Frieda Cohen, 'a force of nature,' passes at 103

PHOTO: Frieda Cohen, z"l, operates the dough rolling machine she helped donate to the Congregation Shaarie Torah Sisterhood for their annual hamentaschen sale in this undated photograph in the synagogue's kitchen. Cohen was an integral part of Shaarie Torah for decades. (Courtesy Ilana Cloud/Congregation Shaarie Torah)

The Jewish Review
Frieda Cohen, z”l, “was a force of nature,” her son, Richard Cohen said.
Frieda Cohen, who passed away Wednesday, Jan. 24 at the age of 103, certainly had an immense impact—in her lifetime-- in business, with her family and at Congregation Shaarie Torah, where she was an indelible part of the fabric of the synagogue. 
Cohen was born in 1920, the youngest of six children, to a Portland family that had been part of Shaarie Torah since 1909. She graduated from Lincoln High School and Reed College, the latter thanks to the support of her brother who had attended Reed and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. After graduating from Reed, she met Benjamin Cohen, z”l, who served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. They were married in 1942. Following the war, they briefly lived in Aberdeen, Wash. before returning to Portland to found General Automotive Supply Company, where Cohen was a bookkeeper. Richard Cohen, one of Frieda’s two children, worked for GASC until he retired at age 70 – his mom stayed on until age 98. 
Her work and family were of the utmost importance to her, but so was synagogue life – even when she bucked some of its traditions. Richard recalls one Shabbat morning at Sharrie Torah’s previous home on Southwest First Avenue.
“All the women used to be upstairs separate because it was an Orthodox synagogue and she looked down and my father was sitting alone,” Richard recalled. “She went down, and she sat with him. She thought at any time she was going to be kicked out of there.”
She wasn’t, and mixed seating thus began at Shaarie Torah. 
Frieda was remembered in many other ways at the shul, including for her ability to give a speech for each b’nai mitzvah celebrant, off the cuff, without any notes or prep. 
“She was probably one of the best extemporaneous speakers that I knew,” Richard recalled. “I thought that was quite an unusual quality she had there.”
Frieda would also hand out candy to the children who came to services each Shabbat; she saw the children as the future of the synagogue and wanted to make sure their experience there was a good one. 
“She got the most joy of seeing those kids running around the synagogue,” Richard said. “She reveled in in their creativity.”
There was a time and place for everything, though – a point Richard recalled being reinforced as he prepared for his Hebrew School graduation. 
“All of us adolescents were kind of unruly,” he recalled, “and I remember my mother coming into the room from the back of the room and she was slapping her hands, bam, bam, bam; ‘You guys, just listen!’ Everybody straightened up and we went through the routine in a couple of minutes because they were afraid of her.”
She also contributed to their education by supporting the work of Shaarie Torah’s sisterhood, particularly their hamantaschen sale each year before Purim.
“She was always impeccably dressed,’ Charlotte Tevet of CST’s Sisterhood of Cohen when she came in to help make hamantaschen. “She would roll [dough]for hours and, you know, it didn’t bother her to stand there and do that for hours and hours.”
Eventually, Cohen and a friend, Sylvia Perkel, purchased a rolling machine for the Sisterhood’s work – which has not only made the process faster, but made the product more uniform. 
“Every individual is different, and so [the hamantaschen] wouldn’t come out as even,” Tevet said. “It’s been a tremendous help to have that dough machine.”
Cohen wasn’t just a sharp dresser on special occasions, either. 
“She always dressed up, no matter where she went, she got up and she got dressed and she wore heels for the longest time,” Richard Cohen said of his mother. “She was well put together. Anybody who came into the house always admired that, she looked so put together.”
Sue Perkel, Sylvia’s daughter, remembers her mother’s friendship with Frieda Cohen fondly. After her own mother passed, Cohen became a second mother to Perkel – she refers to her as “Mama Frieda” to this day. 
“Rabbi Zucky [Arthur Zuckerman] was there at the time, and he used to call my mom and Mama Frieda ‘The Golden Girls,’” Perkel explained. “They just had so much energy.”
Perkel recalled that Cohen would strike up a friendship with almost anyone she met and was legendary for the ribs she’d cook for the High Holy Days, sourced from kosher butchers in Seattle. There was a long list to get some of Cohen’s ribs.
“She was somebody you wanted to be around,” Perkel said. “She’d never let anything get her down.”
Just because she was friendly doesn’t mean she wasn’t opinionated, though – she had distinct thoughts on the Torah and some of its characters. These made for lively discussion topics in her weekly conversations with Rabbi Zuckerman. 
“She and Rabbi Zuckerman used to wrangle about that, but they both appreciated their talks together,” Richard Cohen explained. 
Frieda stayed sharp in her later years, playing card games with those 30 years her junior.
“She had a clear mind all the way through,” Richard said.
But more than a clear mind; a loving heart, as well. After her parents’ passing, Perkel would often sit with Frieda during Shabbat services at Shaarie Torah. 
“You know that feeling you get when you know you’re really loved?” Perkel said. “That’s what it was like sitting next to her.”


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