Commentary Magazine

Journey's End?

To the Editor:

Ruth R. Wisse’s . . . critical review of Paul Cowan’s An Orphan in History [Books in Review, February] contrasts sharply with the rapturous reception the book received in the periodicals of national Jewish organizations. . . . On the clerical front, my rabbi told me that Paul Cowan was the only person in his memory accorded a standing ovation by the Rabbinical Assembly. . . .

Why, then, when the American Jewish family hails the return of the prodigal son, does a skeptical Ruth Wisse . . . dissent? . . . Perhaps there is the awareness that Paul Cowan is not the first Jew to have proclaimed his return to the fold and his rediscovered Jewishness in a book and in public appearances, to have received accolades from Jewish organizations, to have achieved a position in public consciousness where his pronouncements as a Jew carry uncommon weight. Perhaps I am being grossly unfair to Mr. Cowan, but recent experience should have taught us to examine newly-minted credentials very carefully.

As Paul Cowan tells it, the realization that “I was getting ready to resume my spiritual journey” set his feet on the road to Judaism. The final pages of his book leave wide open the question of whether he is indeed at journey’s end. Mrs. Wisse’s interest in the author’s “next autobiography” is thus not idle curiosity. As one of our most perceptive observers of the current Jewish scene, she is warning us that the resumption of his journey might provide some unhappy surprises for many members of a Jewish community which has so ardently clasped Paul Cowan to its bosom. . . .

Robert A. Riesman
Providence, Rhode Island

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