My mother, Chana Berniker Cox, passed away this Shabbat at dawn in her mountaintop home. I want to share a few things about her. It will, of course, only be a small slice of who she was.
My mother was born in Detroit, Michigan. My mom grew up with Yiddish as a first language, only learning English when she was first sent to school. Her father was a secular communist factory owner from a prestigious Rabbinic family while she described her mother as a Jewish peasant. A prophet, in her way, visited by the recently dead. But a peasant, nonetheless.
In my grandfather’s family, nothing was valued as highly as intelligence. Intelligence was better than goodness was better than beauty was better than community. Nothing mattered more.
And, as a firm denizen of the world of ideas, my mother’s ultimate goal was to leave a legacy of ideas. She spoke about this in a play she wrote a couple of years ago: Academic Overtures.
The legacy, for her, might be accompanied by her name – or it simply might work its way into the ideas of others. But it would ripple from her, changing the world she touched.
Twice, I believe, my mother’s family fled Detroit for Windsor, Ontario. The first time was during the Macarthur era – they were Communists. The second time was after the riots. After the riots, a newspaper boy was stabbed to death for asking a man to pay for a paper. That was when they left for good. In high school, my mother went on a speaking tour. And I suppose, seeking to go far from Ontario, she enrolled in Reed College and acquired an Undergraduate degree in Mathematics.
Although my father was somewhat nearby, at Willamette, they didn’t meet until years later. They were both working on their Ph.D.s at Columbia University. My mother was teaching there, they shared an apartment and my dad eventually scared the competition away. My mother has always liked a strong man, and it was hard – among the New York academic Jewish population – to find anyone stronger than my dad.
My mom taught at Columbia. But her path was not one of a simple narrow career choice. She wouldn’t specialize, and then specialize some more. That wasn’t the kind of person she was – certainly not after meeting my father. Her aspiration was to be a Renaissance Woman – and that required touching many different aspects of life.
While still working on their Ph.Ds, my parents moved to Idaho. They lived 10 hours from the nearest town for 8 years. Life there was tough – extremely tough. As I’ve always seen it, they were trying to build their own world. They were two contrarian people, stepping back from a world that was changing at what seemed like breakneck speed. And building something slower, and different, in the backwoods.
It was in Idaho, armed with the Shulchan Aruch and the Chumash, that they became frum.
My father brought the passion and my mother the intellect.
Their time in Idaho came to a close with the great tragedy in the story of my family; the death of my eldest brother Jeremiah. He was killed in an accident and they left the same day.
After leaving Idaho, my mother organized substantial explorations in the Canadian arctic. And then, during some particularly lean times, my mother left the business and went back to academia.
She wasn’t tenure track, she was already far too old for that. But she wasn’t the kind of person you fired either. She was a Senior Lecturer with a tremendously varied background. Although she had her preferences, she taught in numerous fields and enriched the lives of those who learned from her.
She may not have been famous, but in her way, she had actually become the Renaissance Women she had long wanted to be.
My mother grew up a Communist and became a Capitalist. She lived in the wilderness, embracing many aspects of life in times long since passed. But then she worked in the modern world. She worked in business, but then she taught for decades; influencing countless students within the so-called Ivory Tower of Lewis and Clark College. She touched the ancient and modern, the intellectual and financial. And she learned from it all. And she taught based on it all.
Her wisdom and writing are the reason why I am an author.
Not surprisingly, much of my mother is reflected in her books and her plays. Many of them are on Amazon. You can ask me for a list.
But the most important teaching she did wasn’t in a university or in front of a class or through her books. The most important teaching she did involved the kids she and my father brought into their homes. They used their vision, their wisdom, to save children. Many children. Dozens of children.
As my cousin Amitai told me, they saw hope in people that those people did not see in themselves. And they taught those people how to see what they saw. They made a new reality by simple force of will.
They saved Amitai’s life and Amitai is saving the lives of others using exactly the same principle. One of those people is now seeking to become a doctor.
Just imagine the influence her teaching – as a mother to kids who needed a mother – will have as it ripples through our world.
As much as my mother was a woman of ideas – as much as my father dragged her into the raising of troubled youths – perhaps her greatest legacy will be through her marriage to my father and in the lives they changed together through a vision of hope and possibility that most of us can never comprehend. It was certainly a beautiful thing for us children to see.
We were surrounded by such troubled kids. And our parents understood that we would know what mistakes *not* to make and that we would learn the value of every human soul as they were – one after the other – redeemed from their own personal hells.
She can no longer reach out to those children. She can no longer speak to us in person. But her ideas can still influence us.
If you want to honor my mother, don’t buy flowers. I know we’ve suggested a few charities and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you gave to them. But if you want to really honor my mother, if you want to serve her deepest desires, buy or borrow one of her books, read it and build what you learn into your own understanding of the world.
In that way she can be a Renaissance Woman whose legacy is ideas that will continue to trickle and flow through the world she has left behind.
And in that way, you can carry on her legacy – borrowing from wisdom hard won to see hope in the lives of those around you.
May G-d bless my mother and rejoin her with those who left her before she was ready to leave them.
And may her potential continue to be realized through us, strengthening our world through the power of ideas and through the vision of possibility.
She will be buried on Sunday the 3rd of March at 11:00am at the Shaarei Torah Cemetary (8013 SE 67th, Portland, Oregon 97206).
The first shiva minyan and gathering will be held at her home 23700 NW Skyline Blvd, North Plains OR 97133 at 5:30PM Sunday March 3, 2019.
Her books can be found here: http://www.torahshorts.com/uncategorized/my-mothers-books/