Torah, Worship and Deeds of Kindness – Lessons from the Sages sum up the extraordinary life of our beloved Hans Cohn
Hans Cohn- Ha’chazan Yochanan ben Moshe Ha’Kohen v’Ida
Al Shlosha Devarim ha’olam omed: al ha’Torah, v’al ha’Avodah, v’al Gemilut Chasadim – The world stands on three things: Torah, Worship and Deeds of Kindness. This saying from Pirkei Avot – Lessons from the Sages sums up the extraordinary life of our beloved Hans Cohn. Al Ha’Torah – He lived, learned and breathed Torah and its values. Al Ha’avodah – He lead us in worship through his love of music and his heart. Al Gemilut Chasadim – He touched so many lives with his service and acts of kindness.
He lived these essential aspects of our faith – and he taught them in his words and deeds. Listen to Nina, his children – Becki, Ruth and Barbara, their spouses Rito, Michael or Michael, his grandchildren, his congregants, his friends and you will hear about an extraordinary man who taught through his words, heart and deeds. Becki spoke of your father’s energy, drive and passion that inspired you. Barbara told of visiting sick congregants with her dad, watching her father’s caring love, and the care the nurses provided and decided you wanted to become a nurse. Your husband Michael shared of Hans’ advice to you about changing careers and synagogue life, as you became a synagogue administrator. His grandchildren spoke about learning how music touches soul, holidays give meaning and Judaism gives purpose – and each of you feel your Judaism deep in your hearts. His legacy to you is the power of kindness. It was the little things you would watch him do like invite guests to Seder who would not otherwise have a place to go – and you would learn the value of hachnassat orchim – extending hospitality. And Hans taught all of us to love Judaism with all our hearts, souls and might, to find resilience in the face of setbacks, to remember and honor the past, to let music help us soar, to care deeply for one another, to fight for life, to take care of the body with which we have been blessed. His wife Nina spoke of his sensitive soul and bravery – we all felt it and learned from it.
As we gather together today, our hearts are heavy as we mourn our beloved Hans. You feel Hans in this room. If you allow yourself a moment you might hear his booming voice from this bima. Picture generations of young people – some who are not so young anymore – who learned not only how to chant Torah, Haftarah and lead prayers – but to be proud Jews. Listen carefully and hear the soaring music of the choir that Hans led with such love and devotion. Take a moment and let your heart fill with the lessons of his life that Hans taught every day.
We were blessed that Hans wrote an autobiography, Risen From the Ashes, leaving us with the gift of his story and his values – and throughout this eulogy, I will use his own words to help us as we mourn, seek comfort and hold onto his memory.
Hans was born in Berlin on May 26, 1926. His book tells of his parents owning a small woman’s clothing store. He painted a picture for us of Jewish life before the Nazis that we need to remember. He bears witness to the chaos and horror that accompanied the Nazi rise to power: terrible discriminatory laws and the toxic atmosphere of hate. On Kristalnacht – The Night of Broken Glass, November 9, 1938, Hans described his synagogue burning to the ground as the firemen stood by, protecting neighboring homes from damage while not doing a thing to put out the fire in the synagogue. His stories allow images to etch in our hearts. Through Hans’ stories – which I know were painful to recall and tell – the obligation to remember, honor memory and vow ‘Never Again’ takes on a different urgency.
The family knew it was time to leave and ended up in Shanghai where Hans lived from age 11 to 19. He dedicated his book to the memory of the stateless refugees of the Shanghai ghetto who escaped and survived the Nazi horror. Hans’ stories of the hunger, poverty, death – including his beloved mother; working hard to support family and finding moments of meaning like celebrating his Bar Mitzvah – help fulfill his wish that the Jews who ended up in Shanghai and their stories not be forgotten. That Shanghai link played out throughout Hans’ life – his son in law Michael’s mother was also in Shanghai during the war. They ran into each other in Carmel and rekindled friendship. Michael went to Barbara’s Bat Mitzvah – and the story had a very happy ending in your marriage, children and years together.
Throughout the Torah, leaders and the Israelites are told chazak v’ematz – be strong and courageous. Those words capture Hans’ essence – exhibited over and over again throughout life. In Nina’s words: “He was brave.” At the end of the war, Hans stowed away on a boat from Shanghai to Australia. He was caught and held in custody on the ship and told he would be returned to Hong Kong. Hans wasn’t just brave, he was resourceful. He used the knife on the dinner tray to work the lock off the cabin door and snuck off – taking only his little prayer book and a ten-pound note. He became a fugitive. Chazak v’ematz – Be strong and courageous.
There is so much to Hans’ story that is inspiring and moving – yet can only be quickly referenced today. The Jewish community in Australia helped him, and ultimately he made his way to America. He was so grateful to be an American. He worked in Los Angeles as a chef, where he continued to take voice and music lessons. He was drafted into the army and stationed at Ford Ord. At Ford Ord, he drove the army bus to take enlisted Jews to a synagogue in Salinas, where he met his beloved Eva. They shared love of classical music, appreciated the same German poets and composers. Hans wrote: “My English was improving by the day and Eva’s reading to me from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet gave me spiritual nourishment.” They loved the beauty of Carmel and after his enlistment was over, they married and remained in Carmel where they opened a gourmet French restaurant. Hans and Eva were married just over 50 years – it was a deep and beautiful love.
One of Hans’ lasting legacies was how he followed his heart no matter what. Chazak v’ematz – be strong and courageous. What courage it took to leave a secure job, with two small children – Becki and Ruth, and Eva pregnant with Barbara to follow the pull of the heart to become a Cantor. In sharing her memories, his daughter Becki marveled at how her dad would look deep in his heart and take risks to follow the call of the heart. It inspires you and we too learn from someone who took leaps into the unknown in order to feel satisfaction and fulfillment in life. After 5 years in HUC’s School of Sacred Music – studying during the day and working at night and in the summers in the Catskills – Hans wrote that he was content for the first time in his life.
His first job out of school was in South Bend, Indiana – where he also began a masters degree in guidance and counseling at Notre Dame. Hans was a lifelong learner – always studying to fill his heart with wisdom and give him the skills to succeed at the highest level. Then the family moved to Palo Alto, where Hans became the Cantor here at Beth Jacob in 1964. He served with Rabbi David Teitelbaum for 35 years. Hans writes:
“For 35 years [Rabbi Teitelbaum and I] served side by side in harmony, complementing each other. He, like Moses, was a teacher of Torah, while I, like David, the sweet singer in the Bible, share in the building of Jewish life through music with prayer and song.”
We are so blessed here to have had a Cantor like Hans. He ran the school, taught the children, directed a wonderful choir, visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, counseled those in need. He taught with passion, joy and insight – understanding the power of a good story and a caring heart. He trained a thousand Bar and Bat Mitzvah students – many with whom he stayed in touch. He and Rabbi Teitelbaum created a community full of heart and love. I am honored to walk in their footsteps, supported by their love and encouragement. So many of you have stories of Hans’ love and kindness – his gute neshama. Continuing the theme of always learning and striving to improve, Hans received a Masters in Education at Stanford. He was also admired and respected in the Cantorial community.
This community needed Hans’ courage and heart when the fire happened February 11, 1979. By the time Hans arrived at the synagogue, the building was engulfed in flames. In contrast to his memories of Berlin, the firemen in Redwood City risked their lives and four were injured, fighting to save our building. Hans insisted on running into the building with a fireman to try to save the Torahs – but was too late. Hans remembered that there was a Torah used for Junior Congregation in another part of the building that he was able to save. We still use that Torah to this day. With Hans and David’s leadership, CBJ adapted, improvised and rebuilt from the ashes. His book is aptly called Risen from the Ashes.
His family, and us – his extended family – learned from Hans by watching his strength and resilience. He brought light to moments of intense darkness. Never was that more evident than when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Hans taught us how to face pain and suffering. He wrote about how faith, hope, prayer, compassion, love and music helped him get through the difficult days of treatment, surgeries and recovery. He had to relearn how to speak. When the cancer returned a couple years later he fought – channeling all his strength and spirit as he once again underwent painful treatments. Hans defied the odds and has lived with cancer for decades. He was a fighter! Even when his speech became difficult to understand – he continued to share stories and teach. Once he retired, he stayed busy – going on cruises, folk-dancing, joining a writing group in preparation for writing his autobiography, exercising, continuing in the Lost Chord Club for those who had laryngectomies, and beginning the Cares Committee with Eva – which has made such a difference in so many lives. Hans needed every ounce of strength and resilience when his beloved Eva died over 20 years ago.
Becki shared something interesting from that time. You shared that growing up, your dad spent many hours at work, and that you didn’t see him much. In many ways your relationship with your dad was through your mother. When she died, you needed a new relationship and your father rose to the occasion. Your connection has grown as he embraced the role of nurturer.
The ability to adapt and change is part of the story his children and grandchildren experienced. There were some challenging moments, especially when it came to interfaith relationships. But Hans grew over the years to accept and love. His ability to evolve and grow is inspiring.
A beautiful piece of Hans’ life is the relationship he had with his grandchildren and the partners in their lives: Melanie and her wife Roya, David and his wife Patricia, Priscilla and her partner Rina, Benjamin and his wife Jenna, Julia and Allie – yours is the blessing of an Opa whose life was intertwined with yours. You embody key values that came from him. Julia is an educator, as was he. You all understand the power and importance of service to fellow human. He taught Ben his Bar Mitzvah lessons. Along with your parents, you all share a strong social conscience. You loved his stories – even when it was difficult to understand him, you wanted him to tell more. You shared stories of Seders with Opa and how he kept the family together with Jewish holidays. You have a deep connection to Judaism – reflecting your parents Jewish homes, which came from your Opa and Oma. You have beautiful memories of how he would show his love and affection through cooking and watched how music filled his soul. In his last days, you would sing with him. You have funny memories of how he would insist on showing videos of cruises and inspiring memories of how he would exercise and take care of himself.
You watched up close your grandfather’s resilience. Ben talks about how throat cancer never stopped Opa from singing. After Oma died, you watched him evolve – becoming softer and more loving. Allie shared how every time you visited, Opa was learning about a new technology. He would forward you funny emails. He taught you all to evolve, constantly learn, live with love. Hold onto those precious memories.
And what a blessing that Hans had two loving wives. He married Nina over 13 years ago and your shared love of music and devotion to one another. In your words: “He was sensitive and brave – a wonderful husband – who gave me so much love and who I loved so much.” You and Hans could talk about anything and he made you feel treasured. Your warmth and caring brightened his days, and gave each day meaning and purpose. Your son Andrew and his children developed a love for Hans that touched and changed them.
At the end of life, Hans was surrounded by love and music. His son in law Rito shared that when he came into the hospital, he wanted his Menorah and his shoes to walk so he could exercise. He was a fighter clinging to life and practicing good health habits up to the very end! Rito shared that Becki sang a Chanukkah song and through the mask Hans joined in.
Hans had a deep appreciation of all those who helped him. I especially want to mention his friend Jerry from the cancer support group, many who visited and sent cards, the amazing caregiver Mercedes who is part of the family and cared for Hans with such love. Hans smiled whenever a grandchild or another visitor came. Barbara stepped in as caregiver – handling the medical and many of the financial decisions. As Becki was going through her own illness, she was so grateful you did so much. Thanks to all who showed such love.
I close with the words that Hans ended his book with:
“I looked for my god, but my God I could not see. I looked for my soul, but it eluded me. I looked for my brother and sister; then I found all three.”
Our prayer for him at this time is that his soul be bound up in the bond of life eternal.