The Sabbath and Jewish holidays were taken seriously at his house, and he was very much the family historian of his generation, with a photographic memory of names and events that stretched back into the 19th century family history in Moldavia. Luckily, he passed on much of the family lore to me and his son in law Peter, but he knew so much more that is now lost. Eli was on the younger side of that generation who were formed by the Great Depression and World War Two, which has come to be known in the USA as the “Great Generation” – having lived through poverty, war, and then rebuilding in the post war era. Eli served his country as a Military policeman in England after the War, where he met my Aunt Norma.
|Grandpa Morris Cohen, Aunt Norma Cohen, Gerry Onitskansky, Grandma Betty Cohen, and my Mom at shabbes dinner.
|The two sharpest cards in the deck: Jack and Eli Cohen.
And when my Dad needed help, my Uncle was there with a job for him – for decades they worked together in the gritty arena of New Jersey industrial real estate.And although Uncle Eli inspired my love of science, it was an unrequited love. I went in the other direction, towards anthropology. Eventually I focused on African and American Indian linguistics, and I learned some West African concepts that are not the usual line of thought for New York Jews, but they apply here. The Yoruba are constantly aware – in act as well as in speech – of their ancestors. When you reach that stage in life where you leave this plane, you family holds a funeral where your life is celebrated. A band is hired, food is catered, the neighborhood shows up for a party to see you to the other side. (This is where the grand tradition of New Orleans Jazz funerals comes from. Your friends don’t only remember your life – they never forget your passing.) Your role is now to be that of an ancestor, an inspiration for the living and a source of continuity between the past, present, and future. And one stays in touch with one’s ancestors through a kind of inner dialogue of memory and fondness (and if you are a Yoruba, a shot of spirits spilled on the ground helps. Spirits for the spirit.) The ancestors are not gone. They are always present. You just have to live your life keeping their spirit alive. Their love and ongoing guidance is their existence. Consider your ancestors, and feel their love. It comes back to you. And we will always love you, Uncle Eli. Legn zol in Gan Eyden.
|Around 1938, New York: Aunt Fran, Aunt Gerri, my Dad Jack, Grandma Betty, Uncle Eli Cohen.