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Carla Furstenberg Cohen

Bookstore Owner, Activist
1936 – 2010
Photograph of Carla Cohen
Full image
Photograph by Politics and Prose Bookstore.

Carla Furstenberg Cohen co-owned the independent Washington, D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose in 1984. Since then, the shop has grown into one of the Capitol’s most beloved cultural hubs. Cohen was known as a voracious reader and aimed to complete as many as five books a week, a dedication and stick-to-itiveness that translated into success for the store, even with the rise of large national chains. Born in Baltimore in 1936, Cohen attended Antioch College. She later studied city planning at the University of Pennsylvania and held a post in the Carter administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This appeared on the Politics and Prose website shortly after her death.

by Barbara Meade

In the last months of her illness, I chided Carla for abandoning her devoted bookselling community, including me, by dying. I was not only losing a cherished friend, but both a partner and a partnership as well.

Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade
Full image
Photograph by Politics and Prose bookstore.

This past week I found an article I had written in a P&P newsletter seventeen years ago: "'If marriages are made in heaven, where are partnerships made?'" Our partnership was made through the Washington Post classifieds." (If you want details, you have to read our history.) In that newsletter, I went on to say about our partnership, "We found we had much more in common than we initially knew: we were both the same age, both had children and master's degrees, and both were trying to find a vocation for the second half of our lives. We also discovered that we were very different, and from the beginning those differences worked to our advantage: we very much complemented each other in our strengths and compensated for each other's weaknesses. I'm frequently called Carla as is Carla called Barbara by members of our staff, except for our manager, Ron Tucker, who addresses us simply as "You guys."

Barbara Meade is the co-founder and co-owner of Politics and Prose.

 

The following are excerpts from the eulogies given at Carla Cohen’s funeral service on October 13, 2010 at Tifereth Israel in Washington. Used by permission of David Cohen.

by Betsy Levin

It’s hard to talk briefly (hard to talk at all) about someone who has been a part of my life for ALL of my life – literally. We were in the same playpen as babies. At age 3, we splashed around under a backyard hose, wearing only a bathing cap. We went to elementary school, high school, and camp together, and we remained close friends for over 74 years.

Carla said what little she knew about being Jewish, she learned at my house (until she met David, of course). She would come to my house for the holidays, and my father would read to us from “What the Moon Brought” (we identified with the two little girls, Ruth and Debbie -- one blond and the other dark-haired). As adults, it was reversed: Carla and David made sure that I was included in all of their Jewish holiday celebrations, especially after my parents died.

In our early years (age seven or eight), we would play a game Carla invented – one of us would be the wicked stepmother, and the other the princess who was ordered to chop dirt, and then made to sit in the gazebo in Carla’s backyard, pretending to be chained to the swing for failing to chop the dirt fast enough. Heaven knows what books Carla was reading then – possibly “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but she always had us switch roles so each of us could have a turn being the wicked stepmother (clearly the better role).

…If Carla’s Jewish education came from my family, much of my political education came from the Furstenbergs. I remember our going with her father to hear Senator Paul Douglas speak. That was back in the day when there were some senatorial giants, not the pygmies we mostly have today. After the Senator’s talk, Carla’s father introduced us to him. When he shook our hands, we were so excited that we decided we wouldn’t wash our hands for a week (our mothers probably had something to say about that).

…One more early memory – Carla and David were married in her parents’ yard. I remember the smell of the boxwood, Carla’s beautiful pale blue dress, and the brightest smile I had ever seen on her. (What a joy to also be present at their 50th wedding anniversary party two years ago.)

From her childhood, to her adolescence, to today, the essential Carla remained unchanged: She always had an overwhelmingly generous spirit, was a voracious reader, and had an enthusiasm that was infectious. She was totally uninhibited about expressing her opinions – whether negative or positive. (She often expressed her views at an opera she liked with such exuberance that people would turn around.) She even cooked with exuberance. She loved being at the center of intellectually stimulating conversations about literature, art and architecture, and politics. I often told her that had she lived in the 18th century, she would have been famous for hosting the leading salon of the day – as it was, her dining and living rooms functioned as a 20th century salon. Then Politics & Prose became her salon writ large.

A world without a Carla in it just doesn’t seem possible (and certainly less interesting). But I know she will always be with us. Once you know her, you can’t forget her.

Betsy Levin was a lifelong friend of Carla Cohen.

 

by Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Carla and I actually met when we worked together politically within an organization called New Jewish Agenda, a progressive voice in the Jewish community. Carla worked on our national “Economic Justice Task Force.” In fact I would say that the pursuit of justice and equity, was probably a very close third in a list of Carla’s passions, behind only the love of family, the love of the world of books and literature. She was a fierce supporter of justice for the oppressed, the unnoticed, the left behind.

Although NJA’s views on such issues as supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation were controversial in those days, Carla didn’t hesitate to bring them into her synagogue, Tifereth Israel, where she and David were devoted members. In what way? Of course by creating, a three part series of discussions. One panel featured Israeli Knesset members who argued against settlements in the West Bank, as obstructing the possibility of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this time the “two-state Solution” was not yet part of conventional wisdom – in fact it was grounds for excommunication, but Carla never hesitated to bring these views to her community.

…What values she exemplified in her political work she brought forward as well within her vision, and we might say, “calling” at P&P.

There is another realm where these values and Carla’s three primary passions were very clearly present and that was at the Cohen Family seders. They certainly were the time when Carla expressed her Jewish heritage most powerfully. The sedarim always exemplified both elements of this ritual that dates back almost 2000 years: first, a collective re-telling of a story of escape from Egyptian slavery, a re-telling which demands that participants identify with and help liberate those oppressed in our day; and second, a seder meal which is modeled after the format of the Greek symposium, a leisurely meal when citizens discuss the moral and ethical issues facing their community. The attendees were of all ages and religious backgrounds, including prominent and close friends like Father Robert Drinan, and also young people who worked at P&P. And of course, Carla paid lavish attention to having a gracious and delicious seder meal, accessible to those with all kinds of dietary predilections.

When we first joined the Cohen family seders, [their kids, Aaron and Eve] were in elementary or middle school, and David always “conducted” the Seder. In later years Aaron and Eve frequently played this role which provided unlimited naches or joy for Carla and David, to see their children following in their footsteps. But in truth Carla “ran” the Seder. While it was going on she reviewed it, she commented on it, she orchestrated it. If it was the second seder she would review the discussion at the first. She did it with love, with infectious enthusiasm, with humor – just as she did everything else in her life.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta is the Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders, an organization dedicated to empowering religious leaders of different faiths to use their traditions for the advancement of world peace.

 

by Rabbi Ethan Seidel

Carla Furstenberg Cohen was the eldest of six children. The family was an assimilated Jewish family, fiercely secular, committed to liberal causes, a hotbed of Civil Rights activism.

Carla was a reader from her youth; she carried her love of education into the family she raised. And she was always opinionated – one survival strategy in a large, opinionated, boisterous family.

She met her husband to be, David Cohen, at a meeting of the Americans for Democratic Action. After graduating from Antioch College in 1958, she and David married. They were to be married for 52 years. Carla received a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania in urban planning. In Philadelphia, she worked for a citizens’ housing organization. In 1963, the family moved to this area, where Carla worked a number of different jobs…David and Carla joined [Tifereth Israel] in 1969. Carla was quite active in the early days of their membership, even serving on the board. Among the privileges of a board member was the honor of carrying a Torah on Kol Nidre night. It was in this role that she became the first woman to carry a Torah at Tifereth Israel.

In truth, though, she was more drawn to the communal and political aspects of the congregation than the ritual—which is not to say she didn’t like ritual. The seders she put on at her house were legendary, with their mix of fidelity to tradition, and attention to the modern cause of freedom. Her son-in-law Robert called these seders magical. And she was known – like many Jews - to feel completely engrossed in shul on Yom Kippur, especially the final service of Ne’ilah. Though she grew up with no Jewish ritual background – she never learned to read Hebrew – she went to shul enough that she could sing along.

These last 25 years, her focus shifted to her bookstore. Not that she abandoned religion. In the early years, Politics and Prose was closed during the high holidays. (More recently, it remained open, the profit on those days given to tzedakah.) She made sure that the store had a sizable Judaica selection, and for Pesach, she put together herself a buying guide for haggadas.

Carla Cohen worked out her own, unique compromise, as must we all. Carla clung both to the new and the old. On the one hand she was an iconoclast. Though she grew up in a strictly secular environment, she developed, partly because of David’s influence, an appreciation for, and even some observance of Jewish tradition. The last Shabbat on which she was still conscious, just a week and a half ago, her family brought the challah and wine to her bedside. And she sang along with the kiddush. For her, a religious sensibility was a break from her past. Like Abraham, her own sense of religion was different than her immediate forbears. On the other hand, she also clung to the past, with Politics and Prose…Carla Cohen worked out her own, unique compromise, balancing tradition and change. She listened perhaps most attentively to that drummer only she could hear, but in no sense did she ignore the call of tradition. In one sense this was her choice, yet in another sense her own choices were deeply influenced by her husband, the needs of her family, the needs of her business which was itself a response to the needs of the larger Washington community. She made our lives richer both with her outsized personality, and the store she cherished.

Rabbi Ethan Seidel is rabbi of the Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. where Carla Cohen was a member.

 

Elsewhere on jwa.org

Carla Cohen's mother Edith Furstenberg participated in JWA's Weaving Women's Words: Baltimore Stories.

 

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "We Remember - Carla Furstenberg Cohen, 1936 - 2010." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/cohen-carla>.