Q&A with Bob Cohn: Five decades in Jewish journalism

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Only Richard Nixon may have recorded more conversations than Robert A. “Bob” Cohn. And that’s just maybe. 

Anyone who has been interviewed by Bob — and by now that number has got to top 10,000 — is familiar with his oversized Radio Shack tape recorder. It’s big and clunky, and likely purchased during the Johnson Administration (in fairness, I mean Lyndon, not Andrew). 

The recorder is especially notable considering that nowadays most of us download an app and use our cellphones to record. Not Bob. He takes his recorder with him, and uses it, wherever he goes.

Then again, Bob is old school and that’s one of the many things we love about him. He also has a photographic memory, which makes extracting a quote on any one of his tapes a cinch because he can recall exactly where it was said in the interview. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the number of tape cassettes that are stacked in his office. Those, too, might well top 10,000.

I’m telling you all this because Bob is celebrating a number of milestones this year. For starters, he turned 80 years old in September. 

Secondly, 2019 marks Bob’s 50th anniversary at the Light. He actually “retired” 15 or so years ago, which meant, in Bob-speak, that rather than working 50 to 60 hours a week he would cut back to 40, and assume the title of editor-in-chief emeritus. And while those hours have whittled down in recent years, Bob still comes into the Light offices most days, where he continues to write editorials as well as political and social commentary, author interviews, theater and book reviews, most of our “story” obituaries and an assortment of Q&As. 

A couple of other things you might not know about Bob: He can deliver a Kermit the Frog impression that is spot-on — and he actually did as much when he performed 15 minutes of stand-up at an Israeli nightclub called the Kahn — and he at one time had a collection of comic books totally 1,200 (mostly dedicated to superhero and Disney characters).

In honor of all of Bob’s milestones, I sat down with him to look back on some career high points and much more.

In your 50-year career at the St. Louis Jewish Light, is there one high point that stands out and if so, what is it?

It is difficult to narrow things down to just one high point, but my first of 18 trips to Israel in 1969, during which I got to visit the office of Prime Minister Golda Meir, is very high on that list.  Golda Meir sat in her office, surrounded by a blue cloud from her ever-present cigarette, answering any and all questions with intellectual brilliance, a sense of humor and a wise perspective on life and the place of Israel in the Jewish heart and soul.  She was even more impressive in person than in her many TV appearances.

Has there been a low point?

Except for a few professional bumps along the road, I would say the emotional low point was the devastating aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when the fate of Israel literally hung in the balance.  

There were moving public rallies of solidarity with Israel, and some synagogues had TV sets on their bimah to keep their members up to date.  Thanks to the military genius of General Ariel Sharon, Israel survived and recovered. Support for Israel remained high among American Jews, but the image of the Israeli as an almost superhuman person was replaced by a more sober kind of realism.

Any decision(s) you made as editor that you take particular pride in?

I would say that the introduction and expansion of hard-hitting editorials and commentary pieces, including point/counterpoint columns presenting different perspectives are a source of pride.  Also, the expansion of book reviews, plays and films with Jewish content are a significant part of my legacy at the Light.

Story-wise, is there one that really stands out to you, good, bad or otherwise?

I was able to interview David Williams, the stepson of my literary hero, Philip Roth, who lived in the Soulard neighborhood in the mid-1970s, who had never been interviewed previously. Williams is the son of the late Margaret Martinson Williams by a previous marriage, before she met and married Roth while he was teaching at the University of Chicago.  It was revealed for the first time that Margaret Martinson was the basis for major characters in some of Roth’s novels, including “When She Was Good” and “My Life as a Man.”  I was awarded a national Jewish journalism award for the piece (the Boris M. Smolar/Rockower Award).  

There was also a story I wrote about a Polish Christian woman living in poverty in St. Louis who had hidden Jews in her attic during the Nazi occupation. She was discovered by Yad Vashem and honored as a Righteous Among the Nations at a dinner organized by the Jewish Federation. It was a profoundly moving story.

What have been the most profound changes at the Light over the past 50 years?

The original Jewish publication that became the Jewish Light, was the old St. Louis Light, which was a house organ for the Jewish Federation. Under the visionary leadership on the Federation Public Relations Committee, the St. Louis Jewish Light was spun off as a separate non-profit organization with its own independent board of trustees,  The Jewish Light was transformed into a reliable weekly source of Jewish news, features reviews, editorials and coverage of local, national and global events affecting the Jewish community.

When I interviewed you on the occasion of your 40th anniversary with the Light, you told me the two people you hadn’t interviewed who you would like to in the future were Tzipi Livni and Philip Roth. Are there others you would add to that list?

There are lots of others I would like to interview for the Jewish Light, among them Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman, Barbra Streisand (of course) and Benny Gantz, a rising star in Israeli politics.

What is the biggest change you have witnessed at the Light and among Jewish media in your 50 years?

The changes include a move away from the romantic era of “hot type” and jobbing out the production of the paper to digital modes of production, the ability to track and revise stories in real time and a greatly-expanded pool of writers, graphics experts. I’d also add the switch from paid subscriptions to distributing the paper free of charge. (Today, the paper is delivered to homes and businesses for free.) Our readership continues to age, and for this reason printed editions will probably continue for some time.  As an old school journalist, I hope we will always have a printed edition available and still be open to technological changes.

If you were to give advice to someone going into Jewish journalism today, what would that be?

Short answer: Don’t! Unless you want to have a career of covering some of the most amazing people on the planet, Nobel Laureates, great literature and a 4,000-year story of a people who have survived and thrived despite anti-Semitism, a dynamic Jewish State and a news cycle that never gets boring. Avoid thinking about Jewish journalism as “less than” general journalism.  I have had a half-century of treasured experiences that I could not have had if I was just one of 3,000 Jewish lawyers in St. Louis. The politics of the Jewish community can be daunting, but the rewards of having your stories make an impact far exceed the frustrations.

You are 80 years old, an age that most people are fully retired. Yet you come into the office most days and are still writing editorials and other stories. Trust me, I am not suggesting this but do you see yourself retiring any time soon and/or do you have other projects you would like to pursue in the future?

Good question, which I ponder as I reached the age of 80 — same as Moses when he led the Exodus and had 40 more years. The time will come for me to retire, but I feel very grateful to still be associated with the Jewish Light. From the age of 10 onward, I always wanted to be an editor and newspaperman, and have been blessed with half a century of living that dream. I have a couple of book ideas to work on when that time comes, but in the meantime, I am still having fun at the Light.