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In praise of my mother

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-02-09

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

In a piece I wrote several weeks ago, I mentioned my mother. And one of my readers wrote to me that this was the first time I had. I write often about my father but not about my mother. So on the anniversary of her death I think it’s high time I put the record straight. She was an impressive woman. She lived through turbulent times, most of it before the great campaigns of Women’s Lib. but she was a very liberated woman, an exceptional; mother and wife, perhaps too much so in some ways.

She was born Bella Brana Cohen in Manchester in 1919 and brought up in Cardiff in South Wales. Her father, M.J.Cohen, known simply as MJ, was a strong willed man who had come over as a youngster from Uman in the Ukraine to Tredegar in the Welsh Valleys. From being a young peddler, slowly he built up a significant business as a wholesaler and after he married Annie Bornstein established himself in Cardiff. He was strictly orthodox and yet a great Anglophile. He had four children, two sons and two daughters and my mother was the eldest.  He made sure his sons received a rigorous yeshiva education. But he also valued secular qualifications. His modern, substantial house was elegant with a tennis court and kitchen garden. His daughters were taught how to be ladies. They were given lessons in ballroom dancing and even sent to finishing school in Switzerland where they became keen skiers.

My mother was a student at Cardiff University when she invited my father, a handsome young bachelor rabbi in Manchester to come for a Shabbat to speak to the students. She knew what she was doing. They fell in love and married in 1940. She became the young rebbetzin of Crumpsall Synagogue. She devoted herself totally to my father’s career. They had an open house particularly for the many refugees who the Second World War had created. Like so many unsung heroines of the rabbinate she gave of her time and soul to the community, day and night, without remuneration but at least in her case with appreciation. She was an important part of my father’s success and wherever they went together she was loved, admired for her beauty, her intelligence and her devotion.

From Manchester (where I was born) they moved to Glasgow in 1944 when my father was appointed Communal Rabbi. Then two years later they moved again to London when he became the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. Then in 1948 my father founded Carmel College and in 1949 he left the communal rabbinate to become the Principal of his school. They sold their comfortable home in Hampstead and moved into an apartment in the main school building at Greenham Common Newbury.

All of a sudden my mother found herself acting as catering supervisor, occasional cook, matron, bursar, social secretary, public relations officer and fundraiser. In 1952 they had to move again to another apartment right in the middle of the main school building in Mongewell Park, Wallingford, living in cramped rooms with little privacy right in the middle of the residential block of a boy’s boarding school. All this, while raising three lively and demanding sons and later a daughter. I’m sure she must have been in tears, close to despair a lot of the time. But all I recall is my father excusing her on one occasion saying that she was ‘aggravated’.

Slowly the school prospered, at least relatively, and in 1959 they were able to move into a house of their own on the estate, away from the main school buildings overlooking the River Thames. There she and my father entertained pupils, teachers, governors, donors and friends and for the first time that I could recall, they had the semblance of normal married life together. Two years later my father had an accident. He missed his footing jumping from a motor launch onto the concrete pier. He was tall and overweight and he landed heavily and broke his shoulder, some ribs and his leg and was hospitalized. He never completely recovered. He declined, contracted leukemia and died in 1962.

My mother’s life changed completely. A new headmaster took over and despite being my father's protege and my mother pleading with the Governors to appoint him, he preffered to do things his way. From being a vital cog in the school she helped found, she was excluded. So she put her energies into founding a Girls School. She went back to school, graduated from Oxford University and then got a Diploma of Education. She worked hard, got support for her plans, a building started to rise but then personal politics intervened and she was forced out of her beloved Carmel College. She dabbled with several career possibilities but finally decided to devote herself to her children and then her father and moved from London to Israel.

She suffered hard, financially constrained and lonely years until she remarried and then spent the next twenty years of her life in contended comfort with a good man. If her dreams of making her mark as an educationalist in her own right came to nothing she channeled her energies into her families, the old and the new.

It is terribly difficult to judge peoples lives or make comparisons. There are so many different criteria of ‘success’ and as a religious person I believe the normal human standards of judging success are wrong and illusional. Her success on this earth lay in adjusting, coping and giving of her best and her love in every situation whether good or bad that she had to face regardless of whether it was of her choosing or not.  It is this rather than any feeling that one has to fit a pattern, whether it is a traditional one or a revolutionary one is the crux of the matter. And in my book nothing is more impressive for a human being than that.

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