The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family By Roger Cohen

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012315_mishmash_bookRoger Cohen’s tribute to his mother is an interesting story of displacement and its damage to family history and traditions, and sometimes to one’s mental health. It also shows the sheltered, comfortable lives of many South African Jews, 40,000 of whom came from Lithuania between the 1880s and 1914.

In South Africa, “even for a Jewish immigrant family of modest means, the vast black underclass … afforded a good standard of living,” writes Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times. “Because cheap, unskilled black labor abounded, Jews in general avoided manual work and the sweatshop,” fortune not shared by Lithuanian Jews who headed for the United States.

Apartheid, which Cohen condemns, also meant protection. “If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you do not have much left over for tens of thousands of Jews,” he writes. South African Jews, however, were discomforted by apartheid; some of its strongest white opponents were Jews.

New opportunity, though, “is only one side of the immigrant story,” Cohen writes, offering up his mother’s experience as illustrative of the “displacement and loss” that affected so many immigrants.

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