This interview of Robert Douglas Cohen is for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and is being recorded on July 17, 2014, by Bill Cohen as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project.
INTERVIEWER: Ok. We are interviewing Robert Douglas Cohen, not to be confused with Rob Cohen, the immigration attorney from Columbus. Instead we’re interviewing my brother Robert Douglas Cohen, born 1938, Bexley Class of 1966.
INTERVIEWER: ‘56. Ok. Move in a little here, Bob. This is Bill Cohen. I’m doing the interview here in my house, 90 Westwood Road in Columbus, Ohio.
INTERVIEWER: Bob, first of all, start by telling us, you were not born in Columbus, so just give us a little background. How did you wind up in Columbus, Ohio?
COHEN: Sure, and tell listeners if they have some trouble differentiating between our voices, it’s because we share total genetic inheritance and it comes through in our voices. Anyhow, yes, let me start at the beginning, my beginning. I was born in Springfield, OH, in 1938, moved with the family. My dad took us to Cleveland in about 1943 and that was his hometown, Cleveland. We all went to Cleveland. You were not born yet and spent a few years in Cleveland, came to Columbus in 1947, in the summer of 1947 and you were born in the spring of 1948.
INTERVIEWER: So, your parents were who and what did they do?
COHEN: My dad is Arthur Robert Cohen, born in Cleveland, educated at Glenville High School, went to Ohio State University as an undergraduate, and went to Ohio State Medical School. As a medical student, he met our mother, Beatrice Tillie Lopper, a Columbus girl, the daughter of Max and Yetta Lopper, part of the Jewish community here, immigrant community. She, our mother, who was called Tillie, graduated from South High School and then started in at Ohio State, where she met my dad, a medical student, and did not finish her education. In fact, I think maybe she left after one year.
INTERVIEWER: So, you moved to Columbus in 1947 and where did you live and what are your memories of those early years?
COHEN: Well we camped out briefly with our Uncle Moe, Morris Lopper, on Livingston Avenue, while my parents looked for housing, to buy a house. We settled in Bexley, in an old brick house north of Cassingham, 33 North Cassingham. We were the first house then on the left as you go north on Cassingham. There was an empty lot from the alley over to Broad Street when we moved in. So, that’s where we started. You were born in 1948 at White Cross Hospital, in March of ‘48. Marian, our sister, who had been born in Springfield, and she was about four or five years old at that time.
INTERVIEWER: So, Where did you go to school when you came to Columbus, Ohio? Where did you go to school?
COHEN: Well, I have very clear memories of that school year. I went to the fourth grade in Cassingham School. Maryland School had not yet been built, so, everybody went to Cassingham or Montrose. I went to Cassingham in the fourth grade. I walked to school down Cassingham, north of Broad. It wasn’t a long walk and went to fourth grade there with a bunch of kids that are very vivid to me. Some of those kids I met in the fourth grade are still my friends today.
INTERVIEWER: Many of them were Jewish. Who were they?
COHEN: Well, Michael Getz was one, Mike Berliner was another. Rachel Gershton was another. Eleanor Glickman another, Harriet Romanoff another. Some of them were in my fourth grade class. Some of them I met at religious school at Tifereth Israel on East Broad Street.
INTERVIEWER: So you went to Sunday School.
COHEN: I went to Sunday School at Tifereth Israel.
COHEN: We had been in a Conservative Temple in Cleveland and continued as Conservative Jews in Columbus.
INTERVIEWER: So, you went to the fourth grade at Cassingham Elementary. Then after that you did something very unusual in your schooling and…
INTERVIEWER: So, tell us something about that. That really was un-Jewish to coin a word.
COHEN: Distinctly. Yea, the fourth grade was not a happy time for me at school. The teacher was difficult, even though I had friends in the class and everything. It was also the adjustment from being very attached to my school in Cleveland, where I had gone first, second and third grades. Anyhow, my mom knew that I was not happy. I don’t know how I expressed that, but she said, “You know, you like to sing, Bobby,” and that was true. I don’t know if I’d’ done anything. I might have done some singing in the Cub Scouts. I don’t know, I think probably I was in the Cub Scouts in fourth grade. I did imitations of Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. In fact, I did some of them in black face. Now I was in fourth grade and this was, we’re talking in 1948 when it was still permissible to do that. Anyhow, she said, “You like singing. There’s this boy choir here in Columbus called the Boy Choir School. Maybe you’d like to try out for it. “Well, I picked that up right away. I went down, she took me down East Broad. The Boy Choir School was attached to the Broad Street Presbyterian Church, near Parsons. I went there. I had an audition. They accepted me and I joined the Columbus Boy Choir School. I was a commuter. There were some boarding boys there as well and for the fifth grade, sixth grade and then more dramatically which I’ll talk a little bit about, in the seventh grade, for those three years I went to school at the Columbus Boy Choir School, and I sang. They trained me. I went on tour all over the United States. I was on early TV, in shows both in Columbus where we had a little Boy Choir show on WBNS, but also in New York when we traveled and on some national TV and radio hookups.
INTERVIEWER: So you traveled around the whole country on buses, on a bus and performed.
COHEN: That’s right. It was an un-Jewish kind of organization. The Boy Choir, although it was not a religious school, a Christian school, it was an outgrowth of the choir director there, Herbert Huffman who was the choir director at Broad Street Presbyterian. He started it in 1937 so it was already ten years old by the time I got into it. He was the full-time director of the Columbus Boy Choir. A lot of music was sacred music, Christian sacred music, some of the great Handel, Bach stuff, as well as more contemporary things. So I was singing in Latin. I was singing wearing a Christian choir what they called a [surplass?], black and looking very angelic, singing hymns. One distinct hymn I remember was “G-d so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, who so believeth, believeth in him and will not perish from the earth.” Well, for a fifth grader, a Jewish fifth grader to hear that and sing that, actually it wasn’t disturbing to me. It was actually, it was pretty neat and it didn’t seem to, it did not both me emotionally or anything. I was really into it.
INTERVIEWER: Is the reason it didn’t bother you because you didn’t particularly connect that this was a Christian thing, or just …?
COHEN: That’s a good question. I think two things occur to me. One is that I was Bobby Cohen. You know I was distinctly Jewish. I still went to Sunday School at Tifereth Israel on that same Broad Street, not too many blocks away. I was learning Jewish things. I was from a Jewish family where we celebrated Passover and went to Rosh Hashanah services and so on. I had Jewish friends, but not exclusively. That, I think, was kind of important. Our mom and dad were liberal Jews who were accepting and not fearful of non-Jews, which was not true of a lot of Jews in those years. You know, my dad was a physician. He treated whoever showed up on his doorstep. I don’t know how my mom’s liberality came to be, but she was, they were definitely accepting. My dad had some episodes of concern while I was in the choir, and I can talk about that later if you want me to.
INTERVIEWER: I remember our dad relating an experience when he went to the Presbyterian Church when he went there probably to see you and the Boy Choir perform and he went, it was on Easter.
COHEN: This was one of those incidents, a very few that he freaked out about. I mean he went to this Easter service, and we sang, and it was all very beautiful and then the sermon came on and the minister was talking about how the Jews killed Jesus and of course that’s a common claim, not currently, but in those years and that was the claim that fueled anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and everything else. My dad said, you know, that he broke out in a sweat and felt really like a victim sitting there in the pews of Broad Street Presbyterian Church, hearing the sermon about how Jews killed Jesus, you know and it re-ignited his earlier experience of plenty of anti-Semitism in Cleveland from Glenville High School, where actually Glenville High School had been very immigrant and, I think, largely Jewish immigrant, and a large black influx in population and Irish and my dad recalls being chased home from school, you know, having to kind of navigate the streets between school and home to stay out of the way of bullies and kids who would call him “kike” and stuff like that, so, he had plenty of taste of that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember how you felt when you heard the minister at the Easter service?
COHEN: I don’t have a recollection of that, so, either I blocked it out or whatever, but Dad related his feelings about that experience very shortly afterwards, so it wasn’t as if he held it in.
INTERVIEWER: But despite that experience, you stayed in the choir
COHEN: Oh, yeah, I stayed and had a great experience. I toured in the fifth and six grades. I got in to touring choirs. The choir was big enough to have a resident choir for the kids who weren’t quite ready to sing with the touring choir. We got in the bus and toured for six weeks at a time. One tour took us all the way out to California, We stayed in small towns. I ate at diners and restaurants. I ate pork for the first time. You know, I ate everything. It was a great adventure, and when I came back to our house on Cassingham, you know, “We have some bacon?”
INTERVIEWER: You said, “Can we have some bacon?”
COHEN: Yeah. My dad said, “Where did you learn to eat bacon?” “Well, I’ve just been to Kansas and Nebraska where every breakfast came with loads of pork products – sausage, bacon and ham.”
INTERVIEWER: You came back to Columbus. You stopped touring with the Boy Choir. You left the Boy Choir because of something Jewish.
COHEN: Well, definitely, yeah and that’s because I had to be bar mitzvahed. Now what intervened there and I didn’t said anything about, was in the seventh grade, as the seventh grade was approaching, the Boy choir was picking itself up, lock, stock and barrel, and moving to Princeton, New Jersey and that presented my parents with a problem. Should they allow? I wanted to go with them, with the Boy Choir. It would mean, you know, I was like a twelve year old, eleven or twelve, letting me go away from home, and board away from home. I had been to summer camps and stuff, but this would be a big deal and I don’t think I had to beg very hard. I think, they said, “Sure, you can go.” They had a sense of how good I was and how important singing was to me and you know, I wasn’t just in the choir. I was a soloist in the choir. They had seen me perform in a Mozart operetta with the choir, so, you know, they must have appreciated something musically about me, but also appreciated how important it was to me, so, they let me go. I can tell you I remember many years later, in fact, at Beatrice Tillie Cohen’s memorial event when we sat around after her death, after her burial, and people talked about Bea and one of her friends stood up and said “We loved Bea so much. We loved her, but, Bobby, we couldn’t believe she would allow you go away with the Boy Choir for that year. We just couldn’t believe it. How could she do that? We thought she was crazy.” Well, I think this woman still thought that our mother and father were crazy for it, but I bless them every day of my life that they had the largeness of spirit and sense of their son, to let me do this.
INTERVIEWER: …because music has been so important to your life for decades.
COHEN: For decades as it has been for you and you know, to whatever extent I helped pass that on to you or legitimize it for you, an additional blessing.
INTERVIEWER: So, even though you went away to the Boy Choir when it moved to Princeton, New Jersey, you still, at some point, came back to do your bar mitzvah at Tifereth Israel.
COHEN: Right. It was just an unquestionable thing I had to do. I had been to Hebrew, you know, a little bit of Hebrew School and stuff like that. I could probably you know, bumble through the prayers reading Hebrew letters and the vowels and so on, but, you know, I needed to learn my Haftarah and so on, so I came back in the summer of, oh, I can never remember if it was ’50 or ’51. I think it was ’51. You know, I enrolled with Cantor [Leo] Halpern, you know, went to his house over there on the Columbus part of maybe Bryden Road, his half of a double.
INTERVIEWER: Cantor Halpern. His first name do you remember?
INTERVIEWER: And how did that go with you and the cantor?
COHEN: It went okay, you know, I think. He was a gentle old guy who, his house, you know, it was that old Jewish house smell. It was a little bit mothballs and stuff. It was like our grandparent Lopper’s house. It had a distinct, I don’t know maybe it was some of the cooking that was being done, maybe some garlic, but you know, I went there throughout that summer. You know, I was really done with the Boy Choir, but you know, I learned everything, and by November of that year, I did my bar mitzvah, which was recorded by Coronet Recording Studios, and I still have segments of me singing. It was pretty good recording too. It was not scratchy or anything.
INTERVIEWER: Often when thirteen year old boys have their bar mitzvah, their voices cracking. They can’t keep a tune, but your bar mitzvah was a little different.
COHEN: I sang my Haftarah with passion, the kind of passion that I had learned to sing “G-d so loved the world,” you know the Christian stuff. I sang it with feeling, even though I hardly knew what I was, you know, what the text was about, you know the tropes, all of the decorative stuff that Cantor Halpern had taught me. I think he was very appreciative to have a musical, finally he’s got a musical student and people say oh, they told me that this was a big event, Bobby Cohen back back from the Boy Choir doing his Haftarah and even a good friend of mine, a life-long high school classmate and Confirmation colleague of mine, Ian Polster, who is a career musician, told me just the other day. He went to my bar mitzvah and he said it was great. He remembered, and that’s from another musician, so, I feel very proud for him he said that.
INTERVIEWER: You went on to Bexley High School and there, in your first year or two, you did something – you helped to create a Jewish institution that had not been there before. Tell us about that.
COHEN: Right, just for the record, when I came back to Bexley, I went to Bexley Junior High first. I was in eighth grade, so that gave me kind of a year to get back into the social things, and I resumed my friendships with Mike Berliner, Mike Goetz, with Ian Polster, Harriet Romanoff, and I think we were probably still in a Confirmation class. I don’t remember what year that would be, but yeah, ninth grade at Bexley High, we pledged, me and my Jewish friends, pledged what was the Jewish Fraternity. At that time there was one Jewish fraternity – KTZ and it didn’t take us very long to be completely disillusioned with what that meant. I mean, we wanted to belong, you know, to the social set, but the pledging was set up as a hazing kind of thing, you know, not that it was physically or violent or anything, but verbally abusive. As a pledge you were supposed to carry the books of actives whenever they told you to. They were kind of your commandeering generals. Well, we weren’t going to take this stuff. We just, we were independent thinkers. It wasn’t our style, so, and we were also kind of ideological about I, so, Berliner and I sat down and wrote out a manifesto, which was essentially a letter of resignation to KTZ. It wasn’t enough for us to just say, “Okay. We quit.” We had to write this document that was like the Declaration of Independence, with all kinds of rationale and high sounding things about individuality and so on. Berliner and I are still trying to find that document so we can sit and laugh at it or be proud of it too. Anyhow, that was our leaving KTZ. I don’t think we sat down right away and said, “Let’s start something else,” but I’ll have to check on that with the others who were in it. We did form a no-hazing kind of inclusive organization that would be like a fraternity, but we would have no hazing, would do good works, would be social. I think it was unspoken that it would be Jewish, but if we were doing it today, we’d probably say, “Why’s it going to be Jewish?” The invitation to join was done simply by a majority of the members. You didn’t have to be elected in.
INTERVIEWER: And what was this group?
COHEN: The group was given the name, and I think it was Berliner who found it at a Mobil station.
INTERVIEWER: A Mobile Gas station.
COHEN: Mobile Gas station. We used their logo – Pegasus, the flying horse. So we became Pegasus. It was boys. It was Jewish. We joined the teenage council of the Jewish Center, which was a collective of all the Jewish youth organizations, including AZA, BBG and USY and NFTY and all the rest and we did some good works. We had a good time and I was amazed to find out that at least ten years later, I think, in your years, there was still a Pegasus. Is that true?
COHEN: You didn’t know.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t recall it.
COHEN: Maybe someone else who’s doing, giving a history will be able to let us know.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, perhaps we’ll get some more research into Pegasus and the young people’s organizations back then. You had one member who later went on to become very active in the Jewish community, and a very rich man and very philanthropic.
COHEN: Yes. Leslie Wexner. Leslie Wexner became a member of Pegasus. He was a year ahead of me, but when we started, we did have, not just the Bexley class of 1956, but the Class of 1955 also. Monroe, Monty Sher was one of them.
COHEN: S-h-e-r. Gerry Cooper, Mickey or Michael Gallen, G-a-double-l-e-n, were all the older group. I’m sure that in my year, Mike Stein was in that and I think he stayed in Columbus, and others and it got bigger and bigger and, you know, I think, well we kind of wanted it to be our “own group” as we started it as a group of not more than six. We realized, you know, within a year or two, that if we wanted to do things, sponsor a big dance, we sponsored a big Valentine’s Dance, a Sweetheart Dance at the Center, we had to have numbers, so we gave up our notion of having a little club.. I mean there were still three of four of us that remained a little club of intimates, but it got bigger.
INTERVIEWER: What do you recall about Jewish teenagers and whether they mixed very much with non-Jews?
COHEN: Well, certainly, I mean, I don’t speak for anybody but myself here, and I was very active in public in high school. I was an actor and a singer. I was president of my freshman class, I was president of my senior class, I was on the student court, I think I was, whatever that meant, so to be a public person in a school as small as Bexley, which was, you know, maybe 25% Jewish, you had to be somebody that everyone would respect and you would respect them, so, in that regard it felt like certainly very little barrier in terms of friendships, connection and doing things, being on sports teams together, writing for the Torch, [school] newspaper and there you’d see a whole range of people – Mickey Schwartz, in my class with Delores [?Harady]. The Jewish-Christian thing was not a barrier in that respect. It was still a barrier in terms of boy-girl relations, dating.
INTERVIEWER: Because of parents’ views?
COHEN: Yeah, because of parent’s views, some that were not shared by their children, but some that were, you know, inculcated in the children and you know, it was just pretty clear that you would date a Jewish, a Jewish boy would date a Jewish girl, and non-Jews would date each other, too, so, the mixed couple that was going to become serious – hardly happened. I am trying to remember if and when it did happen, but I think that my own sense is that it would raise eyebrows not just among our parents, but among us. It might have been admired. Oh, boy, look at this Jewish girl is dating this as we called them, Gentile boy. We called them Gentiles. They weren’t called Christians. I don’t know if the Gentiles called themselves Gentiles – probably not. This is a very Jewish thing, but we, you know, it was something. I dated some non-Jewish girls. I think my father said something that could almost have come out of the mouth of Tevye, the dairy man from Fiddler on the Roof – “It’s okay, but at a distance” – sort of thing. Well, of course, the distance, I can remember her. Judy Watts was her name. She was a cheerleader, lovely girl. I didn’t date her for a long time, but I was allowed to date her and she was allowed to date me. We didn’t, we weren’t, it wasn’t surreptitious. We went to something public together. That’s a long answer to your question but I think generally we were, we mixed in school events and this is the glory of the American public school. It does bring together people of differences and among other things, it’s a good argument for not segregating people with their own kind.
INTERVIEWER: Anti-Semitism. Did you yourself experience any?
COHEN: No. The most, anti-Semitism seemed to me to be a relic from my dad’s generation. He talked about it. We knew hardly anything about the Holocaust and that, it’s understandable, that there was almost a conspiracy of silence among Jews about the Holocaust until maybe the Seventies when reunions started happening and when groups said, “You know, we’re disappearing. We’ve got to tell our story,” but there was a period of a long time, even in Sunday School which, Zionism was promoted in 1950-1952. Oh yeah, we love Israel, we have Israeli flags, we sang “Hatikvah,” all this stuff, but no one ever made the connection, and I think I would have remembered it. Nobody ever in the religious school, nobody ever made the connection between the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. Isn’t that astonishing? And I was a kid who really had his ear tuned to hear things. Why is there Israel? ‘Well, the Jews had a hard time.’ ‘When did they have a hard time?’ ‘Well, just a few years ago – six million of them.
INTERVIEWER: Even though it had only been one decades since World War II, you learned very little about it in Sunday School and from our parents.
COHEN: Nothing about the horrors of the Holocaust. It was basically something that, to our ears anyhow we didn’t hear about, and again, I’m sure scholars and social scientists have written about this period when the refugees who came or the people whose whole families had been decimated, decided it was too painful to talk about and it’s understandable, but on the other hand, it left…it was a strange feeling about, .what’s this all about?
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the Jewish Center. You mentioned Tifereth Israel. Are there other Jewish institutions in Columbus you recall that impacted you, that you dealt with a lot?
COHEN: No. I do…others…now I can’t remember what it is I wanted to say but, no. It was the temple. It was the temple and the Jewish Center and the Jewish Center became important. It had always there, but it was a minor presence. We went there. They had bowling alleys then. We had a bowling league. That was fun. Pegasus had a team. We had a basketball team in a basketball league that had, played AZA and played KTZ and whoever the other groups were. And I think the champion… they had an all-star team of the best who then played in an All-city or church league, so it was way to ne connected. You know, it felt very good at the Jewish Center. The Center always had a swimming pool, so that was another connection.
INTERVIEWER: What about Martin’s Kosher Food?
COHEN: Of course. Martin’s Kosher Food was like our regular Sunday spot after Sunday School. A lot of the Jewish parents dropped their kids off at Sunday School and then went out to Martin’s for their deli, their whitefish salad, and stuff like that. I’m trying to remember where Martin’s was before it was on East Broad near Eastmoor. Do you remember where it was?
INTERVIEWER: I thought it was on East Livingston near Lilly, near Champion, near Ohio, near Linwood – somewhere in now what would be called Driving Park, the old Jewish section before people moved across Alum Creek to Bexley and Berwick.
COHEN: This is Godofsky, Martin’s was Martin Godofsky and his wife was Leah.
INTERVIEWER: That’s right.
COHEN: …and his brother, I think, was Arthur who was kind of the butcher of the place.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work there?
COHEN: Yes he worked there.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work there?
COHEN: Oh, Did I work there? Yes, I did. I worked there as a packer, you know, as people came through the checkout line. I packed and carried their stuff out to their cars and I got tips. You also worked there later? Oh, the other thing I did, on Saturday, now I remember, on Saturday when they were closed for Shabbos, they were closed to the public, but they were open to do stock, so I could, I hope I’m not speaking out of school here but I don’t think this would be a terrific scandal but I would come in on Saturday with a few other guys. I think maybe I was the only Jewish guy. Martin wasn’t there, but there was some sort of foreman there who would have us open up the boxes of produce, not produce but boxed goods and canned goods, stamp them with the cost with old blue stamp on top or on the side. This was long before any Universal Product Code and we would put them up, you know, on the shelves. A fond memory of Saturday at Martin’s is that the whole time we had on a radio station, the call letters of which I forget, but they did a countdown of the Top 40 every Saturday, and you would hear all of the popular songs and they would count them down. These are the songs of the Fifties. It was very exciting, you know, and we could sing along to things like “See the pyramids along the Nile” and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: This was when you were in high school you worked at Martin’s you think?
COHEN: Yes, definitely.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember working at Martin’s after it had moved and after it was on Broad street.
COHEN: I think so. It must have it moved during those four years that I was in high school.
INTERVIEWER: You also at one point worked at our Uncle Sam Lopper’s Food Market which was in the Black community.
INTERVIEWER: What are your memories?
COHEN: Well, I was very young, still in Columbus before I went off with the Boy Choir, unless I went back when I was in the 8th grade but I think I was really young – like maybe 10 years old. You know, my parents really believed in their kids working. We always worked. I think we wanted to work. We saw it as the honorable thing to do. They didn’t have us enrolled in a dozen activities. Working was something that helped us become adults and Uncle Sam, who was a favorite, I think, of all of us – very warm and giving – had the concession in East Market, an enclosed market with stalls, meat, vegetables and like a diner that was my first experience of soul food.
INTERVIEWER: This was on Mt. Vernon Avenue near Miami and 21st.
COHEN: I think so. I know it was on Mt. Vernon Avenue and I would come in on Saturday to stock.. I mean he was open. He guarded that cash register and was always there. I think it was only one cash register and he always had a cup of coffee in his hand and he trained me how to do the marking of the things and putting up the stuff. I was delighted to be there. It was really great to be among people very different, you know, among Black people, my first real experience of being a minority among people of color.
INTERVIEWER: You were the minority. In this case you were the minority.
COHEN: I was the minority and then, I probably came in very early in the morning, you know, certainly by eight and maybe by seven, and by lunchtime, by eleven, I was starved. Sammy didn’t let me snack or eat cookies and he sent me over to this 10-stool open diner area at one end and they had food that I never knew about. I was a very adventurous eater, unlike my brother and sister. I was really, I was ready to eat chitlins, you know, and grits and black eyed peas and put hot sauce on it. It was very exciting to me. I was in a foreign country and I actually credit some of that experience to my later craving and delight to join the Peace Corps in the very early time of the Peace Corps. I left the United States when John Kennedy was still alive – 1962 and came back in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson. I was two years in Nigeria and then later went back for another two years as a Peace Corps administrator also in West Africa, in Liberia.
INTERVIEWER: I’m going to ask you to analyze something and feel free to decline. You led a very full life as an academic. You’ve been a Dean of Students and Dean of Student Affairs. You’ve been an academic consultant helping kids get into the right college. You were in the Peace Corps for four years. You performed musically all over the place. You’ve done drama, comedy. Does any of that, looking back on your life, and you are now 75, do you see, not in a theological way, but do you see that in any kind of Jewish context?
COHEN: That’s a very interesting question. I would like to attempt an answer, as long as we realize that I’m thinking out loud here, and as I go. It’s not something I have formulated and I don’t think I have ever been asked that question before actually. Well, I think a sense of belonging, that being a Jew at its best can instill a sense of identity beyond the self. I think that’s a positive, and I think that sort of informed my sense of myself, you know, even going from Cleveland to Columbus, which was a difficult transition. You know, I went from being a boy who had some gifts, and a Jewish boy in Cleveland to bringing that to Columbus, and again bringing myself and being continued in a Jewish identity in Columbus. I think that’s a help. That’s a help for anybody to do even. At the same time, on the other side of the coin, it is a hindrance, because if you remain tribal and don’t see beyond your tribe, or see the humanity and universality of people, then you know, you’re stuck. I think that is something that afflicts Jews, some, and they become more tribal. I believe and there’s no blame in this or anything, it would be my take that the move toward Orthodoxy that we see around us – Orthodoxy of all kinds,
INTERVIEWER: Of all faiths.
COHEN: Yes, fundamentalism of all sorts – but here I’m beginning with Jewish Orthodoxy – which I tell you is so prominent in Bexley. That’s a reaction to other conditions but I think ultimately, it is more of a restriction on one’s human potential than it is a help.
INTERVIEWER: Do you not see your community-mindedness, your international view, your world view, your adventuresome aspect; do you not see that that has been anything but tribal? Do you not see that as a Jewish trait?
COHEN: Well, I don’t know if I would call it a trait. It think it is an outgrowth that reaching out and that sense of universal brotherhood and the kind of requirement to do some good. I think it’s an aspect of the best part of what being Jewish is, so, yes, it is. I think that if I had been brought up to be a Methodist or maybe even a Buddhist, that I could arrive at that same reaching out, so, I don’t think it is exclusively Jewish, but I think it certainly is part of what Judaism is, and our own exploration of the Jewish American composers of the 20th century is a way of seeing how Jewish sensibilities expanded to include and explore the musical idioms in other cultures, so yeah, I do, but I don’t think it’s, obviously it is not the only thing, and just to reveal, you haven’t asked me, where my practicing Judaism has gone. I do want to say that after my son’s bar mitzvah, and after we were connected to a Reconstructionist group in our area of Pennsylvania, which we liked very much, because our social connections are not primarily Jewish – we have Jewish couple friends, we have Jewish individual friends, we have mixed couple friends – we disassociated. We did not belong to a temple for a long time and then a few years ago when my wife expressed a desire to be in some kind of spiritual community, we looked around and we decided that the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Our Lehigh Valley was an appropriate place to check out. We already knew half the people who had been involved in social causes of all kinds – a gay hotline, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter – all kinds of social action stuff, so it was like, we knew it was a place where the people we would be with would share some common stuff and plenty of Jews, so, it felt right and we’ve have been in it for about three, maybe four years. I sing in the choir, and the choir is led by a Jewish music professor, a professor of music born Jewish, composer from a nearby college, so, it’s very comfortable. It expresses our values, is very inclusive and it feels right, even though I have to say when I put down, when I was asked on the sheet for this interview what my religious affiliation was, I felt a little bit ashamed that I could not say Temple Something – a little bit, so, I still have that Jewish guilt about leaving the original fold. I did write down Unitarian Universalist and I’m proud of that,
INTERVIEWER: …but you also identify as a Jew.
COHEN: Absolutely. I absolutely do and I talk about being Jewish and what the connections are all the time. It is who I am. My son, who is not married to a Jewish woman and my son who is not quote a practicing Jew, still his named Samuel Cohen, Samuel Aaron Cohen. He always says to me, “Hey, Dad, you know wherever I am and wherever I go, nobody is ever going to mistake me for anything other than a Jew,” and he’s proud of that and I’m proud of him for telling me that.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve led a long life since leaving Bexley and leaving the Columbus area because you basically left after high school. You went away to college, you went to the Peace Corps in Africa and then you lived many other places, so, we really haven’t gotten into your life after that, but I think for the purpose of this interview, we are trying to deal with Columbus and the Jewish community, so I think we have covered a lot of great ground here, but is there anything you want to leave us with as people read this interview – any message, any memory, anything in particular that you haven’t already said?
COHEN: Well, thanks for giving me the opportunity, Bill. I want to say that growing up in Columbus, but specifically Bexley, which we know is a highly privileged community, a community of people who are privileged and many of whom, if not most, earned that privilege, like our dad and our mom. My dad was the son of a poor tailor in Cleveland. My Grandpa Cohen came from, I think, Odessa. My Mom’s parents came from Austria-Hungary. Max Lopper who is here was a fruit peddler with a cart and a donkey over near Parsons Avenue somewhere. They, to get to Bexley in one generation is pretty astounding and the schools, the people – we had every opportunity, our generation, so, I just want to say that I am aware of the privilege of being affluent and being able to use our affluence for food, for good things. Very proud. You took me to see, on a tour of the Jewish Center with a larger area there. Astonishing, and I’m so proud of the benefactors of that Center, my Pegasus guy, Les Wexner, primary among them. Leo Yassenoff, all these other people have really provided, and, I think, have in some ways really legitimized Jewishness as something that isn’t just for Jews, that gives back to the larger community. I mean, look at the Wexner Center at Ohio State – astonishing.
INTERVIEWER: The Wexner Center for the Arts.
COHEN: Wexner Center for the Arts, so, I’m very proud of all that, and you know, I don’t think that is replicated everywhere. It’s not replicated in Atlanta or Minneapolis. Columbus is pretty high up on the list of places where the Jewish community has given to the larger community. I think everybody should be very proud of that and this project, this History Project really is emblematic of the importance that the Jewish community feels in securing and keeping and preserving its identity with the history, so, I am so happy that you asked me to do this.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, that concludes our interview with Robert Douglas Cohen here in Columbus and the date is July 17, 2014.
Transcribed by Phyllis Komerofsky March 25, 2015
Transcription Edited by Linda Kalette Schottenstein May 7, 2016