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Channel Esther: Protestants

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February 18, 2014
by Esther Cohen Although my job path was askew, the word crooked doesn’t do it justice, and neither does meandering. Although I could not tell you with a great deal of certainty where I worked and when, the 1970s and even some of the '80s brought an unusual number of jobs to me. Some were circumstantial — that is, I met someone at a party who owned an art gallery and so I, who wasn’t even sure what the word meant, became a SOHO curator for a while, meeting artists and even being painted a few times. Some were exciting — I worked for Bob Marley and for Prince, stories that need their own 500 words. And some were more than coincidence and less than intention. In this later category, professional religionists loomed large: Jews, Protestants, Catholics. In college I worked for Harold Yeide, chair of the Department of Religion at George Washington University, where I was, predictably, an English major. Harold Yeide was the first Protestant I knew up close. Although I grew up in a factory town where Jews were a very small minority, my family’s social life, and then mine, took place at the Beth Israel Synagogue Center, a square building that people referred to as modern. The synagogue was founded by my grandfather, Oscar Cohen, when he came to Ansonia, Connecticut at the beginning of the century. Its function was far more social than theological. We did not debate meaning, but we did go to services every Friday night. We went to see one another, Jews adrift in the rocky and unusual Housatonic River Valley, Jews who somehow belonged Somewhere Else. Yet here we were. The synagogue served four towns of Jews, Jews who worked hard in stores and professions, largely apolitical Jews who believed in the notion of DOING WELL, and didn’t question what that meant very much. Doing well was linked to education, to economic independence, to leading a Good Life, which had, as its corollaries, comfort, mild athleticism, and four years of a Good College. Harold Yeide, my first real Protestant, was astoundingly bald, although he claimed not to have had a hair disease. I was curious then, and asked anything that occurred to me, not knowing yet it wasn’t a good idea to say anything at all. His head could have been an egg. He was kind to me, and I tried to be helpful. Although I have always been supremely disorganized, I am also helpful. Harold Yeide was a good Protestant employer, so I was ready for another, some years later. The Reverend Paul Sherry was my second serious Protestant. A disciple of the great writer, theologian and thinker Reinhold Neibhur, Paul looked a little like Frank Church and had a pulpity I’m-going-to-give-a-sermon voice. He was the publisher of Pilgrim Press, a Protestant publishing house, America’s first, they said, that hired a Jew (me) to do social justice books. That’s how I met Moe Foner of 1199 Bread and Roses, and started my own Real Path. Paul knew we’d like one another. Not just because we were Jews. A million years later Paul is back, the interim pastor at Riverside Church, a large and impressive social justice church built by the Rockefellers in the '30s, where Dr. King often preached. If buildings could make visitors want to convert, Riverside could. Paul’s 80 now (actually born on Christmas Day), still happily married to Mary (yes, that is her real name). He still has his sermon voice, and I still like listening to him. They met at Union Theological Seminary many years ago. We are, after so many years, working together again. His lifelong work has been with low-wage workers, and now he’s involved with working to raise the minimum wage. I, too, have worked with low-wage workers, trying to facilitate their stories in all the ways we can imagine. I’ve spent some time with Paul again, and his wife, one of those gentle kind people who listens well and makes you feel loved. This week, going from Riverside to some Jewish Currents meetings, I wondered about those of us who are drawn to difference, and those who are drawn to familiarity. I don’t believe either one is better or worse. Just not the same. Many years ago, when I was just beginning my life in New York, I wrote an article about Hasidim in Crown Heights, Lubavitcher Hasidim who I knew could be seen in so many different ways. It was a community I was too young to understand or capture well, and I probably couldn’t do all that much better now. The strong center of Hasidic life eluded me: the absolutism of belief, the definite pattern to days and entire lives. But I was struck by how open and warm Hasidim were with one another, how no one, no matter how old or peculiar, no one spent a Sabbath meal alone. Belonging was an important part of being Hasidic, of agreeing on truth, and what life means. Of wanting to be surrounded by others who felt more or less the same way. I wondered then and I wonder now so many years later if it is possible, really and truly possible, to create a community where what we share is not skin color or history, even conviction or any sort of ideology, just a large ability to recognize our mutual humanity. Is it naïve to believe that recognition is possible? Is it naïve to believe that no one, no matter who they are, should be alone for a Sabbath meal? WWW New Esther Cohen is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her books include Book Doctor, a novel, and Unseen America: Photos and Stories by Workers.