Cantor Bob Cohen, who sings and chants the liturgy at Congregation Emanuel, brings a depth of heart and soul to the service. Music and Judaism are threads woven deep into his life. Bob has been singing since he was age eight, when he was attending the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village, and he was a seminal part of the folk-revival movement of the early 1960s.
His group, the New World Singers, opened for Bob Dylan at Gurdy’s Folk City and was the first group to record “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In his liner notes for the group’s record on the Atlantic Records label, Dylan described Cohen as “some sort of Spanish gypsy by the way he wore his sideburns an’ mustache an’ eyebrows.”
Bob also traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to help with the voter registration drive for African Americans.
After business difficulties landed him in prison decades later, it was music, along with his newfound religious faith, that turned his life around. He had help from Jonathan Eichhorn, the rabbi at Congregation Emanuel. Bob began to perform at various religious congregations after a decade-long hiatus.
Today, cantor Bob sings at various senior facilities and special singing events. He also serves as the chair of the Ulster County Religious Council, organizing interfaith forums and events.
For the past 20 years, Bob has been married to Patricia Cohen — the couple met when she visited the Greene Correctional Facility as part of a Christian volunteer group — who has also given tremendously to the community. A critical-care nurse who is now semi-retired, Pat is a member of the Homeless Action eCoalition of Albany. For many years she conducted a support group for the families of prisoners, besides volunteering in prisons.
After meeting Bob, she converted to Judaism, joined the congregation, and now chairs Congregation Emanuel’s Caring Community, which provides food and other aid to people suffering from a crisis. She is a juried quilter and has donated many of her quilts to numerous non-profits, including the Congregation and Family of Woodstock. Between them, the couple have five children and six grandchildren.
On November 12, Congregation Emanuel, which Bob describes as “like family to us,” is celebrating the couple with a gala. It will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. at the temple. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served, and the event will feature live music and a silent and live auction. Tickets are $75 per person.
Lynn Woods recently interviewed the Cohens at their Kingston home.
Bob, your parents were Jewish but non-practicing. Did they themselves have a religious background?
Bob: My father studied to be a rabbi in Tsarist Russia, but he lost his religion when he came over on the boat. He was an agnostic. My mother did not believe in god at all. Her parents, who were from Ukraine, were Bundists, socialists who were involved in the 1905 revolution in Russia. They brought me up as an atheist, though my father did take me to the High Holy Day services in Nanuet. My parents were fellow travelers with friends of the Communist Party.
What was your father’s profession?
Bob: He ran a woodworking job in the Lower East Side, where they made chairs and desks for schools.
You attended Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village, where many kids’ parents were communists, and later Elizabeth Irwin High School. How did those progressive schools affect your music?
Bob: I started playing the piano but left classical music and took up the guitar and then the autoharp, which I would play at parties and hootenannies. I had a teacher when I was at Little Red called Charity Bailey, an African American woman with a long skirt who’d sit on the piano bench sideways. She would have us sing prison songs, sailors’ songs and the like.
I had another teacher at Elizabeth Irwin, called Robert DeConnier, who was later a conductor for Harry Belafonte. He and his wife made an album of songs about the Catskills. I was in a singing group in high school that appeared at Town Hall with Pete Seeger singing. Seeger sang songs from all over the world and was a big inspiration. He got everyone singing.
How did New World Singers form?
Bob: I met Happy Traum and Gil Turner and Dee (Dolores) Dixon, who was an African American woman — she’s now in her eighties and a church musician — and we formed the New World Singers. We were the opening act for a number of singers at Folk City, including a little guy from Hibbing, Minnesota who called himself Bob Dylan. He had nervous legs and would sit at the bar, and we would buy him wine.
Dolores would sing solo an African American slave freedom song called “No More Auction Block for Me.” Dylan liked the melody and one time he came to us and said “I’ve written this great song” and began singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which had a similar melody. He’s acknowledged that the slave freedom song inspired his song. We were the first group to record “Blowin’ in the Wind,” for Broadside Records.
How would you describe Dylan’s role in the folk scene?
Bob: It was like being a playwright in the time of Shakespeare. We were all writing folk songs, but Dylan took over the world. There was a feeling of friendship and fellowship. We went out to sing in Michigan at this lumberjack restaurant and I met the owner’s stepdaughter, Susan Beecher, who was descended from Harriet Beecher Stowe. We fell in love, she came to New York and I moved out of my parents’ house and we got married.
You attended the Manhattan School of Music and earned a B.A. from Empire State College. Upon graduation, how did you make a living?
Bob: I taught music at private schools. We were living on the Upper West Side, and I would ride to those schools on my bicycle with a guitar on my back. I also had private students, including Robert Redford’s son and the daughter of Ira Levin, who wrote the script for Rosemary’s Baby. After Happy got married and started having children, the band fell apart. The folk scene was becoming more commercial. And then the Beatles came along and it was done.
You and your wife also traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 for the voter registration drive. What exactly did you do?
Bob: My former roommate Bob Moses, who led the summer Freedom movement, asked me to bring down folk singers for moral support. I formed the Mississippi Caravan of Music and brought down Seeger, Judy Collins, Carolyn Hester, and other leading folk singers. They’d sing at rallies and schools, and I’d drive them around. It was frightening, but you felt protected by the brotherliness and sisterliness of everyone. We were welcomed by the African Americans and were among friends.
Your life changed dramatically starting in the late 1960s. What happened?
Bob: The late 1960s was the era of cults, and we were all looking for some leadership to do good. My wife and I attended a group run by a psychiatrist who was like a guru. The meetings became our life.
After we divorced, some of the women in the group complained about him. I took his side and moved into the basement of his place, and we started working together. He would pay for my meals but not a salary. I was the office manager and he started taking Medicaid patients. Medicaid paid better for groups, so we claimed people who were in a group for three hours were actually here for three days.
After 15 years, we got caught. We were arrested and the final hearing took a year, after which they put us in jail at Riker’s Island. My partner got five to 20 years and I got four to twelve. I served two years at a facility in Washington County then was moved to Greene County Correctional.
How did you adapt to being in prison?
Bob: It stopped me from working for this man and doing wrong. My son and daughter, who I hadn’t seen in 15 years, came to visit when I was at the Washington County facility, and they were very supportive. Friends from the outer world also came to visit.
I started to work with young people — most of the prisoners were young — helping them get their GED. We’d have a meeting every day before lunch and I’d play my autoharp and guitar and sing. I started writing songs. I went to all the religious services — I needed all the help I could get — and I would sing at the Catholic and Protestant services. The majority of the kids were black and Hispanic and they called me Mr. Cohen, then they called me Mr. Bob.
How did you get out?
Bob: Two miracles happened. Jonathan Eichhorn was the chaplain at Greene Correctional. I sang him some songs I had written and we studied the five books of Moses together, then I started reading the prophets. I put some of the verses to music, so everybody could sing them.
We became good friends and he asked if I was interested in the position of cantor at the temple, as the organist and music director were retiring. I said yes and he brought the whole board of the temple into the prison. It wasn’t easy. Some people said they didn’t want an ex-con in front of their children, but [in the end I was hired.]
How did you travel to the job? Weren’t you still in prison?
Bob: When I first asked for a work release I was refused, but Jonathan helped me, and the second time I got the release and was sent to Hudson, where I slept with a lot of guys in one room. I’d take the train down to Kingston. Jonathan helped me buy some clothes and he loaned me money and a car and brought me to the temple, and then I’d go back to Hudson every night. I also had a job playing the organ and singing at a Catholic church at Castleton-on-the-Hudson and also for the Seventh-Day Adventists.
After I got out in 1994, I moved to a rental apartment in Kingston.
What was the second miracle?
Bob: Pat came to Greene Correctional with an evangelist Christian group that spent four hours one afternoon a week in bible singing and reading. I’d sing with them and we studied the story of Joseph. We fell in love. She lived in Albany and we started dating.
Pat: I was working at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, where I supervised 23 nurses. I was divorced with three children. I’d been going to the prison for several years trying to help the prisoners, who were mostly teenagers, get an education. We had a religious service.
One day there was an older man in the front row who just sat there with an autoharp and guitar. He played the hymns beautifully, and the music was wonderful. I fell in love with him sooner than he did with me.
Bob, according to an article published in The New York Times in 1995, you also performed in Fiddler on the Roof.
Bob: I tried out and got the part of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in a local production. Pat was my dresser and costumer and really helped me. There were performances for three days, and it was wonderful.
Pat: We got married in 1996, and at the wedding we had ministers, priests and parole officers.
Bob: I changed from being an “either or” person to “both and.” For people leading bad lives, going to prison can be positive. And the friendship that’s around us at the temple and in this community is terrific.
Pat, what has been your spiritual path?
Pat: I began life as a Baptist. As my life got harder with my former husband, I started reading the bible and seeking god. I was in a domestic violence situation and had to run away with my kids in my car. I moved to my parents’ home in Washington County and had to get a job full-time. I had a hard time as a single parent. Back them, people would stigmatize you if you were divorced.
Bob: This faith opens you to everyday miracles. During the 15 years when I worked for that doctor, I saw no way out. But then [when I was in jail] I started to became aware of god or a higher power beyond myself. It’s about humbling yourself.
Have you been involved in prison work in recent years?
Bob: Both of us helped run a recidivism group for ex-convicts called Save Them Now, which was led by an African American man who had gotten out of prison. We were involved in starting a home behind the Queens Galley and had raised money at local churches. Seeger sang for the group, but then unfortunately the guy who headed it got back into drugs.
What is your advice to people getting out of prison?
Bob: Go to the church. You need a community. Don’t go back to the same environment. It was miraculous that I got to work at the temple. Jonathan took some criticism for it, but he had such a wonderful spirit and trust in me. When I was in Fiddler on the Roof, it was through his efforts that the article in The New York Times got written.
You have a bunch of grandkids. Do you sing with them?
Bob: I just made a CD for my grandson who just turned ten based on the Readers Digest Songbook, which has songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
You also sing at Golden Hill, Ten Broeck Commons, Hudson Valley Senior Residence, and other assisted living facilities and nursing homes in the area. How does that audience respond?
Bob: They know the American songbook, songs such as “Shine on, Harvest Moon” and “You Are My Sunshine.” When I sing these songs, people start singing or tapping their foot. One woman in the Alzheimer’s unit at Ten Broeck Commons knew every song.
It’d be great to hear you sing! Is there any way for the general public to hear you?
Bob: We’re doing the Great American Songbook Singalong program at the temple once a month. The last one will be focused on Irving Berlin and will be held November 20. Also, on the night of November 15, we’ll be holding our annual interfaith service at the temple. The whole community comes together for this.
Is that sponsored by the Ulster County Religious Council?
Bob: Yes. We’re especially trying to reach out to the Muslim community. We held a local forum about Islam that was open to the public. Last year, we showed a film called Dough, about a Jewish baker and a young Muslim boy who start to do their prayers together and become father and son.