Former Beth Jacob cantor pens memoir of hope

“You’ve had such an interesting life, you should write a book.”

Throughout the years, Hans Cohn has heard that again and again, and thought, “But when?”

The father of three served as the cantor of Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob for more than 30 years, and between directing the choir, conducting lifecycle events and other synagogue duties, not to mention his family or obtaining a master’s degree in counseling from Stanford, there was never any time.

But the cantor’s life changed notably in the last decade, most drastically with the death of his beloved wife of more than 50 years, Eva. He had retired by this point, and like most who lose a life partner, he was overcome by loneliness.

To help the writing process as well as his loneliness, he joined a creative writing group.

“I started writing as therapy,” said the 79-year-old Palo Alto resident.

He also was thinking about his children and grandchildren. He realized there was so much they didn’t know about him. And then there is the fact that Cohn believes he has a message of hope and optimism to share.

The result is a recently published memoir, “Risen from the Ashes: Tales of a Musical Messenger.”

Born in Berlin in 1926, Cohn began singing as a child.

“While I would always listen to the rabbi’s sermon, I loved to listen to the cantor,” he said. “I loved the music, and I imitated the cantor when I was a boy.”

He vividly remembers arriving at high school the day after Kristallnacht to see his synagogue in flames, with the fire department on the scene, only protecting those houses next to it from being touched by the fire.

Cohn’s family was lucky; they were able to get visas to Shanghai.

But tragedy soon struck. While working in their family restaurant, Cohn’s mother drank water that had been contaminated. She died after only five months in Shanghai.

Cohn learned to cook, and after a few years, made it to Australia as a stowaway. He left his father a note, telling him he was leaving (they were eventually reunited in America). He spent a year there, working as a cook, and then got a visa to come to San Francisco.

He had relatives in Los Angeles, so he went there and immediately found work in a restaurant. His cooking skills improved and expanded, though he volunteered as a cantor wherever he could.

In 1948 he was inducted into the U.S. Army, which brought him to Fort Ord. While there, he met Eva, an immigrant from a highly cultured German Jewish refugee family. Though her parents didn’t approve of her marrying a high school dropout, she did so anyhow.

They settled on the Monterey peninsula, and Cohn continued to work in catering or as a cook. But he also volunteered as a cantor, and then began inviting Jewish families to his home for services. That community eventually grew into Congregation Beth Israel of Carmel, which now has 200 families.

Eventually, Cohn opened a restaurant of his own, but never felt fulfilled. In his early 30s, with his wife pregnant with their third daughter, they moved to New York so he could attend Hebrew Union College to finally realize his dream of becoming a cantor. He worked in the catering business the entire time, often bringing home the extra food to feed his family.

After he was invested, the family spent two years in South Bend, Ind., then returned to California so he could work at Beth Jacob, where he spent the rest of his career.

Cohn arrived there in 1964, retiring 31 years later. But before his retirement, a cancerous tumor was found on his tongue. Half of his tongue had to be removed, and he had to undergo extensive radiation treatments.

Two years later, the cancer returned. A titanium jawbone has replaced his own.

He has been cancer-free since, but all his food must be blended. He cannot appreciate the taste of food as he once did, nor the enjoyment of eating a good meal.

There is also the matter of his voice, which also has been greatly affected by his surgeries. Even speaking can be difficult sometimes, as he has developed a speech impediment due to the surgeries.

“My voice isn’t as it used to be,” he said. “I had a very beautiful basso baritone voice, and it’s not like that anymore.”

But nevertheless, he has been conducting seders aboard cruise ships since his retirement.

“The people on the ship have been wonderful,” he said. “They love my singing despite the fact that it isn’t what it was before.” He has traveled back to Shanghai on a cruise ship, and the ship’s kitchen even blends his food for him.

“I’m very thankful to be able to do it,” he said. “It gives me wonderful satisfaction.”

And despite the terrible loss of his wife, he has found companionship in Nina Lobban, with whom he shares music and German Jewish origins.

Today, Cohn feels grateful for everything he has, especially his daughters and grandchildren.

“The illness was a blow, but I’m very positive and alive,” he said. Noting that he still volunteers at Beth Jacob and finds joy in the little things, he said, “Every day is another day.”

“Risen From the Ashes: Tales of a Musical Messenger” by Hans Cohn (211 pages, Hamilton Books, $24.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."