In September 1930, Rabbi Stephen Wise, spiritual leader of New York's Free Synagogue and president of the Jewish Institute of Religion, was asked by the Seven Arts Feature Syndicate to list "the ten foremost religious leaders in this country." The list was published on September 22 in the New York Times. It included Dr. John Haynes Holmes, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, seven other Christian clergy, and Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas.
The headline read: "10 Leaders of Church Listed by Rabbi Wise... One Negro among Them." (That one Jew was among them did not impress the headline writer.)
In explaining his choice of Rabbi Cohen, Rabbi Wise wrote that "one man in the rabbinate, Henry Cohen, had come to have a fine religious or spiritual influence in a large section of the country" and that "Woodrow Wilson referred to him as 'the foremost citizen of Texas.'" Wise went on to say that he, along with Jacob Schiff, had urged Cohen to move to New York to be Chaplain at Large to the Jewish Inmates of Public Institutions of New York, but that Cohen respectfully declined because of his sense of duty to the people of Galveston and the life of the state of Texas. Wise, arguably the foremost public speaker in the American rabbinate, concluded, "Oratory is so often a cheap and easy thing, life is always so difficult and stern a thing. Henry Cohen is a soul who touches and kindles souls."
But why? Why was Henry Cohen considered a kindler of souls? Why did President Wilson refer to him as "the foremost citizen of Texas?" Why did he become a legend? The legend was set to music by Irv Tunick, who wrote "An American Ballad," produced on NBC's religious program, "Frontiers of Faith," in cooperation with the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1955. Three years after his death in 1952, Rabbi Cohen had become something of a folk hero:
In all the state of Texas
From Ft. Worth to San Anton'
There's not a man who hasn't heard
Of Rabbi Henry Cohen
The sick, the poor, the needy,
No matter what their creed...
His heart was always open
To a fellow-man in need
This book—a search for the man behind the myth—is not simply an academic exercise. As his grandson, I not only bear his name but feel—in my later years—a responsibility to contribute what I can to an understanding of the man behind the myth. What I propose to add to the biographies and articles about him are personal reminiscences, some background on the history of his times, and a recognition of how he both reflected and transcended the religious and social ideologies of his time.
I grew up in Houston, but on weekends we went to Galveston, where I enjoyed being with my grandparents and listening to amazing stories about the legendary rabbi. Psychologically, it was as though I had two grandfathers named Henry Cohen. There was "Grandpa Cohen"—we never called him "Zayde," because the only Yiddish I knew was "Bei Mir Bist du Schein" as sung by the Andrews Sisters. Grandpa Cohen enjoyed saying to me such silliness as "ellipticalasiatical pantry curious nervouscordial." Grandpa Cohen belted out from Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore: "For he is an Englishman, for he himself hath said it..." Grandpa Cohen would annoy Grandma by singing British dance hall ditties considered R-rated by Victorian standards: "Go away, naughty boy..." Grandpa Cohen smoked cigars 'til the ashes fell and burnt holes in his black suit, further annoying Grandma. Grandpa Cohen would reminisce about the time he dressed a broom like a man and put it in the bed of a lady friend of the family who was spending the night at the rabbinage. Grandpa Cohen also made sure the family memorized moralistic or clever poems that he would tape to the wall opposite the toilet. For sixty-five years I have been unable to get out of my head:
We had a little tea party this afternoon at three;
'twas very small three guests in all just I, myself and me.
Myself ate up the sandwiches and I drank all the tea.
'Twas also I who ate the pie and passed the cake to me.
(The poems my grandfather taught me are lodged in my brain, even though I can't recall the plot of last week's movie.)
Grandpa Cohen liked lyrics and, on occasion, liquor. After returning from his morning rounds, he would belt down a shot of scotch and perhaps recall how he had provided a case of scotch for the great Scottish vaudevillian, Harry Lauder, whenever he would perform in Galveston, singing "I Love a Lassie," or, for the home crowd, "The Dixie Girls Are Good Enough for Me." That was the Grandpa Cohen who, when I returned from my third year at the Hebrew Union College, asked almost plaintively, "What could I teach at the College?" I answered: "Maybe you could teach the students how to be rabbis." Grandpa Cohen was a natural. By that I mean he was the same on the pulpit as off, no deep sonorous tones. Who you saw and heard was who he was.
That was Grandpa: a playful, earthy, life-loving, unpretentious mensch, a very human being. Then, in my psyche alongside Grandpa the mensch was Rabbi Cohen, super-mensch. Not "Grandpa," but Rabbi Cohen, was the almost mythic hero of many stories I loved hearing as a child. There were stories of South Africa, where Cohen quickly learned to interpret the click dialect of the Zulus. He would show on his head the scar from the wound he received when he was hit over the head by a Zulu with the butt of a gun. More impressive were stories of how he would intervene with those in power on behalf of those in need. The most famous of those stories concerns the stowaway Demchuk, who was about to be sent from Galveston back to Russia, where he would surely be executed. Rabbi Cohen was not able to persuade the local port authorities in Galveston to let him stay, so he went to Washington and eventually saw President Taft. There are different versions of the story. The first written account is included in Chapter 8. All versions agree that the Rabbi did persuade the president to release Demchuk into Cohen's custody and that Taft was amazed that the Rabbi had come all the way from Texas on behalf of a Greek Catholic.
This is but one of many stories told of Rabbi Cohen that demonstrated the power of one small but mighty man to move mountains. My cousin, the Rabbi's only other grandson, David Frisch, doubted the veracity of some of the tales. I believed with perfect faith every word. David became a physicist. I became a rabbi. My research has led me to believe that the truth lies somewhere in between David's skepticism and my unquestioning faith. The Rabbi's personal correspondence (including letters to and from President Taft) provides evidence of many instances when he rescued a fellow human being (whatever his/her faith) from a crisis situation. Other stories are based on oral history, told by friends and family, some of which were retold in The Man Who Stayed in Texas, by my parents, Anne Nathan and Harry I. Cohen. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle of September 18, 1949: "When a New York publishing firm asked him to write his autobiography, he refused. 'How can a man write about his own life, without talking about himself,' he exclaimed. 'What would I say—I, I, I?'" A colleague has suggested that the search for "the facts" is less important than the truth of a rabbi who often would take extraordinary measures to help others.
I can bear witness to his regular routine, as I—in my early teens—would tag along as he visited hospitals, bringing hope to the patients of every faith. He was often quoted as saying: "There's no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps." I recall his ascending the stairs of the Orphan's Home carrying large cartons and shouting, "Ice cream!" I would spend hours sitting on the front porch of his home at 1920 Broadway as visitors would arrive, some with problems, others with the desire simply to meet "Doctor Cohen," as he came to be called. But after they left, he would open the Galveston Tribune and read with me his favorite comics: Mutt and Jeff and the Katzenjammer Kids. Grandpa Cohen was back.
Of course, I did hear the stories of how he blended the role of rabbi and social worker in the Galveston Movement, welcoming thousands of immigrants and then helping them find work throughout the Southwest and Midwest. Surely the most significant influence he had on a state level was as the leader of successful efforts to reform the Texas prison system. Of course, there were the stories of how he and his friend Father Kirwin kept the Klan out of Galveston.
In 1963, after ten years in the rabbinate, I contributed "Portrait of a Rabbi" to Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus' book of tribute, Henry Cohen: Messenger of the Lord. In 1986, I went through the Henry Cohen Papers at the University of Texas, which had, at his insistence, been kept from public viewing for twenty-five years after his death. It was around the millennium—I had been a "rabbi emeritus" for seven years—that Rabbi Dreyfus urged me to add what I could to an understanding of my grandfather. One of my grandfather's successors in Galveston and my Liturgy Professor at the Hebrew Union College, Dreyfus was upset that most of today's rabbis—and therefore most American Jews—know little or nothing about Henry Cohen of Texas. So I wrote "A Forgotten Tzaddik," published in the Central Conference of American Rabbis' CCAR Journal. The "tzaddik" (righteous one) in the history of Jewish mysticism was the charismatic leader of a community of disciples who believed they could come closer to God by observing their tzaddik and learning from his example. Grandpa Cohen was something like a tzaddik for American Reform Jews during the first half of the twentieth century. He was something more: a mentor for several generations of Reform rabbis. As both pastor and social activist, he became the model for many of his younger colleagues.
Henry Cohen should not be forgotten. His place in the history of American Judaism and the state of Texas should be studied. I have been particularly interested in considering how he both reflected and transcended his times. This volume is my response to Mrs. Willy Loman's plea in The Death of a Salesman—"Attention must be paid." We shall first return to his early years in London, which reveal how he began his vocation as "a soul that touches and kindles souls." Then we shall view his life and career from Jamaica to Mississippi to Galveston, where he became "the man who stayed in Texas."
Henry Cohen grew up as a British Jew to the sounds of hazanut (cantorial chants) and the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. He knew the history of British Jewry. Expelled from England in 1290, after economic crisis led to using them as scapegoats and confiscating their property, Jews were not allowed to return until an embryonic capitalism needed their talents. The first to return were Sephardim, who had been forced out of Spain and found refuge in Holland and Italy. Within fifty years they were followed by a larger number of Ashkenazim (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe). The Sephardim still considered themselves the Jewish elite, and when Henry was born, April 7, 1863, the most prominent Jew in Britain was the Sephardic businessman and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore.
The Ashkenazic community was, from 1844 to 1890, led by Nathan Adler, chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue, who insisted on the preservation of traditional Judaism as interpreted by the halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities of Europe and himself. Not that all or even most British Jews lived according to Jewish law. While Adler exercised control over congregations and their rituals, many individual Jews exercised their freedom to choose whatever traditions they found meaningful. Some historians suggest that this assertion of autonomy was a reflection of the prevailing capitalist economy, which required that entrepreneurs and consumers be free to make their own decisions. The gap between the official religion and the independence of congregants may also reflect the pattern of the Anglican church, many of whose members were neither "orthodox" believers nor attenders, even though the clerical leadership held to traditional creed and practice.
Given such autonomy, one may wonder why a Reform Jewish movement did not flourish on British soil, as it had in Germany. Historian Todd Endelman points out that unlike the Jews on the Continent, who had to relinquish much of their ethnic or national Jewish identity in order to gain their civil rights, for British Jews emancipation was unconditional. They did not feel the pressure to become "English citizens of Mosaic persuasion." Rather, to use Reconstructionist terms, they could live simultaneously in both the British and Jewish civilizations. (For an explanation of the Reconstructionist movement within Judaism, see Glossary.)
Another reason why Reform Judaism began in Germany rather than England may have been that in Germany civil rights were initially granted to only a minority of urban German Jews. The children of these Jews received advanced education and became part of the modern culture, whereas most German Jews remained in smaller communities which were barely touched by modern trends, and so they retained medieval beliefs and practices. Given two such different patterns of Jewish life within Germany, Reform Judaism emerged, in part, to enable emancipated Jews to practice a Judaism not bound by Jewish law while preventing them from being assimilated into the dominant Christian community. In contrast, in England the entire Jewish community was granted basic civil rights. It is also true that for British Jewry, emancipation came about gradually between 1830 and 1870. The first Jew to be admitted to Parliament, Lionel Rothschild, was elected in 1858. Generally, however, since very few Jews aspired to be part of the British ruling class, they were quite content with the social and economic opportunities open to them.
The Board of Deputies was the central body for British Jewry. Led by Sir Moses Montefiore, it, upheld official Orthodoxy by refusing to certify David Wolf Martin, minister of the breakaway reform-minded West London synagogue, as qualified to officiate at Jewish marriages, claiming his congregation was not a synagogue. It has been estimated that before 1880, 61 percent of the 60,000 British Jews were middle class; 24 percent were poor; and 15 percent were wealthy, having been successful as merchant bankers or financiers. The leaders of British Jewry did consider it important to "take care of their own." So, in 1859, Lionel Cohen created the Board of Guardians to coordinate relief efforts for the urban poor. The acculturated middle class considered poverty to be disreputable and feared that the Jewish poor could pose a threat to their social achievements. After 1880, the task of caring for one's own became much more formidable, with the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe increasing the number of British Jewry to 300,000 by 1914.
Henry Cohen's parents, David and Josephine, had come to London in the 1850's as part of an earlier trickle of immigrants from Russo-Poland, probably from the village of Rava. David, a tinsmith by trade, found employment as a gas meter manufacturer. On the side he fashioned Jewish ceremonial objects for sale. He held religious services in the back of his gray stone house on Lancaster Road. Josephine (née Tikoczinka) would give birth to eight children: in Russo-Poland, Moses (1851), and then in England, Rosetta (1853), Mark (1855), Amelia (1858), Rebecca (1859), Henry (1863), Sarah (1865), and Hannah (1867). Of all Henry's siblings, he was closest to Mark. Hannah migrated to South Africa, writing regularly to Henry, even after he settled in Galveston. (I know, because I collected the stamps on her letters.) The strength of character of David and Josephine was captured in two remarkable portraits by Philip Snowden, a member of the British Royal Academy. It was highly unusual for an artist of such status and talent to portray members of the lower middle class. But Snowden had such enormous regard for David and Josephine that he painted the portraits as a gift.
There being no public school system in Britain, education was organized along sectarian lines. When Henry was nine, he began attending Jews' Hospital (also called N'veh Tzedek, or Habitation of Righteousness), a boarding school in West Norwood. Jews' Hospital, which had been converted from an old-age home and was subsidized by wealthy Ashkenazim, trained boys and girls up to the age of thirteen for trades and domestic service. Hebrew was taught two hours each day. Enrollment was limited to children of the "respectable poor" who had lived in England for at least ten years and were connected with one of the city's synagogues. Henry was an outstanding student with a talent for languages. He was awarded the Evalina Rothschild prize of L5. Once, he and his classmates had a "battle of potatoes" with some village children who taunted them. The children would say, "I had a bit of pork, and I stuck it on a fork, and I gave it to a Jew-boy Jew." Henry and his friends would respond: "I had a bit of beef, and I stuck it on a leaf, and I gave it to a Christian thief."
Among Henry's classmates at Jews' Hospital was Israel Zangwill, who would become a novelist and playwright and who would, along with Henry Cohen, play a key role in the immigration of Jews through Galveston (see Chapter 7.) Henry and Israel became friends. My grandfather told me that he mentioned to Zangwill that he was moved by a piyyut (liturgical poem), "Va-ye-esayu." Years later Zangwill composed a free translation in the form of a hymn, "All the World Shall Come to Serve Thee," sung in American Reform congregations for decades. Years later Henry would send to Zangwill an Aztec head that he had found in Mexico and that bore a striking resemblance to his boyhood friend.
When Henry left Jews' Hospital at fifteen, he was planning to attend the University of London. However—as the story has been told—after feeling the calluses on his father's hand, Henry became determined not to cost his father another shilling. So, he secured a job with the Board of Guardians and attended Jews' College at night. Jews' College had been established in 1855 "for the purpose of affording a liberal and useful Hebrew and English education to the sons of respectable parents and training of ministers, readers and teachers." Henry learned to translate the prayer book and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and to chant from the Torah. He studied Hebrew grammar, Jewish history, and religion. Dr. Michael Friedlander, the principal, was a German Jew who had specialized in Oriental and Classical Languages. The kind of minister the College hoped to produce was described in the London Jewish Chronicle: "men of thorough English feelings and views, as conversant with the classics of their own language as with those of the sacred tongue, as acquainted with modern science as versed in ancient lore;... whose ardour and enthusiasm will break forth and rouse and kindle with Shakespearean vigor and Miltonian sweetness."
During weekdays Henry worked for the Board of Guardians, rushing with boundless energy from one client to another, providing funds for meals or clothes, to enable the poorest of families to subsist and to hope that their children would have more opportunities. Among his duties was the collection of funds from the Rothschild firm which supported the philanthropy. There, as an elderly Henry Cohen told the story, he would occasionally see the former prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who was so impressed that such a small lad could do so much that he affectionately called him "little Henry."
Somehow "little Henry," who years later would preach about the virtue of energy and efficiency, found the time to perform a clairvoyance act with his brother, Mark. With his exceptional memory, Henry developed a coded language; he would don a blindfold while Mark held something that belonged to a member of the audience. The question "Can you tell me what I am holding?" might indicate a gentleman's watch. "What have we here?" might be the code for a lady's handbag. The high point of his show business career was the charity event at which he spotted in the audience—in the language of W. S. Gilbert—the "ultra-poetical super-aesthetical" Oscar Wilde.
After three years in Jews' College, at eighteen, Henry gave in to Mark's plea that he should take a break from his studies and, before becoming a clergyman, experience a totally different kind of world in South Africa. Henry received a letter dated May 16, 1881, from Sydney Samuel of the Board of Guardians, testifying to the high quality of his work with the Board and presenting him with a gift of L65.5, collected from members of the Board (including Sir Nathaniel Rothschild) to help him on his way. One week later Henry received another letter, this from Lionel Cohen, president of the Board, wishing him well:
I was requested, in the name of the Board, to convey to you the fact... that you have during the period of your service here, gained the full confidence of your employer, and carried out your work to their entire satisfaction. The Board desires me to express its hope that you may be fortunate in the new life on which you are embarking, and that in the future as in the past, you may by industry, zeal, and attention find your reward in the confidence you inspire. Wishing you a safe and pleasant voyage, Believe me...
Henry and Mark left Southampton in June 1881. The voyage was safe if not entirely pleasant. In "Three Years in Africa," Henry wrote of his experience on board the good ship Arab as it sailed past the Madeira Islands on the way to South Africa. Henry described "some beautiful views of English scenery" as the ship sailed by the Isle of Wight. The voyage was marred by his bout with seasickness, during which "the sight of food made me think of the hereafter." Capetown was a cacophony of diverse languages and dress. He noted that the traffic of slaves began in 1620 with the discovery of America and remarked that "the early navigators practiced a great deal of barbarity toward the natives." Henry found the diamond industry to be in full swing in Kimberly. There he began learning the click dialect of the "Negro tribes."
While Mark worked in Capetown as a bookkeeper, Henry explored the countryside and went down into the mines in Kimberly. However, fearing he would lose his ability to read the sources of Jewish law and lore in the original Hebrew and Aramaic, Henry wanted to find someone with whom to study Talmud. He discovered such a companion in Moses Davis, owner of a dry goods store in Molteno. Davis not only hired Henry but also found time to study with him. It was while working in the store that Henry became so familiar with the click dialects of the Zulus that he decided to move to Robertson, a garrison town where he worked part time as an interpreter. He learned to shoot a rifle at target practice with the soldiers. His paycheck he sent home to his parents. To support himself he found another part-time job at Steinman's general store.
One hot day in February while the soldiers were out of town on maneuvers, a band of Zulus attacked the town. Henry found himself with only sixteen men, rifle in hand, poised to repulse the natives. The next thing he remembered was regaining consciousness and feeling a searing pain on the top of his head. Mr. Steinman explained that a Zulu had seized his gun and cracked him on the head with it. There had not been much of a skirmish because the men were able to generate enough fire power to hold off the natives until the troops returned. Henry's chief concern was: "Did I shoot anyone?" Mr. Steinman assured him that he had not. The evidence for the incident, other than Henry's recollection, was a visible scar on the top of his head, a scar which for years he would show to visitors as he recounted the tale. A poignant postscript: The War Office had listed Henry among the dead, and his parents sat shivah for him. When the error was corrected, Henry's mother gave an extra measure of charity to the poor.
Returning to England in June 1883, Henry resumed his studies at Jews' College, now more intent than ever to graduate as a Jewish "minister." Before 1896, there was no way in England to receive semichah, ordination as a rabbi authorized to interpret Jewish law. A new kind of religious leader emerged: "a pastoral preaching Jewish clergyman, giving a unique cast to Anglo-Judaism... The community needed readers who would preach regularly in English, visit the sick and the poor, and, more generally reflect the cultural level of the community." The Jewish Chronicle urged that these ministers should, above all, be able "to expound the principles of Judaism from the pulpit in choice and dearest language." Strict traditionalists were critical of these new roles for Jewish clergy. One remarked that he "could not find any John Bullism in Judaism." According to Endelman, the lack of advanced training in halakhah was the direct consequence of Rabbi Adler wanting to be one of the few authorized interpreters of Jewish law in all of Britain. Adler sent his own son, Herman, to Prague to pursue rabbinic studies at the yeshiva of Solomon Rapoport, where he received semichah. All in the family!
Henry graduated from Jews' College in 1884. While not an expert in Jewish law, Henry Cohen emerged from the College steeped in the knowledge of Jewish tradition, history, and literature, with a particular interest in the Aggadic portions of rabbinic literature, that is, nonlegal passages consisting of sayings, stories, and commentaries that had a moral or spiritual message. (He would later collect some of the most meaningful in his Talmudic Sayings, published by Bloch in 1894.) He was also qualified to be a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a mohel (to perform Brit Milahs), and to fulfill the function of reader, hazan (cantor), preacher, and pastor.
It was also the intention of the founders of Jews' College that its graduates be quite at home in the culture of Victorian England. Henry had a particular love for all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Among his favorites was Patience, which satirized the super-aesthetic cult that revolved around Oscar Wilde. He enjoyed the satirical critique of certain preachers and philosophers:
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases
Of your complicated state of mind.
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And everyone will say, as you walk your mystic way
If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be.
From his early years as a preacher, Cohen did not try to impress with fancy phrases or obscure oratory. He spoke directly and to the point, whether he was comforting the distressed or urging the apathetic to action.
Another favorite was Rudyard Kipling. One would hope that Cohen was not swept up in the rhetoric that at times rationalized British imperialism. I remember hearing him recite "Gunga Din," but I also remember "Recessional": "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget, Lest we forget." Those who advocate a twenty-first-century version of "the White Man's Burden" could use a bit of Kipling's humility. (The "Burden" was the duty of the British to teach the poor colored people of Asia and Africa the values and ways of Western civilization. Sound familiar?)
But it was Alfred, Lord Tennyson who provided the poetic antidote to dreams of empire. Into his eighth decade, Henry Cohen carried in his heart and often in his coat pocket the dream of "Locksley Hall":
For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be...
Til the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
Whether from the prophesies of Isaiah or the fantasies of Tennyson, Henry Cohen emerged from his British and Jewish civilizations an optimist and idealist, ever able to salvage in the saddest of times an element of hope grounded in faith in both God and humanity, a faith that would be challenged by personal tragedy and the moral failures of the twentieth century.