A. Irma Cohon – Rebbitzin Hymnist

At my church’s recent annual charity garage sale, I found an oddity, a Jewish hymnal!  When I told a Jewish friend, she was just as perplexed as I.  This had to be explored.  It was titled The Jewish Song Book Third edition, compiled for Synagogue, school and home, covering the complete Jewish religious year.  It was composed, compiled and arranged for unison congregational singing and for solo and choir with organ or piano accompaniment using Israel’s religious folksong: the traditional Synagogue modes and melodies.   It was issued to serve the “remnant” of Jewry after World War II, as a united voice of Israel in traditional sacred song.  The book is unclear, but it apparently originally contained music by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882-1938).  However, this third edition was enlarged and revised in 1951.  Some of the hymns were by A. Irma Cohon and she was the editor. So who is she?

Angie Irma Reinhart was born in Portland Oregon in 1890, educated at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and got her degree in 1912 from the University of Cincinnati.  Immediately thereafter, she married Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon who also attended the Hebrew Union College while studying for a degree at the University of Cincinnati.  They had one son, Baruch Joseph.  Irma’s brother, Harold Reinhart, was a prominent liberal rabbi in London, England.  Irma was known as a Rebbetzin (wife of a Rabbi or a female religious teacher – she was both) and as a publisher.  Her book, Introduction to Jewish Music, the first book on this subject in English, came out in 1923, much sooner than A.Z. Idelsohn’s 1929 book, which sometimes gets credit for being first.  She collaborated with Idelsohn, a Hebrew Union College music professor, on various projects.  Obviously, she respected him.  The Jewish Song Book I found expanded Idelsohn’s work, and added the works of others, primarily Cohon’s translations, adaptations, and original works.  She not only outlived Idelsohn, but did so in a big way.  She died at age 100 in 1991.

In looking into the hymns and songs in the book, I found several of interest.   “Purim Song”, as you would guess, is to celebrate Purim, which was March 12-13 this year (2017), “Sabbath’s Balm” has a more spiritual theme, the healing balm and living waters of Sabbath.  “In His Unfathomed Ways” renders praise and prayer to the Rock of Israel, the Lord of Hosts.  Her metaphors, similes and language sound quite familiar to this Christian’s ears.  The most endearing song to me is “Yesterday’s Bubble” noted to be for Purim, but which sounds very current and for any day:  “If I should assume importance  . . .  and by posing, should convince you that I am a handsome man, don’t believe me. . . If I play the man of riches . . .  Don’t believe me.  If I seem to shower money and acquire a mighty name, and by reason of my greatness, seem to set the world aflame, don’t believe me.  If I pose as mighty learned and my wisdom I confess, if I am forever prating of my great broadmindedness, Don’t believe my airs and boasting, do not trust a word I say.”    Somehow, I wasn’t thinking of Haman when reading this

2 thoughts on “A. Irma Cohon – Rebbitzin Hymnist

  1. Baruch Cohon says:

    I see this was written 4 years ago and the author’s name is not shown, but I am glad to read the text now and to express my wish for a reply from her.
    A. Irma Cohon was my mother, whose memory I still bless. On the Idelsohn Song Book 1961 edition you mention, I am credited as musical editor. Indeed A. Z. Idelsohn was a close friend of ours ever since he first came to this country, and my father heard him sing at a cantorial concert in New York, met him and invited him to his congregation in Chicago. That was around 1923. By that time Idelsohn had already collected traditional Jewish melodies from all parts of the world, which he published in his 10-volume Thesaurus, printed in Germany in Hebrew, German and English. A few years later my father became Professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and noticed that they had a large collection of Jewish music scores and no one to catalogue them. So he recommended Idelsohn. They brought Idelsohn to HUC where he became Professor of Jewish Music — the first one in the US then, now a title held by scholars in different places too, like Mark Kligman at UCLA. He also remained close with my parents and in1931 agreed to teach their 5-year-old son. So he was my first teacher of music. With his input and my mother’s guidance I learned to chant from the Torah. And building on that background I began serving as a cantor at age 17. Then of course came WW2 and the Navy, and then the book my mother published to serve our survivor generation, which I was glad to help with. Thank you for recognizing her work. My sincere congratulations for your article, and best wishes.
    Baruch J. Cohon

  2. leslieclay1 says:

    I am Leslie Clay of Columbia Missouri. In 2013 I wrote a book, Sisters in Song. I have since used WordPress to create a blog to add to the information on women hymnwriters. The book featured mainly Protestant women hymnwriters, primarily because that is the place to find congregational singing. I wanted to add women of other faith traditions. I am delighted to get your comment. Do you have a picture of your mother that I can post to the blog?

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