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The Peddler's Grandson

The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi

Edward Cohen
Copyright Date: 1999
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    The Peddler's Grandson
    Book Description:

    Edward Cohen grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the heart of the Bible Belt, thousand of miles from the northern centers of Jewish culture. As a child he sang "Dixie" in his segregated school, said the "sh'ma" at temple. While the civil rights struggle exploded all around, he worked at the family clothing store that catered to blacks.

    His grandfather Moise had left Romania and all his family for a very different world, the Deep South. Peddling on foot from farm to farm, sleeping in haylofts, he was the first Jew many Mississippians had ever seen. Moise's brother joined him and they married two sisters, raising their children under one roof, an island of Judaism in a sea of southern Christianity.

    In the 1950s, insulated by the extended family of double-cousins, Edward believed the world was populated totally by Jews--until the first day of school when he had the disquieting realization that he was the only Jew in his class. At times he felt southern, almost, but his sense of being an outsider slowly crystallized, as he listened to daily Christian school prayers tried to explain his annual absences to classmates who had never heard of Rosh Hashanah. At Christmas his parents' house was the only one without lights. In the seventh grade, he was the only child not invited to dance class.

    In a compelling work that is nonfiction throughout but conveyed with a fiction writer's skill and technique, Cohen recounts how he left Mississippi for college to seek his own tribe. Instead, he found that among northern Jews he was again an outsider, marked by his southernness. They knew holidays like Simchas Torah; he knew Confederate Memorial Day.

    He tells a story of displacement, of living on the margin of two already marginal groups, and of coming to terms with his dual loyalties, to region and religion. In this unsparingly honest and often humorous portrait of cultural contradiction, Cohen's themes--the separateness of the artist, the tug of assimilation, the elusiveness of identity--resonate far beyond the South.

    Edward Cohen lives in Venice, California, where he is a freelance writer and filmmaker. Previously he was head writer and executive producer for Mississippi Educational Television, where he wrote numerous award-winning documentaries, including Passover, Hanukkah, and The Last Confederates.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-688-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-1)

    Back in sixth grade in Mississippi, I read a chilling tale, “The Man Without a Country,” about a man condemned to live forever adrift on a ship, never to come home to his native land. My schoolmates, I imagine, took comfort in knowing that they were still on the shore and always would be. But I, being both southern and Jewish, identified with the man who had no home.

    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. Fitting in is the First...

  4. Chapter 1 The Big House
    (pp. 3-29)

    I saw all four of my grandparents together only once, in the early 1950s, standing on my parents’ front lawn on a summer day, the two men proud of their American short-sleeved shirts. They conversed in English, though they would’ve been more comfortable speaking Yiddish. They came from countries thousands of miles apart, yet had a shared history about which they would almost never talk.

    For my grandparents, time seemed to start at Ellis Island when they entered America as immigrants. Before that event was a great divide, and in their new homes were few family treasures passed down for...

  5. Chapter 2 Worlds in Collision
    (pp. 31-83)

    When I was growing up, it was a point of civic pride that Jackson was “the buckle on the Bible Belt.” Christian churches were everywhere, and, naturally, so were Christians, a multitudinous army compared to our tiny camp. Yet until I was six, I lived sheltered from that South in an almost entirely Jewish universe, with little premonition of the cultural clash that would await me when I started school.

    What made my home an all-Jewish universe was the simple fact that, with very few exceptions, no one who was not Jewish ever set foot inside it. Such an insular...

  6. Chapter 3 The Temple
    (pp. 85-115)

    When my grandparents came to the United States, they brought with them the same Judaism they’d been taught in Europe. It was close in practice and stringency to what is practiced today by Orthodox Jews who observe kosher dietary laws, wear yarmulkes, and recite copious amounts of Hebrew in their services.

    The Judaism my grandparents encountered in the South was Reform Judaism, by far the most liberal, assimilated form of the faith. They adapted quickly to the Americanized Judaism, and in fact were much more comfortable with this relaxed level of observance. Even this degree of devotion was often too...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. Chapter 4 The Store
    (pp. 117-163)

    Cohen Brothers was my Big House. From the time of my earliest memories until I was well into adulthood, it was a place I was always welcome, where family could always be found. No matter how many times I might move, the store was a constant; lost letters caught up with me there, as did long-forgotten friends who were passing through. If I needed a place to park downtown, if I ran short of money and the banks were closed, if I needed an emergency tailoring job for a crucial date, the store never failed me. I knew how much...

  9. Chapter 5 The Lost Tribe
    (pp. 165-189)

    In 1966, my senior year at Murrah, I began to implement my old escape plan. Everything at Murrah and outside it concentrated my focus. Not only was I hunted in the halls by a boy the size of a tree stump whose dim fancy had fixed on a girl I was dating, but one of the coaches caught me not dressing out, and I had to wear the white “Jackson Public Schools” shorts and participate in organized sports. And even though the ’60s rebellion hadn’t yet come to Mississippi, I was continuing to absorb the sedition of my Village Voice...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 191-193)

    I lost part of my New York accent on the drive home, somewhere in Alabama when I couldn’t resist the urge to pull over at a barbeque stand, and the rest wore off like a bubble-gum tattoo. Mississippi was slower, about the speed of life. By degrees I was reabsorbed. If I still didn’t know who I was, at least I knew who I wasn’t.

    Somehow my mass communications degree and my writing came together, and I was hired as a writer at Mississippi ETV, where I embraced film projects that, not surprisingly, were about misfits and outcasts such as...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 195-195)