Rav Yankel Cohen: My Father and Mentor

This month, we lost a Talmid Chochom (wise Torah student) of massive proportion who learned Torah with tireless strength and courage.  He was addressed as a living Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and the paradigm of an American masmid (Torah scholar).  He was fearlessly honest.  He had an amazing sense of humor.  He was confident in his Torah and yet, he was the humblest person I knew.

He was my father.

As a young girl, I knew where I could always find my father, in the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall).  While he spent endless hours in the Telshe Cleveland Beis Medrash, he converted every other space in his life into his personal Beis Medrash.  Torah was his first love and I never tried to compete with that love.

His learning was melodic, even in my father’s gruff and gravelly voice.  The words were sweet.  The tune of his Torah played over and over with his deep concentration and the sweet hum of Torah emanating from his study.  I remember the sour lemon drops that he would enjoy as he learned Torah deep into the night.  I can picture his relaxed pose, hands behind his head, feet outstretched with his brow furrowed in deep concentration.

I remember him buying reams and reams of composition paper at Gold Circle, especially when the paper was on sale before the school year.  And, I would watch him fill binder after binder with papers full of his Torah, so neatly written with his dominant left hand.   His study wasn’t aesthetically beautiful, but it was his haven.  The bookshelves were dusty and old, the chair was mended but sturdy, and the holy seforim (books) were his prized possessions. 

Day after Day.  Week after Week.  Year after Year.  Decade after Decade.

Aba’s Torah never grew stale.  It became more and more vibrant and each time he reviewed or he taught the same sugya (portion of Torah), it was with even more passion than the time before. 

My father was a gibor (of heroic strength).  He was a born athlete and was known in his hometown of Chicago as an aspiring and outstanding ball player.  He summoned amazing stamina and agility and channeled raw power into his beautiful rhythm of Torah.  In the same way that my father as a youngster had developed a powerful swing in baseball, my father perfected his service to the Creator through his learning.

He never tired of review.  He always found new and exciting topics to ponder.  The source of fire on Shabbos.  The Anenai Hakavod (Clouds of Glory). The Klai Mishkan (Utensils of the Holy Temple).  Cloning.  And, so many others.

My father poked and prodded, researched and challenged.  He looked at every question in Torah through many different angles, rotating and scrutinizing so that he could view and understand every facet of the issue.  He discussed it with anyone who was available, piquing their interest and incorporating their contributions to his clarification of the Torah piece.  He employed real-world metaphors that brought the topic to life. He asked for additional information from NASA scientists, school children, geniuses in Torah and even from me.

My father never dumbed anything down for me.  He always made me feel like his chavrusa (study partner), not his talmida (student).    He omitted nothing with me, happy to teach me any subject as long as it could be viewed and internalized through the pure prism of Torah.  He would tell me often how proud he was of me and that I was his best daughter (I am his only daughter).

I never felt that I was second best to his Torah, probably because he shared his love and enthusiasm for his learning with me.  He made me a part of the breathtaking magnitude of his Torah and he filled my childhood with simple, yet memorable moments of fatherhood. 

My father once shared how excited and awe-struck he was when he beheld me for the first time after I was born.  I remember my father vacuuming and changing diapers.  I loved the way he did those tasks in a way that was uniquely his.  I remember him swiveling his tie to the back of his shirt when he changed a diaper.  I can picture how my father wrapped the cord of the vacuum.  I can smell and taste his cholent recipe which he happily shared with me after my marriage. 

I remember him showing me how to use his first shoe-box sized calculator as he prepared the family tax return.  Every birthday, I would eagerly await as he took down his camera and we watched as exactly one Polaroid photo came to life before our eyes.  My father gave me few presents, but they were gifts of thoughtfulness and affection.  He bought me leather-bound machzorim (holiday prayer books) on his first visit to Israel.  He presented me with a red potato peeler when he saw that I was missing my Pesach peeler.  I needed nothing more from my father.

When I was unhappy, my father wiped my tears.  My father was never really sad, so I think of the greatness it took for him to feel my pain.  When I was disappointed, he taught me to look at the problem through the prism of hopefulness and to try to distill out the good in what seemed bad. 

My father taught me that everyday activities can be elevated.  He showed me by example that mowing the lawn or doing laundry were not activities beneath him, but that these ordinary tasks can be elevated in the service of Hashem.  Family responsibilities were not to be shirked, but rather to be lifted in the service of the Creator.  My father gardened and dabbled in carpentry.  He played ball with his kids and yet, he learned day and night.   It was normal, it was seamless and it was holy.

My father showed me never to expect things to be perfect.  He wanted those closest to him to accept all that the Creator bestowed upon them and to distill out the good in them.  He modeled how to exercise strength, restraint and humor to navigate through life’s challenges.    He helped others achieve joy in their lives while he always found happiness in his.

When my father was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, I was devastated and Aba was calm and funnier than ever.  He told me many times that he had no complaints with G-d, that he had a utopian life.  His only argument to the Creator was that he could no longer praise Him if he was taken from this world. He would quote the following words of Dovid Hamelech (King David):

מַה־בֶּ֥צַע בְּדָמִי֮ בְּרִדְתִּ֪י אֶ֫ל־שָׁ֥חַת הֲיוֹדְךָ֥ עָפָ֑ר הֲיַגִּ֥יד אֲמִתֶּֽךָ׃

“What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?

He showed me how to appreciate others and to express thanks in a meaningful way.  I recall so often when he would publicly and privately thank my mother for all the years of support so that he could learn Torah without worry.  My father would thank every doctor and nurse as he rode the roller coaster of his illness.  He personally thanked me for just about every act of kibud Av (respect for my father) that I performed. 

My father revealed how to daven, by being totally immersed in his conversation with Hashem.  He showed how to learn and to teach, to leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of the truth in Torah.  He showed us how to stand up for kevod shamayim (respect for the One above), while expecting no honor for himself.  

My father taught us about finding everything in Torah learning and in finding Torah learning in everything.  He taught us to apply every attribute, every gift and every challenge to derive closeness to our Creator and to never forget that the essential reason for learning Torah is to draw close to Hashem.   

Those lessons seemed so effortless for my father, the masmid who learned Torah for close to 18 hours just about every day.  In my father’s greatness and normalcy, Aba never expected me to be him.  He just invested in me by example, yearning for me to be the best that I could be.

That was my father, my beloved mentor.

Aba at my engagement L’Chaim, 1987
Aba learning at Bnai Yeshurun, 2020

5 comments

  1. So beautiful ! You really captured your fathers life to the best. A real tzaddik. And a very devoted father. May His neshama have an Aliyah .

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Dearest Aunt Tzippy, Baruch Dayan Haemes. I was deeply saddened to hear the news about your father. When I think of your father what comes to mind was his devotion to Torah learning , I rarely met him because he was always in the Beis Medrash. When I was listening to all the speeches at the levaya I realized even more that we lost a true Adam Gadol. We can all learn from your non stop dedication to him during his sickness. May his neshama go straight to Gan Eden.

    Hamakom Yenachem Eschem Bsoch Tzar Avelei Tzion Veyerushalyim.

    May we have no more sorrow

    All my love, Tziporah

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    1. Amen! Until my father was diagnosed and came to NJ, I myself had very few conversations with him. His learning was his life and the rest was just incidental. He was an inspiration to so many that an all-American ball-playing boy can achieve greatness.

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