Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Birthday for Jack Cohen! Oh, and Father's Day too!

The photo above was taken around 1938 or so in Brooklyn, New York. It's the Cohen family as it stood then (probably taken by my Grandfather,who is not pictured.) From left to right are pictured my Aunt Fran, Aunt Gerry, my father (in his stickball uniform) my Grandmother, and my uncle Eli. Today is Father's Day in the United States, and June 20th is my Dad's birthday, so Happy Birthday Jack Cohen!My Dad served in the US Navy during World War Two, working at Newport naval base in Rhode Island as a torpedo instructor (dead center in the photo above) which was his first experience outside of New York City. Once we were driving up to Boston and he chose to make a detour out to the now deserted Naval base. The Torpedo shop was still there. Then he drove our 1970 Dodge Dart out to the airstrip, revved the motor up, and sped down the runway at 120 miles per hours. "I've always wanted to do that" he said afterwards. After the war Pop wanted to go into the family jewel-setting business, and took a course in gemology. My Grandfather, however, was somwhat old school in these matters. He put my father in a room with two diamonds and a zircon, with no analytical tools, and gave him three hours to tell which was the zircon. When my father chose wrong, my grandfather tore up his diploma. This was way back in the days before men acted sensitively. After that Dad applied to serve in the Israeli Haganah during Israel's 1948 war, but fate led him otherwise into the New York Police Department.As a cop, my father became a member of the Shomrim Society for Jewish Policemen. Not many people associate Jews with police work, but Jews used to comprise one third of the force in the 1950s. Jack Cohen rose to the upper echelons of the Detective dept, and worked for a long time in Chinatown busting gambling rackets, which explains the deep connection that our family has with Cantonese food (Errant Tong leaders would get favorable attention in exchange for a standing table for the cops at their restaurants.) He also worked in a special anti-racket task force undercover, a job that would eventually lead Al Pacino to play a character based on him in the 1981 film Prince of The City.
Handsome Jewish cops were quite a prize for refugee Hungarian girls... my father met my mother at a dance at the Manhatten Jewish Center, and my father offered to walk my mom home. Along the way she stopped and bought him a newspaper. That small act really impressed him, and within a year they were married. Good looking couple, no? I really hit the DNA jackpot with these parents!
At first my parents lived in the south Bronx, and when my sister was born, they bought their baby carriages and such at a local baby supply shop called Sickser's at the corner of Westchester Avenue and Fox. I once asked my father if he remembered a black kid who worked there... "Oh, yeah, der schwartzer... I remember him!" Well, that kid grew up to be General Colin Powell, hero of the first Iraq War and victim - as Secretarty of State - of Bush's second Iraq War. It was at Sickser's that Colin Powell learned to speak Yiddish - which caused Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir a shock when they met and Powell shook hands and said "Men ken red yiddish..." (We can speak in Yiddish.) My sister with my Dad around the time I was born. Some of my first memories were of laughing hysterically while my sister put my parent's 45 RPM records on the record player at 78 rpm speed. It probably ruined my tastes in music for life. My parents were very big on Mambo and Cha-cha-cha, and I have been stuck on latin music ever since.Around 1956 my folks moved to the east Bronx, on Coddington avenue, where I was born. It was great place to grow up. Every evening the neighborhood would come outside and sit on their stoops, which is old New York dutch-derived word for the stairs in front of a house. Our old house - pictured around 1959 at left, is still there, pictured at right as I saw it when my brother Ron and I took a trip back to our ancestral stomping grounds in December, 2007. Television was new and had not conquered the social world, so I remember nights as a kid running up and down the streets while parents chatted away or had parties in the backyards. It was really a wonderful neighborhood back then - a mix of Italians, Germans, Irish, and Greeks, mostly. My dad quit the New York police force in the early 1960s - things had become too violent and corrupt for a family man. He and a partner started an Automobile service station down on Webster Avenue. Then he ran a launderette in the South bronx. Soon, however, he was contracting construction jobs out in New Jersey. When we visited my Mom's family in Hungary in 1965, Dad bought a Volkswagen in Germany and we drove around Europe in it, and eventually shipped it home to New York.We moved out to Teaneck, New Jersey in 1966 and Dad started working first as a building contractor, and later as a real estate salesman. Here's the real estate tycoon version of Jack Cohen around 1990.
So Jack is going to be 81 years young on June 20th! The man is made from pure Moldavian oak. A bit grey at the temples, but mind you, this man ran the New York Marathon every year until about five years ago, and apart from missing a few teeth, he has the strength and litheness of many men twenty years younger. Both my parents have amazingly good health, probably a testamony to their staying together through thick and thin for so many years. The twentieth century threw everything it could at them and still they survived and prospered. So Happy birthday and Happy Father's day, Pop! And don't forget to take Mom out for Chinese food on your birthday...

Lomir Ale ineynem, ineynem, Yitzik mekabl ponim zayn, Yitzik mekabl ponim zayn.

Lomir ale ineynem, lomir ale ineynem,

Trinken a glezele vayn!


Brandon said...

Mom says she remembers the Al Pacino thing, but that it wasn't the movie "Prince of the City" because Al Pacino wasn't in that movie. Any idea which movie it was, or was it that movie and another actor? Or am I just all around confused?

Also, that was really great. I didn't know most of those stories. The diamond thing is especially interesting, seeing one of great grandpa's rings is being worn by my fiance at the moment.

Pink Granite said...

What a marvelous post! Beautifully written, as always.
Happy Birthday to your Dad and congratulations to both your parents on a wonderful life together!
- Lee

Pille said...

You dad was - and still is - quite a looker :)

emil lime said...

mazeltov to your Dad!!

Beth Cohen said...

Great post! I really enjoyed reading this.
I remember both your parents always being very generous and helpful. I have very fond memories of going home to your house for lunch in elementary school once my mom went back to work full time and I still have the jellybean beach towel your family gave me as a college graduation gift nearly 30 years ago. Pam taught me to ride a two wheeler and I'm still an avid cyclist. I also remember summer trips to Jones Beach and you're dad taking the neighborhood kids to see fireworks on July 4th.