Author Paul Cowan Dead at 48; Chronicled Return to Judaism
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Author Paul Cowan Dead at 48; Chronicled Return to Judaism

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Paul Cowan, a journalist from an assimilated family who chronicled his own return to his Jewish roots, died Monday of complications of leukemia at New York University Hospital. He was 48 years old.

Until his illness, Cowan and his wife, Rachel, were regular worshipers at Ansche Chesed synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they were prime movers in revitalizing the once waning congregation with an infusion of energetic, young, politically involved people.

The couple helped begin the Havurah School, where their children, Lisa and Matt, and other neighborhood children could learn about Judaism from the ground up. The school, started in an apartment, now flourishes at Ansche Chesed.

Paul Cowan was the son of the late Louis Cowan, a former president of CBS News and producer of such legendary television programs as “The $64,000 Question” and “The Quiz Kids.”

His mother, Pauline Spiegel Cowan, was of the family that initiated and owned the Spiegel catalogue. His uncle, Mody Spiegel, was a proud convert to Christian Science.


Cowan’s parents raised their children in an assimilated ambience, in which Christmas trees were a perennial ritual. They sent Cowan to Choate, an Episcopal school attended by members of American Gentile society, where attendance at daily chapel services was mandatory.

Cowan graduated from Harvard University in 1963. Soon afterward, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He wrote a book on that experience, “The Making of an Unamerican.”

Following his parents’ death in a fire at New York’s Westbury Hotel in 1976, Cowan began learning more about his Jewish background, including the fact that the family’s last name had been Cohen and that his great-great-grandfather was a rabbi in Lithuania.

His quest for his Jewish roots produced a book, “An Orphan in History,” which became a classic of the Jewish returnee’s experience.

In the book, he mused on his double identity as Saul Cohen, descendant of a rabbi, and Paul Cowan, New York journalist. He wrote how he liked both identities.

Rachel Cowan, formerly a Unitarian, converted to Judaism after 15 years of marriage. The couple became gradually more observant together, eventually keeping the Sabbath to the letter.

The former Rachel Brown, whose family traced itself to Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower, is now completing rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also studied Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


The Cowan published a book together last year on intermarriage, titled “Mixed Blessings,” which won a 1988 National Jewish Book Award. They were active in organizations of intermarried couples, as well as far-flung groups of rural New England Jews.

Cowan began to feel extreme fatigue a little over a year ago and was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized at New York University Medical Center for treatment. He wrote a journal of his illness for The Village Voice, the New York weekly for which he was a staff writer for more than 20 years.

His absence at last year’s Simchat Torah services at Ansche Chesed was clearly notable, following the many years he had been an energetic participant.

Two years ago, amidst joyous throngs celebrating in the closed-off block of 100th St. and West End Ave., Cowan yelled triumphantly to a friend as he danced around the Torah, “Five years ago, who would have believed this could be true?”

Cowan received a self-transplant of bone marrow this summer at Dartmouth University Hospital. However, he suffered a relapse from which he did not recover.

Funeral services were to be held Wednesday at 9 a.m. at Ansche Chesed.

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