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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

What I Learned After Unlocking My Papa’s History

On Friday nights, I’d watch Papa Cohen stand at the head of the table in his finest suit, reciting the Kiddush in his Polish-accented Hebrew. I treasure this memory of his European refinement, his religious devotion, and the deep love he felt for his family, a love that was difficult for him to express in words.

Born Dov Ber Konopioty in Sokoly, Poland, in 1900, my maternal grandfather was renamed Bernard Cohen at Ellis Island in 1922. For the rest of his life, he had to explain he was not, in fact, a Kohen. Nor was he that other Rabbi Bernard Cohen in Los Angeles, the one with the middle initial “M,” a Reform rabbi who officiated at mixed marriages.

During a career that spanned 50 years, Papa served Conservative shuls from the East Coast to the West, including the first Conservative synagogue in Las Vegas in the mid-1950s. Worried about rampant assimilation, Papa tirelessly worked on behalf of afterschool Jewish education, and became the founding executive director of the L.A. Bureau of Jewish Education. He wrote prolifically for the Jewish press about Jewish history in the United States, the life and times of notable Jewish writers, issues in Jewish education and more.

Papa was always on the go, attending meetings, sitting as a judge in the Conservative beis din, teaching, speaking and writing. When he sat down for tea and cake Nana served him, he either was reading the Yiddish Forverts or a tome of Talmud.

Papa never told us stories about his life, but when I interviewed him for a high school biography project, he was thrilled to talk. I was fascinated to learn about his narrow escape from the Polish army, when he bartered his freedom for a book of Polish poetry a senior officer wanted. It was heartrending to hear him speak about his parents, who never left Poland and were killed by the Nazis, along with so many others in his family.

My guilt at letting Papa’s papers sit for so long was assuaged when I discovered that much of what remained had archival value, such as shul bulletins from 50 to 70 years ago that spoke to the history of those communities.

When Papa died at age 82, he left behind a legacy of professional achievement. He also left behind a huge and disorganized inventory of books, personal papers, mementos, cassette tapes of his sermons, shul bulletins from the congregations he served, and tiny date books going back decades.

The cache was so daunting that only last year did I finally, with great guilt, roll up my sleeves and sort through the dusty piles. I felt like an archeologist, sifting for the backstory of my grandfather’s life. He left pieces of his heart in surprising places, such as the tiny date books he used to jot down appointments.

In 1977, when my Nana, his wife of 50 years, was dying of cancer, he wrote, “My poor Ethel is suffering. It is terrible to see her in such pain.” On a separate slip of paper, he wrote Nana’s instructions to him about paying the mortgage and where she kept the bank statements.

I knew my grandparents had met at a Zionist convention in Pittsburgh in 1926, but not until I saw a sepia-toned group photo of the 150 well-dressed young Jews in attendance did I see Papa standing in the top row on the far right, while Nana sat several rows below and to the left, with another man’s arm around her shoulder. I cheered Papa’s triumph over the other suitor.

These puzzle pieces helped me see my grandfather as a man I never really knew, beyond the rabbi working so hard to build Jewish life in a secularized American culture. Reading through some of his articles, I appreciated so much more his skillful, sophisticated prose, especially since he didn’t learn English until early adulthood. I felt for him keenly as I read letters he sent, beseeching boards of directors to raise his inadequate shul or teaching salaries. How humiliating that must have been for such a dignified man.

My guilt at letting Papa’s papers sit for so long was assuaged when I discovered that much of what remained had archival value, such as shul bulletins from 50 to 70 years ago that spoke to the history of those communities. A librarian who curates materials on the history of Jewish Las Vegas at the University of Las Vegas was thrilled to receive my package of Papa’s papers, which also included conversion documents Papa had signed and the front-page newspaper story about Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to Eddie Fisher that mentioned Papa’s name (spelled incorrectly) as the officiating rabbi. Nestled among one pile of papers was a slim, brochure-format text of a radio address by an American rabbi in 1933, warning of the coming Nazi menace, with Papa’s notes written in the back. This rare document soon will become part of the United States Holocaust Museum’s collection.

Five years after Nana died, Papa found love again. For three years, he carried on an intense, long-distance romance with Sarah, a Florida widow. Sarah’s letters to Papa, as well as her poems dedicated to him, filled an entire box. Like a nervous young suitor, Papa wrote notes to himself in preparation for an important phone call.

Discovering this youthful, romantic spirit in bloom in my 80-year-old Papa touched me more deeply than almost anything else. When he flew to Florida to propose, Sarah could not bring herself to leave her family. I cried when I saw a duplicate of a romantic greeting card he had sent to her, writing on it, “the last card I sent to Sarah.”

Nearly 40 years after he passed away, I got to know my grandfather more deeply, more holistically. His intellectual and professional achievements already were known, but the work behind it all and the deepest feelings that were in his heart were everywhere in those boxes.

Papa openly had fretted about the loss of Jewish continuity not only communally, but in his own family, where most of his grandchildren were indifferent to Judaism. But his efforts were rewarded. Papa and Nana have many descendants who are fully shomer Shabbat and who study Torah in a way that must give him nachas up in heaven. No sincere efforts on behalf of Judaism are ever wasted.

Last Yom Kippur, I felt Papa’s spirit with me in shul. It was a strong, palpable and energizing feeling, one I had never experienced before. My grown children had also begun to feel a kinship with Papa through the discoveries I shared with them. And last November, very close to Papa’s birthday, his fifth great-great-grandchild was born, a little boy who carries his name: Dov Ber.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.

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