Here is an excerpt from a eulogy presented Monday for Westville’s Morris Leo Cohen by Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel.
Morris Leo Cohen was born in The Bronx in 1927 and grew up in what he considered a middle-class family in Brooklyn, NY, in the home of his parents Emanuel and Anna Cohen, along with his admired older brother Alfred, all of blessed memory. Their Brooklyn neighbors were native Yiddish speakers, predominantly Jewish immigrants from Russia, Romania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Morris’s father was a dealer of pillows and mattresses, who by the standards of the Great Depression did well enough to provide a secure home for his family. In his youth, Morris was very athletic, and spent much of his time either reading, Boy Scouting, or playing in the street. Along with Alfred, four years his senior, Morris attended Camp Mohican in Palmer, MA, now the site of Camp Ramah of New England. As he grew, he enjoyed attending synagogue services with his father on the Sabbath and Festivals. Although always healthily suspicious of the clergy and skeptical of certain theological notions, Morris was deeply connected to Jewish culture and religion, and had a clear sense of identity, in particular through his relationship with his father in those early years. In the mold of normative classical Judaism, Morris was a rationalist concerned with the here-and-now.
Morris always carried the sadness of the death of his brother. At the same time, he continued to value and honor the relationship with Alfred’s family – with Adrian and the children – as well as with his extended family, some of whom kept on touch all these years.
His parents were supportive of his education as well as his life choices, one of which included marrying Gloria, whom he met on a blind date—he was with someone else. He liked that she was very smart, and later came to appreciate her strength of character, including her persistence and perseverance.
With Gloria, Morris sought to create a warm and loving home for their children, Havi and Daniel. He shared some of his interests with his children, including rare antiquarian books and the law. No matter the distance between them, his children were always close to his heart. In recent years, he was fortunate that his son lived or worked relatively nearby, and he was able to cultivate an adult relationship that to him was similar that which he shared with his own father. We should note that Morris’s parents, Emanuel & Anna, lived past their 100th birthdays, and for that reason Morris enjoyed their relation for most of his adult life, and was able to directly fulfill the mitzva of honoring his parents during their lifetime in a most direct and devoted manner.
Morris enjoyed many important friendships and relationships. Early in his law career, after being blacklisted from certain areas due to his radical politics of his college days – supporting democracy, unions and other notions deemed subversive at the time – he worked in small private law firms, at one point for an uncle, at another with his own partner, before ultimately getting a library science degree from the Pratt Institute School of Information & Library Science. The relationships he developed at this school, along with those from his undergraduate days at the U of Chicago and the Columbia University School of Law, were life-long and a source of pleasure and meaning to Morris.
His career also took his family to the U of Pennsylvania, and then to Harvard as the head law librarian, and then the comparable position at Yale. Morris loved the books and was extraordinarily supportive of the people he worked with, including the generation of researchers and associates in his masterful publication, “Biography of Early American Law” published in six volumes beginning in 1998, along with related and other publications. Morris did not particularly enjoy raw administrative tasks, but rather spent a lot of time communicating directly with the people he worked
with, to a degree that was considered extreme even before the advent of text messaging and Facebook which have made actual human contact seemingly out of fashion. He cared for the well-being and interests of those he worked with far more than the parochial institutional interests of his employers, which unfortunately is a rare and astounding quality, one of the many which endeared Morris to generations of lawyers, librarians and researchers.
I felt an inkling of that when I first came to New Haven 18 years ago. That winter, Morris took me on a private guided tour of Yale, especially the libraries, and presented me with a visitor’s library card. Beyond the overwhelming and undue generosity of his attention that I felt personally, I was impressed by the manner in which his former associates at the library addressed him – that is, with the utmost affection and respect. The computer catalog in the Library is still known as MORRIS, which stands for “something-something-something-something Information System.”
Morris served as a consultant to the World Health Organization and to various law schools and legal organizations, and served as the president of the American Association of Law Libraries.
Following his retirement as the Librarian of the Law School and Professor of Law at Yale University, Morris continued writing, speaking and teaching. He was able to incorporate his interest in books – expressed in part through his belonging to Columbiad – by arranging an exhibit and program about children’s books about law and justice, and donated his “Juvenile Jurisprudence Collection” to the Lillian Goldman Library at Yale. At that time he was called “…one of the great law librarians and book collectors of the twentieth century…,” and I don’t suspect he had a lot of competition from the 19th or 18th centuries either.
In recent years, Morris greatly enjoyed participating in a small study group with three or four other men in our neighborhood, all BEKI members, who read scripture and traditional commentary from traditional critical and literary perspectives. That encounter with the texts and his fellows was profoundly important to him. I don’t know if his friends from that group realized how important they were to Morris, but he was clear about that with me.
Along with Gloria, Morris was wonderfully supportive of the synagogue community, through attending daily services – for several years he received the Kohen aliya almost every Monday morning – and on Shabbat and festivals, through his teaching which included a devar Torah on parashat Toldot in December 2005; and through their financial support, which is exemplary and
generous; and by encouraging or enabling Gloria to serve as an officer and in other positions in the synagogue.
Morris had a great ability, perhaps modeled by his father, to befriend people of all ages through sincere inquiry into their lives. I have fond memories of his conversations with my young children at our Shabbat table, hearing him engage them in conversation about books and stories or other areas of shared interest.
Having said that about Morris’s career, friends and personality, I must return to what was obviously and explicitly most important to him: Gloria and their family. With Gloria – his best friend and companion in this world – Morris shared some of his interests and most of his commitments, a lifetime of adventures, frequent visits to Israel, travel to Ireland, England and the world, theatre and movies, labor and love. He was delighted to be a grandfather and treasured that relationship. Gloria and the family, like their friends, appreciated his wit, his kindness, and enjoyed the fun and fascinating encounters and activities that went along with him.
While his departure from this world was heartbreaking, Morris appreciated the extraordinary fortitude and support of his wife during this final episode, the attendance of his offspring, and the procession of friends who shared conversation, memories and expression of esteem and affection.
On the Shabbat day which was Morris’s last day of life, we read in synagogues across the globe and at BEKI the final chapters of the book of Genesis, which tells of the final hours of our patriarch Jacob, as well as the end of his generation and that of the formative period of Israel. In those chapters, Jacob verbalizes his hopes and wishes for his children and expresses his most
cherished values. Although the chapter tells of his death and that of Joseph, it is really about their lives, how they lived, and whom and what they held dear. Indeed, the name of the section, taken from its initial word, is “VaYehi,” and he lived – suggesting that the real story is not of his death, but of his life. Surely this is so with Morris Cohen.
Morris lived a life filled with love and laughter, productivity and generosity, contribution and belonging – he lived a good life. It was profoundly disappointing that he was not able to reach the length of years of his parents; yet we appreciate the extraordinary life that he lived and the legacy which he leaves. While I feel a profound, deep sadness at his passing, I try to think and feel – to allow myself to experience – the joy and appreciation and occasional provocation of our every interaction, and to view the pleasure and honor of knowing this extraordinary man, and friend – to see his life entirely as blessing for which I am grateful.