On Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha, R’ Yaakov Mordechai Cohen zt”l was niftar suddenly, leaving behind a bereft family and many admirers.
From where did this quiet and unassuming Yid, who lived a simple life without fanfare, gain so many admirers?
A little over thirty years ago, Mr. Cohen and his aishel chayil bought the only kosher grocery store in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. From that day and for the next eighteen years, until Mr. Cohen retired and sold the store about fifteen years ago, that little mom and pop grocery store was a place of Torah and chesed. There is hardly anyone who grew up in Bensonhurst, or who learned in the Yeshiva Bais Hatalmud there, who does not have the fondest memories and the utmost admiration for the unassuming proprietor of Feldmans.
Even the name of the store speaks volumes about its owners. The store had once been owned by the Feldmans, hence its name. For most of us, the first thing we’d do upon buying a store would be to place our name on it in bright and catchy letters. For Mr. Cohen, it wasn’t even something he thought about. He was more than happy being the owner of Feldmans. Who needed his name on it?
Besides providing the frum families with all the basic kosher food, nosh, and other staples, the store was also the place where hundreds of bochurim and talmidei chachomim who learned in Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud would buy coffee, danishes and other snacks during their bein hasedorim and other times. In effect, it became an extension of the yeshiva, a coffee room of sorts, and Mr. Cohen would revel in the rischa de’Oraysa, the intense Torah discussions that took place daily in his store.
He once explained that for most people, their ruchniyus is found mainly before and after they go to work, while their jobs mostly represent their gashmiyus. For him, he said, it was the opposite. His ruchniyus was in Bensonhurst, in his store, while his gashmiyus, where he ate and slept, was at home.
In his modest and unpretentious way, however, he managed to lift up even the “gashmiyus” aspect of his life to levels of purity and integrity that were a lesson to all who knew him. His children cannot remember a single time when their father ever raised his voice. It’s one thing not to raise one’s voice in public. In one’s own home is usually a different story. Who can say that they never raised their voice, no matter how tense or pressured the situation, in their own home?
Of course, such restraint does not come about just like that. It comes from practice and consistency. It comes from extending one’s restraint to other areas of life as well. If someone would happen to bring up during a discussion anything about another person that wasn’t necessary, he would say, “Vus darf men reden? Why talk about it?” It wasn’t just negative speech about other people from which he refrained. It was simply the idea of hocking about other people that he found distasteful. “Why talk about it?”
Nor did he ever insist that his way was the right way. “I don’t think my father ever in his life demanded that something had to be done his way or that his opinion was the right one,” one of his children recalled. He had his way of doing things, but he had no need to prove to anyone else that his was the right way.
His integral pashtus also made it virtually impossible for him to demand things of other people. Like many grocery stores, the Cohens allowed customers to “write down” their purchases, to be paid at a later date. Unlike other stores, however, Mr. Cohen could never bring himself to demand that people pay up and bring their bills up to date. Of course, nobody ever intends not to pay, but when no one’s asking for payment…numbers and months can add up.
It got to a point where someone else from the community took it upon himself to go around and remind those with overdue bills to try and pay up. Mr. Cohen just couldn’t do it. He knew that so many of his customers hardly had sufficient income, and he just couldn’t bring himself to demand payment.
There were times when he would even tell customers that the sugar down the block – in one of the bigger chain stores – was cheaper. “Why buy it here if you can get it cheaper over there?”
Perhaps that doesn’t make business sense, but it made Yiddishe sense. His own store and his own parnassah was no reason not to do a chesed and help someone with limited funds save some money.
Though he lived simply and never needed much, he loved giving to others. Children who came to the store always received a nosh with a smile. He loved giving presents to his grandchildren as well. One of his grandsons fondly recalls the time that all the grandchildren were lined up to receive a Chanukah present. After receiving their gifts, Mr. Cohen turned to this grandson and said, “For you I have something special!”
They went to a side room, where Mr. Cohen presented him with a small Torah scroll, the type children hold on Simchas Torah.
There was nothing inherently extravagant or expensive about this present over any of the others. It was just that the others receive toys of one kind or another, while he, being a boy of the right age, had gotten something far more meaningful – a Torah. The excitement with which his grandfather presented this simple present remains etched in this grandson’s mind to this day.
Interestingly, Mr. Cohen was born in 1944 in Romania, which had a Jewish community even after World War II. He was a young boy when the communists came to power in around 1950 and his family fled to Eretz Yisroel, living in Chaifa. As a bochur, he attended Rav Dushinsky’s yeshiva in Yerushalayim for many years, before moving to the United States, where he married and settled.
Although he worked for his parnassah for most of his life, the yeshiva never left him. When he wasn’t working – on Shabbos, Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed – he was always found with a sefer in front of him. After retiring and selling his store, he became a regular at many of the shiurim given in Boro Park. Even in his later years, when he was unwell and had difficulty with the simplest things, family members remember that one thing that was a constant was that he had a sefer opened in front of him.
Nothing done with pretentiousness. Never announcing his presence or his opinions. His goal wasn’t to be a great person, but, quietly, he did great things. He leaves a family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom follow in his ways. And he leaves so many who will always remember his smile, his purity, his ehrlichkeit, his chesed – and the simple pashtus in which he wrapped it all.