In Memory of Carla Cohen - Comments by Gerry Serotta

My wife Cindy and I met Carla (and David) at that in-between time in the early 80’s when she was making the transition from Urban Planner to the fulfillment of the fantasy that just about every 60’s person that I knew – to own a bookstore with a little café, with discussions, with arguments, with commitment to making the world a better place, not just to selling books.  As you all know Carla never did anything half-way. Even being unemployed she did intensively, organizing a group of unemployed professionals for peer support and networking.

Carla and I actually met when we worked together politically within an organization called New Jewish Agenda, a progressive voice in the Jewish community. Carla worked on our national “Economic Justice Task Force.”  In fact I would say that the pursuit of justice and equity, was probably a very close third in a list of Carla’s passions, behind only the love of family, the love of the world of books and literature.  She was a fierce supporter of justice for the oppressed, the unnoticed, the left behind.

Although NJA’s views on such issues as supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation were controversial in those days, Carla didn’t hesitate to bring them into her synagogue, Tifereth Israel, where she and David were devoted members. In what way? Of course by creating, a three part series of discussions.  One panel featured Israeli Knesset members who argued against settlements in the West Bank, as obstructing the possibility of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  At this time the “two-state Solution” was not yet part of conventional wisdom – in fact it was grounds for excommunication, but Carla never hesitated to bring these views to her community.

One of the panels featured a debate between me and Stuart Eisenstat, one of David and Carla’s many accomplished and distinguished friends, on the theme of whether Jews should be involved in a broad spectrum of human rights issues as Jews, or whether their Jewish involvements should be limited to more parochial issues such as support for Israel and concern for Soviet Jewry.  Stu took the parochial side of the argument. 

Truth be told I am pretty sure I heard him argue on the other side of this question some years later.  However, I don’t think I converted him.  Rather I think Carla convinced him to take a position just for the sake of airing the issues in a thorough and fair way.   You may have noticed that if Carla wanted you to do something she felt was important to do she could be rather persuasive.   You may have also noticed that Carla had a few strong convictions on virtually every important issues of the day, speaking about them with great clarity and without reluctance -- yet she had equally strong convictions that it was important to have open discussion in order to apply reason and analysis to get beyond prejudice.  What values she exemplified in her political work she brought forward as well within her vision, and we might say, “calling” at P&P.

There is another realm where these values and Carla’s three primary passions were very clearly present and that was at the Cohen Family seders. They certainly were the time when Carla expressed her Jewish heritage most powerfully. The sedarim always exemplified both elements of this ritual that dates back almost 2000 years: first, a collective re-telling of a story of escape from Egyptian slavery, a re-telling which demands that participants identify with and help liberate those oppressed in our day; and second, a seder meal which is modeled after the format of the Greek symposium, a leisurely meal when citizens discuss the moral and ethical issues facing their community.   The attendees were of all ages and religious backgrounds, including prominent and close friends like Father Robert Drinan, and also young people who worked at P&P.  And of course, Carla paid lavish attention to having a gracious and delicious Seder meal, accessible to those with all kinds of dietary predilections.

When we first joined the Cohen family seders, the kids were in elementary or middle school, and David always “conducted” the Seder.  In later years Aaron and Eve frequently played this role which provided unlimited naches or joy for Carla and David, to see their children following in their footsteps.  But in truth Carla “ran” the Seder.  While it was going on she reviewed it, she commented on it, she orchestrated it.  If it was the second seder she would review the discussion at the first.  She did it with love, with infectious enthusiasm, with humor – just as she did everything else in her life.

Aaron said to me this week that his parents appreciated and marveled at the fact that in those days, Cindy and I would walk four miles from downtown to the seder – but, of course, we wouldn’t miss it.  In fact Carla and David realized that Cindy was likely to be important in my life when I asked if I could bring her to the seder that year (1983).  We considered ourselves deeply honored that when one year Carla broke her leg and couldn’t manage two seders, she and David were actually willing to join us for a seder. 

At our wedding 25 years ago we asked a few friends from different parts of our lives to offer non-traditional blessings, including Carla and David. We don’t remember all the specifics words she used, but Carla definitely wished for us that we would have the joys of a long and happy partnership that she and David had experienced for the then 27 years of their marriage. And it is certainly true today as it was so apparent to us then, that their model of loving support, together with good humored nudging, was important to us – that two members of a couple could contribute to society in different but complementary ways, that you could raise creative and independent thinking kids, who, nevertheless, reflect your values. Carla was also the kind of friend who would show up unannounced with a book she thought Cindy or I might enjoy while on vacation -- sometimes we would even find one outside the door if we weren’t home.

Carla was fiercely proud of her family and David’s family.  She spoke often of the accomplishments of her siblings, the strength of her mother Edith, the exploits and the travels of Eve and Aaron and their spouses, Richard and Nina. In fact there was simply a way she would have of just pronouncing their names -- “David,” “Eve,” “Aaron,” with such obvious joy and love no matter whether they were following the beaten or an extremely far flung path which at various times describes all three of them.

This week’s portion from the torah contains a command to Avram, who undergoes a name change to Abraham to go upon a vision quest: Lech L’cha -- leave the known place where you are to go towards a land which at that point is unnamed but is your true destiny, details to follow only later. Follow a vision.  And in the text Abraham and Sarah discover almost immediately that they must journey into exile because the destiny has not been perfected.  Carla generously shared her vision quest with us for a part of the journey.  She wanted more, she felt “cheated” as Eve told me, anything short of a 100 was being cheated, given her mother age – and we feel cheated, too, although We can perhaps in some way we continue on that journey with her.

When someone dies with whom we are close, friends comfort us with the knowledge that they will help carry on our loved one’s memory, and that we will still hear their voice, their inflections, even as our direct experience fades.  The Post writer used the adjective “exuberant” to describe Carla – I think we could truly say that was accurate but, if anything it actually underestimates her being.  Maybe you all can think of a better word but in my mind when I think of Carla’s smile and her persona the word that comes to mind is “luminous” – can anyone doubt that Carla’s smile, her luminous persona will be present for all of us as long as we live?

May her memory continue to bless us, and her beautiful family.