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A Pause for Reflection in Memory of My Grandfather

November 30, 2008

For those of who who tune in here for my most recent thoughts on Jewish community, I hope you will forgive one post of personal reflection.  Seven days ago, my grandfather, Wilfred S. Cohen/Shalom ben Yosef HaKohen, was laid to rest in a small cemetery in  Rotterdam, New York.   Born in Brownsville, NY, my grandfather lived ninety-four years, sixty-eight of which he was married to my grandmother. He is survived by  her, four children, eight grandchildren,  four great-grandchildren, and countless memories, stories and pieces of wisdom.

He died in the same hospital in Schenectady, NY where I was born thirty-five years and one day prior, and his life, his love of family and his commitment to his community are examples for me and my children to follow all the days of our lives.  Even in celebrating a life well lived, it is is still difficult not to feel diminished by the loss of a family member and a friend. His life and his memory remind me that my community starts at home with my family, but hat it extends beyond d the door of my home as well.

Below is the hesped I delivered at his funeral.


A Hesped For My Grandfather
Wilfred S. Cohen/Shalom Ben Yosef HaKohen, Z”L
1914 – 2008
25 Cheshvan 5769 / November 23, 2008

At this time, and at this place, as family we feel both big and small. We feel big because we are reminded that as a family we are more than the sum of our parts, more than a collection of names and faces, but a community of individuals that span from east to west, from north to south.  We are more than our own small families of parents, children and grandchildren, we are also brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins too.  In this moment of remembrance of the life of our grandfather, we remember that we are part of a larger family as well, and that while a bit smaller today, our family is nevertheless big.

But individually, we feel small as well. We are diminished by the loss of a husband, a father a grandfather, a cousin and a friend. We are small in the face of a much larger understanding of life, and ultimately death.  We are dwarfed by the number of memories we all hold, the number of stories we share, the number of tales we tell.  In this moment of remembrance of Bill Cohen, we remember that while our family may be big, this passing of a man we love nevertheless makes us small.

In our home we sometimes play a game of big and small, in Hebrew  – gadol and katan. In the deepest biggest voice the girls say “GADOL” and in the sweetest smallest voice they say “katan” – it is a children’s game.

But today in this most adult of moments, as a grandson of Bill Cohen, I can’t help but think only gadol.  And when I think of my grandfather, it is hard to imagine that there could be a man who could better fit the term gadol.  He was big in our lives, big in his pride of his family, big in his opinions and big in his love.

As a Cohen, he also merited the name and recognition as a Kohen, a man of priestly status – and in our family he was truly the Kohen Gadol – the Big Cohen.

While thinking of our grandfather as the Kohen Gadol of our family, we cannot help but think more about the qualities in the man we loved and the soul we remember.  In biblical times, the Kohen Gadol was a man of special honor, of priestly nature and of service to his community.  He wore robes befitting a man of his status, and nothing of his attire was more brilliant than the breastplate, the Hoshen, on his chest.

In the days of his life, our grandfather also wore such a brilliant badge of honor that, in more ways than one, reflected the brilliance of his life and the illumination on his family.

It is written that the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, which was made in accordance with very specific instructions, had four rows of gems, three gems in each row, making twelve different gems stones total.

Four rows, twelve gems.

Grandpa Bill and Grandma Fran had four children – four rows of gems in their lives. Laura, my father Jay, Marilyn and Bobbi – each a unique and precious gem. And each of those gems begot others, sons and daughter in-laws that were loved like they were and are their own children. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in those lines of gems, gems that Grandpa Bill wore proudly on his chest all the days of his life.

But the number 12 holds an important meaning as well, and held an important meaning to Grandpa. Eight Grandchildren and Four great-grandchildren – those gems were also twelve gems that illuminated the Hoshen of our Kohen Gadol.  Jen and David, Eric and Seth, Julie and Adam, Marissa and Michael, Matthew, Morgan, Danielle and Jordan. They were more than names to Grandpa Bill, they were the gems that he kept, along with Grandma Fran, closes to his heart.  Twelve gems on a breastplate of honor.

And how he kept them close.  Until our grandparents moved to Florida fulltime, there was the twice a year “trek of the Cohens”  –  a journey from North to South, visiting each of the children and grandchildren along the way.  The trip from Willsboro to Florida was more than just a trip, if was a journey of family, stopping to talk, to share, and to watch some CNN.  But even in remembering those trips, there was much more than just dinners and cable news. In fact there was always a different kind of CNN – the Cohen News Network, that stopped in each of our homes, reminding us of our links to one another, the stories of our families, and the events in the lives of those we loved. When our grandparents came on those trips they brought more than pies south and oranges north, they brought their love and their lessons. While they may have been passing through on their travels, in the travel of Grandpa’s life, his children and grandchildren weren’t drive-bys, they were permanent points of pride.

We can all remember so many memories, up at camp, on the boat, at the Point, in town, in Florida, in our homes and in our lives. We can remember countless stories of the penny arcades, of the northern New York towns, the Village Bazaar and the bizarreness of south Florida. And even if we can’t remember all the names of our second and third cousins, we remember the names of the people who made an impact on his life, Mr. Paine, the neighbors at the camp, the friends in Florida, so many names.

We remember what he told us. How he told us he was proud, proud of us, proud of one another.  He set an example to us the way he loved Grandma, they way he felt concern for his children, the way he was respected in the communities that he lived in, the way he respected those communities by always giving back and being for them a leader.

My brother Eric, rightly, describes him as a noble man, a caring man, a community man and a family man. But even more than that, to us he was all of that and then some. He was a true Cohen Gadol.

One final story, perhaps not familiar to many of us.   It happened on Wednesday, May 5, 1954.  At the time The Village Bazaar was not even a thought – our grandfather was the manager of Pearl’s in Keeseville. It was the last night of John Prescott’s term as president of the Keeseville Chamber of Commerce, and new elections were to be held. But it was not the most simple of elections as John Prescott, the outgoing President, was discouraged by the attendance and the overall state of affairs of the Chamber. There was some debate whether an election of the officers was even appropriate.  However, after discussion, the consensus was that those who were interested in the matters of the Chamber had been present or otherwise accounted for, and therefore the election was appropriate.  Bill Cohen was elected without a dissenting vote and he was empowered to appoint his own secretary.

So here we are today, and rather than warmth of that spring day, we feel the chill of the onset of winter. We are gathered not to elect, but to remember the president of our special chamber, our Cohen Gadol.  His optimism was correct and foretelling.  In his discretion, he has appointed each of us his secretary, to be a scribe of the memories of his life, of the stories of our days with him, of the hopes he had for all of us.  Like every man, he is laid to rest in his most simple of attire, however, we should not forget the way he wore the brilliant Hashon, with its four rows of gems, and its twelve gems of life, representing his love for all of us.

May his memory be a blessing…. a blessing that is gadol, not katan.

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