The Jewish Wife I Never Knew I Had
With the help of Aish.com’s Live Chat, David Cohen's remarkable Jewish journey included surprises no one saw coming.
David Cohen was the only Jew living in the tiny city of Myrtle Point, Oregon, five hours from the nearest Jewish community. An online chat with a rabbi on Aish.com was about to change his life.
- Hi it’s Rabbi Broker, can I help you?
- My name is David Cohen. I have too many questions, I don’t think you have the time.
- What about what’s on your mind at the moment?
That was the beginning of a remarkable correspondence that would span the next two years.
Born into a non-observant Jewish family in Coos Bay, Oregon, David Cohen, now 56, lived most of his life knowing very little about his Jewish heritage.
“I knew I was Jewish,” David Cohen told Aish.com, “I couldn’t forget that since I had such a Jewish sounding name, but that’s pretty much all I had. I didn’t know any other Jews.” His sole Jewish memory as a child is of his paternal grandfather taking him aside aged eight to tell him, “You need to know you are a Cohen.” The words flew right over his head. He had no idea what it meant.
His parents were divorced when he was a young boy and he relocated a number of times. Forging a career in medical research, he met Kristen in a drama class at a college in San Francisco and they were married in 1984, later relocating back to Oregon where they raised four sons.
With a strong feeling he was Jewish but with no one to ask any questions to, he buried his curiosity and the years rolled on.
All I had was a Jewish name
Since David's entire Jewish identity boiled down to his Jewish name, he wanted to give his children Jewish names as well, hoping this would somehow connect them to the Jewish people. With his wife’s approval, happy for the children to be connected to an identity with good values, they each received a name rooted in the Torah. Joshua is now 29, Daniel, 24, Jacob, 22, and their youngest Zachary 18.
David's entire Jewish identity boiled down to his Jewish name.
After three of his children had grown up, with the eldest serving in the US army in Afghanistan, David retired and turned his talents to art. The change in life also gave space for an increasing desire to connect more to the religion his name had never allowed him to forget.
“My wife encouraged me,” he says. “She saw it was important for me and was happy to learn and participate with me in this journey.”
The Cohen family before the start of their epic journey.
In 2017, wanting to start practicing Judaism in some way, David approached his sons over a family meal. Expecting a long awkward silence, their response came as a surprise as each of his sons said they also wanted a stronger connection.
“I had expected a very difficult conversation, but each of them simply said, ‘What do we do, Dad?” Left surprised but empowered, David said he would try to find out more information. With the nearest Jewish community 200 km away in Portland Oregon, he decided to search online.
He first searched on sites connected to Reform and Conservative Judaism but did not find what he was looking for. He broadened his search and within a few clicks David visited Aish.com and read an article about a family celebrating their first Shabbat.
“Even though I had no idea even what Shabbat was, it was a good start.” After finishing the article he felt completely out of his depth. “How do you go from never celebrating Shabbat in your life, to leading your family in something like this? The more I read, I grew more anxious I would stifle any initial interest my family had in the first place.”
Chat with a Live Rabbi
As David finished the article, the icon for Aish.com’s Live Chat service popped up on his screen: “Can I help you? This is Rabbi Broker.”
Feeling like a deer in the headlights, David didn’t type back. “If it was a real rabbi, I didn’t want him to know who we were.”
Continuing his searching the following day with more and more questions, the live chat invitation popped up again and this time David accepted Rabbi Broker’s offer to help.
“Hi I am David Cohen,” he opened up, “I have so many questions - you don’t have time to answer them all.”
“Let’s start, with what’s currently on your mind.”
David’s reply, “We don’t know what we are doing.”
The four sons
As David continued with the chat, Rabbi Broker responded to some of the fears that had been eating away at him as he started asking questions about Shabbat. “I remember him saying, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but to start with something small.” Sending him some additional links on Aish.com, the rabbi signed off. “Let me know how it goes.”
Our First Shabbat
Reporting back to his family that evening, David shared the few slices of information he had managed to pick up.
“We are going to need a few things, including two loaves of bread, a bottle of wine, glasses, a special cup and we need to say a blessing.” Excited about the idea of a special meal together, David’s family got to work with Kristen directing one of the boys to fetch a box in the attic. “I’m pretty sure there’s a silver cup in a chest I inherited from my grandmother.”
That hidden kiddush cup from Kristen's grandmother was the first hint that the Cohens had deeper connections to the Jewish people.
That hidden kiddush cup from Kristen's grandmother was the first hint that the Cohens had deeper connections to the Jewish people than they ever imagined. But the family was so distant from Jewish knowledge and practice, David couldn't begin to connect the dots.
Kristen’s grandmother’s box also yielded two crystal candlesticks and a decorated cover they could use to place cover the loaves of bread. None of this registered to David.
Sunset came on Friday and the Cohen’s began their first Shabbat. Kristen lit candles, David made a blessing over the wine which he had downloaded and written out in English, the family washed their hands and they ate some bread. They enjoyed a meal together and that was their first taste of Judaism. The date, now etched in David’s memory was January 19, 2017.
“Although none of us really knew what we were doing, we all felt something amazing was happening and we decided to continue this Friday night routine. We haven’t missed a Shabbat since.”
Why doesn’t the Rabbi work Saturdays?
The next morning, keen to report back to Rabbi Broker, David went back online, not aware that Shabbat lasted from sundown to sundown. He was disappointed to find the live chat service was not working.
He finally reached Rabbi Broker to relay the good news. “It’s me David Cohen from Oregon,” he began typing in the chat box, elaborating about the family’s new experience. "Rabbi Broker was so excited for us, full of encouragement. It was the first moment in my life that I truly felt that I wasn’t an outcast. I don’t even know if I‘d ever even spoken to a rabbi before this, you can’t imagine how amazing that feeling was.”
One step at a time
Over the weeks that followed David and Rabbi Broker would connect over 20 times using the Live Chat, before corresponding via email as Rabbi Broker helped David to find answers to more of his questions. For David, each conversation forged a closer connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
“You have to drive over a mountain range to reach the nearest shul. We were so isolated where we were, and I had felt that isolation in my bones for decades. As I started talking to Rabbi Broker that all began to melt away.”
“He was so kind, he really wanted us to succeed, and not take on too much.” With Rabbi Broker's help, David eventually made a connection with Rabbi Michael Caplan in Portland, Oregon, who would also play a significant role in the Cohen's journey. The family would drive to meet him, and build a face-to-face connection with a Jewish community for the first time in their lives.
“One of our goals is to help foster a live relationship with a rabbi in their local community," Rabbi Broker explained. “Recently, one mom got in touch saying her son had relocated across states for work reasons and had now had no Jewish social network. We quickly connected him to what was going on locally. We have also connected people to counseling in their area.”
The Jewish wife I never knew I had
Along with his interest in Jewish practice David desired to learn more about his family roots. Using a genealogy website, he was amazed to be able to trace back six generations, even finding gravestones with a symbol of two outspread hands, a common addition to the tombstones of Cohanim depicting the Priestly Blessing. Suddenly his grandfather’s words began to fall into place.
Then they decided to research Kristen's family history as well. The results shocked the family.
Traumatized by the Holocaust, Kristen's grandmother, the sole survivor of her family, decided to keep her Jewish identity hidden.
Kristen’s maternal grandmother had moved to the United States from Lublin, Poland after World War II. Before the Holocaust, Lublin was bustling with Jewish life. Kristen's grandmother's family had been forced from one ghetto to another during the Holocaust, and were all murdered in a Nazi death camp. Her grandmother was the sole survivor. Traumatized by what had befallen her family, and unsure what would await her in the US, she decided to keep her Jewish identity hidden.
Artwork by David Cohen
“Although Kristen had grown up knowing she had Polish roots, and recalled occasionally hearing a foreign language spoken at home,” David said, “she had no idea back then that this language was probably Yiddish.”
After 25 years of marriage, David discovered that his wife's mother's mother was in fact Jewish. “It was still a big shock," David said. "Kristen grew up not knowing a thing. It took her a little while before she accepted she was Jewish."
This discovery served as a further impetus for the Cohens to grow Jewishly.
The entire family began learning with different teachers online. “Each of us had a different set of interests, questions and needs. On Friday nights we share what we have learned with each other.”
“One of my greatest concerns which I put to Rabbi Broker was about helping my sons and wife with their own journey in Judaism, and how to effectively do it with each at their own pace. He answered, ‘The best thing you can be is an example.’ I took that advice.”
David and Kristen
“Each time we would find out something new, we would try to incorporate it into our lives. One day, I learned the wine we use on a Friday night should be kosher, and on another occasion one of my sons learned how to make kugel and he would share it with his friends at high school.”
The Cohen’s Shabbat table eventually became a meeting point for the sons' sets of friends, intrigued by the family’s newfound customs. There was no other Jewish family in the city.
“At one point there were regularly 20 people sitting round our shabbat table singing Shalom Aleichem. Even our non-Jewish friends had learned the words.”
First steps in the Land of Israel
The family’s rollercoaster journey continued when David saw an ad for a free trip to Israel with Birthright. His youngest son, 18-year-old Zachary, returned with inspired insights about Jerusalem, the Galilee, and a deeper experience of living a Jewish life surrounded by Jews in the ancient Jewish homeland. Intrigued, David decided it was time for the whole family to visit Israel.
They took a month-long trip to Israel where the Cohens enjoyed their first visit to the Western Wall, tasted the Shabbat atmosphere in Jerusalem and connected with Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, a teacher at Aish HaTorah. It was on this occasion that he and his four sons all underwent circumcision.
“I have never imposed anything on my family,” David said. “One of the things that I’ve been very careful about is to let everyone travel their path at their own pace. I asked my sons what they thought about having the circumcision. I explained what it was, some of its significance as being the key vehicle to enter the covenant, and that of course it was their choice. Once again I was taken aback when each of them said they wanted to deepen their Jewish commitment and agreed to have the procedure.
Afterwards at a celebratory meal, when asked by one of Rabbi Glaser’s students why he had chosen to undergo circumcision in his 50s, David recalls his reply. “I felt my soul had somehow been crying out to me all of my life, it was a decision that came from deep within.”
Moving to Israel
On August 28 this year, David, Kristen and their family will be moving to begin a new life in Safed in the north of Israel, a beautiful city, steeped in Jewish tradition with a rich history of Jewish mysticism.
On choosing the city to be their home, David, now an established artist, had no idea of the creative side of the city, which is home to a renowned artists colony.
“I believe that God has guided our path to this beautiful and blessed place. We have been blessed in a way I couldn’t have ever imagined. I am looking forward to tapping into the unique spirituality that exists there, as inspiration to incorporate Jewish themes into my artwork.”
Meeting Rabbi Broker
Despite David and his family’s trailblazing journey, he has never met Rabbi Broker. Prior commitments during the Cohen’s trip to Israel mean that this meeting will have to wait for August when they set foot in Israel as new citizens.
Aish.com's Live Chat now has three rabbis. Since its inception in 2016 over 23,000 chats with readers have been conducted.
“It is a moment I have played over in my mind many times. He has given my family and I such loving support.” David is currently preparing a painting of the seven fruits of Israel which he intends to present to Rabbi Broker as a gift.
Aish.com's Rabbi Tzvi Broker
“I just hope he is a hugger and doesn’t mind having a Jew that was lost in the wilderness cry on his shoulder. I have a deep gratitude to him and to Aish.com for reaching out to me.”
“I hope my story will give others the courage to reach out and say hi to the rabbi in the little pop up screen on Aish.com.”
Rabbi Broker is also excited to meet David and his family. “I am so inspired by David and his family's incredible journey. Their story is remarkable and illustrates the soul's burning desire to grow spiritually. I am so excited to meet him and his family face to face."
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