief of Doubleday who encouraged Alex Haley to write Roots. "It seemed to me that Paul had an important story to tell," says McCormick, 77. He urged Cowan, then as now a roving reporter for Manhattan's weekly newspaper the Village Voice, to submit a proposal for such a book to Doubleday. The company liked the idea, and Cowan settled down to a two-year writing effort.

His story begins with his ancestors, a distinguished line of German and Lithuanian rabbis, and moves on to the members of his immediate family. Lou Cowan, who had changed his name from Cohen at age 21, produced hit radio and TV shows such as The Quiz Kids and The $64,000 Question. So guarded was Lou about his Jewish past, writes Paul, that "he never let my brother and two sisters or me meet any of his relatives." Paul's mother was the former Polly Spiegel, a member of a wealthy Chicago mail-order family. At one time the Spiegels had even followed the Christian Science religion to fit more comfortably into Kenilworth, a gentile Chicago suburb.

Growing up with Lou and Polly, says Paul, "I knew I was Jewish, but I didn't know what that meant." Yet he does not blame his parents, who were deeply affected by the Holocaust, for shielding their children from the specter of anti-Semitism. "In my father's day," he says, "wearing a yarmulke on a train would have been considered a provocative act."

Given his upbringing, Paul had no hesitations about marrying a New England Protestant, Rachel Brown, after his graduation from Harvard. Together they joined the civil rights movement in the 1960s and also served with the Peace Corps in Ecuador.

Later, as a Village Voice reporter, Cowan interviewed the radical priest Daniel Berrigan and covered the trial of the Harrisburg Seven, the clergymen and nuns who had been charged with conspiring to raid draft boards. Envying their "rooted faith," he later began the search for the tradition of his ancestors, visiting synagogues on Manhattan's Lower East Side and studying Jewish theology and practices with Rabbi Joseph Singer. It was the death of his parents in a 1976 Manhattan hotel fire that accelerated the search. At the Jewish funeral, Cowan met a cousin who gave him the names of many relatives he had never known. Cowan later traveled around the nation to establish contact.

Today he is a committed Jew, as is his wife, who converted two years ago. Rachel spends much of her time as an unpaid program director at a small neighborhood synagogue that both Cowans are helping to revitalize. Paul attends religious services four or five mornings a week before turning to his Village Voice writing duties. Their children, Lisa, 14, and Matthew, 13, are both taking instruction in Judaism.

For Paul Cowan, the consuming spiritual journey has given him contentment as well as a broader sense of identity. "I feel more Jewish," he says. "But I feel more American too."

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