To the family of Myron Cohon and our community:
On December 9, JTNews published Martin Jaffee’s monthly A View from the U column, titled “Lament for a Jew lost: Myron, we hardly knew ya!” We never should have published this column. Prof. Jaffee did not know Myron Cohon or any of his family and jumped to conclusions about you that were not accurate. As editor of JTNews, I should never have allowed the column to be published, for which I am truly sorry.
While the story Prof. Jaffee wrote may be true of some Jews who came of age during the Great Depression, it was not representative of your family.
As we have learned from his family and friends, Myron was not one of those who “abandoned” Judaism during the great rush to assimilation in American culture. He was Jewish and thought of himself as such, and you, his children and grandchildren, were not lost in the ether of assimilation: Some of you are active in our local Jewish community, and your children were raised learning about their heritage. One of you, Myron’s granddaughter, studies Judaism and its roots at the graduate level. But the way Myron lived his life, as far as this newspaper is concerned, should have been immaterial. We had no right to judge him or your family, and by publishing this column we engaged in lashon hara, the spread of the evil tongue.
We did not make any attempt to learn about the real Cohon family and instead published a column based upon statistics, stereotypes and wrong assumptions. We deeply regret the poor judgment that allowed this column to be written and published and apologize for the great pain we caused to your family and the many friends who knew and loved Myron.
We also apologize to our readers and the community for violating the trust you’ve placed in JTNews to be accurate and fair in everything we publish. We should not have let you down. Martin Jaffee’s apology to the Cohon family appears below, which will be his final contribution to the paper. A response from the Cohon family follows.
An apology to the family of Myron Cohon — and to my readers
A frequently cited passage of the Talmud advises: “It would be better to dive into a fiery furnace than to humiliate one’s companion in public.” Recent events have driven home to me the wisdom of this advice.
To those members of Myron Cohon’s family and his many circles of friends, I ask to be pardoned for the humiliation my careless words have caused all of you. Elementary common sense should have warned me not to comment upon the religious life of a person I’d never met, and common decency should have reminded me not to write about a person for whom the mourning was still in progress.
I cannot excuse this lapse of judgment, nor will I defend it here. Perhaps, though, I can clarify the intention of the article as I envisioned it, an intention that in fact has been hopelessly eclipsed by my own failure to properly execute it.
Like many of my columns, this one took a quick impression of American Jewish life and sought to draw out some thoughtful implications. As I should have realized, a “quick” impression has to at least come close to reality in order to have any implications worth sharing. The reality, as I learned, is that Mr. Cohon’s life was as far as possible from that slice of American life that I thought his obituary had captured. And what I had intended as an expression of admiration for Myron Cohon, the man, and a lament for the “loss” of his contributions to the Jewish community, turned out to imply that he was less than a “good Jew.”
In fact, I do not believe in the idea that some Jews have the right to sit in judgment of the Jewishness of others. We are all, I believe, doing the best we can under the desperate circumstances which confront those for whom the life of Torah is an existential concern. The results of our struggles, and the way we articulate and interpret them, is however subject to criticism in view of their fairness and accuracy. Clearly, my column of Dec. 9 failed that test.
So, in addition to my apology to the Cohon family, I feel an obligation to ask the pardon of the many readers who have followed my columns in the JTNews for almost eight years. I regret that I betrayed your trust in my reportage and may have been misled by my words. You deserve better. But in any event you have my thanks and gratitude for all your comments — pro and con — over the years. I’ll miss our many conversations.
— Martin Jaffee
Getting to know Myron: A remembrance from his family
By William Cohon
Many of you knew my father, Myron Cohon, and were saddened by his recent passing. My family and I are grateful to you for the support, and kind messages of condolence. Many of you attended his shiva minyan service at Temple Beth Am, and many others helped celebrate his life, at a wonderful ceremony held at his home, University House.
Martin Jaffee did not know my father, and was not saddened by his passing; he just read the obituary because he loved the comedian with nearly the same name — Myron Cohen. And yet, Mr. Jaffee wrote an article about my father, without benefit of research, in the December 9, 2012, issue of JTNews. In sentiment, it was the opposite of a condolence message, and it was published in the paper! The inevitable mischaracterization begs for a response.
Mr. Jaffee’s article dishonors my father’s memory. It misinforms those who did not know Myron Cohon. It irritates those who did. And to those for whom my father was the real Myron Cohon, to those of us who loved him, Martin Jaffee’s words cause pain.
Mr. Jaffee strove to make the point that many of my father’s generation seemed to turn their backs on their Jewish identity, in order to make it in the mainstream culture. There is no doubt that that is true. But Mr. Jaffee has missed some important details. While my father, in many ways, exemplified the trends of his generation — he did not practice the rituals or attend synagogue — he did not turn his back on his people.
It is true that my father was not a member of a synagogue for the last 28 years of his life. But he was for the first 65! All three of his children had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. His granddaughter is a graduate student in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University. Two of his three children are members of Temple Beth Am, and are active, contributing members of the Jewish community.
My father identified as a Jew. Thirty years ago, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, my dad was so worried that he might end up with an uncircumcised grandson, he took off work and drove 250 miles to lobby for the practice of his people. And, as recently as two years ago, he vigorously led the family seder.
Mr. Jaffee painted the picture, with my dad in it, of Jews who “abandoned not only Judaism, but also Jewish communal life of any kind.” In truth, although my father was totally comfortable among gentiles, his closest group of friends tended to be similarly secularized Jews. Go figure.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter. My father was a righteous man. He was raised to be so, and in that regard, he was a good Jew. He noticed that many of his contemporaries were smart and interested in books, but could no longer read because of failing eyesight. So he read aloud to them. Fiction and non-fiction.
He noticed that many of his music-loving contemporaries were unable to avail themselves of the opportunity to attend concerts because they didn’t walk well enough to leave University House. So he began a weekly music-listening group. And then he arranged for on-site performances of fine young student musicians (including his granddaughters).
He took the bus, three times a week, to see his wife, Lois Molinari (nee Furstman), who is still in a dementia care facility in the Northgate area — a mitzvah in itself. When he noticed the proximity of another retirement home, Merrill Gardens, he began to read there, as well.
Is Mr. Jaffee a righteous man? Oh, he has the “bully pulpit.” He is a Jewish expert. He presents himself as such, and others concur. He occupies the Samuel and Althea Stroum chair in Jewish Studies, at U.W., which means that both the State of Washington and the Stroum family vouch for him. The JTNews entrusted him with a column. And I understand from YouTube, that he presents himself as a pious, Orthodox Jew. I am a Reform Jew, and I have a few questions.
I know there are differences in the siddurs and practices. But don’t all Jews recognize the “obligations without measure?” In his article, Mr. Jaffee quoted the first line of the obituary, “Surrounded by family...” Did it not occur to him to console the bereaved?
Does Mr. Jaffee not care about the Jewish position on hotza’at shem ra (spreading a bad name)? And who is Mr. Jaffee to judge my father or his descendants’ religious practices?
Several times, Mr. Jaffee stated that my dad was typical. Okay, in some ways he must have been, although anyone who knew him would hardly find that an apt descriptor. He really was quite singular. Mr. Jaffee said he wished he’d known a guy like Myron. I wish he’d known him, too. He certainly could have learned a thing or two.