Pearl Cohen, born Pearl Ruten, was delighted to read about herself in the J. archives. Right: Pearl at 16 on a date at the Tonga Room.
Pearl Cohen, born Pearl Ruten, was delighted to read about herself in the J. archives. Right: Pearl at 16 on a date at the Tonga Room.

84-year-old surprised to find her name (and bat mitzvah) in J. archives 

Pearl Cohen was paging through J. a few weeks ago when something caught her eye. There, in an archives column on the very first Bay Area bat mitzvahs, she recognized a name — her own.

“When I saw my name there, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said.

Born Pearl Ruten, Cohen was among the first cohorts of local girls to have a bat mitzvah. Her name was printed in a 1949 story in the paper about upcoming bat mitzvahs at Temple Beth Israel and reprinted in our March 29, 2022 column.

So she decided to let us know.

“It’s going to be neat if I [make] a phone call to let somebody know that I’m alive, I’m a real person, and I experienced this,” she told J. Seeing herself in the paper “meant so much for me.”

The J. archives, which are free to read online, are an invaluable record of Jewish life in the Bay Area — and of individual lives, too. Besides mention of Cohen’s bat mitzvah, the archives show that she received an award in 1952 for her many years of participation in the junior choir of Beth Israel. And they contain reports of her engagement and 1960 marriage to Harry Cohen. “Pearl wore a silk blend ballerina length gown,” the article says, “and carried a Bible covered with orchids and stephanotis.” The couple honeymooned in Lake Tahoe.

Reading about such important moments in her life brought them all back, she said. “I was thrilled. I’m very nostalgic about my past.”

Because the bat mitzvah (or bas mitzvah, as it was then called) was so new in 1949, Cohen’s parents had no clue what it was. At first, they didn’t believe her when she brought home the idea of a Jewish rite of passage for girls.

A 1949 announcement in this paper about Bat (or Bas) mitzvah classes
A 1949 announcement in this paper about Bat (or Bas) mitzvah classes

“My father was very adamant that I had misunderstood, [hadn’t heard] correctly, and that there is no such thing as a — at the time — bas mitzvah,” she remembered. “[There’s] only a bar mitzvah. And so he just dismissed it.”

But the young Pearl was determined.

“I didn’t want to dismiss it. I wanted to do it, and I knew I was correct,” she said. “So I enlisted [Beth Israel’s] cantor, Cantor Cycowski, and asked him if he would call my father and talk to him.”

Once convinced a bat mitzvah was real, Cohen’s father got on board.

“I remember what I wore,” she said about the ceremony. “A magenta taffeta dress with black Mary Janes and white socks.”

Cohen also recalled that her Friday night bat mitzvah was short. There was no reading from the Torah, but she did sing a duet with the cantor and give “a 30-second speech.” An oneg Shabbat organized by her mother followed.

Cohen was born in 1938, the child of immigrants, and lived near the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square in San Francisco.

“It was mostly a little Jewish enclave,” she remembered. “There were kosher butchers.”

Her parents were members of the Keneseth Israel Orthodox synagogue, which was then on Webster Street, but Cohen went to Hebrew school at the Conservative Temple Beth Israel (she’d attended Central Hebrew School until it closed). She remembered her father as somewhat dubious of Beth Israel.

“It had an organ! He wouldn’t go anywhere with an organ, he was Orthodox!” she said.

Cohen loved Beth Israel and the social life there, including serving on the refreshment committee for a student dance in 1952. She also was an active member of B’nai B’rith Girls and in Young Judeas. Cohen lived in San Francisco until her marriage.

She currently lives with her husband in Roseville, east of Sacramento, and attends Temple Or Rishon. She only recently retired from the temple’s choir.

Cohen reflected that at 84, seeing the record of her youth in the paper and the names of her sister and her friends made her happy.

“Maybe because all the issues of today are so horrible, thinking of the past was really pleasant,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.