The Bat Mitzvah of Ellen Naomi Cohen

In March of 1985, my dad accepted the pastorate of Moorewood Baptist Church in Leedey, Oklahoma. Mom and I had not gone with daddy up to Oklahoma when he went to candidate preach and so we had no idea of the cultural transition we would face when we moved from Dallas to Western Oklahoma. I went from a school in Dallas in which there was 1,300 in my sophomore class to a class (and I moved there in MARCH of my sophomore year) that ended up graduating … 20. It was a transition!

However, the greatest transition was musical. I was a Top 40, Casey Kasem fan in Dallas. It was the time of “We Are the World” and Michael Jackson being somewhat … normal. However in Western Oklahoma, the radio station was one Country/Western station after another and C/W is one type of music that I just don’t care to listen to for more than 15 minutes at a time. I was, however, able to find one musical option in the midst of the bar tunes and dogs dying and twang and that was a Oldies Station featuring the music of The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Three Dog Night, and The Mama’s and the Papa’s. I am now one of the few people born in the 1960s who LOVES the idea of going to San Francisco with flowers in my hair! Well … I think you get the idea.

This work is in the public domain in that it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice. Unless its author has been dead for several years, it is copyrighted in jurisdictions that do not apply the rule of the shorter term for US works, such as Canada (50 p.m.a.), Mainland China (50 p.m.a., not Hong Kong or Macao), Germany (70 p.m.a.), Mexico (100 p.m.a.), Switzerland (70 p.m.a.), and other countries with individual treaties.
This work is in the public domain in that it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice. Unless its author has been dead for several years, it is copyrighted in jurisdictions that do not apply the rule of the shorter term for US works, such as Canada (50 p.m.a.), Mainland China (50 p.m.a., not Hong Kong or Macao), Germany (70 p.m.a.), Mexico (100 p.m.a.), Switzerland (70 p.m.a.), and other countries with individual treaties.

Out of all the music of the time period, there is one voice that stands out above the rest. A voice that is transcendently beautiful. A voice that was cut short by a heart attack in 1974 … Mama Cass. She was the power behind The Mamas and the Papas. She was born Ellen Naomi Cohen and I was thrilled last week to discover even more about her than I knew before…

Last week, I was staying in a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, and as is my habit, I went on a historical Jewish journey. I walked reverently and respectfully through the Jewish cemetery in the area. I also drove past Agudas Achim Congregation which was founded as the Orthodox alternative to the Reform synagogue but is now a Conservative synagogue with the byline of being “A welcoming community of Jewish faith and life-time learning.” However, what is most remarkable and legendary about this congregation is that the first female to ever receive a Bat Mitzvah (daughter of the commandment) in the synagogue was Ellen Naomi Cohen (aka Mama Cass) in 1954. Yes, Mama Cass was a nice Jewish girl.

I have considered young Ellen Naomi Cohen often since I drove past the synagogue (unremarkable in architecture but remarkable for its history) on Monday, May 26th. What was her Bat Mitzvah project? When she was older could she still recite her Torah portion? Or had she become like so many nice Jewish boys and girls who after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah party was complete and the gift cards were counted/cashed, her Judaism had become something that was relegated to a long ago past exercise? Did she ever return to Agudas Achim? Did she continue her Jewish life? Did she ever ask the great spiritual questions that might have led her to consider that Jesus was/is/will always be the Jewish Messiah?

Ellen Naomi Cohen was one of the transcendent musical talents of the 20th century. She died way too young. But the question that haunts me is when she dreamed a little dream, did that dream ever include Jesus? And did anyone ever tell her that it could?

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