“She was Baltimore Royalty.” Those words were repeated over and over again when news of the passing of Mrs. Elinor Cohn, Elka bat Binyamin Tzvi, Z'L, was shared.
How true those words are. Always full of poise, dignity and grace- Elinor Cohn was Baltimore Royalty. No matter where you would see her she was always put together, nails done, lipstick set and a radiant smile as she would greet you. There was an inner beauty that emanated from her as well. A pure heart, always there to help, be involved, and give advice and never asking for anything in return.
She was part of the America’s Greatest Generation as well as Baltimore’s greatest generation; without whom Baltimore would not be the thriving Jewish Utopia it is today. That generation brought to fruition their parents’ dreams of a Jewish community that would never have to worry about being shomrei Torah and mitzvot. A community that would have Mikvaot, a Chevra Kaddisha, a reliable kosher Butcher, kosher products, not even the question of working on Shabbat as well the opportunity for a strong Jewish education. Things we take for granted the Cohns and others from that generation championed, pushed the limits, had faith and would not accept no for an answer. They were the foundation that has kept Baltimore growing.
Elinor Cohn was born to Freda and Harry Altschull at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore MD. Growing up during the depression era was not easy, but from the stories she shared, her youth was full of sprightliness and fun. Two of her favorite stories she would tell was saving up her pennies to buy cakes of yeast to eat on her way home from school and the time a dog bit her and she bit it back! She had one sister, Evelyn. If I could take the liberty, I would compare their love and friendship towards each other to that of David and Yehonatan. Both always put the other first, pushed the other towards the limelight, and shared in each other’s sorrows and joys so deeply that it was as if they were one. They were inseparable in the most beautiful of ways.
I first met Elinor Cohn, Grandma Elinor to me, in January of 1988. I had traveled to Baltimore to visit her Grandson Richie before he returned to Israel. I was invited to a “going back to Israel” family get- together. I was feeling a bit nervous and awkward as it was a lot of family and I was the only non-member. As soon as I came into the house she was right by my side welcoming me, introducing me to everyone. She and Grandpa Alvin, Z'L, treated me like I was part of the family. They even insisted I be part of the grandchildren family pictures that were being taken. Whether she already had an inkling that I was to be part of the family one day I don’t know. It was a wonderful gathering and I left with the feeling that this Cohn family was wealthy and I needed to be part of it. Not the gold digger kind of wealth, but the wealth taught to us in Pirkei Avot, Azehu ashir hasameach bechelko. Who is rich? He, who is happy with his portion. There was so much wealth of joy, cheer, spirit and love that filled their home. It was pure gold.
The next time I saw Grandma Elinor was right after Richie and I were engaged. She gave me a big hug and said, “Welcome to the family, now you have to call me Grandma.” And that was it- I was now blessed to have another grandmother. Although I was not a blood relative, Grandma Elinor treated me like I had always been part of the family. When we would be out together she always introduced me to her friends as “my granddaughter”. To her I was never Richie’s wife or granddaughter in-law. I was her granddaughter. No questioning it.
Grandma Elinor never ceased to amaze me when sharing all of her “extracurricular activities.” From being part of a bowling team (she bowled for many years, continuing into her 90’s) to knitting baby hats for Sinai Hospital. She was part of a mall walking group that would gather in the early mornings well before the mall would open their stores. She was a member of Amit and Hadassah. She was very involved in the PTA of Bais Yaakov and Talmudical Academy as well as part of the sisterhood of Shearith Israel. She helped make centerpiece baskets as a fundraiser for The Associated. She sewed the Tachrichim (ritual burial garment) in the early days of the Chevra Kaddisha. And there is no doubt in my mind that many reading this probably have a knit blanket, a sweater, a baby bib or an apron with a little tag that says, “Made especially for you by Elinor C.”
She was one of the most talented multifaceted people I have ever met. She could sew, needlepoint, knit, crochet, draw, paint, cook, bake, dance, run a business, teach, you name it she could do it. What is more, she loved to share her talents. If you would compliment something she knit or had sewn, by the following week she had made one for you. If there was a recipe of hers you said you enjoyed, at the next gathering it was made for you. Want to learn a skill or technique? It was one of her greatest joys to pass that skill along, and boy was she patient. She had a very special Hamantaschen recipe with a unique way of folding the dough. For three Purims she tried and tried to show me her technique- I think I may be coming close, but she never gave up on me.
Grandma Elinor received much nachas from her family. She celebrated many milestones in the lives of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was able to attend many school events such as grandparents’ day, Siddur parties and theatrical performances and boy did she kvell! Add that to the fact that Grandma Elinor loved to celebrate. If there was a reason to have a family gathering she would find it and have a party. Whether it was a birthday, anniversary or siyum. If there was something to celebrate she would find it and lucky for us she was the consummate chef. She loved to share her food and recipes. She also was always ready with a tin of assorted homemade cookies whenever she would come to visit. I had the privilege of working with Grandma to create a family cookbook. We perused her recipe box and selected her favorites. Not only were there recipes in her box, but history as well. She gave credit to each person from whom she received the recipe and remembered the special occasions where and when she had first eaten the treat. She also had saved her menus from the early days of the Shearith Israel shul Kiddushim, shul Seudat Shlishit, as well as women’s teas, birthday parties, engagement parties and anniversary parties. She made notes after each celebration of the number of attendees, what was too much and what was not enough (this rarely happened).
Grandma Elinor first met Grandpa Alvin, Z'L, while working at Strauss Bros., a dry goods company that was known for its honesty and integrity. She worked as a secretary and he was a salesman. He literally saw her from across a crowded room and was smitten. At the time when they met, Strauss Bros. was owned by Henry Strauss. Strauss Bros. did not expect their employees to work on Shabbat. I believe that not only did Henry Strauss give employment opportunities to the young Jews of Baltimore and ensured them a parnassah , a living, he also made sure there was no shidduch crisis!
Grandma Elinor and Grandpa Alvin were quite the team. She was the woman behind the man; supportive of grandpa's presidencies/board memberships and involvements in BY, TA, Shearith Israel and, P'tach. They led by example, showing the importance of volunteering and giving tzedakah. I am told Grandpa Alvin doted on Grandma like a queen and they never had harsh words for each other. Their courtship and marriage seemed like a fairytale.
When Grandpa Alvin passed away suddenly, the world as she knew it changed. She could have stayed in the shadows tucked away. Instead she picked herself up, put on that lipstick and soldiered on continuing to be involved in so many wonderful organizations. Although she missed him terribly, she always said she could not wait to get to heaven to tell him it was a mean trick he played on her, her life continued and her family filled it with more joy and nachas. She loved to share with her friends the accomplishments of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Grandma Elinor never did things half way. When something was done, it was done and done completely and with a full heart. In true Yekkie fashion even when we learned of her passing, she did that completely as well. She passed away on Shabbat- she completed the week and she passed away the day before Rosh Hashana- she completed the year. But what totally amazed me was- she had made her own Tachrichim. When I learned this I was in awe. Although she inspired me in so many ways this was incredible. As I thought about this some more I really should not have been surprised because Grandma Elinor was always ready for a celebration and in this case she made sure she had the most beautiful outfit for her next family gathering.
No doubt Shamayim got a fantastic pot of Tzimmes for Rosh Hashana as well!
She touched so many of us in many so many different ways. The Baltimore community was blessed to have such royalty for so many years. I will miss hearing her tell my sons how handsome they are and seeing my daughter’s face light up when Grandma would tell her “You are so beautiful.” I will miss her smile and the glimmer in her eye. I will miss her family gatherings. I will miss her putting on her lipstick just as we would walk out the door for an outing. I will miss being involved in her chessed projects and meeting up for lunch. I will miss her keen fashion sense and her insightful advice. I will miss MY Grandma Elinor.
May the neshama of Elka bat Binyamin Tzvi be a Melitzas Yosher for all of us and may all of her acts of kindness and chessed that she and Grandpa Alvin began so many years ago continue to grow for years to come and bring an aliyah to their neshamot.