April 08, 2020

Growing up, Cohen was an outsider

WASHINGTON — Growing up in Bangor, Maine, the son of a Jewish father and an Irish mother, Secretary of Defense William Cohen also was treated as an outsider, a misfit.

Though Cohen was a whiz in Hebrew school, the local rabbi told him he could not be bar mitzvahed unless his Protestant mother converted. Either that or undergo a conversion ceremony that required the rabbi to draw a drop of blood from his penis. Cohen, then 12, was infuriated — and afraid. With his parents’ blessing, he broke with the Jewish faith and chucked the mezuza he wore on a neck chain into the river.

And yet because his last name was Cohen, the youngster still faced anti-Semitism: An adult once hurled beer cans at him, screaming, “Send the Jew boy home!” while he pitched a baseball game.

“So it made me more sensitive, perhaps, than I otherwise might have been,” he says.

Cohen raised his own sons to think independently. One of them is married to a black woman, too.

After his 25-year marriage ended and he and Janet Langhart became an item, a prominent Connecticut couple — financial backers of his Senate campaigns — wrote him that he was destroying his career by taking up with a black woman. Cohen responded with a forceful letter of his own.

“I expressed it very clearly that I did not want their support under any circumstances.”

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