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The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi [Kindle Edition]

Edward Cohen

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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.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1663 KB
  • Print Length: 193 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (1 Aug. 1999)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001M0O5FS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,246,580 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mogen David meets the Magnolia state in wistful memoir 24 May 2002
By Bruce J. Wasser - Published on
Exploring the consequences of straddling two cultures, "The Peddler's Grandson" proves that being Jewish in the deep South is a lot more than playing Dixie with a klezmer band. Accurately subtitled "Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi," Edward Cohen's enjoyable and instructive memoir recounts the author's childhood in post World-War II Mississippi and explores the dynamics of being a dual outsider: A Jew in the Bible Belt and a southern Jew in a cosmopolitan Jewish university. Written with perceptive sociological insight and engaging self-deprecatory humor, this memoir sheds light on the profound issue of marginality. As Edward Cohen grows up, he leaves the safe cocoon of his protective Jewish home and discovers the strangely alluring and frightening Christian South.
The grandson of an intinerant peddler, Cohen explains both the coherence of a Jewish life and the centripetal influences the dominant culture exerts on that identity. Once in the public school system, Cohen feels a need to reinvent himself, from invisible Jew to iconoclastic rebel. Yet, with each recreation, Cohen feels less complete, even more dissatisfied. Where he yearns for a fusion of his dual Southern/Jewish identities, he experiences alienation and distancing from both. Culminating with four experimental years at Miami University, his story both extols and berates the divisive nature of his existence.
At its best, "The Peddler's Grandson" serves as a model for every immigrant seeking authentic identity in his/her new land. At once desperately seeking inclusion but discovering that the price of admission is cultural abdication, Cohen warns about the notion that one can gain identity by erasing one's past. "From the first day my Jewish self was suddenly full-immersion baptized into that southern world, I wanted to reconcile what couldn't be joined." We watch, with admiration, as Cohen reaches an adult acceptance of who and what he is. "I've learned the difference between discovering who I am and inventing it. 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."
"The Peddler's Grandson" is not pedantic in the least. Delightful family history and marvelous anecdotes pepper this memoir. Cohen's battles with the dyspeptic Rabbi Nussbaum over issues ranging from the existential meaning of life to the Edward's refusal as a child to eat a hard-boiled egg at Passover ring with Jewish humor. With characteristic grace, however, is Cohen's admission that he admires his adversary as a civil rights' leader. The author does not have to mention that Nussbaum's home was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan; yet in so doing, Cohen reminds us of his own profound ambivalence over racism during the late 1950s and early 1960s. One senses that the adult Cohen has not forgiven himself for his acquiescent silence during that crucial decade; indeed, his compassionate recounting of the African-Ameicans who worked in his family's clothes store indicate a sensitivity that began during that formative period.
Cohen writes with an assurance he lacked as a child. His memoir is warm, comforting, and, in parts, genuinely inspiring. The author's adult confidence derives, however, from that childhood, both Southern and Jewish. His adult confidence in his roots and his place in both worlds blossoms from a family which, although profoundly assimilated, nevertheless recognized its marginality. His Jewish identity, compromised by an alien culture which celebrated physicality instead of intellectualism, emerges secure; his Southern roots, nurtured by three generations of life in Jackson, Mississippi and tarnished by national denigration of the very name of his state, endure. Thus, Edward Cohen, child of a Jewish peddler who settled in a locale far beyond the reaches of Northern urban Jewish influence, represents the best of the Ameican expeience; his cultural dialectic results in the best of all possibilities -- a genuine multiculturalism.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi.....and Beyond 5 Jan. 2002
By Alan Evan-Schwartz - Published on
Although it is his own autobiography, Edward Cohen tells in a very readable and entertaining narrative what growing up Jewish in America was like for many of us baby boomers, the children and grandchildren of Eastern Europeon immigrants. The Southern setting and experience is central to the theme of this excellent work. Yet, most of the stories and recollections of his large, extended family, his own coming of age in the 50's and 60's have a universality and reflect many shared experiences with those of us who grew up Jewish during this same time, even in the North. While important parts of the book touch on serious themes as racism and anti-semitism, this book offers terrific humor and warm nostalgia, without being "schmaltzy" or self-serving. Less than 200 pages, The Peddler's Grandson can be enjoyed in one cover-to-cover sitting that will for many readers envoke two stories, the author's and for many of us, the parallels of our own lives. A great read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written--couldn't wait to get back to reading it 1 Oct. 1999
By A Customer - Published on
You don't have to be Jewish or even Southern to enjoy this beautifully written book. Who among us has never felt "outside" for one reason or another? Edward Cohen paints an intimate picture of himself, his family and the small Jewish community in his hometown, Jackson, Mississippi and yet it is a microcosm for what goes on in every one's life, all families, all communities. The reader is moved to empathy--by reflecting on personal experiences and also to compassion and forgiveness, borne of that empathy. This book is sweet, tender, insightful--and utterly without bitterness and rancor. It is about healing and acceptance and tolerance--with Cohen's finely crafted storytelling and deliciously sharp wit. READ THIS BOOK.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming will written memoir 17 Jan. 2000
By Lynn Ruth Miller - Published on
THE PEDDLER'S GRANDSON Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi by Edward Cohen 193 Pages;University of Mississippi Press
This is a beautifully written memoir that is deeper than an ordinary auto-biography. Cohen discusses his grandparents and their immigration into America from Romania and Poland as well as his own conflict in trying to be oone of the crowd and still establish his own creative identity. His father's father was a peddler who walked through the Mississippi countryside, slept in haylofts and eventually imported his brother to help him open up a small clothing store near Jackson, Mississipi. His mother's parents originated in Poland which, according to Cohen, ". . . compared to Romania, it was postively cosmopoliatan. Her people settled first in Louisiana but eventually moved to Mississippi when she married Cohen's father. In many ways, the most interesting portions of the book were the discussions of how these immigrants to the American culture and the Southern Tradition managed to make their mark and settle into a comfortable way of life. Southern prejudice against Jews, the entire country's aversion to anyone "different", all contributed the elements to Edward Cohen's final immigration to that haven of liberal thought: California. He now lives in Venice, California, and works as a freelance writer and filmmaker. His memoir sheds light on what it was like to grow up Jewish and white in the south in 1950's and it is also an account of the ingenuity and courage of Polish and Romanian immigrants who came to this country determined to escape oppression and make a life for themselves. An excellent read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living on the Borders 21 Oct. 1999
By Gershon Ben-Avraham - Published on
In his book, Edward Cohen captures the essence of what it is like to live on the borders, never feeling fully at home, never quite fitting in, and never being just 'comfortable'. Two of my favorite quotes come near the end of the book. In coming to grips with his conflicting feelings about being a Southern Jew (or is it a Jewish Southerner?) he says: "...whether it was my southern or my Jewish half that I hoped to lose, each time I tried, I got smaller." And the truce he finally arrives at is summed up as: "I may be a man without a country, but I carry two passports." I grew up in Jackson at the same time as Mr. Cohen (he is, I believe, two years older than I am). For the last twenty years I have lived, willingly, in exile. To read his book was, for me, to remember what it is like to love and hate something that is an inseparable part of my identity at one and the same time.
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