Tribute by Rabbi Raymond Apple, delivered in Jerusalem on 16 December, 2008, at a memorial service marking Rabbi Cohen’s first yahrzeit.
Isaac Cohen was an ornament to the English-speaking rabbinate. In him were combined the personal, professional, scholastic and spiritual elements that made up the iconic Anglo-Jewish religious leader. In that respect, though I fear I never told him so, I regarded him as one of my teachers.
The Biblical author says, “Your eyes shall behold your teacher” – v’hayu einecha ro’ot et morecha (Isa. 30:20). From others I learned texts and interpretations; from Isaac and others of his school I learned the persona of a rabbi. Not that “persona” is really the right word for Isaac, for it comes from the Latin for a mask, an identity which is an act assumed for the sake of appearances, and that was never Isaac. He looked, walked, spoke and lived as a gentleman, a gentle man, a genteel man, and it was no pretence. It was what Isaac was, in the same way that Fanny was a lady. She once told Marian and me that when she came to Israel she felt she had lost her voice because here she could not give the elegant speeches that she did in Ireland, but nothing every altered her ladylike grace, just as nothing ever affected Isaac’s innate civilised dignity.
Alas, that is a style that has almost vanished from the rabbinate, as has the Torah-im-derech-eretz ideology that he personified. The Anglo-Jewish ministry has changed, and in some respects not for the better.
There is a song about “The First Time I Saw Venice”. I vividly remember the first time I saw Isaac, indeed the first two occasions.
Nearly fifty years ago I was in Ireland as a madrich for a B’nei Akiva summer camp. The camp took place near Cork, and I spent a Shabbat in Dublin. On the way to Shule I saw an immensely dignified man in a top hat, walking in the opposite direction. It was Chief Rabbi Isaac, en route to another of his synagogues. He had not been in Dublin long, but he was already a highly respected public figure.
About the same time I attended, as a ministerial student, an Anglo-Jewish Preachers’ Conference in London, and there was Isaac giving a paper – if my memory serves me correctly, on a subject that years later became his magnum opus. There were giants in the ministry in those days, and Isaac was a giant amongst giants.
When Isaac retired, a friend with Dublin connections tried to interest me in being Chief Rabbi of Ireland. Because of those who had occupied that illustrious post, I was almost tempted, but I said “No” because I had a major position in an Australian community that was undergoing a great period of growth, and I was constantly stretched. I made the right decision, but it would have been an honour to follow in Isaac’s footsteps.
Like all of us, I remember him with great admiration and affection. I am proud to salute his memory. Yehi zichro baruch.