A message from Thomas Doherty, Chair of American Studies

On behalf of the American Studies Program, and all of us, I am delighted to say a few words about our beloved colleague Jacob “Jerry” Cohen, on the occasion of his first 55 years at Brandeis.


The basic CV facts: Jerry has taught at Brandeis University since 1961,  not, as he is wont to say, 1492.  Fudging the dateline a little, Brandeis founder Abraham Sachar deemed Jerry one of the school’s founding faculty members.  In 1964 Jerry left Brandeis to work for three years in the civil rights movement as a writer and editor with the Congress of Racial Equality, a period of his life chronicled in his book "Freedom When?" co-written with James Farmer. He is a former editor of Midstream, the Zionist quarterly published by the Theodore Herzl Foundation, and has contributed articles of Jewish interest to Commentary and Jewish Frontier. 

Throughout his career at Brandeis, he has always been one of the university’s most generous and active citizens: repeatedly chairing the American Studies Department, twice chairing the faculty senate, and twice serving as chair of the faculty committee on admissions and financial aid.  

In 1978, he authored the faculty report which resulted in the university’s divestment of stocks in companies doing business in South Africa. One of the Brandeis accomplishments he is most proud of is his founding of the TYP Program in the fall of 1968; he was its first director.

I believe it can be said without fear of contradiction that Jerry has taught more Brandeis students than any other faculty member in the history of Brandeis. This can be attributed less to his longevity than to the perennially popular menu of courses he has offered. Most students think there is a semi-official requirement that you cannot graduate from Brandeis without having taken a “Jerry” course and generations of Brandeis undergraduates testify to the formative impact of his teaching. I have never spoken to a Brandeis alumni group—or come to think of it any group—where someone has not come up to me to ask after Jerry.  You can see the affection and regard in their eyes as they talk about a memorable class discussion and his passionate lecture style.  They are lawyers, accountants, doctors—but Jerry’s courses are the ones they don’t forget.

It is difficult to select from the rich menu of courses Jerry has taught, but perhaps two will stand for the many. In the late 1960s, with characteristic foresight, he began teaching a course on the decade that he figured would soon be considered a distinct epoch in American history—his there-at-the-creation class “The 60s: Continuity and Change in American Culture.” Another trademark class is “Conspiracy Theory,” in which he dissects the paranoid style in American culture.  I might note that he was an early and courageous defender of the Warren Commission Report, having reached the same  conclusion that Oswald alone killed JFK, at the time an  audacious position-- until decades later modern forensics and digital analysis caught up with him.  Jerry synopsized his findings in an award winning article for Commentary in 1992, “Yes, Oswald Alone Killed Kennedy.” 

Jerry’s life is enriched by his wife Lianna, a brilliant pianist, five children, and seven grandchildren. You will not be surprised to hear that he is a devoted father and a doting grandfather. Jerry recently tried to convince me to go to Spectre, the new James Bond movie, which he had just seen with his son, and grandson, a family tradition of going to James Bond movies that, like his aforementioned course, dates back to the 1960s. He also has a superb classically trained voice which you can sometimes hear him exercise on the third floor of the Brown building. He has literally played Carnegie Hall.

Finally, there is another thing about Jerry worth underscoring in the present atmosphere:  in all his teaching, scholarship, and personal relationships, he has remained steadfastly faithful to the classical liberal tradition of Brandeis University-- an open-armed embrace of all viewpoints, a willingness to put anything on the seminar table.  His classes are emphatically not safe spaces—they are spaces that challenge and engage his students. Jerry’s appreciation of diversity is intellectual not just racial, ethnic, or gendered. Like so many in the history of Brandeis, I am proud to call him mentor, colleague, and friend.