Jews in the Wild West
Hollace Ava Weiner
all the state of Texas from Fort
Worth to San Anton’
He was the dean of Lone Star rabbis. The ultimate Jewish star. The chief rabbi of Texas. Not that such a position exists, but during six decades in Galveston, Rabbi Henry Cohen grew into that role. More than seniority earned him his status. Texas shaped and seasoned his style. Serving in Galveston from 1888 to 1952, this Londoner with a puckish flair and an unshakable faith in God became the epitome of a twentieth-century Lone Star rabbi—a pastor to all the people (he saved a Greek Catholic from deportation); a defender of Judaism (he banished Shakespeare’s Shylock from the Galveston public schools); a partner to the Christian clergy (his best friend was a priest); and a lobbyist from City Hall to Capitol Hill.
He was not “too” Jewish: No beard. No prayer shawl. No guttural accent—just a nervous stutter that he overcame. He was never a Zionist—a taboo among the socially assimilated Jews of the South. Rather than rabbinical, he looked Episcopal, wearing a Prince Albert frock coat that he called a “Prince Isaac.” His scholarship extended beyond the parochial to encompass medicine, literature, Texas history, and a dozen foreign tongues.
In a remote harbor of the Diaspora, the world came to him. During the Gay ’90s, he befriended a papal emissary from Rome. In the ’30s, Readers’ Digest ran an unforgettable profile. In the ’40s, NBC radio turned his biography, The Man Who Stayed in Texas, into a half-hour broadcast. And in every decade, novice Texas rabbis emulated and confided in him.
In a state that prized mavericks over conformists, idiosyncrasies marked Cohen’s style. He rode a bicycle, rather than a carriage, a trolley, or a car. He soiled his starched white shirtcuffs with penciled lists of tasks to be done. He left a trail of cigar ash as well as good deeds when he made his hospital rounds. A spiritual giant but no saint, he was quick with a naughty limerick, thankful for a midday shot of Scotch, and flattered when lipsticked ladies kissed him “good Shabbos.” When he wandered into an orphanage, he yelled “ice cream” to attract a crowd, and when a priggish woman spent the night at his house, he dressed up a broom as a man and tucked it into her bed .
More concerned with individuals than ivory-tower causes, this rabbi succeeded at both. He pressed for admission of an African American student to the local medical school. He administered Christian funeral rites to a whore. He extended a handshake to 10,000 unscrubbed Jewish refugees who disembarked in Galveston during the years before the first World War. A people’s lobbyist, he convinced the Texas Legislature to raise the age of consent in rape cases from ten to eighteen, and during three decades on the state prison board he instituted vocational training, parole reforms, and separation of first offenders from seasoned criminals. Although he came of age in an era of oratory and elocution, his sermons were short and direct. Henry Cohen’s entire life was a homily that blended humanitarianism and individualism, the ethics of Judaism with the ethos of Texas. . . . . .
A lecture in longhand celebrating some ancient pharaoh’s tomb fills one page of paper. The reverse side contains a different view of old age—a typewritten note to Rabbi Alex Kline warning that his pension plan premium is past due. Another sheet of paper outlines the Chinese dynasties from Shang to T’ang. The flip side bears the orange-and-blue-logo of the Howard Johnson Motel where the rabbi lodged when he penned those thoughts. A third set of notes explains Buddhist art—on the back of a Girl Scout Council budget. And a fourth—scribbled on the blank side of discarded circulars—follows Cleopatra’s legend from hieroglyphics to Hollywood .
Aesthetic on one side, humdrum on the other, the art-history files of Rabbi Alexander Stanley Kline fill sixty-eight dusty boxes stacked against a wall at the Museum of Texas Tech University. Categorized by era and artist, these archives preserve the junk mail, the far-away thoughts, and the scholarly research of a small-town rabbi who recycled paper before the term was coined and interpreted the art of the ages to a country-western town. Before he died in 1982, Rabbi Alex Kline had spent the last two decades of his life lecturing at the regional museum in Lubbock. There, in a room now named after him, he enthralled West Texans with his humble, cut-and-pasted art collection: a lifetime of illustrations clipped from books and magazines, each glued to cardboard or brown paper and arranged in sequence to illustrate art from the Pyramids to Picasso.
That Kline's title was rabbi—not curator or Ph.D. in art history—concerned no one. “This is West Texas. Nobody cares about your credentials if you can produce,” said Winifred Vigness, former director of the West Texas Museum Association, which sponsored Kline’s lecture series. “If you can build a better mousetrap, who cares if you went to Mousetrap University?”
Moreover, the rabbi’s expertise extended to music, literature, and philosophy. Eager to share his insights, the rabbi broadened the avenue—from commerce to culture—that linked Lubbock’s seventy-six Jewish families to the rest of the populace. With Rabbi Kline at the lectern, fine arts became the region’s universal religion.