A rabbi walks into a delicatessen, asks for two pounds of corned beef, very lean, lots of fat. Moishe, the counterman, nods. “Certainly, Rabbi.” He grabs a brisket, heads to the slicer and freezes. “Excuse me, Rabbi. Did you say lean or fat?” “Lean!” the Rabbi shouts. “Fat!” Moishe stares slack-jawed at his esteemed customer. Then he grabs a second brisket, proffers them both. “Here is lean. Here is fat. Tell me what you want.” The rabbi raises his hands to heaven and wails. In a flash Moishe realizes what the rabbi wants.

Uncle Hilbert Cohen served his grandnephew his pastrami sandwich and waited for him to respond.

“It’s a paradox,” ventured Davy, “just like that Zen koan about one hand clapping.” He bit into his sandwich.

“Not a paradox. My Cohens are nothing like those absurd Zen koans.

“Either the rabbi wants lean or he wants fat. To want both is contradictory.”

“Not contradictory. Did Moishe not hold up two briskets? Can you not slice from both for one customer? Can you not love both lean and fat? You must learn to think like a person, not like a machine.”

“Well, it seems to me that the rabbi could have made his request clearer.”

“No, the rabbi made his request perfectly clear. He wanted Moishe to realize that corned beef tastes best when you do not separate in your mind lean from fat—that, in the mind of God, there are no paradoxes. Can you understand that?” His uncle excused himself to wait on a customer.

When he returned, Davy raised his hands to heaven—suddenly realizing with embarrassment that he made the same gesture as the rabbi in the Cohen. “I’m sorry, Uncle, I simply do not have a head for your Cohens.”

Uncle Hilbert sat down and gazed sadly at Davy.

“Please don’t be disappointed in me, Uncle. So I’m not good at Talmudic reasoning; but I have other qualities.”

“Talmudic reasoning, as you call it, is of fundamental importance to life. You must learn to pay attention.”

“I was paying attention.”

“Not close enough.”

Davy sighed. “Okay. I’ll listen more carefully for the clues.”

“No; you will pay close attention.” Uncle Hilbert wagged a finger. My Cohens are occasions for careful thinking; they’re not parlor games.”

Davy nodded solemnly.

“Now listen—pay attention—to this next Cohen.”

Davy folded his hands, shut his eyes, and listened.

Mel and Gus are camping in the Sierras. They rejoice in the crisp, fresh air, the Ponderosa pines, the majestic waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. “We spend far too much time in the city,” Mel says, breathing deeply. Gus replies, “In this place I feel inside out. I must return at once to the city.”  

Davy opened his eyes. “Gus rejects the natural world, majestic as it is, as a substitute for the inner peace he feels when he’s in the chaotic city. It is better to locate the beauty and tranquility of nature within oneself.”

Uncle Hilbert pressed his lips together. “Not bad for leaping without looking. But you must not leap with my Cohens. Do you want to think further about Gus’s response?”

Davy realized what he had overlooked. “Inner, outer . . . To separate the two is to be cut off from both?”

That earned Davy a smile from his uncle. “You’re catching on.”

“So do you think I’ll qualify for rabbinical school after all?

“Maybe, maybe not. I have one more Cohen for you”

It is June, 1945. Hilbert returns from the charnel house that the war has made of Europe and goes straight to the apartment of his fiancée, Sasha, wondering if she will keep her promise to marry him if he survived, no matter what toll the war took on him. Sasha opens the door and gasps. “Is it really you?” “What is left of me,” Hilbert replies. She stares into his eyes. “Oh no, oh no,” she manages to say and shuts the door in his face.

“And then what?” said Davy.

“That’s it. That’s my whole Cohen,” said Uncle Hilbert.

Davy shook his head. “I’m not yet ready for rabbinical school.”

“You neglected to pay attention, to think with your soul.”

“Maybe I don’t have a soul.”

“You have a soul. You just need to connect it to your brain.”

“Very well, let me try again. Please repeat the Cohen to me.”

Uncle Hilbert complied.

Davy cogitated as deeply as he could for several minutes. Finally, he spoke carefully: “You survived for two years in the Valley of Death; but . . . .”

“‘But’ . . .?”

“But even though you were able to leave the Valley of Death, it never left you.”

“And what does that have to do with Sasha rejecting me?

“I’m thinking! Did a part of you die after all?”

“Why are you asking? You are supposed to be interpreting, not asking.”

Davy suppressed a groan. “When Sasha looked into your eyes, she saw the part of you that had died . . .”

“Go on, go on.”

“Unfortunately, the part of you that had died was the part that made it possible for you to love. And—and even though you already knew that, you had to let Sasha see it for herself.”

Uncle Hilbert rubbed his chin. “You are beginning to show promise.”

Beginning? What am I overlooking?”

“What indeed.” Uncle Hilbert ran a hand through his disheveled white hair. “What you are overlooking, what we who have survived are overlooking, is the greater death that has infiltrated our collective hearts.”

Photo By: Young Sok Yun