In many ways, my father inhabited a private universe of idiosyncratic proclivities, speech patterns, opinions, and tastes. Many of these were just personal quirks, for example his life-long insistence on pronouncing both the airport’s name and the mayor’s as though it were written La Gardia rather than the way everybody else pronounces it. Or his being the last living New Yorker to refer to the Hudson as the North River. Others, however, were more psychologically meaningful, for example his indelible sense of himself as a Jew from Brownsville—the neighborhood in south Brooklyn, not the city in Texas—despite the fact that by the time he died in 1999 he hadn’t lived there for well over half a century. (Nor did it seem to matter particularly that the Jewish Brownsville of his youth itself hadn’t existed for almost as long as he hadn’t lived there.) But in other ways, of course, my dad was a man of his time and place who deciphered the world in roughly the same way the rest of his generation did. That, surely, was his right! But it was both those aspects—the idiosyncratic quirks that were his alone and the values and opinions he shared with so many others of his time and place—that, taken together and gently stirred, created the unique being that was my father, born one hundred years ago next Tuesday. Happy Birthday, Dad!
My father, Joseph Cohen (how many times did I hear him explain that he was too poor growing up to have a middle name?), arrived in a world so unlike our own as to make it in many ways almost unrecognizable. But he also left a world behind that many today would find distinctly unfamiliar, albeit for a different set of reasons. My father never owned a cell phone. He died without ever having acquired an email address, let alone a Twitter account or a Facebook page. Those details alone make it sound like he should be turning a thousand years old next week, not just a hundred…but that is merely a sign of how dramatically things have changed—and how quickly—since he drew his last breath in the summer of 1999. I myself went to college, after all, before anyone had his or her own computer, before there even was a public internet, before memory was something you could buy more of, before the word “library” meant anything other than the building on campus where they kept all those books. But the world I wish to imagine is not the world of my father’s final years as the last century waned and the millennium loomed slightly menacingly (remember Y2K?) on the horizon, but the world of his first years, of his childhood.
The world was at war when my dad was born: he was actually born during the Battle of Verdun, now familiar mostly to high school students preparing for the Regents exam in Global History but at the time thought to be the bloodiest and most horrific battle imaginable, one fought between more than a million French and even more German soldiers. Well over 400,000 soldiers died at Verdun too, slightly more on the French side than the German, but even more stunning is that neither side won anything significant at all in the course of the battle’s 303 days and the battle, formally listed in the history books as a French victory, should far more reasonably be adjudicated a draw. When my father was born, however, there was still to be more than a year before our nation entered the war and all this violent insanity was still all “over there.” Indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, things were relatively calm as my dad entered the world. Woodrow Wilson was already busy campaigning for a second term in the White House. His Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall (our only V.P. to be the target of an assassination attempt, but today most remembered for his election-year quip that what America really needed was a good five-cent cigar) was campaigning for re-election as well. The mayor of New York City (of which Brooklyn had been part for fewer than twenty years on the day of my dad’s birth) was John Purroy Mitchell, the so-called “Boy Mayor.” (Mayor Mitchell was a full-grown man, of course. His nickname derives from the fact that he was elected mayor at age thirty-four, thus becoming—at the time and still—New York City’s youngest mayor. He is also Gotham’s only mayor to die after accidentally falling out of an airplane.) And so my father was born into a world at peace and at war, into an age of unprecedentedly mechanized violence sandwiched in between the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties.
What I know about Woodrow Wilson or the Boy Mayor I know almost exclusively from reading books. Those books, obviously, outline their careers, their accomplishments, their defeats, etc., painting their private and professional lives either broadly or, depending on the intended market for the book, in far more focused detail. About my father’s life, though, there are no major volumes to buy and read. And, indeed, when I think about my father’s life, I find myself amazed how possible it is simultaneously to know so much and so little about someone. Is that the way it always is with parents and children, that we somehow know everything and nothing about them? I knew my father beyond well. For decades, we corresponded—on paper, in the old-fashioned way—twice weekly…and I have the thousands of letters and aerograms to prove it. (Joan and I left New York for Jerusalem in 1983 and, although at the time we imagined we were leaving for a year or two, we only returned nineteen years later in 2002. In the sixteen years between our departure and my father’s death, we both wrote each other twice weekly. That would make a total of more than 3,000 letters—four for each week of sixteen years, excluding only those weeks we were actually present in each other’s company—and I have all, or at least most, of them. If we slacked off here and there, it wasn’t often.) In those letters were detailed the day-to-day lives we were living: when you write that often and at length, there’s plenty of room to expatiate about even the most picayune details. There’s one memorable letter of my dad’s given over entirely to a detailed report on the purchase of a necktie in the Macy’s on Queens Blvd in Elmhurst, for example. But the amazing thing isn’t that he once bought a tie in some store somewhere, but how truly interesting the whole experience was to read about once it was properly dissected and thoughtfully analyzed after-the-fact by as astute an observer of the human condition as was my father and by as good a writer. He wrote semi-professionally too, sharing with three other writers the authorship of the Berkshire Beat column in the North Adams Transcript for years and years. Nor was writing mere avocation for my dad—he actually was an English teacher, employed for decades at John Adams High School in Ozone Park and then, after his too-early retirement, at a yeshivah on 108th Street in Forest Hills.)
But what I don’t know about my father would fill up a much thicker book than the one I actually could write about his life. I knew him as intimately as any son could know his father…and yet I can’t name a single person with whom he went to Franklin K. Lane High School, not a single teacher who influenced him, not the title of a single book he read as an adolescent that altered the course of his life. Even his family story has large holes I suppose I won’t ever be able to patch up now. He had a sister who died long before I was born, for instance, but I’ve never seen a picture of her. He also had two older brothers who died before his parents came to this country, but I don’t even know their names. I know almost nothing about my father’s own father either—a topic my father intently, almost forcefully, avoided whenever it might otherwise have come up for discussion—and only a little about his mother, my grandmother. (She died when I was four years old and, although I don’t remember much of her, I am for some reason able to remember the sound of her voice.) And yet when I think of my father’s family, I think, not of a puzzle with missing pieces, but of a warm, loving clan of people I did and do know, people in whose homes I was a regular visitor and a welcome guest. So my father’s life is a strange pastiche of bright parts and dark gaps, of lots of this and less of that, of light and shadow. My father had a first wife too, but I only learned of her existence when I was in my twenties. And I only learned her name long after my father died when my Aunt Molly, figuring that it no longer mattered, offhandedly mentioned it to me. But of that entire episode in my father’s life, including what ever happened to that first Mrs. Cohen, I know more or less nothing at all.
Have I replicated that strange light-and-shadow thing with my own children? Do we all? (Or, to ask the question even more trenchantly, does anyone not?) Do my children know the name of the junior high school I attended? Do they know the names of any of the boys in my bunk at Camp Oakdale? They all know that I spent my junior year of college in France, but have I ever shared any of the things that befell me there with them at all, let alone in detail, to explain how that whole experience led me to apply to JTS for rabbinical school? I suppose the answer is that I haven’t. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be, that we’re supposed to know our parents and also not to know them, that the whole idea is to be intimately involved in the stories of their lives and also to leave large swathes of that story unexplored so as to grant the people we love the most the privacy they need to create a life narrative that conforms to their sense of identity and personhood than to the harsh exigencies of historical reality.
Hiding behind all this rumination about my father are larger, deeper questions about identity. What does it mean to be who you are? Every life has a narrative, but is it supposed to be fiction or fact, myth or history? Is the identity you bear—the way you see yourself and the way you hope to inspire others too to see you—is that sense of yourself supposed to be something you fashion of the shards of your past…or is supposed to be the outer shell that forms naturally around the sum total of all that has happened to you in the course of the years of your life? For the record, I attended Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School from 1965 to 1967. Is that by definition part of who I am now, today? Or is it just a detail about the boy I briefly was. Even I don’t remember much of ninth grade, after all. Does that make my sense of myself scarred by recollective deficiency or unaffected precisely because the whole experience of attending ninth grade failed to earn a place in my ongoing sense of identity, in the ongoing narrative of my life to date as I tell it and wish it to be told? That is the unexpected question the contemplation of my father’s upcoming centenary brings to the fore as I contemplate his life and, by extension, my own.
My dad once told me he recalled as a boy having seen Civil War veterans marching down Fifth Avenue on Veterans Day. I found that unbelievable, but no more so, I’m sure, than my own children found it when I mentioned that I myself saw veterans of the Spanish-American War marching in that same parade when I was a boy. Some of those veterans my dad saw must have been born in the 1840s—they would have been in their eighties when my father was a ten-year-old—and so old enough personally to have known veterans of the Revolutionary War. That moment—seeing those Civil War vets and allowing them to symbolize the interconnectedness of events and the collapsible aspect of time as the past races through the present into the future—ended up being a profound piece of my father’s puzzle, an important detail that he cherished and passed on. It pleases me to pass it along to you as I think about my dad and wish I could somehow introduce him to you. The thing with the veterans is just a detail, of course. But it symbolizes for me a great truth: that we are the living embodiments of the portraits we fashion from the bits and pieces we somehow manage to hold on to as we pass through the twin landscapes of memory and event…and make ourselves into the people we wish our children to know and, ideally, to respect and to remember once we’re gone.