PEABODY – Estelle Cohen gets it done without breaking a sweat. The North Shore is full of reminders of her quiet competence: the first-ever Torah at Brooksby Village in Peabody; the second floor of the former Jewish Rehabilitation Center in Swampscott; and a Jewish cookbook on shelves all over the country.
The 97-year-old Lynn native has helped lead and raise funds at several Jewish organizations, from Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn, to the Jewish Rehabilitation Center, to the Jewish club at Brooksby Village, where she has lived for eight years. Anywhere Cohen gets involved, she seems to rise to the top, and yet she remains refreshingly humble.
“When push came to shove, there I was, ready to be tapped,” she said.
Cohen was born in Lynn in 1922 to Barnet and Hannah Kudroff, recent Russian immigrants. Her father worked in a shoe factory, and their family lived in a small apartment on Neptune Street in West Lynn.
Though they weren’t particularly observant and didn’t belong to a synagogue, Cohen attended Yiddish school, and can still understand Yiddish to this day. A diligent student, she was one of only two girls in her class at Lynn Classical High School to make the honor roll her junior year. She wanted to go to college, but her family couldn’t afford it, and she wasn’t aware that scholarships were potentially available.
“My father said, ‘You know I’m a shoe worker – I can’t send you to college. You want to go, work, then go to school at night,”’ she said. “Well, that wasn’t too appealing.”
Instead, she got a job as a law firm secretary right out of high school, which was around the time that she caught the eye of Victor Cohen, a Harvard Law School student who spotted her waiting in line at a bank. After a whirlwind courtship, they got married and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Lynn.
A medical condition exempted Victor from serving in World War II, so he worked at General Electric in Lynn during the war, before studying accounting. After the war, the couple had three children, and the family eventually moved from a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Lynn to more spacious homes in Swampscott.
It was during her many years as a Swampscott mother that Cohen became a dynamic force in the local Jewish community. She was active at Congregation Ahabat Sholom, where she was president of the Ladies’ Auxiliary and co-president of the congregation. She helped organize many successful fund-raisers. But perhaps she is best known as the author of “Shalom in the Kitchen,” the bestselling cookbook comprised of recipes from her family and the congregation.
“It sold out, both editions,” said Cohen, her eyes twinkling. “The best Jewish cookbook.”
Cohen was also president of the Ladies’ Auxiliary committee of the Jewish Rehabilitation Center, a now-closed nursing home in Swampscott.
Victor handled the estate of a wealthy man with no children, who asked that he choose a charity as the benefactor of his estate.
“Vic came home and told me – we didn’t sleep all night. We kept thinking, ‘this charity, that charity,’” said Cohen. “We put the second floor at the JRC in [the benefactor’s] memory.”
Cohen also has worked to create a richer Jewish life at Brooksby Village since moving there. She got Ahabat Sholom to donate one of its Torah scrolls. As chair of the retirement community’s Jewish organization, she also helped organize its first Seder, and has helped create celebrations for all the Jewish holidays.
“Being Jewish is who I am – I don’t know any other way,” she said.
Cohen credits her longevity to the wonderful people she’d had in her life over the years. Today, that includes three children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren, many of whom come regularly to visit her at Brooksby.
“I’ve lived an awesome life,” Cohen smiled, clutching a copy of her cookbook. “Magical.”