Commentary Magazine


Elliot E. Cohen

To the Editor:

Your June issue calls readers’ attention to the death of the one who conceived COMMENTARY. I am not acquainted with any personality connected with this magazine, but the stimulating quality of the various items in its monthly repertoire would lead me to second all that was said of the originating spirit and to add that the crystallization of his dream has been a great success.

My own work as an editor makes me not unaware of the drain on one’s intuition, critical acumen, and technical competence that accompanies articles which later seem to be merely taken for granted. The intellectual exercise that I have experienced in the reading of COMMENTARY has always prompted me to recall that some gifted person or persons were doing some excellent work of selecting, producing, and combining behind the scenes. A reader, such as I, nourishes his mind on the finished product, but someone else has done all the work. . . .

These comments, therefore, may gain in their power of appreciation to the late editor precisely because they rest on the record of performance rather than on personal knowledge of the man. I hope this germinal magazine will long continue to give me cause for inspiration, disagreement, appreciation, and mental expansion.

(Dr.) Douglas J. Wilson
The Montreal Star
Montreal, Canada

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To the Editor:

The untimely passing of Elliot E. Cohen has left a void in American Jewish life which is all the more tragic because the full dimensions of the loss may not be adequately appreciated.

I met Elliot Cohen in the early 20’s, when he was the leader of a group of gifted young men who were endowing the Menorah Journal with a vitality and honesty of purpose unique in American Jewish journalism and all too rare elsewhere. He was already distinguished then by his extraordinary mastery of the English language and his capacity for trenchant utterance, gifts that were to make him one of the great editors of our day. The pages of COMMENTARY offer striking testimony to his unusual competence in this field.

Basically, however, Elliot Cohen’s quality was ethical and not merely aesthetic. He was concerned not only with le mot juste, but with la pensée vraie. He might well have taken as his motto the great saying of Johnson which seems so remote from the temper of our day, “Rid your mind of cant.” He could not brook deception, particularly its most dangerous form, self-deception.

The other day I reread his unforgettable piece, “The Age of Brass,” which, after a quarter of a century, still retains its freshness and power. It deserves to be reprinted for our generation as do others of his all too infrequent writings. To be sure, this piece, which is in a sense an apologia pro vita sua written at the inception of his career, breathes a confidence in the power of knowledge and a respect for the human intelligence which is no longer fashionable in this day of frenzied faiths. It is all the more necessary and relevant on this account. Writing before Hitler and the spawn of philosophies that have emerged either as a consequence or as a reaction to that holocaust of irrationality, he expressed his conviction that only intellectual and moral integrity has the capacity to save the Jewish community in particular and mankind in general.

Through the years, there were many issues on which one felt constrained to differ with him, but there never was any doubt concerning his clarity of thought, his sincerity of purpose, his dedication to the life of the spirit, and above all, his deep desire to make Jewish life in America worthy both of the wisdom of its past and its potentialities for the future.

Elliot Cohen would surely make no claim to traditional piety, yet in view of the basic Biblical command to cleave to God and walk in His ways, was he not the faithful servant of the Holy One whose seal, the Sages tell us, is truth?

Robert Gordis
The Jewish Theological Seminary
New York City

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To the Editor:

I remember—it was some years ago.

Elliot Cohen’s father came up to New York from an incongruous Alabama to visit Elliot.

One day we were sitting around with the old Southern gentleman, and Elliot was telling him about his work. The elder Cohen listened attentively, he was very interested. After a while, when Elliot had finished, Mr. Cohen smiled a slow smile and he, in turn, began telling about himself, about his pre-Alabama days back in Lithuania.

The Jewish people back there could, of course, read and write Yiddish. And Hebrew too. But few, if any, whether Jewish or not, were literate in Lithuanian. Mr. Cohen could write Lithuanian, and so he quite automatically became that important, nearly-official public figure, the letter-writer for the community. He told of writing business letters, letters of application, letters to the authorities, and all manner of personal letters, even some about love.

“And now,” he said to Elliot, “it’s all come a full circle for us Cohens. You are the letter-writer for your community.”

Well—that’s what Elliot Cohen really was. The letter-writer for so many of us. The articulator of what, without him, would not be articulated. The clarifier of what, without him, would not be quite clear. The brightener of what, without him, would be only dim. He gave . . . form, and sometimes wings, to the thinking and the ideas of so many of us.

And so there are many of us who are going to miss his wit and his warmth and the toughness of his mind and his tough intolerance of shoddiness—all those things that were there when he was writing our letters.

So many of us are going to miss him.

Albert Margolies
New York City

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