This month my dad, Simon Cohen, celebrated his 90th birthday with family and friends from across the country in attendance (and of course my mom Jennie, a blessed 80+ years old).
I come from a family of talkers so of course, everyone had the opportunity to stand and speak. Here are my remarks.
All our lives we’ve heard about the famed Kennedy family and what they stand for. We all know that the Kennedys stand for public service. “From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” the clan says.
Over the decades I’ve pondered from time to time what our family, the Cohens, stand for, and for years I didn’t get much beyond the basics: Eat your vegetables and turn off the lights when no one will be in the room.
Now I’ve had quite a few years to think about this and I’ve come up with four life lessons that more singularly represent the Cohens.
First, God loves common sense. The Cohens, who came to the U.S. from Poland in the earliest years of the twentieth century, were originally Orthodox Jews, the most observant branch of Judaism. However, they valued practicality more than rigorous observance as they adapted to life in America.
My father (born in America) managed small grocery stores for much of his career, the first store having been started by his parents. Even on the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, he would stop at the store to be sure the refrigeration wasn’t on the fritz before going to synagogue.
Our family believes that God wants you to take care of what needs to be attended to rather than rushing off to synagogue to pray for miracles. The Cohens’ God wants people to improve their lives proactively rather than to leave all the heavy lifting to the divine.
Second, incompetent authority is irritating. It’s difficult for a member of my family to remain silent and smile obediently when management is making stupid decisions. We can hold our tongues—some of us better than others—but over time we tend to gravitate to entrepreneurship. We do not always experience resounding success, but we prefer to live with our own mistakes rather than the mistakes and misjudgments of others.
Third, life—and especially entrepreneurship—is all about responsibility. The Donald Trump style is about ego and power. It is about shouting “you’re fired” and the other person simply packs up and slinks out of town. For The Donald, it’s good to be the boss.
But in our family, being the boss is not about being omnipotent. You have to be careful in terminating staff. In a small grocery store, you are stuck doing all the food prep and clean up yourself if you cavalierly dump people.
Self-employment is about working your business every since day, no matter how sick you feel. Being responsible is the single most salient aspect of entrepreneurship. Dad recognized this even as a youngster when he started making grocery deliveries after school. (Back before there were driver’s licenses, his parents assigned him this chore at the age of 13 when he came home from his Bar Mitzvah and drove off in the family car now that he was a man.)
Fourth, humor, fun and friends are what count in life. Except for Mom, Dad’s best friend was his older brother Art. (My dad’s older brother married my mom’s older sister. Or to restate it, two brothers married two sisters. My parents’ relationship began because the brothers shared a car. So the older sister fixed up Mom with Dad so both guys could go out on Saturday night.)
Anyway, the brothers were hilarious together. Watching them together was like seeing a night club comedy act except that the two were equals; neither served as the straight man or the stooge. And I learned something very important from their banter while working alongside of them in the store: A pint’s a pound the world around.
Dad still develops his own best material. Recently he was in the hospital with heart problems when he asked the doctor if he could tell her how he wants to die. She was clearly uncomfortable and suggested he tell his son (my brother Michael, who was present) instead.
“No, I want to tell you,” he insisted. “I want to be shot by a jealous husband.”
And so I say with a heart full of love, “Happy Birthday, Dad, and many, many more.”