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Interview: Dan Cohn-Sherbok, rabbi, academic, cartoonist

12 May 2023

‘You enter another world when you’re absorbed by your art’

Although I grew up in Denver, Colorado, I wanted to go East to college. I first studied for a degree at Williams College, in Massachusetts. Then I enrolled as a rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the major Reform Jewish seminary in the world.

I was a student there for five years,
and then I was ordained. I could have embarked on a rabbinic career, but I wanted to do a Ph.D., and I thought it would be great fun to go to Cambridge to study theology.

I’ve always been religious, even as a child.
As I became older, I thought more about religion. I believe the universe was created by God, but I don’t think he directly intervenes in human life in the way the Bible teaches.

My Ph.D. was about petitionary prayer: does it work?
It’s a central element of Jewish prayers, asking God if he will do something, even if there’s some agnosticism about whether it works. Strictly Orthodox people don’t think about it: it’s part of the ritual. My thesis was theological, not scientific.

I concluded essentially that it’s objectively efficacious,
but helps the person who’s praying rather than changes their circumstances.

My great-grandfather was an Orthodox kosher butcher in New York,
who’d emigrated from Hungary; but my parents weren’t Orthodox. They belonged to a Reform Temple in Denver, Colorado, where I had my bar mitzvah. Reform Jews seek to integrate into modern society, and don’t follow the thousands of laws in the Code of Jewish Law. I’m committed to this modernist approach to Jewish life.

Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to be a congregational rabbi.
I had a variety of rabbinic jobs in the US, Australia, London, and South Africa, till I realised I was no good at them. I thought the role of the rabbi was to be a teacher, preacher, and pastoral counsellor, but it became clear that a rabbi is essentially a salesman, selling Judaism and synagogue membership to Jewish families.

It’s not centralised, like the Church of England,
and every synagogue needs membership fees. There’s hardly any job security: you get a contract for two or three years, which is renewable. I didn’t preach against apartheid in Johannesburg till Rosh Hashanah, when I did say that we have a responsibility to free our black brothers and sisters. The congregation were furious, and rescinded the offer. I learned through that that we’re not free to speak. And if you speak on the basis of prophets of the Bible, you’re sunk.

So, I decided that what would suit me most was to be a teacher of Judaism,
and I was fortunate to get my first academic job at the University of Kent. My wife and I bought a small terraced house in Canterbury, and we settled down to married life. Ever since, I’ve been happy.

I’ve had some great colleagues at Kent,
and then at the University of Wales, where I became a Professor of Judaism. I most enjoyed teaching Hebrew, so students could read the Bible in the original language. I particularly enjoyed teaching with Christian clergy.

I’ve been primarily interested in theological questions about the nature of God.
I’m also intrigued by the problem of anti-Semitism. I’ve written several books trying to uncover why Jews have been hated through the centuries. Personally, I don’t have experience of anti-Semitism. I know it exists, and know that the State of Israel exists because of anti-Semitism. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust.

I’ve written books about ancient, medieval, and modern Judaism.
Some are fat, and I’m proudest of them, particularly those which trace the history of the Jewish people through the ages, and describe Jewish belief and practice.

I’m also interested in the modern rabbinate.
Some years ago, I wrote an autobiographical memoir about being a rabbi. The puzzle was why being a rabbi is such a terrible job. The title of the book is Not a Job for a Nice Jewish Boy.

I like to do interfaith writing.
I’ve written a book based on an argument between a Palestinian Muslim and me about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why can’t they get along?

I’m on a different track.
I think all the religions are all paths up the mountain, at the top of which is the divine. The different pathways — Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish — are not all equal, they’re different. My focus is to explain about the Jewish heritage. I want to join the others on the quest to understand the nature of ultimate reality.

I’ve drawn ever since I was a little boy.
My mother was an abstract expressionist artist, and she didn’t really like my drawings. She thought they were too small and cramped and second-rate compared to watercolour and oil paintings. When I was 12, I won a state-wide art contest in Colorado, and my drawing was reproduced on gigantic 20-foot billboards placed throughout the state. That surprised my parents.

My wife liked my artwork, and encouraged me.
She’s arranged about 80 volumes of my drawings in a bookcase which records our life together.

[My book]
The Perplexities of Being an Artist is a celebration of amateur art. Making art for pleasure, not for sale or self-esteem, is desirable. I want to extol the amateur artist. I’m an amateur; I don’t earn my living that way, I do it for fun. Churchill was an amateur artist, after all.

There’s a parallel between artistic activity and prayer.
You enter another world when you’re absorbed by your art. It’s a meditative state. All your concerns just melt away. I deliberately don’t want to sell it — I don’t need the money or want the money, because that turns it into a commercial process. And, if no one buys it, it’s incredibly discouraging. Give it as a present.

I’d like to say I was influenced by great artists like Rembrandt,
but it wouldn’t be true. I studied the history of art in college, but, truthfully, I haven’t been influenced by anybody. I draw just the same way as I did when I was 12, and I’ve had no formal training, but I hope the drawings have gotten better.

I illustrated Peter Vardy’s latest book,
because he’s an old buddy. I do a cartoon for the Oxford and Cambridge Club for their weekly newsletter. And I do the same for the Athenaeum. These give me the greatest pleasure, and I know I have a captive audience of thousands . . . assuming they read the newsletters.

Home life was not always pleasant.
I’m the product of artificial insemination — one of the first, now in my seventies. It’s intriguing: half of me doesn’t know who half of me is. It was taken for granted then that donation was anonymous — no one was supposed to be told. That’s all changed.

I thought my father wasn’t my father, because I didn’t think he treated me a like a son;
so, in my late twenties, I asked my mother, and the doctor who arranged it. They explained it all. It was still a bit of a shock, but my response isn’t anger, but gratitude: I wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

But it’s vital that the child knows,
for the practical reason of knowing their father’s medical history. It’s also important for the social father to be comfortable with this. If it’s all secret, it unsettles the relationships. My father was constantly hostile. He was an orthopaedic surgeon, so home life was comfortable. My mother was a good cook. Our house was beautifully furnished with paintings and oriental carpets, but I grew up in an atmosphere of apprehension and fear.

Home life now is always lovely.
And happy. We have a beautiful small flat in London, and we’re moving from Wales, which I love, to retire in Canterbury, where we also have many good friends.

I draw, watch films on my iPad,
and talk to my wife and our cat Cleopatra. I’d like to own a snazzy sports car, but if I did my wife would tell everyone that I am a sad old geezer.

I get angry if I am ignored.

I like the sound of jazz and my cat purring.

The belief that human beings want to be happy gives me hope for the future.

I pray the traditional Jewish prayers.

I think you want me to say I’d like to be locked in a synagogue with Moses or Maimonides,
but I’d rather have a stripy cat who sat on my lap and purred.

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His books and artwork are available online or via Church House Bookshop.

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