Even if you aren't Jewish, even if you didn't grow up in the South, you will enjoy reading Edward Cohen's memoir "The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi" (University Press of Mississippi, 1999, $25).
Cohen will give a reading from his book at Border's in Davis on Sunday, May 21, at 2 p.m.
"The Protestant South I grew up in was more like a Bible Blanket than a Bible Belt, not so much constricting as smothering everyone in commonality," he wrote. "Fitting in is the 1st Commandment of childhood, and for no one does this seem more imperative than for a child who can't.
"Of the 100,000 people then living in my hometown of Jackson, perhaps 300 were Jews, and so, by faith and by numbers, I was defined as an outsider. My life would have been far different had my immigrant grandparents stayed with other Jews in the North instead of inexplicably extending their journey even farther, to a land where Jews were as few as they were exotic," Cohen added.
His grandfather, Moise, left Romania and his family for a different world. Peddling on foot from farm to farm, sleeping in haylofts, he was the first Jew many in the deep Mississippi countryside had ever seen. Moise's brother, Sam, joined him and they married sisters, raising their families under one roof.
The two brothers opened a clothing store in Jackson and that's where Edward Cohen's father spent his working career.
Cohen was born in Jackson's Baptist Hospital and grew up in Jackson, his childhood spanning the 1950s and 1960s. The only child to miss school in order to celebrate Jewish holidays, he knew he was different.
In third grade, he faced a crisis. While all the other kids planned to take part in a Christmas pageant, what could Cohen do?
"My parents, who were Southern Jews and therefore schooled in compromise, determined that I could either play an inanimate object, a rock or a tree, or I could work backstage pulling the curtains." Cohen manned the curtains.
In sixth grade he read a book that seemed, unhappily, to sum up his whole existence. It was "The Man Without a Country."
Later, the civil rights struggle rocked Jackson and the whole of the South. "My own loyalties were impossibly mixed," he recalled.
"My father's clothing store, with its largely black clientele, was located on Capitol Street, the geographical center of the civil rights struggle in Jackson. Both of his employees were black, and to my knowledge he was the only white merchant in the city who called blacks "Mr." and "Mrs." and had an integrated restroom and water fountain," he recalled.
"Even so, his store was included when the NAACP mounted a boycott of downtown merchants. As the outsider, as the Jew, my father tried to effect some compromise between the segregationist merchants and the NAACP. But neither side would yield."
Finally, Cohen left Mississippi when he was accepted at the University of Miami. He pledged a Jewish fraternity.
"Finally I was with Jews, but they were a different tribe, one to which I didn't belong. To them, the South was exotic, unthinkable, a bumpkin patch."
Cohen quit the fraternity, but smoothed out his accent and kept his Mississippi origins murky. He told people he was from New Orleans, the most cosmopolitan Southern city he could think of.
He could no more stop being a Southerner than he could stop being a Jew. Today, Cohen and his wife, Kathy, live in Venice, Calif., where he is a free-lance writer and filmmaker. Everyone fits in in Southern California. Or maybe Cohen has learned to stop fighting his roots.
"I might not be comfortable on any one shore, but now I've learned the difference between discovering who I am and inventing it," he wrote. "Invention for me meant erasure, and whether it was my Southern or my Jewish half that I hoped to lose, each time I tried, I got smaller.
"I may be a man without a country, but I carry two passports," he concluded. Come meet Cohen at Borders in Davis a week from today.
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