INTERVIEWER: This interview is for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and it’s being recorded on September the 18th 2017 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at the Jewish Federation and my name is Flo Gurwin and I’m interviewing Bill Cohen. Bill, what is your full name?
COHEN: William David Cohen.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a Jewish name?
COHEN: Velvel. V-e-l-v-e-l.
INTERVIEWER: Who were you named for?
COHEN: I don’t know. You know the only, the only time I’ve heard the name Velvel, and I’m not making this up, on the old Ed Sullivan show, I swear, there was a Jewish ventriloquist who had a dummy named Velvel. That’s the only other time I’ve ever heard that name Velvel. It sounds more Yiddish than Hebrew to me.
INTERVIEWER: It does. How far back can you trace your family?
COHEN: Well, I’ve got a family tree in front of me at least on my mother’s side so let me just go back from me and then we can see how far back we can go. My parents, were Beatrice Tillie Lopper and my father, Arthur Cohen, who actually, I think, was originally named Adolph, but at some point, changed his name and from what I understand, changed his name long before Adolph Hitler came about, so I’m not sure why he changed his name there, but those are my parents. My father’s parents’ names were William and Mary. Mary would be a pretty unusual name for a Jew but I’m pretty sure that was his mother’s name. My mother’s side I know a lot more about. My mother’s parents were Max Lopper and Yetta Lehrer L-e-h-r-e-r, and they were both from Galicia which my understanding is that was in Poland although who knows? When the Germans and the Russians and the Poles were always fighting, who knows, that city, that province may have been in other countries but I believe it’s mostly identified with Poland. So, those were my grandparents on my mother’s side, Max Lopper and Yetta Lehrer. I see from the family tree that Max Lopper’s parents were Rose Salz, S-a-l-z, and her husband Solomon Shlomo Lapper, L-a-p-p-e-r. I have a feeling, you know, that the original name was Lapper and then as things, as people came to Ellis Island or whatever, names got changed and it became Lopper and then I guess I can trace it back one more generation a little bit. Solomon Shlomo Lapper’s father was Bente, Bentziyon Lapper B-e-n-t-z-i-y-o-n, Bentziyon Lapper who my family tree says died in July of 1919. No other information on that.
INTERVIEWER: Okay and do you know on your father’s side is that the one from Galicia or was that your mother’s side?
COHEN: My father’s side.
INTERVIEWER: What about your mother’s side.
COHEN: What I was told was that they had Russian roots.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. When they came, do you know anything about how they came to this country?
COHEN: I don’t. I do know that my mother was born in Columbus, Ohio, and even though this family tree says my father was born in Columbus, I don’t think that’s right. I think he was born in Cleveland because I know that my aunt Lillian who was my father’s sister, I remember her telling me she went to Glenville High School in Cleveland so I have a feeling they both grew up in Cleveland. I remember my father saying at one point though, the family moved to Rahway, New Jersey, and I, my dad was not a real talkative guy but he did, I remember once tell me that he remembers he was being chased home from school by some anti-Semitic kids calling him a “dirty Jew” or whatever and that was one of his big memories of Rahway, New Jersey.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, so they had already family here in this country when they came, though, when your grandparents came. Did they have family already here?
COHEN: Well, let’s see, when my grandparents Max Lopper and Yetta Lehrer came, yes, they had family, some family because one of my mother’s brothers, Isaac Lopper, according to my family tree, he was born in Galicia. He died at age 26 in some kind of an accident in 1932, so I remember she didn’t talk much about him but that was, that shows that my mother’s parents did have one child who was born in Galicia and also another of my mother’s brothers who was Morris, Moishe Lopper, who was a lawyer here in Columbus. He was born also in Galicia in 1904. I think he was of the Lopper kids.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know what port of entry they came in?
COHEN: I don’t.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Give you something to work on.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, do you remember any stories, family stories when you were young, things that they told you when they were young, stories about your mother or father?
COHEN: Well, stories about how my grandfather Max Lopper, who died when I was only about nine years old in 1957, though I didn’t know him very well, but I remember hearing many stories about, I’d say well, what about, what did grandfather Max do and she said, “Well, he worked at the market near the corner of Main street and Fourth Street in downtown, what is now downtown Columbus in the, I think it was called the Central Market. I think it was called the Central Market. It was the big open air with little stalls and my grandfather Max apparently had a team of horses and a wagon and would buy wholesale fruits and vegetables and deliver them to restaurants and that’s how he…
INTERVIEWER: …that’s how he made a living.
COHEN: That’s how he made a living.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Do you know how your parents met?
COHEN: I don’t think I…I don’t think I heard story. Hmm. I’ll have to consult my sister, Marian Cohen, now Marian Cohen Weiss W-e-i-s-s. I need to consult her more on that, because she just recently gave me a treasure trove of letters, love letters basically, which my father wrote to my mom, I believe, just before they got married or just after they got married but may have been in different cities for a while because of my dad’s work and I read a couple of them and they reveal a whole new side of my father – emotional, warm, loving, in terms of, you know, sometimes you don’t see certain sides of your parents because they’re in a…they were in a different situation twenty years before, whatever, so my sister probably maybe can tell me how my parents met. I do know my dad went to Ohio State and my mom might have gone to Ohio State briefly and that may have been where they met.
INTERVIEWER: Something else for you to check up on. You’re going to learn all about your family.
COHEN: Yep, yep.
INTERVIEWER: How did your parents earn a living when you were younger? What did they do for a living? Well, my mother was a housewife. Again, I was born in 1948, so we’re talking about the 1950’s and that was in general what most of the mothers did. They stayed home, took care of the kids, cooked and cleaned the house. My father was a medical doctor, uh, he was a radiologist and he had an office at 41 South Grant, two blocks from Grant Hospital so he did x-rays in his office and then he also would go over to Grant Hospital and consult with them there and I remember, and I would visit him in his office at 41 South Grant. He shared the office with another doctor Ernie Goulder, G-o-u-l-d-e-r, and I remember my dad doing these x-rays and it wasn’t like today. This was in the primitive days of x-ray technology. They would make you drink a calcium, uh,
COHEN: …barium, that you’d either drink it or they’d give it to you from the other end, the barium enema, the dreaded barium enema, I remember my dad talking about these things and then I would see some of these x-rays where you’d see somebody’s intestine showing up white on the x-ray or their stomach, and it would take a while to develop the x-rays. There was a place where they would dip them in this foul smelling solution and they would be wet and he would put them up on a fluorescent light box and then everything would shine through and you could really see the x-ray, the skeleton and all the internal organs and uh, I remember that was a real adventure to see what my dad did.
INTERVIEWER: And I know you had siblings.
COHEN: Yes. I was the baby in the family. My, the oldest of the family was my brother Bob, Robert Douglas Cohen. Actually he was originally Robert Edwin Cohen but for some reason in high school he decided that was not a good name- Edwin and he, I’m not sure if he legally had his name changed or he just started telling people his name was Robert Douglas Cohen but that’s what he was known as and the supreme irony was that in 1956 when the Bexleo, Bexley High School yearbook, came out and there were the senior portraits and everybody’s name, they misspelled his middle name and it was Robert “Rouglas” Cohen instead of Robert Douglas Cohen so that’s my oldest brother. I always looked up to him. He was nine and a half years older, born in 1938, November, and he led a very interesting life. When he was in fourth grade, he tried out for a thing called The Columbus Boy Choir which was kind of like the Vienna Boys Choir. These boys whose voices had not yet changed because they hadn’t hit puberty so they were sopranos and altos. They sounded like angels when they sang and they discovered he had a beautiful singing voice, and so he joined that, I believe in 1948, ’49 and ’50 and they met at the Broad Street Presbyterian Church here in Columbus. They toured all around the country in buses. They did all kinds of concerts. They were on national TV. In 1950 they did a Christmas concert and my brother, I believe, sang, “O Holy Night” or something like that as a solo and I always used to joke with my brother Bob. I said, “Bob, there was good news and bad news about that great concert you did which was televised. The good news was you were on national TV. What a great honor. The bad news was nobody in the United States owned a TV.” In fact, my parents, even I remember when I was five years old, if we wanted to watch television, we needed to go three doors down to Dr. Molney who was the local dentist and he had a TV. We did not yet have one, so, my brother led a beautiful life, died just a few months ago at age 78. He sang his heart out in many, many musical groups. He acted in community theater and theater really a notch above that. He was the, a couple years ago he played the part of the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, loved doing that in [Bevlin] Pennsylvania where he lived and he had a great wonderful life and I always looked up to him. Then in the middle was my sister Marian, M-a-r-i-a-n, and she graduated Bexley in 1961, five years after my brother graduated and she had a good singing voice too but she never really wanted to, to do public appearances with her singing, so, but I remember her in high school and I always looked up to her. I remember in the early Sixties, she was part of a three-girl harmony chorus that sang in the background of a local rock and roll record by a group called Danny and the Debonairs. I’m trying to think. I wonder if Danny was Jewish. I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that, but there might even be a Jewish link there but I remember listening to that record and loving it and saying “Oh, I’m so proud. My sister is singing “doo wah” in the background of this record. That’s really cool.” So, the three Cohen kids were pretty close. I think one reason is we didn’t fight a lot because we were five years apart and so, we had our own thing and we didn’t’ spend that much time together when we were young ‘cause we weren’t two years apart, we were five years apart, but in the last twenty-five/thirty years we got even closer than ever because we would take sibling trips all around the country, the three of us, no children, no wives, no husbands, just the three Cohen kids going to a different part of the country and soaking up the local culture, not doing anything fancy, going to the local diners and barbecue joints and Bingo halls and country-western concerts and just soaking up a region and then always talking about our mom and dad, what was it like growing up for you? What did Mom say? Did Mom say you could date non-Jews? Well, you know, we all grew up in slightly different eras so our parents’ parenting techniques and strategies differed a little bit but we shared many great memories of our parents. We would laugh and laugh and laugh just recalling memories of our growing up and I think it gave us a good, a better appreciation of our mom and dad and one thing that came out of it was, I think we all decided that our parents were pretty hands- off in their parenting. ‘Course their three kids were pretty angelic I would say. We were not trouble makers. We got good grades. We studied. We went to Sunday School. We did what we were told, so, they didn’t have much reason to be stern disciplinarians but in general, they kind of were hands- off and, in a way, sometimes we kind of wished maybe they were a little more involved in our lives, but on the other hand, in the end you know, we said, “You know it really was great that Mom and Dad were hands- off in their approach and let us do what we wanted to do and let us find our own passion and supported it quietly, didn’t overdo their support or involvement in our lives but we wound up being very happy adults, and so, looking back on our sibling trips, we said, “You know, we really are glad that our mom and dad were the way they were, so it was a nice feeling.
INTERVIEWER: Umhmm. And you all took different paths.
INTERVIEWER: And tell me, where did you, you grew up in Columbus?
COHEN: I grew up in Bexley.
INTERVIEWER: And you went to Bexley schools.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me what you were like as a teenager.
COHEN: Insecure, awkward, easily embarrassed, afraid in general to talk to people. I tried to compensate for that by being involved in a lot of activities. I was in the choir. I was in the school plays, but looking back I wish I would have had more confidence because I could have done so much more, but I was pretty insecure. I didn’t’ go to the proms. I was scared to ask girls out because, God forbid, what if they said “No”? And so, if I could do it all over again, I’d have a little more confidence but that’s okay. I’m pretty happy with my life, the way I turned out, the way my family has turned out, so, it’s, it’s okay.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me how you met your wife.
COHEN: I met my wife Randi when I was living in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus between Worthington and The OSU campus. She lived just four doors away from me. I didn’t know her then. I had a friend, a platonic friend, Barbara Kienzle, K-i-e-n-z-l-e, I believe is how you spell her name. She came over and we, cooked a meal with her, and we had strawberries and she said, “Oh we have whipped cream we need to whip up for the strawberries. Do you have an egg-beater?” and I said, “No,” and she said, “Oh, I know somebody a few doors down. maybe who has one. I’ll call her.” So, she called this woman Randi who was on a date apparently but she said, “Well, I’ll still come over. I’ll bring you the egg beater.” So, she brought it over and I never quite knew if this was a set-up or not, if Barb Kienzle was trying to set us up, matchmaking. I don’t know, but we whipped up the cream and Barbara and I said hello to Randi and her date. I think I might have tried to impress Randi by reciting my kindergarten roll call from 1953 to show her what a great memory I had but there were no sparks there until two days later when I walked four doors down to give her back her egg-beater and we just hit it off and I remember talking with her for about four hours about all kinds of little things and playing a couple songs on the guitar for her and singing and we knew then it was, we were, we really liked each other so…
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you something. How did you happen to bring your guitar with you when you went over to return the egg-beater?
COHEN: That’s a good question. I did not bring my guitar. I saw that she had a guitar and Randi likes to tell the story this way: She says, ‘Well Bill saw this guitar of mine in the corner and he said ‘Oh, do you, do you play guitar and sing?’ and Randi says , she said at the time, ‘Well, I’ and then she stopped herself and instead of answering the question about whether she sang and played she said ‘Well, do you?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah I sing a little bit and play,’ so that’s I think I picked up the guitar and as she recalls it, I sang Over the Rainbow and When you Wish Upon a Star and that helped add a few sparks to that first day.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a nice story.
INTERVIEWER: I like that. So how long after that did you get married?
COHEN: That was early…that was around March of 1983 so we got married in October of 1985, about two and a half years later…
COHEN: …and as Randi likes to say, for instance right now, in the year 2017 she’ll say. “Well, we’ve cele…we’ve been together more than three decades and Randi says it’s been twenty -three of the happiest years of her life. Three decades, twenty-three years of the happiest years of her life so we joke about that, but that’s not a bad ratio.
INTERVIEWER: Not at all, not at all. So, tell me how you got into the line of work you got into. You were on the radio for so long.
COHEN: Yeah, I got a journalism degree from Northwestern in 1970, but unlike all the other journalism students I had no idea I was going to go into journalism. I just needed a major, and they said, Well, Bill, you’ve already taken a lot of sociology, and political science and you need to choose a major and they said, “Well, why don’t you do journalism. They will help you fulfill the requirements, sociology, political science. You’ll take a few courses in journalism and you’ll have a journalism degree.” I said, “Okay. What do I know?” I had no idea what I wanted to do. I spent most of my time in Northwestern in the late Nineteen Sixties studying very hard to get good grades and one other thing – protesting the war in Viet Nam. So, I had this very naive idea since I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, I had this very naïve idea that in some way I could be a paid member of the anti-War movement. Now there were people who did do that but they were confident leadership kinds of guys. Well, that wasn’t me back then so that was a pretty naïve thought I had that in some way I would be paid to be an anti-War organizer. So, anyway, when I got out of college, I did have this journalism degree. I sent a few resumes to the local radio and TV stations and finally WOSU radio, one of two local stations said, “Oh, we’ll hire you for four hours a day, very entry level position. You’ll edit the Associated Press wire copy that comes across the teletype. You’ll correct the errors and hand it to somebody else and they’ll read it on the air.” So, it was a very low-level job at four hours a day. Then a few months later in 1970 they said, “Oh, Bill, we need somebody to go down to the city Hall and do some story, do some real reporting.” Well, I hadn’t done any real reporting in my life, let alone radio reporting but they handed me a tape recorder. I went out and I remember the first day I did three or four stories and they said, “Oh, my God, that’s a lot of stories for one person to do.” I said, “Okay, well, good, I’m glad you like it.” I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I kind of was general assignment reporter, City Hall reporter, school board, for five years or so and then in 1975 or ‘76 they needed somebody to go down to the Statehouse and report on state government and politics. I didn’t know anything about state government or politics. I was scared at the idea and I said “Well, just try it,” and I did and I stayed there for about forty years, thirty-seven years at the Statehouse, first covering just for WOSU and then in 1980 we formed a bureau to feed stories to all the Ohio public radio stations, all the NPR affiliates and now I think there’s more than thirty stations around the state that take the reports from the Statehouse News Bureau. So, that was, that was a great job. I loved it. Just one little aside here. While I was looking for a job and before I got a job with Public Radio, I saw an ad in the newspaper – again this was just a month or two out of college. It said, “Wanted: Ticket taker at movie theater on South High Street.” I remember the address as if it was yesterday. “1320 South High.” I said to myself. “Oh, that’s the old Markham Theater.” I think M-a-r-k-h-a-m or something like that. I said, “I know that theater. They play old John Wayne B movies. I could sit in that booth and take tickets, sure, while I find a regular, a real job. So, I drive down South High Street and when I get a block away, I see it’s no longer the Markham Theater. It’s” “Triple X Rated.” I stop the car and I said, “If I take this job, my parents are going to kill me.” So, I turned the car around and headed home.
INTERVIEWER: Good move.
COHEN: I don’t know. I could have had a whole different career.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, my goodness. When did you get married by the way?
COHEN: I got married in Nineteen eighty…October 1985.
INTERVIEWER: And you got over your shyness long enough to ask her to marry you, huh?
COHEN: Uh, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Or did she ask you?
COHEN: I think it was kind of a mutually agreed on….
INTERVIEWER: How long had you been going together by that time?
COHEN: About two and a half years.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get over that shyness or that, that insecure feeling you had? What did you do?
COHEN: Well, first of all as a news reporter with a microphone in hand, even if you’re scared to death, when you stick that mic in front of somebody’s face, as long as you’re asking a good tough question and a question with some knowledge behind it, well, you’ve got a little bit of power and you don’t need to feel shy. In fact, it’s the other person, the person you’re interviewing, the person you’re asking the tough question of. They’re the ones who should be sweating and so I think being a news reporter, after a while, once I finally understood how the statehouse worked and I understood some of the historical background on state government and politics, that gave me some confidence. “Oh, I finally know what I’m doing in my job,” not the first five years, but after that and then I think the other thing that helped me be more confident is my music. I’ve always sung, and played guitar and played a little piano, and the more I’ve sung I see the people like it. It’s an easy way to…to break the ice with somebody, play a song or two, or sing a song with them and so I think that has also helped me be a little more confident and knowing that I can either play some music for somebody or talk about music with them, let’s find a common point to make a connection.
INTERVIEWER: Had you ever thought when you were in college about majoring in music?
COHEN: No. No. My…no, my voice…my…I took classical piano playing when I was six, seven and eight and I hated to practice. I knew that wasn’t going to be anything for me. My voice was good but not outstanding. My guitar playing is mediocre but passable so…nah, I’ve never, no.
INTERVIEWER: But you love the playing of the music. You love playing.
COHEN: I love playing music and, you know, I can make enough money with my music to buy a pizza once a week as Randi and I put it, you know. So, it’s been good and I’ve enjoyed playing music for a lot of different people. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have children?
COHEN: We have one daughter.
COHEN: There’s an old saying: “God gives you what you can handle.” Well, God said, “Bill and Randi, you can handle one kid,” so, that’s what we’ve got – Hannah Berkeley Cohen with an “h” on both ends of Hannah and she’s been a delight. She’s now twenty-seven years old. She lives in Cuba, Havana, Cuba. When Hannah was little Randi talked Spanish with her because Randi speaks excellent Spanish so Hannah started getting an ear for Spanish. We sent Hannah to the Spanish Immersion School for three or four years, so she picked up some Spanish that way. When we visited Spain, we visited friends and when Hannah was eleven, we left Hannah back in Spain to live with some other people for a month or two so she would hear Spanish and be immersed in it. I remember my mother and my mother’s friends saying, “How could you let your son abandon his daughter in Spain for a month with total strangers.” It was a great thing for Hannah because she really developed her ear and her accent in Spanish so when Hannah graduated from University of Pitt, in the late two thousands she, oh, actually before that,in her sophomore year she went to Cuba on an exchange program for three or four months, fell in love with the language, the people, the music, the spirits and she said, “ I’m going to come back to Cuba someday,” and we said, “ Fine, get your degree and when you get done you can go back to Cuba,” and that’s what she’s done, so, she’s lived there full time for the last three years and before that she was there and gone, there and gone, part-time in Cuba, so she’s having a real adventure in Cuba.
INTERVIEWER: How did she do that when there was a restriction on travelers to Cuba?
COHEN: Well, when she first went on this exchange program, that was totally kosher, uh, because the University of Miami and University of Pittsburgh had a, had a special arrangement. Then, Hannah found that when she graduated college, that as long as you went to Cuba with a what they called a people to people itinerary and you were there to learn about the Cuban people – you weren’t there, you were not there to lay on the beach and get a tan – she learned that if you could show that you were there to learn about Cuba and interact with Cuban people, that you could get in. There are certain rules where you have to leave every ninety days and go somewhere else which continues to this day but, uh, things have loosened up in recent years but even a few years ago you could go to Cuba in a quite legal way but you had to show that you were there to soak up the culture in a serious way and that’s she, that’s what she wants to do.
INTERVIEWER: Is she married?
COHEN: She’s not married.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Do you think she’ll find a Cuban?
COHEN: She’s had a few Cuban boyfriends. She has. Yes, and at the moment she has a boyfriend who is, who lives in Cuba but he’s not Cuban. He’s from the Netherlands and he’s very much like her, in that he does some tourism, helps people come through Cuba and sets up tours for them, and like her, he loves the Cuban people. He loves the culture, music, art, so, they have many things in common.
INTERVIEWER: Very nice. So, let me get off of that for a while, unless there is something else about that…your family that you want to tell me. Do you belong to any particular organizations that are interesting?
COHEN: Well, I’ve been active with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and have basically sat in your seat interviewing other people about their memories of Jewish Columbus, so that, I’ve been doing that several years. I’m active with the Columbus Folk Music Society helping their monthly coffee houses and our yearly Central Ohio Folk Festival and doing concerts myself for the general public. In recent months I’ve been singing in what is basically the Alzheimer’s unit at Heritage House. They call it The Cottage. I’ve been singing old songs for the residents there and they seem to, to liven up when they hear songs from their youth. I’m active with a Jewish congregation which a lot of people may not have heard of. It’s called The Little Minyan and it was started about ten or twelve years ago and we’re very small. We don’t have a building. We have just one paid person. That’s Jessica Shimberg who is about to become a rabbi. We’re a Reconstructionist and Renewal congregation and we meet at people’s homes. We meet in the Park of Roses, at Antrim park. We also meet in a, in the lounge in the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Arlington. We may do our High Holy Day services sometimes, often in the Mennonite Church in the Clintonville neighborhood, and so, I help with the music with that group and have been active there.
INTERVIEWER: That’s very interesting because I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to that, that told me anything about that congregation so that is where you’re a member.
COHEN: Yes, uhmhum.
INTERVIEWER: What brought you to them?
COHEN: Well, for some way background, I grew up at Temple Tifereth Israel on East Broad Street and was bar mitzvahed there. I had the last bar mitzvah to take place in that synagogue when the congregation sat facing north and then after my bar mitzvah they closed the place up, did a huge renovation. Now the congregation faces south, so, that’s my claim to fame at Tifereth Israel. Okay. Then when I got married and we had Hannah as our daughter, we wanted to be a member of a congregation and we decided since we lived in Clintonville, we would join Beth Tikvah and we were members of Beth Tikvah for many years. About ten or twelve years ago, an issue came up in the congregation and some people and many of the leaders at Beth Tikvah wanted to move the building and build a new building further out, bigger, newer and there was a dispute, there was a split in the congregation and some of us felt that there were some basic values that we had differences on. Some of us said, “Well, we don’t want a newer, bigger, shinier building. We want, we’re actually seeking a smaller, more intimate experience,” and so a few people said, “Well, let’s start our own little congregation and that was The Little Minyan, so, uh, you know, it wasn’t a whole lot of people who split off from Beth Tikvah but a few and that’s, that’s the origins of The Little Minyan.
INTERVIEWER: Interesting. Let me ask you something else and going sort of back and forth, what do you remember of your earliest life in Columbus, something that you would want to share about life in Columbus, growing up in Columbus?
COHEN: Well, let me give you something that has kind of a Jewish…I remember Sun…going to Sunday School and I’m not being disrespectful, I’m, I’m trying not…I think most of us kids who went to Sunday School in the Nineteen Fifties did not like going to Sunday School. We didn’t’ take it seriously and I remember going to Sunday School at Tifereth Israel and the teachers trying to get us to take things seriously and we just…we laughed. We laughed at it. Of course, looking back I say that was terrible, but at the time you’re a child and it, and I’m sure there are some children who love Sunday School and they loved…but I don’t think they’re the majority. So anyway, I remember and I want to be frank here, I remember in the late Fifties when Tifereth Israel decided to upgrade its Jewish education and they had something called the mini…mini…
INTERVIEWER: Melton School. Was the Melton School?
COHEN: The Melton School, yes, that’s right, the Melton School and so, instead of…they said, we’re no longer going to have all these volunteer teachers, we’re going to have teachers who are trained in Judaic studies and see, we were brought up in the old system so, so, they tried to make things more serious for us but we didn’t…we couldn’t, we couldn’t do it and I remember we would make fun of everything. Suddenly one year everything was in Hebrew so, I remember, we used to make fun of the announce…I’m just making this up but I think it makes the point. Over the loud speaker they would say, instead of saying, “The fifth-grade class is going to meet in Room 21 at seven o’clock,” they would say, “The Gimmel Class will meet in Room Samech at Final nun o’clock.” I’m making a joke here but you see, we didn’t take it seriously and I wished…at that point I didn’t have much of a Jewish identity or Jewish pride. Today I do, but, back then I didn’t and I don’t know what could have given it to me. My parents…of course…we went to synagogue once a month. We went to Sunday School. We went to Hebrew School. We Were bar mitzvahed, but I didn’t’ have much Jewish pride or Jewish identity. I have often wondered…again this is just fifteen years after the Holocaust. There was very little talk about the Holocaust. Maybe it was too recent, too painful. Maybe that was the reason. I’ve often wondered if the teachers had said to us and shown us films and talked to us about how just fifteen years before, people like us were incinerated just for being Jewish, I wonder if that would have given us a positive Jewish identity. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, but I just was very aware growing up and looking back, that I didn’t take Judaism seriously. It was only later, when going to college, I was confronted with the fact that I would have, might have to be drafted and go half-way around the world to kill people. It was only then that I said to myself, “Well, I can’t do that. How do I, how do I not do that?” Some people said, “Well you can apply to be a conscientious objector.” I said, “Well tell me about it,” and they said, “Well, if because of your religious training and belief you are opposed to participation in war in any form, then you can tell the government you will not join the armed forces,” and I said, “Well that sounds like me,” but then of course I had to say, “Well, what is the link between my religious beliefs?” and I started re-examining, “Well, why do I feel this way that I’m not going to go kill somebody?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know…Where did I get this?” And I said “Well, at least partly I must have gotten it from all these prayer-books and prayers about shalom. It’s all over the Torah, shalom, shalom shalom and ye shall seek peace and the song Lo Yisa Goy el goy cherev – nation shall not life up sword against nation…We will beat our swords into plowshares,” and so, I applied as a conscientious objector and got that designation so that when I graduated in 1970, I said to the government basically, “I’m glad to serve the country. I’ll work in a hospital. I’ll work in a nursing home. I’ll teach ghetto youngsters to read, whatever you want but I will not go kill somebody half-way around the world,” and I got that designation. I would up not having to serve that alternative service because my draft number in the new draft lottery never came up, but I think that is when, that was the point in my life, when I started looking back and I saw how active Jews were in the anti-War movement, in the Civil Rights Movement, totally disproportionate numbers. Here’s a people who’s only three percent of the population back then and Jews were so active, way out of proportion to our small numbers, helping Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights demonstrators in the deep south, leading the anti-War movement and doing a lot of socially conscious things and that’s when I became proud to be a Jew and when I said to myself, “ Now this is, it is a great thing to be part of this people. this people, the Jewish people care about the world. They’re active. They take chances. They stand up. They speak out. Now I understand,” I said to myself, “a little better what Judaism is about.” Now I realize that some Jews, maybe Orthodox Jews might say, “Bill that’s not what Judaism is about. It’s about the prayers and speaking Hebrew,” and so forth and that’s fine for those people but for me I like to emphasize, I like to emphasize how Jewish people live life to the fullest, try to repair the world and so, my feeling today about being Jewish and Judaism is a lot deeper and more meaningful and more positive than the memories you were asking about growing up because growing up we didn’t take it seriously.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have, feel the anti-Semitism in the community?
COHEN: I never felt, I don’t remember ever being, ever being targeted with some anti-Semitic act. Uh, there was just a quiet awareness, most of it unspoken, that well, you were friends with Jewish kids and you went to Sunday School with them and you were bar mitzvahed with them and you went to their bar mitzvah parties and then there were these other kids who were different and you were friendly with them but there was just some unspoken sense of difference…
COHEN: …and I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It was only years later that when I became an adult that a light went on in my, a lightbulb went on in my head and I said, “ Oh, now I understand why there was this thing called the Excelsior Club on Cassady near the railroad tracks where all my Jewish friends went swimming and the non-Jewish kids were not there. Why, I now realize, because they were at some other country club or swimming pool that at least for, at some point did not let Jews in. So, there wasn’t at least in my family, in my circles, there wasn’t a lot of talk about anti-Semitism. There wasn’t a lot of direct talk about how we’re Jewish and those other people are not. There was just a quiet subtle awareness that there were, that we were a part of one group and they were other people who were a part of other groups.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me something else that you would like us to know about. What would you want your daughter now say, or your grandchildren say, twenty thirty years from now, what would you like them to know?
COHEN: Well, I guess I’d want them to know, uh, whether they are Jewish or not, I would want them to know and have somewhat the same awareness I have about the Jewish people, not so much the Bible stories, not so much about all the prayers, but, the sense, the sense of spirit that Jewish American culture has. It’s…I get so enlivened by it and I always want to share it with people. I love doing concerts for Jewish audiences because I like to highlight this fact. I like to highlight the Jewish contribution to music and American song-writing. The “American Songbook” of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties so many Jews writing beautiful and meaningful songs, basically inventing Broadway theater. I’m excited by all that and I like to kind of spread the word about that, so, Of course I realize not everybody’s going to get excited about that but, I like the fact that our daughter Hannah has some Jewish identity. She knows she’s Jewish. She gets a kick out of some…some of the Jewish customs and rituals.
Humor is something else that I love about the Jewish people. We’ve had so many great comedians that are Jewish. There is something special about Jewish humor, whether it’s the “Old Borscht Belt” comedians, you know, Milton Berle and Henny Youngman or the more modern stand-up comics – Mort Sol, or Woody Allen or whatever, uh, Seinfeld, uh…I just, uh, I revel in not so much Jewish theology, but Jewish American contributions so, that’s what I like to leave people with.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?
COHEN: Oh, I cannot think of anything else. Uh, actually, what I just said probably is a good summation of my feelings these days.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Then on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project. This concludes the interview.