Mortimer Jonah Cohen was born on the last day of Pesach, 22 Nisan, 5676, (April 25, 1916), in the Bronx. Aside from being what his nephew Shael from West Orange calls “adorable,” what is this 103-year-old’s biggest claim to fame? Maybe it’s helping famous people and rabbonim in his dental practice or achieving two holes-in-one at the golf course. Or is it simply having Jennie Grossinger as a guest at his wedding?
A young Cohen was around 5 or 6 when his parents, one older brother and sister and one younger brother moved to Far Rockaway, Queens. His father, born in Manhattan, was a manufacturer of ladies coats, and his mother, from Kovno Gubernia, Poland, was a homemaker. Cohen, versed in a smattering of the mamaloshen, chuckled that when his mother “really” didn’t want the children to know what she was saying, she would speak Polish with her sister.
Cohen knew his paternal grandparents and remembers they spoke about 90% in Yiddish and occasionally looked at the Forward newspaper. A very touching, faint memory Cohen referenced was when he stood alongside his father and grandfather to duchen near the end of his grandfather’s life.
His father, one of seven, maintained his own father’s Orthodoxy and passed it on to his children. Cohen considers himself Modern Orthodox, and on good-weather days, since moving to the area three years ago, he still davens at Ohr Torah in West Orange.
From his well-appointed home at the Claridge House in Verona, overlooking the scenic Watchung Mountains, Cohen shared with The Jewish Link the story of his life. A U.S. Army Veteran of WWII, where he served as a dentist, he talked about his years of service at various stations until he ultimately arrived on Antigua, where he was the only dentist for about 800 soldiers.
Of the four or five Jewish fellows in his troop, one was the doctor, Cohen was the dentist, another was the finance officer and his roommate, Perlman, was in charge of the post exchange, which sold toothbrushes and other essentials. While they were stationed there to protect the approaches to the Panama Canal, the Jewish Welfare Board sent a young Rabbi Herschel Schacter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herschel_Schacter) to help the Jewish boys celebrate Pesach.
Cohen, symbolically in charge of the mess hall, decided to make a seder. Schacter, who lodged with Cohen, helped to conduct it. Soon after, Schacter was the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald Concentration camp and tell the prisoners that they were free.
All three Cohen brothers were drafted into the army during WWII. The eldest was a medic and worked in a hospital in London, and the youngest saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge, yet they all returned home safely. One time Cohen’s older
brother came to visit and saw him peeling potatoes. Aghast, he asked, “How can you do it? You’re a dentist, you’ll ruin your hands.” Cohen laughed while showing that his hands were still okay to do dentistry.
Growing up in Queens there was no cheder. Cohen’s father hired a Hebrew teacher from Brooklyn who came by train, arriving at 7:15 a.m., to give his children Hebrew lessons one morning a week before they went off to public school. Cohen recalls reading his Haftorah and Torah portion at Shaaray Tefila, a Modern Orthodox shul in Far Rockaway. He reported that at his party, he received at least a half-dozen sterling silver Waterman Fountain Pens.
Following free public schooling, graduating Far Rockaway High School at age 16 and The City College of New York (CCNY) at 20, Cohen attended dental school at the University of Pennsylvania for $200 per semester. He graduated in 1940 when he was just 24.
Cohen credits his sister, an athlete and physical education teacher who graduated from Hunter College during the Great Depression, where she was captain of the basketball team, for putting him through dental school. He added that his older brother sent him a couple of dollars, even though he was already married. Plus, Cohen himself waited tables at the UPenn Jewish Student House. He returned to UPenn for his 75th reunion in 2015.
With the money Cohen saved in the military, he opened his dental office in Manhattan and commuted to work until 1991 when he retired because he was tired of the daily two-hour commute. His biggest satisfaction in life was helping people in his office, such as when he helped relieve someone of tooth pain.
Cohen described the happiest of childhoods, filled with toys, bicycle riding and swimming. His favorite toy was the Sheffield and Borden milk wagon. As for his childhood home life, Cohen says, “It was all for one and one for all,” and terms his father as a very tolerant man. His mother was a wonderful cook and baker who made Pesach at home until they were all away in WWII. He lovingly recalled the early years, with his mother buying a crate of eggs and making marvelous sponge cakes and all the niceties of Pesach, including matzah brei.
Marrying for the first time at age 41, he recalls a big wedding celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in New York. The couple settled in Passaic, where Cohen davened at Tifereth Israel before moving to Fair Lawn, then to Verona. His first wife was the daughter of Max Shier, who owned Fair Department Store in Passaic and was instrumental in organizing Hillel Academy, where he served as president for many years.
Cohen’s life was not trouble-free. His two wives died young, as did his 9-year-old daughter, who suffered from congenital heart disease. Cohen feels contented that he and his wife paid for the education of their son, including schooling at Hillel and Frisch, which gave him a strong Jewish foundation. He proudly speaks of his son becoming a lawyer and then a dermatologist, with a passion for photography.
Cohen didn’t travel much, though he has been to Israel four times, due to a sense of obligation to be available for his patients. Asked about his favorite food, with a laugh Cohen said if he were Italian, he would say spaghetti. As for his interests and hobbies, Cohen revealed he plays the violin, at which point his friend Gilda chimed in, saying, “Morty can still play.” He took formal lessons at $3 each, and played in the high school and CCNY orchestras. He played tennis and golf and only quit playing golf three years ago.
During his senior year in college, he managed the basketball team, “one of the best in the country,” he declared. Proudly, he recollected that he sat at Madison Square Garden, in front of 20,000 people, next to Nat Holman, the legendary coach at CCNY.
Cohen, who learned to use a computer in his 80s, attributes his longevity to luck. He eats three meals a day, does the dishes and makes his bed. He claims to have no fear of death, having lived a very long life.
Meanwhile, Cohen, who only stopped driving at age 99, affirmed that he tries to laugh every day. Asked to tell a joke, without pause he came up with a doozy, which he said he hadn’t told in years. Enjoying a good laugh, he easily stood and walked his enamored guest to the door.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a contributing writer at The Jewish Link of New Jersey.