Rabbi David Cohen

(creator: Sheyna Galyan)


Sheyna Galyan
Rabbi David Cohen is the 38-year-old rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in Minneapolis. He is married with a son, Ben, aged eight, and twins aged three. His father had died 10 years before, after many years of illness caused by his experiences in Buchenwald concentration camp. His American mother had died when he was only two while giving birth to his young sister.

He had studied psychology for "seven long years. I left one semester and a dissertation short of a doctorate .... There were several reasons. One was that I became disillusioned with psychology, and another was that I found myself drawing increasingly from Jewish texts and history for all of my projects. When I talked to my advisor about it, he suggested maybe psychology wasn't quite the right field for me, and on a hunch, asked me to research the rabbinate. The rest is history."

He is beardless ("I couldn't grow a decent beard if I tried") and "a rather good-looking man ... He doesn't look like a Rabbi. He's too athletic". To please his wife, he has become a vegetarian. "He admitted it made keeping kosher easier - and more to the point, it made Sara happy". But he lives for his work, and an old friend warns him to find more time for his family as "You tend to be obsessive and you've got a one-track mind".

Sheyna Galyan (1969 - ) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and obtained a BA in Psychology (and Legal Studies) from the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by a MA in Counseling from San Jose State University. She then worked as a counselor for several years before moving to Minnesota, where she began writing on mental health topics and later worked as a journalist. She became much involved in Jewish and community affairs. She published her first novel, Destined to Choose, in 2003. She owns Yaldah Publishing which has "the goal of publishing quality books by women authors with a strong preference for those written from a Jewish perspective." So she was able to publish her own book. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and young twin daughters.

Destined to Choose (2003)
Destined to Choose describes a few weeks in the life of Rabbi David Cohen, as he struggles with his own personal demons as well as with difficulties with both his family and his congregation. He is, it must be admitted, not really a detective at all, although he does investgate the real trouble afflicting Anna Rosenfeld, a college girl who has run away from her grandfather, Avram, who can never forget his terrible experiences in a concentration camp. I have included him here, however, because of the way he brings his firm religious convictions to bear on all the puzzles that confront him.

Avram is convinced that Anna "believes Hitler was a good person" - and it is this that caused their violent quarrel. It leads to David Cohen getting involved in lengthy discussions with them about nature versus nurture, involving, amongst others, the teachings of Rousseau, Hobbes and Freud, as well as possible explanations of why God allows evil in the world. In the end, Cohen tries to sort it all out in a sermon: "I find myself thinking sometimes that we'd all - Jew and non-Jew alike - be better off if God had never created evil. But I have to stop myself there. If we were to wish that there was no evil, we would have to wish that there was no good either. For without evil, good becomes the baseline norm, and joy becomes commonplace .... God created evil because without it, we couldn't compete or want the best for our families and ourselves. Without evil, we would have nothing from which to choose in our behavior, words and our lives. Good or good is no choice. And it is that choice which makes us fully human. It is that choice which allows us to hate or love; to take a life or save it; to run from - or return to - God."

The author obviously finds all this very important (and so it is), but there wouldn't be room for quite so much of it in a tightly constructed plot. But this is what the book altogether lacks. It is much more just a slice of life, allowing the author to include anything that strikes her fancy (particularly if it's kosher, of course).

What she really relishes is the Jewish background, and she includes a much-needed glossary of Hebrew words at the end, explaining terms like abba (father), eema (mother), and zayde (Yiddish for grandfather), as well as information about Jewish customs and festivals. Although there is interesting material here, as an introduction to Judaism it does not really compare with the Rabbi Small books of Harry Kemelman which are so notable for their strong story-telling and sympathetic warmth and understanding.

David Cohen's own conversations can sound very stilted, as when he is chatting to an old friend who is a fellow rabbi and says, "A congegant whom I have known since I started at Beth Israel eight years ago came to me last week with an unusual problem that had resulted in a severe miscommunication with his granddaughter. Severe enough that she tried running away from home. I offered to provide some basic counseling with both of them, and partly at my suggestion we embarked also on a long-term discussion to find some personal resolution concerning the Shoah, the subject of which was the origin of the miscommunication." (Shoah, it is explained in the glossary, means "literally, 'calamity'. The preferred term for the Holocaust. A holocaust was originally a sacrifice to the gods in ancient Greek culture; Jews prefer not to think of the murder of millions of innocent people as such a sacrifice.")

Cohen has no lack of problems to confront, everything from a Wiccan girl, for whom her would-be Jewish father-in-law wants a speedy conversion (there is a surprising amount in this book about conversions, even including some intended-to-be reassuring remarks about circumcision) to his own ongoing differences of opinion with his Board whose chairman wants to sack him. And there is his own son, eight-year-old Ben, who is suffering the consequences of his neglect. But everything gets sorted out in the end, including the appointment of a new lady cantor, who, presumably has been introduced at the last minute so as to play a significant part in the next book. Certainly Cohen realises "He'd have many more chances to find excitement and challenge in the months ahead". Let's hope the author finds a plot that offers us a bit of excitement too.


The author has her own website and Books and Beliefs blog. She is on Facebook too.



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Destined to Choose cover
The stark cover, complete with slightly out-of-focus picture, was designed by the author herself.
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