Yesterday my Rabbi died. It feels strange to say that, because I’m generally not a fan of rabbis and for people who know me now, hearing that there’s a rabbi from my childhood who I still consider my Rabbi is probably pretty surprising. It’s not that I’m not religious, it’s just that I don’t entirely fit into the Orthodox world and after years of stories of rabbis abusing the rabbinate to protect molesters, to push political agendas and to perpetrate crimes, I’m usually more embarrassed by rabbis than anything else, and I’d rather not fit into that world. But Rabbi Eliezer Cohen was different.
Rabbi Cohen was my teacher in Detroit in 3rd grade, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th 10th and 11th and he was the mesader kedushin at my wedding. When I try to explain to my kids that he was my teacher, they ask “what subject” but for me Rabbi Cohen was everything I ever learned about Judaism – tanach, parshat hashavua, halacha, mishna, history, philosophy and practice – and as his son, Azarya Moshe, said at the funeral, to us he was a giant. Our class was the only year he taught third grade, so we all felt like he was a little more ours, which was a source of pride. As we grew older there were many things about Rabbi Cohen that you could claim as a source of pride: knowing the names of all eleven of his kids (Azarya Moshe, Deedee, Chananya, Saadya, Nechemiyah, Devorah Leah, Bracha Alta, Tova Chaya, Golda Miriam, Aharon Dov and Shoshana Esther – 25 years later I can still do it), going to his shul, claiming to know something about his past – the mythology was the stuff of legends. We heard he was studying to be a scientist at MIT when he found out he was Jewish, that he was learning to be a brain surgeon when he found out he was a kohen, that he was thrown out of multiple yeshivas – each rumor never confirmed or denied by Rabbi Cohen. But they always in some way painted him as someone who basically discovered Judaism and was self-taught and self-motivated.
For us, Rabbi Cohen was like a father. I couldn’t count the number of times I raised my hand in class and accidentally called him Dad, and it happened to all of us. Coming from various family situations, with varied levels of stability, sanity and safety, Rabbi Cohen was the one constant you could count on year after year. He provided structure, discipline and he had high expectations that you never wanted to disappoint. No matter what was going on at home or how hard it was to face another day as an awkward adolescent in a school with no psychologist and no social worker, where kids brought knives to school (granted, the knives had first names and the owner was later convicted of murder) and where you were pigeon-holed, practically in kindergarten, you still had to be in school for davening by 7:30 or Rabbi Cohen would give you a red zero.
And forgive me if I’ve never quite grown up, but Rabbi Cohen’s plus and minus system of keeping track of how naughty or nice we were has never worn off. Much like the allegory of the great book of life in the sky, Rabbi Cohen kept track of even our smallest successes and failures by handing out plusses and minuses and the dreaded red zero. If you were late for class, a minus; forgot to do homework, a minus; came to davening after yishtabach, a red zero. You could make up for all those infractions, there was a teshuva system in place, either by learning extra time or extra mishnayot, but the best thing you could do in Rabbi Cohen’s class, the surest way you could earn the revered plus, was to ask a good question. Nothing, and I mean not even a compliment from the cutest boy in B3, could make you as proud as when Rabbi Cohen said those long yearned for words “Rachel Karlin, that’s a very good question” and pulled out his pen for the plus.
But while we were terrified of him and his booming voice and his system of merit, he was as much the jester as the judge in our classroom. The classes were long and the days in the Detroit suburban winter were longer. But for Rabbi Cohen, we sat, our desks pressed up against his in the classroom, rapt for hours while he entertained us. In our coats and gloves we sat in old Annie Lathrup’s mansion with its rickety radiators, writing down every word he said, waiting for the jokes, listening for the holes in the argument that could provide opportunity for good questions and always expecting something surprising.
For years he promised us that if only we would all pass a test he would bring in the cotton candy machine he’d gotten from an estate sale and make us a party. In eighth grade we learned kashrut and after studying the whole year the final exam was one question: “A fly falls into your soup. What do you do?” My hand ached from the pages and pages I wrote detailing the different scenarios: How hot was the soup? How large was the pot? How big was the fly? Was the soup dairy? What was the pot made of? And all but one student in the class failed the test. For my pages and pages I got a 45. Why? We all forgot to mention that you had to take the fly out of the soup. In all those years with Rabbi Cohen, I think we had two cotton candy parties and honestly, we loved him anyway.
Rabbi Cohen was a renegade, and for me, that turned out to be essential. We knew and heard the stories about him angering the vaad harabanim in Detroit in one way or another. He believed in halacha in a way that was different from the mainstream – a belief that you could learn on your own, that you could make your own decisions, that if you were well educated enough you didn’t really need rabbis. We were defensive of him, and to varying degrees we were fans. I admit I was in the super-fan group. Rabbi Cohen was my hero. Standing up to authority, his willingness to sacrifice his reputation and being accepted for what he believed in, his ideology that appreciated the human mind and its ability to reason and find the right choices for the individual, those were the things that, for me, set Rabbi Cohen apart from my good teachers into the realm of the giants.
But even among the students who weren’t such fans, those who believed in a more open minded, less halachically-grounded outlook, those who preferred a more-standard-less-vigilante approach that made more space for majority rule, all respected his intellect and everyone knew he was a tremendous educator. If Rabbi Cohen hadn’t been an outsider in the Jewish community in Detroit I wouldn’t be observant today. I’ll be honest, most Orthodox wouldn’t call me Orthodox and yet I’m not Conservative either. For years I searched for a community of people like me and never found one, especially in Israel where (among the Ashkenazim) things are very black and white. I know without a doubt that, feeling like I didn’t belong, I would have given up my practices years ago if it hadn’t been for Rabbi Cohen. He taught me, more than anything else, that Judaism is mine and it’s what I make it. Even if no community thinks I’m religious enough, even if I don’t really fit in anywhere in particular, I can define my beliefs and my practice for myself. For me, he was the only role model I needed. Would Rabbi Cohen have approved of it? I would have gotten a lot of red zeros for being so late to tefillah so often, and a lot of minuses for never being able to keep my mouth shut, but I might have evened it out with all the questions I still ask.
Since we found out that Rabbi Cohen died, there has been an outpouring I was unprepared for among former students. I admit that I fled at 16 from what I experienced in that Detroit high school as a stifling Jewish community and with the exception of a three-year stint during grad school, I rarely go back to Detroit. But this experience reminded me of all those times when we were together as kids, expectantly waiting for Rabbi Cohen to sing his version of chad gadya, waiting for some morsel he had promised to tell us about his personal history, a new story about Aharon Dov who was a precocious four year old, the famed Purim party at Rabbi Cohen’s house – first time getting drunk for most of us, who knew you weren’t supposed to drink half a bottle of mint-flavored schnapps? I think Rabbi Cohen would have really gotten a kick out of the multi-generations of his students all telling the same stories, from all over the world listening to the eulogies together and all heartbroken to have lost our mentor.
Yesterday my Rabbi died and I wish I had called him more often. I wish I had known he was so sick. I wish I had thanked him because, more than any one single individual except my kids and my parents, he made me who I am today. It’s a crime that we never went to him and got him to tell it all to us again now that we’re adults so that we could write it all down just like he taught it and share it with the rest of the world. In the 10th grade he told me that there was an intrinsic difference between all other miracles and Har Sinai, but he told me I’d have to figure out for myself what it was. I came back to him for years with things I’d read and things I’d heard other rabbis say and each time he would ask me, “Does that make sense to you? Is that really so different?” I’m still waiting to find the answer. I wish I could tell him that I’m still looking for the answer and that I’m going to learn mishna, with a chavruta and a Jastrow, just like he taught us, in his memory.