The World of His Heart
Like many of his generation, Dr. Elliot Cohen doesn’t speak much Yiddish (“I know a few words—usually the curse words,” he says with a laugh). But the language is meaningful to him nonetheless because of its role in his family: when his grandparents came to the United States from Checiny, Poland, in the early twentieth century, they spoke only Yiddish. As a child, he recalls visiting his grandparents on New York’s Lower East Side, not far from the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue. “It’s important to me. It’s in my DNA,” Elliot says. That’s why he’s been a longtime supporter of the Yiddish Book Center. “This is the language of my grandparents, my great-grandparents.” He recently established the Kalman Carl and Anita Rosenzweig Cohen Fund at the Center in memory of his parents. Elliot also donated a bookshelf in honor of his father.
Elliot has been involved with the Yiddish Book Center since the 1980s, when he signed on as a zamler—a volunteer collecting Yiddish books—in his Colorado Springs community. He met Aaron Lansky years later, when Aaron was in Denver speaking about Outwitting History, his 2004 memoir. “It’s absolutely amazing to me that one young man with a dream has done something like this—brought Yiddish back, brought it to the colleges, digitized [the literature]. It’s just awesome,” Elliot says.
Learning about and honoring his family roots is important to Elliot, who has traced his Jewish lineage back to the late eighteenth century. In the 1970s he located his family’s synagogue and graveyard in Checiny; he’s made several visits since. He’s now installing a plaque in the synagogue, written in English, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, honoring the people of Checiny. He’s also established a fund to bring speakers to the local high school to talk to students about the community’s rich Jewish history and culture.
Yiddish, Elliot says, is at the heart of that culture. “It’s who we are. It’s how we communicated across different cultures. It made us different, special,” he says. “This is the world of my heart.”
For information on how you can establish a named fund at the Yiddish Book Center, please contact Zvi Jankelowitz at [email protected] or 413-256-4900, ext. 117.
From Kvel, the development newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2017)