SAMS Roots Interview – Beverly Cohen

Beverly Cohen

Beverly was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, a pretty coastal town with a population of fewer than 9,000 people. In 1974 she moved to Brighton where she lived until 2013 when Hemel Hempstead became her home.

She recalls finding SAMS, a happy childhood and her Russian roots:

In Brighton I belonged to a very big Reform synagogue where I taught Sunday school for many years. When I moved to Hertfordshire to be closer to family, I was looking for a synagogue and for friends. I found SAMS on the Internet and it was love at first sight. I was dreading going to a service, not for the service itself, but for the Kiddush when everybody takes the chance to catch up with friends and I didn’t know anybody. But people came up and talked to me and were very warm and friendly, so I joined shortly after that and am very happy there. I’m involved with the multi-faith playgroup and I coordinate the meet and greet rotas, I go to book group, social events, Shabbat services and also the weekly parsha study. I know quite a lot of people at SAMS now through volunteering. It’s really great.

Yarmouth is the largest town in two hundred miles, so I had a distorted view of the world because it was such a small place, but I thought it was big. We had a good life. There were about a hundred and fifty Jewish families in the wider Yarmouth community and we all lived very close to each other. It was very safe and we had the freedom to ride our bicycles to the beaches or the harbour. At our synagogue men and women sat separately, but we could see each other – there was no curtain dividing us. I think the women were happy with it: they gossiped and the men prayed. I think the men gossiped too, but they also prayed. Women didn’t participate in the service, and there were no b’not mitzvah for girls. The boys all had b’nai mitzvah. They weren’t flamboyant affairs, but local dignitaries such as the bank manager and the GP were invited. The Jewish population in Nova Scotia is much smaller now; everybody’s either assimilated or moved to bigger cities.

Yarmouth Hotel, Nova Scotia, at the turn of the 20th century, later Beverly’s family’s department store.

Yarmouth Hotel, Nova Scotia, at the turn of the 20th century, later Beverly’s family’s department store.

Summers were spent at Camp Kadimah along with around a hundred and eighty other Jewish children from the Atlantic provinces. We went to Sunday school three times a week, but camp was where I got my broader Jewish education. There was a programme of morning lectures, mostly about the history of Zionism, and we developed a Hebrew vocabulary. We did arts and crafts, usually with Jewish themes, Israeli folk dancing and singing, mostly Hebrew songs. There was sport and swimming too and it was a lot of fun.

All four of my grandparents were from Russia, although my maternal grandfather came from an area that was often part of Poland. He and my grandmother were very active in Yiddish culture in New York. They ran a kind of candy store–newsagent, opening early in the morning and closing late at night, so their life was fairly chaotic. My grandfather was very funny and a bit of a gambler. My grandmother told a story of sending him out for a loaf of bread: he didn’t come back for three days because he found a dice game somewhere.

My paternal grandfather and one of his brothers made their way to Clark’s Harbor, Nova Scotia, to set up a business. An older brother gave them a big tray to use for selling dry goods door-to-door and eventually they bought a building and set up a store. At the time Clark’s Harbor had a population of ninety-eight and they were the only Jews in the village! People were very curious – nobody had ever met a Jew before, or a Russian – but they were warm, welcoming and hospitable and my grandfather was very touched by that. The two brothers married two sisters, their cousins who lived in New York. Eventually they moved to Yarmouth, where there were a lot of Jewish people from White Russia.

My father was on a blind date with another girl when he met my mother in New York. After moving to Yarmouth my mother was homesick for her family and the New York life, but once my sister and I were born she made friends. I remember visiting her parents’ house and everybody was sitting around the table laughing all the time. We went once a year, or every two years, but we were very excited to go. My father’s side of the family were just around the corner so we saw them every day.

Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 19 August 2015