In 1978, my grandparents Jacob and Malka Cohen were honored by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, as Founding Members of the institution, known at that time as “Winnipeg Associates”.
Nothing has ever made more sense to me, than my grandparents being acknowledged for playing a part in strengthening institutions of higher education in Israel – their favorite place in the world.
When I was a pre-teen, my Baba (meaning “grandfather” in Arabic) and I would sit in the white sitting chairs of their quaint and warmly-lit home library, beaded and colorfully embroidered throw pillows huddled in on our laps.
Baba would always have his white, minimalistic-style mug of strong black coffee that my Nani (“grandmother”) had prepared for him just a few minutes before. I would sip on a delicate teacup of Red-Rose black tea with cream and sugar stirred in. My Nani had always been famous for the way in which she made her tea. It doesn’t matter how accurately any of us attempt to follow her exact tea-making steps and recreate her soothing brew – it is never the same. Each personal attempt ultimately ends with our creations being poured down the drain, and our Nani proudly sashaying into her kitchen to save the day.
“I make the best tea!”, she says cheekily.
Bombay, 1965. My grandmother with my mother, Susan.
I’d collect my tea from the kitchen and walk over to my Baba, who would already be settled in the cozy room. In between stories and teachings from the Torah and Talmud, Baba would tell me with his particular style of modesty about how as a young person in Bombay, he had always planned on being an aeronautical engineer. He completed his high school education early at the age of 15 and immediately began working for his father’s company where Baba’s youthful knack for cleverness allowed that business to flourish.
We would continue chatting, listening to the sound of my Nani battling with the dishes and leftovers in the kitchen. She would never let me help her clean up, but would simultaneously insist that her kitchen must always be in pristine condition at the end of the night.
“I never go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink”, she would whisper to me with a kiss on my cheek.
My Nani always smells of cherry blossom; with every kiss and hug, the scent of sweet cherry blossom fills my lungs and rekindles the distinctness of my grandmother’s warm elegance.
Despite all the noise coming from the kitchen, Nani would still take part in our conversation, listening to Baba describe his past career plans. Suddenly, she would yell out,
“And I was going to leave Bombay and go to study in England!!”
“Please come sit down, darling”, Baba would call out to her from the library.
Bombay, 1960s. My grandfather and my mother, age 2.
Later that night, I sat in the car with my mother, driving home from my grandparent’s house. I remember turning to her from the passenger seat and asking with awe,
“Mom, are Baba and Nani geniuses???”
Well, instead of my Baba becoming an aeronautical engineer and my Nani flying off to England to pursue her studies, my grandparents packed up their exotic Bombay home and two young daughters, Susan and Michelle. They flew across the world to Winnipeg, Canada where they hoped to continue growing their family; where further generations of Cohen grandchildren and Cohen great-grandchildren would have access to far more diverse opportunities.
So, no, my Baba never became an aeronautical engineer, and my Nani never did cruise off to England to immerse herself in her studies. Rather, Nani became the first woman in the province of Manitoba to own and run a licensed, home-daycare; where she cared for children from all walks of life. She bathed underprivileged children in the bathtub in which she bathed her own children, and dressed them in the freshly-laundered clothes of her own children. Nani would cook them sweet and comforting meals – my family always recalls with nostalgia her grilled-cheese sandwiches that were cut up into triangles, with a bowl of tomato soup on the side. She would sit them down, freshly bathed and clothed, along with her own daughter at the small tables she had arranged for the children in the living room.
My Baba inherited a printing company in the downtown area of the city, becoming a well-known name in both the Jewish and wider Winnipeg community. He supplied my own high school and many others with paper supplies and support, continuing to foster the sense of reverence that they both had for primary and higher education.
My grandparents had a profound desire to develop their own talents and abilities within the framework of higher education. Instead, they renounced this desire and gave their heart and soul to the development and advocacy of education both in Winnipeg and at a university in the Negev Desert.
In the past month, I’ve said a lot. A couple of weeks ago, I recounted my story as a young woman who lost access to her education at this very same university – as a student whose chronic illnesses had been perniciously determined to preclude her will to complete her graduate degree.
It weighs heavily on my heart to think about how my grandparents left their familiar home in Bombay to selflessly forge a way for not only their children’s and grandchildren’s education in Canada, but for strangers’ education at a university in the dry and then unacknowledged and under-developed Negev Desert.
Then comes the memory of the cool, Be’er Sheva night in March of 2021, when I dragged my belongings out of my home in the modern residence building and organized them neatly on the side of my street, Sderot Ben-Gurion: Ben-Gurion Avenue.
There’s often a lot sitting on my heart and mind. Tonight, this one was particularly crushing:
I hope with the entirety of my soul, that my Nani and Baba’s values, sense of duty and moral conduct are one day reflected back to us in the institution that they always held in high esteem.